Summer is the time to read a long and challenging book. Essays, short stories, and novellas are great for the fall. A book a week (between 200 and 300 pages) is ideal for winter.
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Spring should be about aphorisms, parables, notes, poems, and generally light reading. There is no time that one should be reading absolutely nothing. But why is summer the ideal season for a big and difficult book? Because all of the sunshine, earth heat, sweat, barely clothed bodies, and abundance of leaves and insect life make us stupid. To prevent being totally absorbed by the pleasures of summer, the airhead of seasons, we need the weight and support of a tome—Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace, Economy and Society, Dream of the Red Chamber,and so on.
For this summer, which is finally just beginning in Seattle, though it's already July, I recommend Karl Marx's Capital Volume One. It's nearly 1,000 pages and, unlike other tomes (The Tale of Genji, Science of Logic, Our Mutual Friend), is relevant to our new, post-neoliberal moment. Before the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, everything was great for capitalism. What is known as "actually existing socialism" collapsed at the close of the 1980s, and at the opening of the 1990s, a confident neocon scholar (parroted by politicians) brought life back to right-wing Hegelianism by declaring that history had indeed come to an end. By this he meant that geist, the motor of history—history being the expansion of freedom over time—had fully been realized by the liberal democracies of advanced capitalist societies. This end of history, which removed all limits from neoliberal policies—neoliberalism having been birthed in the mid-1970s in New York City (using an economic crisis to discipline a city government) and in Chile (privatization of the economy under the influence of the Chicago Boys)—lasted for almost two decades. But humanity lived long enough to see that the end of the world also has an end. That end was the bank bailout of 2008, and the book that offers the best starting point toward an explanation of the current crisis is Capital by Marx.
The book is not easy. Much in it cannot be made sense of without the guidance of a mind that's very familiar with its mode of presentation. And one of the best people to do this for you is the geographer David Harvey—the leading Marxist of our time. Originally from England and currently a professor at the City University of New York, Harvey has taught the book for four decades. He knows its ins and outs like nobody's business. The French structuralist Louis Althusser is famous for describing Capital as a book about Marx reading other books from the classical period of political economy—Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo. Harvey's course on Capital is essentially a very close reading of the reader of the main books of the classical period of political economy. Through him you digest everything.
In June 2008, Harvey posted his entire university course on Capital on his website. For nothing, anyone can download it as a video or MP3 file. There are a total of 13 lectures, each running about an hour and a half. The timing of this lecture series could not have been better. Around the corner from it was the bailout, the end of unchecked neoliberalism as it had been known for 20 years, and the beginning of the great recession, which has yet to end. The response to the lectures was very strong—according to Google Analytics, Harvey's site has had 700,000 page views from 10,884 cities in 187 countries. The success of the series led to the publishing, just this past March, of the book A Companion to Marx's Capital.
With the series and its meaty companion (it's over 350 pages), the summer reader has excellent resources to make sense of a sizable chunk of Marx's most complete work. "I have spent much of my academic life," writes Harvey in the Companion introduction, "bringing Marxian theory to bear on the study of urbanization under capitalism, of uneven geographical development and of imperialism, and that experience has obviously affected the way in which I now read Capital." And how does Harvey read Capital? To begin with, where Mike Davis sees a Planet of Slums, Harvey sees the other side of global capitalism: an explosion of development—malls, condos, and office towers that can now be found in all the major cities of the world. And the reason for this, Harvey believes, is that development solves a central problem.
The problem any capitalist has is not a lack of money but a surplus of it. He/she can't just sit on this surplus ("The miser is merely a capitalist gone mad" —Capital) and do jack ("Capital is nothing if it is not on the move" —Companion). This problem of motion and absorption of surplus capital is a major theme in Harvey's reading of Capital. He contends that since Georges-Eugène Haussmann's world-changing gentrification of Paris in the middle of the 19th century, one solution to the absorption problem has been urban development and growth. Our planet of slums is also a planet of condos. There's no even development; the middle drops out.
Harvey also has an interesting reading of Marx's theory of commodity exchange—of use value, exchange value, and value. In Marx, use value is about the physical object, the ways in which something is useful to a human being. Exchange value concerns buying and selling products on the market. Value is the social system that relates these commodities—"crystals of this social substance" (Capital). Harvey transforms this trinity. Use value is read as Newtonian absolute space, the actual physical place or location where a laborer directly encounters nature and produces a useful commodity. Exchange value is read as Einsteinian relativity, which is the circulation of commodities by trains, trucks, and planes (motion is time). Value is read as Leibnizian relationality, the realm of social relations—it's what connects laborers in Spain with decisions made by bankers on Wall Street and buyers in Taiwan. Though Companion only makes a brief mention of this spatiotemporal concept—it's better explained in his intro to the 2006 edition of Limits of Capital and also Spaces of Global Capitalism—it's important because it so clearly connects Marx's ideas with Harvey's geographical concerns.
Harvey also reads Marx's thinking as not fixed but flexible. In this way, Marxism is as dynamic as its subject, capitalism. (Indeed, Harvey does something that would shock postmodern philosophers like Manuel De Landa: He reads in Marx a theory of social change that's not connected to Hegel's totality but Gilles Deleuze's assemblages!) Let's take a step back. It must be understood that Marxism is not about communism, but a theory that attempts to explain why things change, and change can occur in technology, mental conceptions, class struggle, and social relations. Harvey argues that in Marx, a change in one domain does not always mean changes in other domains; though related, each domain has a certain amount of independence. To think in this way is to think like Deleuze. To think in this way also avoids something that the other famous Marxists of our moment, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, fail to avoid: economism—the belief that the developments in capitalist technologies or in the mode of production will lead to the liberation of the exploited.
Lastly, there is primitive accumulation: capitalism as raw robbery—slave labor, the use of force to gain wealth. In Harvey's reading, primitive accumulation is not something that just happens at the beginning of any capitalist project, but is always there, always happening. He calls it "accumulation by dispossession." When, for example, WaMu was devoured by the massive Chase Bank in 2008, thousands of jobs were lost in the core of Seattle's downtown. This was not simply a matter of a bigger company recomposing a smaller company it had consumed, but also a process of decomposition, the removal and relocation of wealth in the form of incomes. What the newspapers called layoffs was in fact primitive accumulation.
Thinking of these heavy things is a splendid way to spend this summer.