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David Harvey on the Crisis of Capitalism

A friend of mine sent me a fascinating animated video piece of David Harvey’s critique of the Crisis of Capitalism.  Originally presented as a talk to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce Harvey’s talk has been rendered as a punchy, animated video posted on YouTube.  You can see it here.

The video covers some core elements in Harvey’s unrepentant marxist critique of capitalism and its unyielding tendency to instability and crisis.  If you never new what the ‘internal contradictions of capital accumulation’ were, here’s your chance to find out.  It’s also a great opportunity to learn why Harvey thinks that this idea offers a better explanation of the Global Financial Crisis than those usually peddled:  (1) Human Frailty, Greed and Deluded Investors; (2) Institutional Failures, i.e. weak weak governments and poor regulation; (3) the excessive pursuits of False Gods, as in Hayek, Friedman, The Market, and Neo-Liberalism; (4) that the crisis is mainly an Anglo-American thing; and (5) Too Much Regulation and Big Government.  Instead, Harvey thinks that capitalist economies are unstable by nature and that these instabilities are never eliminated, but simply displaced.  In other words, ‘fixes’ are temporary, and crises break out when those ‘fixes’ fail to hold.

Thus, in the 1970s, slower economic growth rates among all of the major western industrial economies was laid at the door step of strong labour unions, growing foreign competition, dependence on OPEC and, critically, ‘too much democracy’ (see M. Crozier, et. al.’s The Crisis of Democracy (1975)).  The ‘fix’, as Harvey would put it, was to weaken labour unions, shift the technological base from industrial technology to new information and communication technologies (computers and the Internet) and scale back popular understandings of democracy, while elevating the role of finance as a source of economic growth relative to industrial manufacturing.  And, of course, it was to deepen, accelerate, and extend these processes on a global scale, rather than the ‘national industrial economies’ of the past.

The unravelling of these ‘fixes’, particularly the increasing disconnect between the financial economy and the production of things, and a hollowed out industrial base and middle-class, yielded the global financial crisis from 2007/8 onwards.  In other words, the fictitious values of finance and an economy weened on ballooning consumer credit failed to hold.  First, the fictitious values of financial markets were brought back to earth (not just once, but twice in the first decade of the 21st century) and then the super-charged credit economy that increasingly sustained people’s lives in lieu of good wages was shattered.

Whether or not we buy all of Harvey’s arguments, the trans-Atlantic journey of his ideas from City University of New York (where he teaches) to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (the RSA), in London England, then back again to New York, where it was picked up and spread by the New York Observer — the paper of record for New York ‘high society’, and then on to YouTube, and finally to me (and now to you) is extremely intriguing. The initial talk to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce was true to form for both Harvey and the Royal Society of the Arts (as it is commonly referred to).  As the helpful Wikipedia entry indicates, the RSA was established in 1754 and has all the ‘trappings of an establishment’ organization in London, England.  It also has a history of providing a platform to radicals, innovators and others seeking to change our ways of seeing the world, and ultimately, changing the world itself, from Ben Franklin and Adam Smith in the 18th century, to Karl Marx and Charles Dickens in the 19th, and now Harvey in the 21st.

All this sounds very ‘old school’, that is with Marxist academics like Harvey addressing the Royal Society of Arts in London, England.  But just as with other ‘old school’ outlets like Punch magazine in 19th century Britain, the even older RSA has a resident animator whose task it is to take ‘high ideas’ and render them into popular forms, i.e. the cartoon.  Animators did this in the past for periodicals and the press, helping closed arenas such as the RSA to reach a broader public.  In other words, cartooning mediated the flow of ideas between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ cultures.   Today, the circuits are larger and more sprawling, given that it is not just in the press such as the New York Observer where cartoons do their ‘translation’ work but also on YouTube, blogs, email, and so on.  The New York Observer’s place in this is also interesting given that its self-ascribed role as being the newspaper of record for well-to-do New Yorkers (backed by a deep-pocketed real estate magnate) and whose columns on Manhattan social life, some argue, inspired the creation of the wildly popular HBO series-cum-dire-movie, Sex and the City hardly suggest that it would be the first place that one would turn to for the promotion of Harvey’s work.

Yet, when the fundamentals of society and economies begin to shake, the space for unorthodox ideas expands.  That’s where we are at now.  The flow of Harvey’s radical criticism of capitalism and the contemporary global financial crisis from the halls of City University of New York (where he teaches), to the RSA in London England, back onto the front pages of one of New York’s ‘high society’ papers-of-record, and then on to YouTube and, finally, my desktop is a good illustration of this point.  There are now nearly 450,000 views of Harvey’s talk on the Crisis of Capitalism on YouTube.  Does this mean that the chasm normally separating the high ends of intellectual and social life on the New York – London trans-Atlantic circuit from the everyday lives of people in general is closing, even if just a bit?

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