Capitalism and its Discontents: On Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust

I have written on the intersection of capitalism and literature in the past, and I’m intrigued about his project of giving the following thinkers (some of whom are more relatively unknown than others, especially to North Americans) a public hearing. So far, having finished the introduction and skipped to the “Further Reading” pages, I must say that I find his style to be engaging, personable, and forthright. Note:I will be adding reflections on each chapter of the book as I get to them — as of right now Chapters 1 and 2 are complete and can be found below.

Chapter 1: David Harvey locates the essence of Harvey’s work in the capitalist tendency to overaccumulate — “the fount of all crisis”, a word Harvey defines as “surplus capital and surplus labor existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.” Investors sit on piles of cash, unwilling to put it into the hands of workers they won’t risk hiring, but upon whom the economy relies as consumers.

So far Harvey is depicted as assembling stray bits of Marx into a coherent picture of how, in “normal” circumstances, fictitious capital (credit), uses the promise of tomorrow’s profits to bridge today’s gap between a economy’s ability to pay its workers and the workers’ ability to consume what the economy produces. Thus always borrowing from the future imposes the GOD (Grow or Die) imperative on the economy.

Again, these contradictions come straight from Marx, in Volume II of Capital, […]: “Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production: the laborers as buyers of commodities are important for the market. But as sellers of their own commodity—labor power—capitalist society tends to keep them down to the minimum price.”

Thus in the long run, as profits in the “real economy” become increasingly more difficult to attain, where investors are driven into non-material investments in the credit sector and workers are squeezed into accepting lower wages (and the lower buying power that comes with it), a crisis of underconsumption becomes inevitable.

And since Harvey is a geographer by training, he rescues (via the idea that property is inherently fictitious capital, since its market value = a claim on future rent income) the Marxist notion of Ground Rent by introducing a spatial element: future rents are leveraged in the present day to invest elsewhere: finance becomes a hypermobile, global jetsetter who is yet paradoxically tethered to an inert real asset back home.

This “spatio-temporal fix” to the problem of overaccumulation is often beset by “switching crises” as the “equilibrium” between “real” asset values and what they are leveraged for is distorted…

imageBut if this appears to you as an ever-growing House of Cards waiting to fall, well, keep on waiting, since capital will just keep expanding in other ways (privatising what’s public, commodifying what is not yet a commodity, colonizing other territories either directly or by proxy [all that used to go by the name “Enclosure” of the commons. See Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism for that])

Now, while capital is partying around the world at increasingly fictitious/profitable parties, we poor humans are stuck in the real economy, one beset, since 1973 or so, by the “long downturn of persistent stagnation” (a term from Robert Brenner, subject of another chapter).

imageAnd, from the 1980s to today we too were given credit (since there was a class war on wages that began with the “Volcker Shock” of deliberately driving interest rates sky high in the closing years of the Carter administration, and that continued in much more celebratory fashion during the Reagan-Thatcher years) to party with in our own, somewhat diminished fashion.

But that all ended. In 2008.

Yes, remember 2008? When I was writing my dissertation in 2005, I was living in the UK and every other TV program seemed to be about selling your English home and buying another somewhere else, particularly in Spain or eastern Europe. The housing bubble collapse was one of Harvey’s “switching crises”, and a big one. It also marked what may be a waypoint of a longer-term switching crisis, that of the handover of global supremacy to the Chinese.

image(Kunkel cites Gianni Arrighi’s monumental The Long Twentieth Century on this, but the roots are in the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of long-term economic history, perhaps beyond the scope of his book.)

In any event, capitalist empires last but 80-120 years or so (“long centuries”), says Arrighi, borrowing this notion of Kondratiev waves or K-waves that track the rise and fall of capitalist empires. If you Google Kondratiev or Kondratieff waves you’ll see that many of the graphs that come up seem to be driven by technological change, but Marxists like Harvey locate the cause for change in contradictions in “social property relations”, particularly in property owners’ compulsive search for ever-greater rates of profit.


Kunkel concludes this chapter by noting that Harvey proposes several hard, actual limits to the expansion of capital, most of which are ecological. He doesn’t really deal with any criticisms of Harvey’s model, and maybe we shouldn’t expect him to here. He also leaves out Harvey’s uneasy flirtation with postmodernity theory—which, post-1989, drew many a Marxist to recant their materialist beliefs entirely, drawn as they were like moths to the flame of the “Cultural Turn” (signifying that Saussure’s decades earlier “linguistic turn” had somehow initiated a completely new epoch, one in which culture/language was always already mediating/ constitutive of “material” or economic matters, among other things) that filled the intellectual void they felt was somehow created by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But there is an important debate about the “essence” of capitalism, between Harvey and Ellen Meiksins Wood, which stretches back to another, older debate (“Dobb–Sweezy”)—

Read the full article on my Longreads blog…

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