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Book reviews:

Indispensable guide

A Companion to Marx’s Capital. David Harvey, Verso, 2010, £10.99

Most people who try to read Marx’s Capital give up before the end of the third chapter. This is a shame because, as David Harvey points out in this companion volume, Capital is a rich, multi-dimensional and “astonishingly good” book, despite the undeniable difficulties. Indeed, it would hardly be going too far to suggest – as the author of a previous introductory guide to Capital, Anthony Brewer, did – that reading Capital is “indispensable” to anyone who wants to understand the modern world.

 Harvey’s Companion is the book form of his excellent series of lectures teaching Capital Volume 1, which you can watch online for free or for a donation at His aim in both the lectures and the book is to get you to read Capital all the way through, and in Marx’s own terms. He succeeds brilliantly, getting the balance about right between a close focus on Marx’s text, and his own commentary to help explain it, and situate it in the modern world.

 If you follow the lectures online by watching one per week, then reading the prescribed chapters during the week, you can have volume 1 of Capital, the absolutely supreme book in the socialist canon, under your belt in just 13 weeks. This schedule is challenging but doable. If you don’t have internet access, Harvey’s book will do just as well, though obviously you’ll have more reading to do. Highly recommended.

Is there an alternative?

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Mark Fisher, Zero Books, 2010, £7.99

Mark Fisher’s very short book is a quick and entertaining read and makes a good companion to David Harvey (see above/last month). Where Harvey focuses mostly on the how and why of the capitalist crisis, exploring its historical, geographical and economic aspects, Fisher instead looks at how recent developments have impacted on the cultural and psychological spheres. It has led us to a situation where, he argues, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The deathly legacy of Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no alternative’ lingers on.

 Fisher’s insights are drawn partly from the heads of philosophers and partly from his own personal experience. The philosophers he quotes are famous for their obscurity and difficulty, but Fisher does a good job of making their ideas accessible for the general reader. That will put readers in a better position to decide for themselves whether the obscurity is worth penetrating.

 Fisher is more interesting and amusing when he turns to his personal experience in Britain’s education system. It’s hard not to sympathise with him as he does his best to inspire dozing teenagers with learned cultural-studies discourses on Doctor Who while they slouch across their desks, plugged into their iPods, snacking on crisps. And that’s the most rewarding part of Fisher’s job. The rest of it is spent filling out forms trying to convince bureaucrats that what he has just done is of some worth in the capitalist market place.

 But I’ll counter Fisher’s personal experience with my own. I, too, was once a teenage student, dozing on my desk while a professor tried his best to knock some education into me. But outside of the classroom, I was enjoying and making the most of a period of never-to-be-repeated freedom (from parental control, from capitalist work, from the responsibilities of adult and family life), and pursuing my own interests, including educating myself in socialist politics. Of course I’m not suggesting that all Fisher’s students are doing likewise. But the point is that he doesn’t know what they are doing. At a minimum, you’d have to ask them to find out.

 A study of history and the social sciences, particularly anthropology, consistently reveals that things are rarely quite as they seem. Workers are never quite as oppressed and docile as they figure in the imaginations of Marxist professors. Management control is never as total as the managers and bosses dream. We are never as lost in the unrealities of television and the spectacle as French philosophers imagine. There’s always a hidden undercurrent of imaginative engagement and resistance. It’s always much more rewarding when an author has gone to the trouble of finding it and encouraging its development than denying its existence and wallowing in gloom.

 Fisher concludes with some political proposals that he dresses up as exciting and new, but is mostly old fare – for example, the reinvigoration of the left, the awakening of a ‘public’ consciousness, more worker control over the labour process, popular control over the state, and so on. But to end on a positive note of agreement, Fisher at least points in vaguely the right direction if you’re after a convincing answer to the question in the subtitle of the book. Yes, there is an alternative, he says, but the working class will have to organise politically if it ever wants to see it.

Non-productive labour

Global capitalism in crisis. Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System.  By Murray E. G. Smith, Fenwood Publishing, Canada. ISBN 978-1-5526-6353-9

 Marx left an ambiguous legacy on “unproductive” labour in that two different theories about it can be found in his writings. The first – which was essentially that of classical political economy going back to Adam Smith – was that labour exchanged against capital was productive while labour exchanged against revenue was not. The logic behind this was that labour employed by capital not only reproduced its own value but also a surplus value over and above this, and so increased the amount of wealth in existence; labour employed out of income such as rents or profits, as for instance on domestic servants, did not result in this but, on the contrary, used up existing wealth.

 But what about labour employed by capital invested in trading and in banking? This also added nothing to the amount of wealth, let alone value, already in existence but still yielded a profit for the capitalist employer of such labour. Marx’s explanation was that productive capitalists in effect handed over a part of the surplus value produced by their workers to these non-productive capitalists who were carrying out an essential function for the capitalist economy (if they didn‘t do this they would have to lay out some of their own capital to cover these activities). The workers in these non-productive employments produced no surplus value themselves but helped acquire surplus value for their employers. So, (second theory) it was possible even for some labour exchanged against capital to be non-productive.

 Murray Smith discusses another category of labour – that employed by the state – which fell into the category of “non-productive” (unless the state itself was involved in production). In Marx’s day – or rather in the days of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and the others whose ideas Marx discusses – the assumption was that this was akin to the labour of domestic servants and so a drag on capital accumulation.

 In those days this may well have been true since most government employees then were either concerned with collecting taxes or were place-hunters milking the state. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Most national and local government employees are engaged in activities, such as the education and health care of workers, which are just as essential to capitalism as trading and banking. Can they really still be assimilated to domestic servants, i.e. to more or less frivolous spending by the idle rich?

 Murray Smith argues that they should not be. He suggests that expenditure on them should be classified together with the labour of trading and banking workers under the general heading of “socially necessary unproductive labour” (SNUL). He goes further and argues that they and the equipment they use should be assimilated rather to Marx’s concept of “constant capital”, i.e. as capital which merely transfers its value to the new product. From this perspective the taxation which pays for it is not a deduction from surplus value but a part of the capital outlay of the capitalist class as a whole (“social capital”).

 Smith wants to do this mainly because, by transferring such spending from s to c, it reduces the average of profit (s/(c+ v), considerably in fact, so supporting his theory that a fall in the rate of profit caused by c increasing faster than v (expenditure on productive labour) is the main cause of recurring capitalist crises. Quite apart for any decline in the rate of profit for this reason being a long run tendency that  would be too slow to affect cyclical crises,  state spending in reality impacts on the crucial rate of profit after tax (rather than before tax), hence the interest of capitalist firms is keeping state spending down if they can.

 Smith is a dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyist, a supporter of an organisation called the “International Bolshevik Tendency”, a name calculated to make the hair of genuine socialists stand on end. So you need to ignore all the arguments about China being a “deformed Workers State”, about the Bolshevik coup having been a socialist revolution, about the need for a vanguard party, a transitional programme of reforms, etc. etc to get at his basic argument about SNUL.

Green capitalism

‘Green capitalism and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service provider.’ By Sian Sullivan, in Radical Anthropology, issue 3, 2009/10.

 It would be an exaggeration to say that the writers in Radical Anthropology put the case for socialism. But, at least, some of them criticise aspects of capitalism and present evidence for that criticism.

 A good example is the article by Sullivan, who discusses green capitalism, also known as market environmentalism and green neo-liberalism. The basic idea is that ‘if we just price the environment correctly—creating new markets for new “environmental products” based on monetised measures of environmental health and degradation—then everyone and the environment will win’.

 All that amounts to the economic rationalisation of nature. Stock exchanges, dealing in new environmental ‘products’ have been set up; for example the Climate exchanges in London and Chicago. Carbon credits are the currency representing the emission of carbon. ‘Once these credits enter the international financial system their future value can be speculated on (as with any other currency or commodity, including derivatives) and significant profits can ensue.’

 Capitalist culture has ridden roughshod over biological and cultural diversity and has impoverished both people and the environment. Pricing something is not the same as valuing it. As Sullivan observes, ‘We are critically impoverished as human beings if the best we can come up with is money as the mediator of our relationships with the non-human world.”