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David Harvey on Brazilian TV talking about the trends that led to the current crisis and the limits of capital. The interview begins about two minutes in and is in English.
In the last years more and more Marxists are revising the call for “abundance” with the call for “enough”. Here, for example, Harvey talks about a zero growth economy; something that I imagine would make Marxists from a certain generation turn in their graves. However, good old Ernie Mandel touched on some of the same themes, if only too briefly, all the way back in 1962 in the second volume of his Marxist Economic Theory (sadly not online). Many, if not most, Marxists in the 20th century placed heavy emphasis on expanding the economy, and often with good reason. The underdevelopment capitalism subjected much of the world to made them dependent on imperialism. That dynamic had and has to be reversed.
However, capitalism creates its abundances and surpluses, in part, because of over-production and the over-production of useless or even damaging – commodities at that. The productive process is itself incredibly wasteful, never mind the product. It is no Malthusian retreat to say that resources are finite and that growth has limits; that exceeding those limits could be catastrophic. Everywhere our contemporary world is providing evidence of that catastrophe, we don’t have to imagine it. I have no problem with Harvey’s basic assertion: the only long-term sustainable solution to life on this planet is zero growth, and that limiting the growth of the economy in no way implies limiting the development of the economy.
Marx wrote that, from the point of view of labor, productivity would ideally be measured in the free time of the worker. I don’t remember any Soviet economist getting up at a Party meeting and ever saying, “Comrades, we have just achieved maximum productivity in the Volgograd Steel Factory; the 16 hour work week!” I agree with Marx; measure my productivity by how much fishing I’ve done.
And abundance? Capitalism has told us that abundance means stocked store shelves and the square footage of our house. The abundance I’m after is healthy years well lived. And that has nothing to do with access to 47 different shampoos or a new model ipod every m0nth. Of course “abundance” and “enough” are both socially defined and “enough” can’t simply be a mathematical formula; the needs we require “enough” to satisfy are not just material. “Wants” and “needs” are not necessarily counter-posed either (as anyone with a toddler knows); capitalism tends to make us want what we do not need and need what we do not want.
There are the most basic of needs however, which capitalism, with all of its abundance, is incapable of meeting. Detroit has thousands of abandoned homes…and thousands of homeless people. Hungry people, every minute of the day, walk by groceries that throw out dumpsters full of food. Some nations starve while others are forced to purge their gluttony. The most pressing need now is a change in how those social definitions, of “abundance” and “enough” are formed and by whom.