Does the crisis portend communism?

By Felix Salmon
April 8, 2010
David Harvey's new book is just that. Here's the official blurb:

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There have been many critiques of the financial system in the wake of the global crisis, blaming its structure for the severity of the problem. But it’s taken until now for an old-school Marxist to come along and co-opt all of those critiques as a call to embrace communism. David Harvey’s new book is just that. Here’s the official blurb:

Using his unrivalled knowledge of the subject, Harvey lays bare the follies of the international financial system, looking closely at the nature of capitalism, how it works and why sometimes it doesn’t. He examines the vast flows of money that surge round the world in daily volumes well in excess of the sum of all its economies. He looks at the cycles of boom and bust in the world’s housing and stock markets and shows that periodic episodes of meltdown are not only inevitable in the capitalist system but essential to its survival. The essence of capitalism is its amorality and lawlessness and to talk of a regulated, ethical capitalism is to make an error of reasoning of the most fundamental kind.

Harvey is happy to go so far as to title his final chapter “What is to be Done?” — which of course is also Lenin’s most famous work. He dismisses attempts at wealth redistribution or increased financial regulation as mere “socialism”, and pushes instead for something much stronger, which “seeks to displace capitalism” entirely. “An ethical, non-exploitative and socially just capitalism that redounds to the benefit of all is impossible,” he writes, in a passage which will surely dismay the likes of Matthew Bishop. “It contradicts the very nature of what capital is about.”

He concludes:

Communists are all those who work incessantly to produce a different future to that which capitalism portends… While traditional institutionalised communism is as good as dead and buried, there are by this definition millions of de facto communists active among us, willing to act upon their understandings, ready to creatively pursue anti-capitalist imperatives…

The struggle for survival with justice not only continues; it begins anew. As indignation and moral outrage build around the economy of dispossession that so redounds to the benefit of a seemingly all-powerful capitalist class, so disparate political movements necessarily begin to merge, transcending barriers of space and time…

Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed… Political mobilisations sufficient to such a task have occurred in the past. They can and will surely come again. We are, I think, past due.

All of this reminds me, in a weird kind of meta way, of Richard Florida’s new book, which I’m reading right now. Florida, of course, is no communist, and he’s certainly not a revolutionary who sneers at the uselessness of Velcro, like Harvey does. But he did enter the crisis with lots of Big Ideas, and he’s now written a book about how the crisis only confirms that those ideas were exactly right.

James Kwak has written, apropos Richard Posner, that it’s hard to get enormous credibility out of being wrong for decades. At the same time, however, it’s always nice to see people’s views change when the facts change — and rarely have facts changed as much as they did over the course of this crisis. I suppose that the crisis has naturally pushed most people’s views to the left, and it’s hard to get much further left than Harvey. But then again, I think that there’s definitely a causal connection between the financial crisis and the rise of the tea party: in extreme times, people often gravitate towards corner solutions.

In any event, it’s probably good that Harvey’s book has now been written, if only to fill out the spectrum of reactions to the crisis and to help make leftists like Joe Stiglitz and Dean Baker look positively Reaganite in comparison. And to remind us all that Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore are maybe not quite as far to the left as some soi-disant centrists would have you believe.

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17 comments so far

“Tea Party 48% Obama 44%

On major issues, 48% of voters say that the average Tea Party member is closer to their views than President Barack Obama. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 44% hold the opposite view and believe the president’s views are closer to their own.”

Rasmussen, April 5th ontent/politics/general_politics/april_2 010/tea_party_48_obama_44

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

“It really ought to go without saying that the CEO of a company as big as Citigroup, especially when he’s being paid a hefty ten-figure salary, should be able to control his own businesses without crawling to regulators with a plea of “stop me before I issue another cov-lite bond, I can’t help myself”
Quote from the previous article – my point is, when you no longer have a profit and LOSS system, you no longer have capitalism. You need the carrot and the stick, and the stick doesn’t exist for CEO’s. Fiddling with the number of carrots won’t solve the problems.
I certainly am willing to admit that my theory of how the free market works is not in accord with reality – Prince should not get compensation that encourages excess risk taking while immunizing him from the destruction of the firm. I thought shareholders make a collective judgement, but as an individual shareholder I have no influence over Prince.
But for those who now believe in regulation – uh, who is the brillient regulator…Greenspan (remember Maestro? Oracle??? Committee to save the world???) or Bernanke “Subprime is contained” ???

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

Capitalism, socialism, communism, monarchies, even dictatorships… all those systems work on paper. What it comes down to, what it ALWAYS comes down to is how badly the PEOPLE within the system take advantage of it and muck it up.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

Not all anti-corporatism is leftist, so you can’t point to that as the sole direction in which public opinion has moved.

Neither are all, or even most, corporate chieftains rightist, as many of them have embraced, either functionally or explicitly, a central leftist plank — namely, the obsolescence of the nation-state and the desirability of open borders.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

“I suppose that the crisis has naturally pushed most people’s views to the left…”

Count me in that group. I wouldn’t call myself a Democrat, but I’m closer to being one than I was 3 years ago.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

I think Obama in his heart of hearts means to be a socialist, but he has wound up being a corporatist most all. He has been a big disappointment to those of us who voted for him because he claimed to be an outsider not beholden to special interests. Corporate welfarism is repugnant to both the right and the left.

Jamie Dimon has played Obama like a fiddle and megabanks couldn’t be more pleased with how the bailouts turned out. Meanwhile the health care bill is corporate welfare to big pharma, big insurance and hospitals. Just look at their stock price movements. Is it any wonder the health care bill was so opposed by many at leftish

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

I ordered Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 book “It Can’t Happen Here” earlier this week and cannot wait to read it.

Posted by david3 | Report as abusive


The old phrases of communism about “amoral capitalism”?

And people who have NOT done their own research…actually believe this? Capitalism can be regulated…the HUMAN BEING is the source of evil—or good…!

Just curious.
Does the book deal with the Chinese “marriage” of capitalism with communism?

You know…the people that fill much of our stores with THEIR goods, whom the US owes so much money to…and who (latest I heard) still sell us some rotten stuff…be it Florida’s infamous Chinese drywall…or bad honey or… (the list goes on)..

It’s a new twist on communism – using capitalism as their tool to maybe destroy (or at least disable) the US??

Am waiting to hear when the Chinese maybe get to drill in our plentiful fossil fuel sources—as part payment for the mega dollars they loaned us!

But dream the idealist dreams. Unrefined by your own research into old articles, books…to uncover what the past 100 or so years of communist and super socialist rule has done to the human race. The blood would fill rivers!!!

Find your secular “religion” of a workers’ paradise (which will turn into a worker-maintained LEADERS paradise)…

Ignore—-20th century history…and the HUGE multi millions of innocents murdered…by Lenin, Stalin, others…

Or…read up on Animal Farm…or buy the $1 DVD which sometimes shows up in mostly Chinese stocked WALMART…the DVD cartoon of ANIMAL FARM!!!

Or buy an old copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn and search for his Harvard Speech online!!!

Posted by learn2think | Report as abusive

The crisis doesn’t portend communism. It was caused by it – communism for the Rich. Everybody else is supposed to take an entrepreneurial interest in the fiction enshrouding it.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

If it says Kwak, it is a duck. We are so old fashioned in our thinking. Solzhenitsyn is good, especially 1974 Nobel Peace Prize Speech, Barack and Woods take heed, so is Sakharoff and Sharanski (phonetic), only problem, the last time I saw Solzhenitsyn in a documentary in a train during a revisit to ‘Mother Russia’, his wife was crapping on his head on the Steppe. Neither of them looked happy at all.

Lots of morals to that story.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Leave poor Obama alone. We have 20 million people out of work and he’s only trying to help them

Posted by STORYBURN_site | Report as abusive

The communist credo: ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.’

The capitalist credo: ‘From each according to their want, to each according to their greed.”

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

…capitalism had its last spams and gasps at 9-11, that serves us right, when we get blindsided.

Imagine the opposite happened, in the country of origin, not Hamburg, the other Burg, let me not be too explicit.

It was not Russia that screwed the US over, then, they might now try to.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Whatever the “ism” is doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not the people participating in the system are people of conscience.

People refuse to do what is correct because they have no spiritual core.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” – John Dewey

Posted by karen22 | Report as abusive

Good one Karen 22, Catch 22…

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Ideology, whether communism or Ann Rand type capitalism, is a recipe for disaster.

However, these arguments about ‘isms’ obscures the real issues: Rampant speculation supported by low tax rates and cheap credit will destroy any economic model, whether it is socialist like China or capitalist like the USA.

The US conservative think tanks continue this “Red Baiting” even after Russian communism is dead and China fills our Wallmart with their cheap goods. Why? Because they know that if Americans (i.e Teaparty) knew how Wall Street and Commercial Real Estate have gamed the tax code and use American savings to speculate, they would rebel.

Remember Engels’ great quote: The Capitalist will sell the hangman his own noose.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive
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