On Contact: Anti-capitalist chronicles, part 2
On the show, the second of a two-part interview, Chris Hedges discusses with Professor David Harvey the social, political, and economic consequences of neoliberalism and globalization, exploring alienation, the rise of authoritarianism, the significance of China in the world economy, the geopolitics of capitalism, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, and our collective response.
In our previous show, we discussed central themes raised in ‘The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles’ by Professor David Harvey, who is distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Library Journal calls Professor Harvey “one of the most influential geographers of the later 20th century.” Professor Harvey earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and was formerly professor of geography at Johns Hopkins, a Miliband fellow at the London School of Economics, and Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford. You can hear him on David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a bimonthly podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. He also gives a series of lectures called Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey on his website DavidHarvey.org, which – if you have not read volumes I and II of Marx’s Capital – is an invaluable way to match your reading with insightful commentary on this classic work.
YouTube channel: On Contact
Follow us on Facebook: Facebook.com/OnContactRT
CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today is the second part of our discussion with Professor David Harvey about his book, The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles.
DH: How often do you hear this all set-up in a way which blames capital for the problems? And the answer is, very rarely, it’s always--it’s always these other--these other things. And that’s one of the things that--one of the reasons I think that the analysis from a Marxist perspective that is likely to light on capital as being the source of the problem is again rejected and pushed out of view. So this is, kind of, you know, one of the forms of social control which exists right now, which--where, you know, the ability to say, well--that the heart of the problem lies in the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, which is producing huge, huge problems right now, in terms of things like climate change and social inequality.
CH: In our previous show, we discussed central themes raised in The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles by Professor David Harvey who is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Library Journal calls Professor Harvey “One of the most influential geographers of the later 20th century.” Professor Harvey earned his PhD from Cambridge University and was formerly professor of geography at Johns Hopkins, a Miliband Fellow at London School of Economics, and Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford. You can hear him on David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a bimonthly podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. He also gives a series of lectures called Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey on his website DavidHarvey.org, which if you have not read volumes I and II of Marx’s Capital is an invaluable way to match your reading with insightful commentary on this classic work. We will focus this show on the social, political, and economic consequences of neoliberalism and globalization, exploring alienation, the rise of authoritarianism, the significance of China in the world economy, the geopolitics of capitalism, carbon dioxide emissions, and climate change, as well as our collective response. Joining me to discuss these issues is Professor David Harvey, author of The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles. So David, let’s begin with alienation, which you see as a consequence of neoliberal policies with, of course, deep cultural, social, and political ramifications.
DH: I think the question of alienation is something that we ought to pay great attention to. One of the things that’s happened in the labor processes is the increasingly--workers themselves don’t have very much control over what they’re producing and why they’re producing it and how it is being produced. And as a result of that, their labor from the very beginning tends to be what we call alienated labor. That is, they have a capacity to labor, capacity to think, but that--those capacities are actually pushed to one side and that turned into a sort of machine minders, and all the rest of it. And so you get this notion of alienation in the labor process. And I think that when you start to ask questions of people, are you happy in your work? Is your--is your--is it satisfying? Do you find it meaningful? And the answers are that more and more workers become sort of just this bull [BLEEP] jobs in a way, you know, and as a result of that, there’s very little satisfaction. I mean, I personally get satisfaction out of the work I do, but I’m in a very privileged situation. And one of the things that’s interesting about right now, is there’s signs in the United States that everybody thought everybody would rush back into work when the pandemic was over, but the labor market is suggesting people are not. And when people start to say, “Well, why not?” The answer were asked--often comes back. “It’s badly paid and why should I go back to it to that?” “It’s unsatisfying. Why should I go back to that?” So that--there’s a sense in which alienation in the--in the labor process has started to become a topic even amongst the workers themselves, and they’re looking for more satisfying, better paying jobs, and they’re not going to come back into the labor force until they can get them. So there’s alienation in the--in the labor process, then there are all these kinds of problems of alienation in daily life. And the difficulty of getting decent treatment out of--with COVID and all those kinds of things and getting access to services and so on, and the bureaucracies which exist, and the intimidations that exist. So people are alienated from the institutions which really should be supporting them. And, of course, increasingly, they’re alienated by politics. Because politics is essentially a game played right now by various wings of the bourgeoisie, various wings of the upper classes who are, through their donations, big money is basically controlling the politics of both the Republicans and the Democrats. So there’s a--there’s a kind of feeling of, you know, this is the--this political system is not working for me, this economic system is not working for me. So I’m just going to be turned off. And that’s--a big sign of alienation is being turned off until such point something comes along and people get really angry. So the typical response of an alienated population is to sort of be rather passive and aggressive in it’s--in its posture towards what’s going on, something happens, like I don’t know, somebody gets killed by the police in London or somewhere, and then suddenly, the whole place blows up, because people are so, so alienated. So I think that the--the question of alienation is significant and it says something politically. Politically, we want to have a system that meets people’s needs democratically, and we have a huge democratic deficit to make up. And secondly, we need to have an economy that actually produces things that are valuable to us in such a way as to make our lives easier and better, rather than more and more complicated.
CH: Is this the reason they’ve cut back on the expansion of unemployment benefits, they do extend the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions by a few months, that’s going to run out eventually. Isn’t this a way to put pressure on a reluctant working class to go back to these jobs?
DH: Oh, I think there’s a--there’s a great pressure to do that, but there’s also right now great resistance. I mean, I--unfortunately, being on lockdown, I can’t get out there and talk to a lot of people, but just listening to, you know, some interviews on the radio, listening and reading some stuff. A lot of people are saying, “I’m not yet ready to go back to work. Yeah. So I’ve had--I’ve had--I’ve been out of work now for almost a year and why should I change?” So, and particularly, if the benefits are reasonably good and of course, the Republican point is to say, “Well, if you’re paying out good--generous unemployment benefits, then you diminish the incentive for people to rejoin the labor force that low wages and under miserable conditions.” But you know there’s a--there’s a big contest going on right now with that issue. And the anticipation, which was, as soon as the COVID thing relaxed a bit, there’ll be a huge rush back into the labor force. It’s not happening. And I think this is a sign of the fact that people see that was waiting them in that labor force, alienated positions, low wages, unsatisfying life, and--well, a lot of people are beginning to say, “No, we want something different. We need something--” And this is therefore, a very good point where there could be some good left organizing around exactly these kinds of questions, wages and conditions of labor.
CH: You write in your chapter on alienation, you call it a double alienation. You say, “‘It’s foundational for what the capitalist mode of production is all about.” What do you mean by double alienation?
DH: Well, you know, we often think that the entrepreneur is free to do what the entrepreneur wants. But in fact, the coercive laws of competition are such that the even the capitalist is not free. The capitalists have developed a system in which the, you know, financial flows and credit and all the rest of it. Capitalists are actually as imprisoned within the system as the workers are. The only difference is, of course, that the capitalist by and large, not always, but by and large, have a much better lifestyle because they have a lot more money. But they are not free to choose. I mean, Milton Friedman’s famous argument that capitalism is about freedom to choose. The capitalist is not free to choose. If capitalist is faced with competition from either China, or Bangladesh, or Mexico, or something like that, then the capitalist goes out of business. So, and if the capitalist wants to pay a generous wage and everybody else is paying measly wages, a good capitalist has to pay measly wages, because that’s the only way in which they can stay in business. So, when I say it’s doubly alienated, the worker is alienated because they’re having all of the richness to their possible capacity to labor taken away and destroyed. But the capitalist also likes to think that they are in command, and they’re in control, and all the rest of it, but a lot of the time, the system is in charge of them. And I think it’s this systemic problem, which is--which is the root of a lot of what we now think of as alienation. So you will find capitalists who are alienated. I mean, I’ve talked to some financiers who can look at the situation and say, “Well, you know, I can make a lot of money by doing some fairly crooked things. I don’t like doing it, but all the time it’s this way, I’m going to do it, but this is not a good life and I don’t like this good life.”
CH: Well, this is what Marx understood and whatever the fear--the capitalists fear of labor, the--what truly frightens a capitalists are their capitals.
DH: Yes, exactly.
CH: I want you to talk about compensatory consumerism. What do you mean by that?
DH: Well, you know, the worker goes to the work and let’s suppose it’s very alienating labor, and very unhappy but the worker says, “Okay, as long as you give me a wage that allows me to go into the consumer markets and, you know, have some consumer power so that I can, I don’t know, buy a bicycle or, you know, do something that’s good for me.” And so in the sense capital often offers this Faustian bargains, says, “Okay, put up with lousy work conditions but then enjoy yourself when you get into the market because you’ve got all of these commodities there, you go into the supermarket, and you go into the store and if you have enough money, you’re going to really relax.” So that people don’t rebel against the conditions in the labor--of labor because they are compensated by consumer choices, which is supposed to be good. Now, a lot of the time, of course, consumer choices are not that good and turn out to be a bit of a fraud. So again, the consent is likely to break down. But there have been, I think, phases in the history of capitalism, where compensatory consumerism has worked fairly well. I think that some ways in--for certain segments of the population in the United States in the 1960s, compensatory consumerism said, “Okay, you go to work and you go to Union job and all the rest of it and you’re being exploited, but enjoy it because at least you have a car in the driveway, and you’ve got, you know, got a TV, and you’ve got all of those kinds of things.”
CH: Well, you also argue in the book, that there was a kind of Faustian bargain between capital and the left. So if you want to express yourself individually as a gay man, or that these kind of individual rights were incorporated, but you can’t touch the system of corporate capitalism itself that--and I think that’s a very good point. When we come back we’ll continue our conversation about the geopolitics of capitalism with Professor David Harvey.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the geopolitics of capitalism with Professor David Harvey. You write about the consequent--political consequences of alienated populations. You say, “They’re vulnerable and open to sudden and unpredictable mobilizations. That there becomes a question of who is to blame for the malaise? Capital, which controls the ruling ideas over the mass media ensures that capital itself is the least to be blamed. And then you find scapegoats-immigrants, lazy people, people not like me or you, people who offend the moral code, people who do not share my religious views or something of that kind. And that leads to political instability, which I think were already seen and violent confrontations.” You write. And that this is now, as capital continues this kind of assault, this political turmoil becomes the norm.
DH: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, all around the world, we see--we see that happening. But my question to really the whole audience is that, how often do you hear this all set-up in a way which blames capital for the problems? And the answer is, very rarely, it’s always--it’s always these other--these other things. And that’s one of the things that--one of the reasons I think that the analysis from a Marxist perspective that is likely to light on capital as being the source of the problem is again rejected and pushed out of view. So this is, kind of, you know, one of the forms of social control which exists right now, which--where, you know, the ability to say, well--that the heart of the problem lies in the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, which is producing huge, huge problems right now, in terms of things like climate change and social inequality and the like, and absorption of the--of the mass of product, which is now being created. And this is--this is--this is the heart of the problem that we should be looking about. Now, I’m not--I’m not sort of--sort of saying we have to overthrow this system overnight. But I say we have to look at the heart of the problem and that the center of the problem lies this question of, what is capital and how is capital working? And why is it that the capital system, which is so dynamic, is so ineffective in meeting the mass needs of the mass of the population?
CH: I want to talk about fictitious capital. This is again a term from Marx and the dispute with China. You argue in the book that as long as China was producing products, where people were paid low wages, China was palatable. But China has gone into the financialization of the global economy in a way that now poses a threat but explain that idea.
DH: Well, I--it’s not--well, while there is a financialization aspect to it. I think that China basically played this key role in global capitalism as a low wage economy. And in some ways, this benefited presumably the US working class because consumer products became much cheaper because they were--made in China. So the fact that the Chinese were doing that was very significant. But then the Chinese started to say, “Look, being a low wage economy isn’t--is not--means you don’t really have power. I mean, we are--we are like Bangladesh and the rest of it. So what we have to do is we have to start to move into a capital intensive economy.” So China starts to move into electronics, and it starts to move into artificial intelligence and things of that kind. So China is now one of the--one of the centers of the high tech revolution which is going on. And to the degree that China is doing that, it is changing the whole kind of global dynamic. Now, the US has held its position in the global economy by its technological advantage. China now is drawing close to the United States and in some areas is plainly ahead of the United States in terms of artificial intelligence, and that is bothering everybody in the United States. So the United States has tried to hold back China from becoming a high tech economy and by exercising stuff about intellectual property rights and the like. But frankly, I don’t think the United States is in a position to be able to stop it. And what, you know, China says it’s going to become a high tech economy by 2025. And that’s four years away. And they’re moving very, very fast. And what happens in China is, you know, it looks like this on, you know, in 2010. And then it looks like something radically different by the time you get to 2015. So China is very heavily being transformed and over the last several months major transformations has started to occur in China, where China has started to say, it is going to take care of social inequality, because China became a very unequal society, China is now saying it’s going to take care of it. It says it’s going to take care of problems of housing, healthcare, and education. And, you know, when the Chinese say they’re going to do things, they tend to do things. And so we’re seeing a kind of a rather centralized authoritarian kind of lineup, but nevertheless, aim towards revolutionizing the internal economy, but also revolutionizing external relations. And there’s no question that the Chinese at some point or other are going to start to challenge the United States power in the world by replacing the dollar diplomacy that the US exercises by Chinese RMB currency. So China, I think has ambitions to be a provider of the global currency. So yes, indeed, there’s a--there’s a whole set of issues there in terms of the dynamism of what’s going on in China and the threat it poses to US and Germany, both technologically but also financially.
CH: You’re right at one point in the book that these kinds of tensions lead to two World Wars, that you think the consequences of this financial clash can be catastrophic. Can you explain why?
DH: Yeah. Well, as we--as we know, a country which is clearly threatened by another country will trump--probably find all kinds of means to resist it, both internationally and through international institutions and the like, and at a certain point is likely to engage in some sort of activities, which could lead into war. Of course, since 1945, the idea of an all-out nuclear war is terrifying enough to I think everybody on all sides that we’re unlikely to see something of that kind, but what we’re likely to see are limited conflicts of various kinds. But again, some of the techniques of conflict these days, and this is where the artificial intelligence is coming in, some of the techniques of conflict these days are shifting, from a sort of traditional armament sector to things like artificial intelligence, and superiority of communications networks, and things of that kinds of--this is a very--this is a very transformational moment in the world economy. And I think everybody should be sort of thinking about this and worrying about this, because any, sort of, major clash, between great powers right now is likely to be, you know, absolutely terrifying in terms of its consequences.
CH: Well, all of the monarchies and governments that led to the suicidal folly of World War I had no idea what they were unleashing.
CH: Under inept leadership things can rapidly become a kind of death spiral. I want to speak just to close about the climate crisis, because you write about it, and then, you know, what our collective response should be?
DH: Yeah, I mean, when Marx was writing, you know, capital occupied, you know, it was well established in Britain. There are elements of it in Europe and on the eastern seaboard of the United States, but the rest of the world was non-capitalist. And Marx is writing a theory of capital and is explaining why it’s going to grow, and why the world market is going to come about, and why it’s going to become a global phenomena. And he was--he was very appreciated about that. But we’ve now got there and right now we kind of say, where do we expand? When Marx is writing, there are plenty of places to expand. I mean plenty of empty continents and things like that, and even occupied continents, which didn’t have a capitalist form of organization. But now you’re looking at everything that’s going on in China, a lot of what’s going on in India, in Indonesia, and Latin America and in other words capital has become global. And then you mentioned, you know, the size of the economy now is something like $80 trillion. Well in 1950, it was about $4 trillion. So it’s gone to $80 trillion and if you double every 25 years, you’re going to have another and it comes back again to this rate in the mass. The mass of carbon emissions right now is becoming a real, real problem. And the mass that’s already there is a real, real problem because it dissipates very slowly. And the figure that I--stands out in my mind is the--is that NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization--Administration, they did a timeline of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over 800,000 years. And they can do this sort of thing now. And they showed that whenever concentrations above 300 parts per million, until 1960, when it went above 300 parts per million is now at something like 427 parts per million. In other words, the mass of greenhouse gas is already in the atmosphere, if you omitted no car, nothing at all, for the next year 25 years, you would still see massive melt of the Greenland ice cap and Antarctica and all the rest of it. So we’ve got a real serious mass problem on our hands. And I go back to that idea of how important it is to look at the mass. The mass when Marx was writing was minimal. So you could have a high rate and didn’t really matter that much. We’ve now got to a point where the mass is such that even a low rate of carbon emissions is going to add to that mass so massively that we’re going to have real serious--real serious problems. And now we’re beginning to see it. I mean, you know, just in this year, we’ve had all the fires in Australia, Western United States, Greece, and we had the climate things and so on. And for even worse than that, at the lower level, I think that things like the virus, I think the production of viruses is much more likely in high density populations and expanding ecosystems, which are industrialized. So I think there are all sorts of issues of that kind, which need to be looked at very carefully, and we simply cannot expand even at a two or three percent rate of growth, we have to start to actually start to bring it down. And we have to find some way, if we possibly can, of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And there are some techniques which are around, none of which are I think, at this point, very effective.
CH: Great. We’re going to have to stop there, David. You’ll have to read the book. He ends the book with our collective response, which can be summed up as, smash global capitalism.
CH: And create something else.
DH: Well, it’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicle.
CH: That was author--it’s a great book.
DH: Okay. Thank you.
CH: That was author and Professor David Harvey on his new book, The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles.
DH: Thank you very, very much. I appreciate it.