In this still dawning twenty-first century, the sense of historical transformation is palpable. North, south, east and west the world convulses with conflict and change. The Middle East erupted in revolution and now reverses into reaction; in the weakened West whole cities and nations revolt as nationalism rears its ugly head; meanwhile, the Asian giants struggle to contain class conflict and Latin America stumbles on corruption and counter-reformations, while the sons and daughters of the formerly colonial Africa live a reality far flung from the dreams of their fathers, crossing seas to leave behind generational impoverishment. What links these events and explains such turmoil? David Harvey provides seventeen answers, seventeen contradictions which constantly destabilise and threaten capitalism’s survival.
These seventeen contradictions within the “production, distribution, and exchange” of capital Harvey divides into three categories: fundamental, dynamic, and dangerous. Contradictions, Harvey writes – be they economic, professional, or sentimental – can present us with an opportunity for transformation. In some rare cases they can be resolved entirely, in most, however, they are merely delayed and diffused, often in so doing augmenting the damage done when the tension finally erupts into a systemic crisis, as was seen in the latest global economic depression. Understanding how such contradictions work, Harvey insists, is essential in crafting an effective anti-capitalist strategy for building a post-capitalist world.
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And it is there where lies the value of this book: its intent at being of practical use to those who seek to transform the current order to build a new one. It is a book for the vanguard, and it is a book which places the reader on the vanguard if she or he is not already there, deconstructing all that this system would naturalise: money as wealth, private ownership of common wealth, private appropriation of commonly produced wealth, exponential growth and consumption, and so forth.
As this crisis-prone century progresses, the question arises: for how long can the show go on? The answer to that question, Harvey feels (just as, he argues, did Marx), is ‘indefinitely’. But the further we march through this century, the more acute the truly dangerous contradictions become, namely: exponential growth and accumulation, environmental exhaustion, and the clash between the reality of ‘alienation’ – that is, powerlessness, detachment – and the human instinct of emancipation, periodically giving rise to mass and individual rebellion against such inhumane systems as the Middle Eastern monarchs, Asian sweatshops, colonial possessions, or London’s ‘City’ and New York’s Wall Street.
It is a sad irony that in this new era of the anthropocene – the geological age of the homo sapiens – it is our very humanity which we lose by committing this matricide against planet earth.
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In regards to the question of exponential growth, Harvey points out that economic growth does not follow the gradual graph line of simple interest, but rather, it follows the ever-accelerating curve of compound interest, thus making absurd the oft-repeated mantra-metaphor of a “tide that raises all boats”, because tides, we know, do not follow a compound growth trend,, but instead advance and recede gradually.
Addressing the question of environmental degradation and exhaustion, Harvey is agnostic as to whether this contradiction is fatal. He argues that capital’s ability to adapt to resource depletion in the past, its ability to profit from new environmental technologies and problems, and its tendency to fare well if not blossom in the face of ‘natural’ disasters mean for Harvey that we cannot presume that capitalism will dig its own ecological grave, but rather that we should encourage non-anthropocentric ideas of innate natural value to take the next step and take an anti-capitalist strategy. It is a sad irony that in this new era of the anthropocene – the geological age of the homo sapiens – it is our very humanity which we lose by committing this matricide against planet earth.
Harvey gains points here for his global scope. The book loses points for its inability to connect with non-academic readers. Seventeen Contradictions is not a pamphlet for political outrage (like Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism) but rather a guide for activists.
Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions contains a powerful written voice – Harvey can write – but the book loses points for its (necessary) density which impinges upon ease of reading.
Much of the value of Seventeen Contradictions lies in its potent analysis and unforgiving deconstruction of the economic and political world around us.
There is hope, though, in Harvey’s final identified contradiction – that of the contradiction between the human instinct of emancipation and the growing reality of alienation. There was hope, better said, in Tahrir Square, in London 2011, in Occupy, and in Spain’s 15M, citizen revolts which have reverberations till the present day. There is hope in Morocco’s Hirak Rif, an ongoing protest movement triggered by the contradiction between alienation and emancipation that one fishmonger felt when he committed suicide by jumping into a rubbish truck which crushed him to death after the police had confiscated his fish. There is hope in the memory of Berta Cáceres, Honduran activist whose condemnation of state and private appropriation of indigenous lands and natural resources brought her death in 2016. There was hope, albeit a desperate hope, in the tears that fell in the Bangladeshi teachers’ hunger strike for decent wages this year. There is hope in the indigenous revolts across the Amazon – the Yawanawas, the Shuar, the Sápara – who fight to defeat mining giants in the basin. There is hope in the work of Doña Francisca of Nicaragua, who organises indigenous communities against the construction and corruption of the second Panama canal. There is hope in the power and passion of Marinaleda, a town which serves as proof that another world really is possible.
There is hope, Harvey concludes, in the contradictions. Leonard Cohen knew this when he sung: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
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