on July 23, 2006
David Harvey is actually a geographer, but from reading this book, one would think him one of the great political economists. Based on this work alone, he should be in the popular range of Stiglitz, Schumpeter, Milton Friedman etc., but it is not likely that such 'honor' will ever befall a Marxist theorist. Nevertheless everyone interested in Marxist economics, for whatever reasons, simply must read this book.
Harvey's discussion of capitalism from a Marxist perspective is extraordinary clear, sharp and thorough. So much in fact that it is probably the most consistently in-depth exposition of capitalism from every aspect since "Capital" itself. This also makes it hard to review it, since one hardly knows where to begin.
Fortunately for political economy newbies (and this book is definitely the best kind of "introductory overview" you could give to an intellectual person), Harvey starts at the same point "Capital" starts, then works his way through. First he gives a clear exposition of the general framework of Marxist theory: the law of value, the differences between value, use value and exchange value, the mode of production etc. All this is done quite well, though there are of course many many such general descriptions available in print. Harvey does seem to skip over the "transformation problem" somewhat, which may annoy those who consider it a major hurdle. Harvey, in my view with good reason, does not.
The next two chapters discuss production, distribution, surplus value and its realization and the relation to supply and demand. Particularly useful here are his explanations of the importance of the concept of value composition of capital, and the reduction of skilled to simple labour, where he addresses one of Von Böhm-Bawerk's better critiques of Marxism.
The next part of the book is perhaps the core of the book. Here, Harvey delves into the organization of capital, the various forms which it can take and how these interrelate, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He shows how the various manifestations of capital can interfere with each other's functioning and how this creates the tendency towards crises. He then posits the problem of overaccumulation (rather than underdevelopment) as the first 'layer' or 'cut' of crisis theory.
After the reader has grasped all this, the second crucial part of the book follows in a rapid manner, introducing first the problematic of fixed capital and its relation to the law of value, and then the role of credit in capitalism. The first is not very satisfactorily resolved and is in my view probably the weakest part of his theory. Alan Freeman has since given a quite different solution to the same issue, but that does not seem to really solve the problem either. Perhaps this is one of the things Marxist political economy has yet to fully solve.
Harvey's demonstration of the role of credit is however masterful and extremely enlightening for the many who are confused by the vast array of forms in which credit appears in modern society. His emphasis on the importance of understanding the so-called "fictitious capital", that is advanced capital not yet backed by actual value through production, allows him to show the second major appearance of crises in capitalism as well as explaining the theory of rent in Marxism, which forms the subject of the chapter thereafter. He corrects Marx' somewhat excessively anti-distributive theory of rent and explains the role of agricultural technology. Harvey is in many parts of this chapter rather confusing in his terminology, but a careful reader can certainly grasp the issue.
At the end of the book Harvey can finally follow up on his own area of expertise. By explaining the role of spatial and temporal relations in the flow of capital and the necessity of 'exporting' the internal contradictions of capitalist social relations, he is able to form a theory of imperialism that is largely in accordance with that of Lenin, but without the theory of underdevelopment. It also puts a good perspective on Marx & Engels' many journalistic articles about India and colonialism. Finally he combines this with the earlier two aspects to form the third 'cut' of capitalist crisis theory, which takes every aspect of capitalism in its modern appearance into account.
On the whole, Harvey has done an unparallelled and magisterial work in creating an exposition of capitalism that is at once as in-depth as "Capital" and much clearer (and shorter!) than that, although of course without Marx no such thing could ever have been made.
There are a few things nevertheless not covered (fully) in the book. Harvey pays surprisingly little attention to urban geography and (sub)urbanization as a factor in capitalism. Furthermore his theory of the state is a hodgepodge of different roles, which he never unites into one whole. Finally, people experienced in handling Marxist theory might have problems with Harvey's generally structuralist approach, which leaves relatively very little room for the autonomous significance of class struggle. Harvey mostly relegates that to the fields of production processes and labour mobility. Because of this, Lebowitz' "Beyond Capital" should probably be read alongside it as a complementary contribution, analyzing the same from the side of wage-labour.
on August 23, 2000
I was attracted to this work becaues i'm interested in Marx and have read another of Harvey's books "The Condition of Postmodernity." Harvey is an erudite scholar who's formal education is in georgraphy, but his research has produced accessable and powerful studies beyond his origins. "Limits to Captial" is a complete and balanced account of Marx's economic work centering upon his major text "Das Kaptial." Harvey has does a intense study of Marx and Marxist scholarship (Lenin, Rose Luxingberg, and others) to produce a systematic and dialetical account of Marx's critique of Captialism. Even though harevy pays attention to the importance of Hegelian dialetics this book is accessable to to readers who do not have strong philosophic of economic backgrounds. If your are interested in Marx and/or captialism this is an excelent inroad to begin your studies. A detaled biblography of cited sources is a gem for continuted research. His book on postmodernity is also excelent.
on January 16, 2009
I picked up this book after reading Volume 1 of Capital and following along with David Harvey's fantastic online lectures at:
If you have read Volume One, you feel like you've really accomplished something, only to realize that though it is a masterpiece, this volume essentially just concerns itself with production. And these days, production I feel is more and more hidden away from neoliberal metropolises--What we keep hearing about concerning the crisis of 2008 is that it concerns (or at least the first symptoms were in) mortgages (real estate) and finance capital. There is nothing about this in Volume One, nothing about credit, banks, interest, landlords, etc... Not that crises, in the final analysis, aren't fundamentally about production, which is where the whole mystery of capitalism is unlocked, but there is more to the picture. Wanting to know more about this areas, but not willing to slog through Volumes 2 and 3 (yet) I picked up this book. I was not disappointed.
Harvey brilliantly lays out a near "totality" of a capitalist economy (or at least opens up several "windows" as he puts it) to gain a clearer view of what exactly is going on in our world. The first 7 chapters essentially go over the issues Marx writes about in Volume 1, but as the chapters move on from here, the view widens: Fixed Capital; Money, Credit and Finance; Finance Capital and its Contradictions; The Theory of Rent; The Production of Spatial Configurations...; Crises in the Space Economy of Capitalism. Yes! This is exactly what I wanted to read and I think it will make my eventual reading of Volumes 2 and 3 that much easier.
Harvey is a geographer and his sensitivity to the built environment, the geographical subtleties of capitalism is his strong suit. But in addition to this, his careful, slow-going approach on all aspects like finance capital and the interest rate help the reader with comprehension. He covers all the bases, relevant literature and controversies.
That said, I agree it's a tough read. I don't know how one could read this before reading Volume 1, but that's up to you. Also, Harvey's style here is a tad dry, thus the 4 stars. But any additional "sexiness" in the narrative would have taken away from the necessary brick laying here that provides a solid foundation to grasping Harvey's later works on Imperialism, Post-Modernism, Cities, etc...
on June 7, 2007
In my opinion, Limits to Capital is the best path to Marx's political economy, and in a sense it's an update of Capital. Harvey explains Marx, and introduces some new concepts such as 'spatial fix', 'socially necessary turnover time of capital' etc. Together with Mandel's Late Capitalism, Limits to Capital is the most significant contribution to Marx by a contemporary writer. (The radical geography journal Antipode had a special issue for the 20th year of Limits to Capital.)
However, Harvey revisioned some of his thought later, with 'The New Imperialism'. He introduced the notion of 'accumulation by dispossession', I don't know why, limiting the 'reproduction on an enlarged scale', and thereby limiting the validity of class conflict. This imperialism issue blurs all the contemporary accounts of capital accumulation. He is now an Arendtian. Good luck with that, but we miss the Harvey of Limits to Capital.
on November 2, 2008
Tough read but essential, November 2, 2008
By J. Johanning "bussho" - See all my reviews
I'd give it 5 stars if it were a somewhat easier read (afraid that a lot of people who would benefit it will give up following the argument), but it may be the best commentary on Marx's economic theory available. It's a difficult book only because Marx's theory is itself complex, and it is complex because reality is.
In these times of crisis in our economy, worse than anything for almost a century, it is essential for us to understand why events are happening as they are, and while Marxian economic theory is obviously not perfect, I think it is far closer to true than most of what you can see in print today. Harvey not only gives us an accurate interpretation of Marx, but goes beyond him and amends him in many respects. Read and learn.
on January 10, 2012
Upon finishing this book, I can confidently say that this is probably the most important book Harvey has composed in his long, varied career. Previously I've read A Companion to Marx's Capital,Paris, Capital of Modernity,A Brief History of Neoliberalism,The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism,The New Imperialism (Clarendon Lectures in Geography and Environmental Studies), and The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, so I already had a firm grasp of "Harvey's" Marxism. However, "Limits" is a neatly organized, step-by-step explanation of Harvey's social scientific paradigm, and a reading of it helps to deepen the reader's understanding of his other works. Here, Harvey synthesizes the three volumes of Capital, the Gundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value, and scattered other pieces from Marx's corpus. He then analyzes the dominant trends in Marxian scholarship since the early 20th century, including the economic writings of Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, and de Brunhoff. He engages with his contemporary peers, while also seeking out areas of Marxian economics he considered to be insufficiently developed. On top of all this, Harvey incorporates his experience as a Geographer and imbues his theory of Marxian economics with a spatial element, which from what I understand was a revolutionary turning point for both Marxist scholarship and the field of social Geography as a social science. The end result is a thorough, yet dexterous theory of capitalism and capitalist crisis.
Be warned: In "Limits," Harvey sets out to explain and defend the Marxist paradigm from the ground up. As usual, Harvey is impressively proficient in writing clearly and crisply for his audience. Unlike the other studies of his I've read though, "Limits" is simply too complex for those who lack much background in Marxian social theory or philosophy. Upon starting this book, I had just finished reading 'Marx's Capital': Fifth Edition,Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics), and Harvey's companion guide to volume 1 of Capital. So, I was well-prepared for "Limits," but without that background I probably would not have gotten much out of it.
The first third of Limits primarily concerns itself with the establishment of the basic Marxian economic categories and terms. Harvey walks the reader through the Labor Theory of Value, the various compositions of capital, circuits of capital, different types of sub-classes within the capitalist class, temporal compression, and a wide array of other social-scientific tools he borrows from Marx and Engels' writings. He does an admirable job of this, and I was able to understand certain concepts that had previously been frustrating for me, such as the distinctions between technical, organic, and value compositions of capital for the first time. Aside from his old-school interpretation of Capital's three volumes, this part of the book will help any reader, whether they be card-carrying Marxists or not, understand the intricacy of technology's tormented relationship with capital accumulation. Harvey argues that constant technological advancement is necessary according to the laws of capitalist accumulation, but also poses serious problems for the goals of the capitalist class that are relatively unacknowledged in neo-classical economics.
The second portion of the book is primarily dedicated to explaining the roles of credit and finance capital in the manufacture of capitalist crises. Although this section was written in the 1980s, it feels incredibly relevant, and will probably catch the reader's attention the most out of the three main themes within "Limits."
The final portion constitutes an attempt to incorporate spatiality into Marxian theory. Harvey argues that one of the hitherto unexplored contradictions within capitalism is between the tendency towards enforcing abstract equivalent measures of value and demands for accumulation on one hand, and the reality that capitalism embodies itself in specific localities and culture-specific formations on the other hand. Harvey takes great care to weave his spatial theories into the writings of preivous Marxists, and the entirety of "Limits" becomes even stronger in retrospect because of this final section.
If you have a halfway-decent understanding of Marxian economics or social theory, then this book is a must-read. "Limits" will improve your understanding of how Marxian analysis can be applied in the modern world, while also showing how Marxism, which usually (for better or for worse) doesn't stray far from the writings of Marx himself, can be pushed forwards and expanded into new dimensions that Marx himself never fully developed. I would recommend reading "The Enigma of Capital" alongside "Limits." Enigma is a lighter read, but is also an excellent project by Harvey to employ the ideas he developed in "Limits" towards analyzing our current financial mess. In fact, if you're a left-leaning individual, there's probably no two books that would help you more in this respect, assuming that you're up for conquering "Limits."
on January 2, 2009
I know that Marx said there was no royal road to science, and stumbling through Balzac references and reports from the chamber of lords from 1849 make it seem that way, but Harvey's book the best shortcut to understanding the vast and rich universe of Marxist thought. It is best read forwards, but always thinking backwards. I never really understood what I was reading until I was somewhere in the middle of the next chapter, and things would begin to relationally make sense. It is fun to see how value, use value, and exchange value play a structuralist game of semantic tag, as you read about chapter 1 over and over again. Since I have read this book, I have done the responsible thing and gone back to read the original masterwork, and it's slow going, but worth it. I think it is a famous fault of leftists to have never actually read all of Kapital. I think I would have joined their ranks, sheepishly, if not for this book.
on July 31, 2014
This book is indispensable, not so much to understand Marx per se (there are many other and more valid "introductions," as harvey himself recognizes), but to understand Marx in the contemporary landscape of uneven development, financial crisis, and neo-liberal politics. The last 3-4 chapters especially bring Marx, so to speak, alive in the midst of our everyday life, proving how Marxist theory is still an invaluable tool of critical analysis applied to social sciences.
on December 24, 2009
Manages to clarify the grand theoretical structure of Marx' analysis of Capital without simplifying it. Highly recommended for those who struggled through Volume I and gave up.
on January 4, 2014
Harvey at his best. A true classic and must read for all interested in understanding the limitations of our dominant narrative. Excellent work!