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61 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2010
David Harvey is probably both the best known and most prolific author on popular topics in Marxist economics today, and this is one of his best books so far. Working always from his perspective as an economic geographer, in "The Enigma of Capital" he uses the occasion of the current financial crisis to provide a lengthy and highly accessible popular overview of the theory of capital. He analyzes what capital is, where it came from, how it accumulates, how it relates to markets, what the role is of ground rent and localization in its movement (both metaphorical and real), and finally combines all this into a highly compelling political economic narrative. What is especially virtuous about this book, even compared with some of Harvey's excellent earlier works, is his ability to explain the general thrust of Marxist political economy in a manner that is easily understood by the wider newspaper-reading public and without using virtually any of the specific technical terminology of Marxism, as well as avoiding any of the explicit political content that is specific to Marxism (other than a very skeptical attitude towards capitalism as such). This is no mean feat given the complicated nature of capital and the different levels of analysis it seems to require to be fully understood. Harvey of course adds to the fairly traditional Marxist picture so narrated his own particular emphasis on place and space as essential mediating elements in capital's circulation, both economically and politically. I think this is a useful and important addition, in particular with an eye to the local impact of political economy becoming 'real' in this way - one need but look at Newcastle or Detroit and see what this means.

The book focuses on analyzing capitalism as it presents itself now - there is not much political commentary in terms of opposition to capitalism, except for some general comments at the end. This avoids, as too many Marxist economic books do, the question of realistic alternatives. It also does not pay particular attention to the 'prehistory' of capital. But both of these are very irrelevant objections, as the virtue of this book is not to be yet another rehash of things that have been done very well by others already. Its virtue is in integrating the analysis of space, crisis, and capital into a work for a general public that is hostile to Marxist terminology and skeptical about economists in general (both probably with good reason). For that reason alone, this book comes with warm recommendation - even more when combined with his other recent major works, "The Limits to Capital" (The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition)) which works at a more in-depth theoretical level, and his companion to Marx's Capital (A Companion to Marx's Capital).
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84 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2010
David Harvey ably and rather succinctly runs down the structural problem with capitalism as we know it. He focuses on the different ways Capital has had to evolve to continue its "3% Compound Growth" year after year. The results in the real world aren't pretty, but as Harvey covers them in his book, they are elegantly done. I have read several books that have focused on the most recent crisis in the capitalistic system and Harvey's tome is one that covers the specifics fairly well but is at its best looking at the global structural problem that is not specific to a time and place.

I was particularly impressed with the final chapter, as anyone with such a cogent criticism must be able to imagine a better world. Harvey answers the eternal question "What is to be done?" with a pragmatic and undogmatic response that recognizes the variability that necessitate a multi-pronged approach to moving to a post-capitalistic world that looks to the future and not the past. I am still pessimistic about the short term future, but it is hard to have too much pessimism when there are talented individuals like David Harvey out in the world teaching and writing - I just hope more people start listening.
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64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2010
"At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see," Harvey writes at the beginning of the last chapter in The Enigma of Capital. He describes this irrationality with characteristic wisdom and analytic clarity. This book is an entertaining explanation of the current economic crisis and its significance in history. Harvey's forty-year career has been spent teaching and writing about Marx, but he is not so much a "Marxist" as a scholar of Marx; he analyzes capitalism using the tools and the perspectives that Marx provided, while also recognizing their limits and building on them in order to move forward the kind of rigorous critique of capitalism that is absolutely essential right now.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2012
David Harvey begins his book, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, by looking at the financial crisis that first raised its ugly head in 2007. He examines a sequence of seemingly unrelated events that occurred over the last thirty years or so - including oil crises, debt disasters, real estate and dot com bubbles and their bursts, along with multiple international bailouts - then introduces the reader to some of the factors that might help expose their underlying connections. Harvey doesn't see these individual events as the cause of the current crisis, but instead looks at the big picture through the lens of Marxist philosophy to see whether they might be the result of a neoliberal system that fostered a new surge of capitalistic greed, and the `moral hazard' that accompanied it, beginning in the 1970s. In the process, he points out that crisis is an inevitable feature in capitalist economic growth, which, when tied to capitalism's need to maintain a minimum 3% per year profit surplus for reinvestment, problems with excess capital accumulation can, and indubitably did, cause problems that affect the economy today. According to Harvey's analysis, an inordinate amount of this surplus capital was not reinvested in the production of goods or services, but rather became the catalyst for a dangerously expanding financials-based market. This diversion of capital produced two results; 1) it increased the wealth of those in the elite capitalist class and, 2) decreased the wealth of those in the lower classes. Throughout the book, Harvey uses Marxist theory to reiterate how capitalism's weaknesses are observable when the flow of capital is changed or diverted from a production-focused flow (which is more likely to bring some amount of wealth to all involved), to one that serves only to build wealth for one group at the expense of another.

Harvey uses the first chapter to explore the facts building up to the current crisis, starting with the displacement of Keynesian economics by neoliberalism during the 1970s and progressing to the growth of the financials-based capitalist economy of today. He looks at a few smaller crises that arose along the way, including the Arab Oil Crisis in 1973, the New York City bankruptcy, problems in Japan, Norway and south-east Asia, and the U.S. savings and loan crisis. He also looks at various small scale attempts at correcting the current crisis, many of which were failures in and of themselves. Upon examining these issues, he writes "there is, we have to conclude, some inherent connectivity at work here that requires careful reconstruction." (Location 150). Harvey also explains the underlying principles of neoliberalism, which he describes as a "class project" that served to centralize wealth and power in the hands of elites by spreading "rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of privatization, the free market and free trade" (Location 161). The results of this "class project" included a strengthening of the notion that banks need to be protected at all costs, a loosening of governmental regulations meant to protect society from capitalist abuses, the weakening of workers' rights, and a growing global economy through laissez-faire economics. It is these factors, according to Harvey, that started the world on the path of a growing wealth inequality between the social classes.

In the second chapter Harvey explains the nature of capitalism, focusing primarily on it as a system of capital flow, but looking also at how it operates within and upon society and the social order. He points to its origin as a means by which money is sent in search of more money, which in the beginning was through the power of production. The continuing profits allowed for reinvestment, which is viewed by economists as a requirement for competitive reasons. This reinvestment allowed capitalists to `grow' their business in order to stay competitive, all the while creating new (though not always good) opportunities for a growing and willing labor supply. Chapter 2 also looks at the beginning of a "state-finance nexus", a system that ties together politics and economics due to the controlling influence of the bourgeoisie class on the government. This change gave the growing capitalist class greater opportunities to build wealth through the "dispossession and destruction of pre-capitalist forms of social provision" (Location 675). Harvey then points to the growing elite financial class that was able to gain control over producers, merchants, landholders, developers, wage laborers and consumers" through the growing credit system (Location 735). Capitalism, it seems, needed capital to gain more capital, something those with the greatest wealth took advantage of early on through lending and debt creation. The new paradigm put money at center stage in the commodities market.

In chapters 3 through 5, Harvey looks primarily at how the flow of capital has affected society through the creation of an economic system which attempts to balance the surpluses within the capitalist system. He also defines seven activity spheres capable of creating barriers that capitalism must overcome in order to continue its minimum 3% growth. These include; 1) technologies and organizational forms, 2) social relations, 3) institutional and administrative arrangements, 4) production and labor processes, 5) relations to nature, 6) the reproduction of daily life and of the species, and 7) mental conceptions of the world (Location 1825). In overcoming one barrier as it is met, new barriers often arise in other areas. Harvey says this occurs because "the relations between the spheres are not causal but dialectically interwoven through the circulation and accumulation of capital" (Location 1915).

In chapters 6 and 7, Harvey looks at the role globalization has played in the history of capitalism, including the flow of capital across borders, the change in societies due to labor relations, the consumption and dispossession of natural resources, all through "creative destruction". He relates the effects of a growing financial capitalism throughout this process, including the notion of spreading risk as well as opportunity, and the idea of a global community ripe for the picking. Harvey points out that global capitalism has its internal problems as well. One is brought about by the disconnection between individual financial players, which he sees as a likely catalyst to the current crisis - the "radical disjuncture in time-space configurations" that made it difficult for financiers to fully see what their investors/traders were doing (Location 2840).

In his final chapter, Harvey reminds us that "at times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain to see" (Location 3246). It is here that he asks if capitalism can, or even should, survive, and if so, what needs to change and who should initiate that change. The increasing political unrest around the world would be too costly and dangerous for the capitalist class to fight with armies and violence - but because it is unlikely elites would be willing to change (the thrill of the profits game is so tightly woven to their way of life) it is more likely that they will use their current political power to keep the masses under control. These capitalist elites will push for the status quo option, continue to exert their power over the government to keep trade unregulated, thus ensuring that any change would bring little or no negative affect on their profit-seeking abilities. And what of those that have been so drained of wealth during the last thirty years of neoliberal policy? The lack of any clear leadership or vision will surely diminish their ability to push for change that ensures some kind of fairness and equality.

In summation, Harvey's analysis of the current economic crisis is well written and easily understood, and his explanation of capitalism is helpful to those less knowledgeable of the subject. His use of Marxist theory serves to challenge readers to look at the current crisis from a different angle, and helps to show the reader how thirty-plus years of neoliberalism has changed our mental conception of the world - from one that placed value on the hard work of laborers to one that places the value of money above that of the individual. But the use of Marxist theory could possibly scare away those individuals who might benefit most from the information Harvey wants to share - working and middle class citizens raised during the era of the `communist menace'- those hard-working citizens whose mental conception of the world includes a strong aversion to all things Marxist due to thirty plus years of neoliberal propaganda.

Harvey leaves the reader with no real solution, but instead leaves the reader thinking about the possibilities for change. That leaves us with what looks to be a long and difficult debate - should we retain capitalism as our economic driving force? Should the masses dispossess the wealth the capitalist elites have worked so long to accumulate? Harvey writes of the "moral hazard" prevalent in modern capitalism as a major factor in the current economic crisis - the same factor that was taken into account after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 - the same factor that brought the systems of socialism and communism into fruition at the end of the robber-baron era. But those systems proved weaker than capitalism and according to Harvey should not be re-visited. So where do we go?

Based on my interpretation of Harvey's Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, the ugly head we have seen over the last few years wears the mask of this "moral hazard". The desire of capitalist elites to achieve greater wealth no matter what the cost to society, be it people's homes or jobs, people's present or future ability to provide for their needs, this desire has played the major role in the creation of this crisis. To bring real change will require a major change in society's mental conception of the world, something the ugly head is already beginning to bring, and once that change happens can we begin the debate as to which direction will lead us to prosperity. Only then then will we be able to remove the mask and see the true face of capitalism, not just the enigma.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2013
David Harvey seems professorial and pedantic in his leisurely explanation of the various faults of capitalism. The argument of the book is basically a remix and rehash of his truly excellent "Limits of Capital" and his lectures on Marx's first volume of "Capital" but without the same academic rigor, citation, and desire for explication or elucidation. After the relatively informative first chapter we are left to take much at his word. As the work progresses Harvey deviates here and there into only peripherally related musings. For instance, an argument against Peak Oil, a haphazard account of Marx's conception of nature, and critique of Malthus appears in the chapter "Capital Goes to Work" which was supposed to explain how capital harnesses and coordinates labor. I was looking for a Marxist account of the financial collapse in 2008, a rigorous analysis of finance capital (the credit/banking system and its systemic weaknesses), and an overall picture of the contemporary economic situation in terms of political economy. In short, I wanted the 'enigma of capital' banished as promised. What I got was something akin to the moralizing rants of my Marxist sociology teacher in college: histrionic and poorly founded. But David Harvey doesn't even emerge as passionate and the performance is lacking. Perhaps this is meant to be a popular work, but I know that David Harvey is capable of much more. However, the question remains, if this is dissatisfying to me, someone favorable to Marxism, how can it hope be compelling to a hostile audience?
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
I've read many of Harvey's works before. The man has written celebrated works on social philosophy, urban geography, international relations, literary criticism, history and heterodox economics. Virtually all of his past works have something interesting to say, and he occupies a well-earned place as one of the most cited scholars in the modern world. Depending on what field of knowledge or academic literature you're interested in, Harvey probably has one book in particular for you!

However, if you want to become acquainted with Harvey's Marxian work as a whole, this book is the best place to start. Basically, this book is a general introduction to the Marxian perspective on global economics, social change, political hegemony, and democracy by way of Harvey. Interestingly, there have been many attempts over the past decade to create such introductions, ranging from Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx to Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right the new edition of 'Marx's Capital': Fifth Edition by Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, the Anti-capitalism a Marxist Introduction essay collection edited by Alfredo Saad-Filho, and the recent and excellent The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers by Michael Perelman. Overall, I'd say that "The Enigma of Capitalism" is tied with Perelman's recent book as the best of these introductions. So, by reading this book, you'll be giving yourself an excellent introduction to both Harvey and Marxist thought in general.

I'll avoid going into the details of this book, but here's how you could summarize the content: Harvey uses the recent financial crisis to illustrate the structural contradictions of capitalism, capitalism's negative cultural effects, the evolutionary nature of capitalism, the insurmountable (from within capitalism itself) social problems that capitalism thrusts upon humanity, and the way that Marxism provides a conceptual scheme to understand and confront these problems. If this sounds overly technical, fear not- it's probably my fault. Harvey himself does a great job of connecting his theoretical understanding of capitalism to the actual concrete social and cultural problems the modern world faces. In doing so, he demonstrates Marxism's superiority to orthodox economics' stodgy obsession with creating perfect mathematical models while ignoring the sociological and ecological effects capitalism has on both mother earth and the greater mass of humanity. Harvey's ability to present both theory and practical observations makes him much more lucid than most political commentators of this sort.

Some commentators are so steeped in the "practical" to the point where they can't see the ideological impetus behind ecological and social problems. Meanwhile, other commentators seem to conceive of society's ills as nothing more than some sort of theoretical inefficiency, without taking into account the economic causal factors behind social and ecological ills. Harvey's approach, and the Marxist approach when done right, shows that you can't describe concrete problems without using theory, and you can't develop a meaningful theory without careful analysis of concrete problems. This should be a highly recommended read for intellectually curious and socially conscious readers.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2011
As far as I know, this is the first and only book that deconstructs the global financial crisis of 2008 in terms that Karl Marx presented to the world in Capital, his classic 1867 critique of political economy. David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropolgy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of several books that look at global capitalism, this being probably the easiest for a layman such as myself to appreciate.

For the Capitalist mode of production to work, capital must flow and grow. When compound growth is less than an optimal 3% per annum,there is crisis, and recurrent crises is at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. The perpetual growth that is needed is sustained only by dispossessing others of what they have -- privatizing everything, to the benefit only of the wealthiest one percent of the population. Exposing the enigma of capital is a first step toward knowing what to do about it, and who is to do it.

Harvey admits that there is no viable alternative to the capitalist mode of production. But he suggests that a loosely coordinated "Party of Indignation" might help to confront the perpetuation of endless compound growth and the dire state of social and natural relations that are the result. He sees five broad tendencies that could be coalesced to help force the question. First, there are certain Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) that espouse progressive ideas and causes. Then there are Grassroots Organization (GRO's), some of which have anarchist tendencies but have a high degree of political prominence. Third, there are traditional labor and left leaning political parties (all of which have taken hard hits in recent years). Fourth, there are the many social movements guided by the practical need to resist displacement and dispossession: through gentrification, industrial development, dismantling of social services, etc. And finally, there are the many emancipatory movements around issues of identity: women, children, gays, racial, ethnic, religious, etc., all looking for "an equal place in the sun."

These are the discontented, and Harvey would like them to become a "Party of the Indignant" to register "moral outrage at what exploitative compound growth is doing to all facets of life, human and otherwise, on planet earth." This book is not cheerful, and not very hopeful for the future. Harvey thinks that another world is possible but it will take a lot of work to make it happen.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2011
Yesterday, I watched the film "Inside Job" -- highly recommended. Charles Ferguson's major point in the film is that high finance is a powerful force that has captured the regulatory apparatus in the United States with destructive consequences. I mention the film in the context of David Harvey's book to say that the power of financial capital deserves further academic critique. Considering that the Dodd-Frank bill did very little to alter the financial services industry status quo, we're going to see more speculation-based market disruption in the future. Read David Harvey to get a sense of what a thoughtful, and not oversimplified, critique of the current system might sound like. I highly recommend this book to anyone who can't stand easy answers and wants to grapple with the crisis-prone nature of capitalism.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2013
Harvey provides a rare look at what happened to the United States that FDR, the Congress and the Supreme Court created and we have since the 1970s dismantled. This is the story of an enormous re-distribution of wealth upward, from average citizens to the professionals and owners of the financial industry. While not always exact on every detail and at times too mistrustful of the financial system, its unique perspective (perhaps one that people as old as JFK or Dwight Eisenhower might have today) captures a history that we have recently lived and not noticed. It is too early to tell, but Harvey might be describing the decline of America from its height of fairness and equality, as it gradually sinks into the economic models of its neighbors to the South. Remember that only 80 years ago, Argentina was seen as a real competitor of the US, but its political institutions were not up to the task.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2012
The amnesia of social science regarding the crisis of the capitalist economy is not new, especially when silence is the price of your job or career. Consequently it's left to fearless Marxists like academic David Harvey in `The Enigma of capital and the crisis of capitalism' to lead the way to the truth and the light. Harvey considers the causes and effects of the current economic depression as the inevitable outcome of a capitalist world economy based on unsustainable human and environmental exploitation. In distinct chapters Harvey considers the human and especially the spatial relationships of capital as it overcomes all social and economic barriers to the pivotal pursuit of profit and growth - at any social, economic or environmental cost. The final chapters consider the alternative paths to a sustainable and equitable alternative to the prevailing capitalist model of profit maximization for the minority elite. This book is a timely, assessable and necessary introduction to a fuller understanding of the economic imperatives driving the modern capitalist economy.
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