‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman

Wow, this was a long and sometimes arduous read.

Zombie Capitalism is an orthodox marxist account of the repeated crises of capitalism. Written by Chris Harman, who is a maxist of some repute, I read the book hoping to see how the Zombie trope was employed to explain/confront capitalism.

In 360 odd pages, Zombies were not mentioned, not once. Vampirism did cop a mention in the final chapter, and there was quite a bit on the ‘organic composition of capital’ and ‘dead labour’ – but nothing explicitly on Zombies. This makes me suspicious that the title arose as a marketing gimmick as Zombies were hot at the time of publication (2009).

Anyway, I read the whole thing which took me ages because I knew enough about marxism and historical materialism to be somewhat uninspired. This was a book that – at least until the last third – I could not maintain an interest in. In the last third, the manner in which Harman dealt with the financial crisis of 2008 did become more interesting and new… but for the most part this felt a little polemical, even if it was generally consistent as a result.

Anyway, it was healthy for me to reacquaint myself with Marxism before engaging in my own ‘zombie history of everything’ in my upcoming book, so I pushed through and here’s a few of the things that I will take away from Zombie Capitalism.

  • When you write as a historical materialist, you locate the source of every social and cultural change within changes within the means of production. Harman explains every moment of crisis in capitalism as arising out of the pressing need for capital to find profit in a system where the rate of profit actually decays as an inherent part of the system of competitive accumulation.

To explain the issue of decay, I find thinking about managing a factory to be helpful. If you’re a factory manager then investing in a better widget maker, or a bigger workforce, or digitising your records will all operate to increase your efficiency and therefore your rate of profit. However, this advantage only lasts until all your competitors copy your innovation. Moreover, if one of your competitors does something else to innovate or economise, the actual profitability of your product on the open market decreases (because on an open market you need to be able to value match your competitors in order to sell, so your profit margins are actually reduced by competitor’s innovations/gains in efficiency.

So the system is not just a system of commodity production; it is a system of competitive accumulation. This creates limits to the action possible not only for workers, but also for capitalists. For if they do not continually seek to exploit their workers as much as is practically possible, they will not dispose of the surplus value necessary to accumulate as quickly as their rivals. They can choose to exploit their workers in one way rather than another. But they cannot choose not o exploit their workers at all, or even exploit them less than other capitalists do – unless they want to go bust. They themselves are subject to a system which pursues its relentless course whatever the feelings of individual human beings. p.37

The problem for the system as a whole is that the ‘real value’ (that is the value accumulated in the process of producing a thing) remains constant, while the opportunity to profit from producing things decreases. So Harman points out that falling rates of profit are endemic to the capitalist system and also points out how they have resulted in the need for both war and increasingly ludicrous financial speculation as a source of profit.

(for e.g) Vast expansion of military spending has been a crucial ‘solution’ to various crises in capitalism (US/Germany in the 1930s). But as a non-productive investment (Harman describes it like advertising, a waste of productive capacity that nevertheless helps to secure markets for real production), this creates inflationary pressure on the economy which mandate a need to return to actual productive investments (such as rebuilding or colonising after a war). So Harman views ‘total’ and proxy war as a direct outcome of the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation.

A more recent solution to the falling rate of profit has been to focus on making profit out of speculation, rather than actual production. The promotion of various sort of spot market and derivative trading schemes has arisen, according to Harman, because the mega-rich can no longer make great money off simple production. The GFC is explained as a direct result of the failure to anticipate the falling rate of profit that Marx predicted. Harman is delightfully droll in his critiques of economic theory in missing this.

  •  The state plays an inherent and central role in maintaining existing capital. This argument flew in the face of much of what I previously felt to be true (i.e. the state is no longer useful for much at all) but Harman makes a fairly compelling point about how the state serves two crucial purposes in capital accumulation.
  • Firstly, a strong state creates all sorts of public goods that capital relies on to increase its rate of profit. A well educated and innovative workforce with good health care and policing is a significant and immutable advantage for profitability. Even if such a workforce might demand a higher wage, the fact that another bright, secure and disciplined worker can be found locally is a significant advantage for capital.
  • Secondly, the state has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the profitability of capital. As mentioned above, Harman details the significant increase in government spending as a share of GNP since World War 2. This seemed almost counter-intuitive to me but is apparently clear enough. The state plays a more central role in diverting public money into productive or non-productive investments in order to maintain some profitability for capital. This includes facilitating mergers and subsidies to increase competitiveness of capital ventures within a state (the US state played a central role in consolidating its microchip and aerospace industry in order to maintain a profit advantage over international competitors (p.254-257). Similarly, when crashes come about, the state is the only entity with the capacity to bail out the system (i.e the recent GFC)… so the state is essentially the curator and guarantor of the capitalist system.1 This linked nicely back in to Agamben’s point that all struggle is now struggle against the state.

So given the orhtodoxy of his approach, it is probably unsurprising that Harman identifies the solution to the problems of capitalism in the paradoxes of the system itself. He bravely rejects the ‘autonomous’ moves of Western marxism which have been eminently fashionable since Empire was released by Hardt and Negri in 2000. In its place he identifies a very particular sort of ‘intersectionality’ of the working class that should supply capitalism’s grave diggers. It is in the large aggregations of exploited workers, who will be facing increasing systemic failures in the coming years that Harman locates the source of change. 2  It is (still) the working class, and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, which will produce change.

So, reflecting on the book as a whole. It was interesting in the final third and I suppose I learned some things about the marxist approach to materialism that I had forgotten in my long exposure to critical theory. However, I found Harman’s approach to be slightly doctrinaire and rooted, still, in a sort of deification of productive process. Yes, that is both the strength and the weakness of the work.

As a challenge to the paradigm of historical materialism, for instance, how is it possible to reconcile the view of digital capitalism that is advanced in move fast and break things with the model that Harman perceives as integral to capitalism? Specifically, the decay of profit takes place because of competitors actions, or the mobility and organisation of labour. How then, does this analysis relate to Google, who absorbs all competitors and thus actually has no competition? Similarly, when profit is no longer related at all to use value but rather the perceived value on the market, the issue of ‘productive vs unproductive labour’ seems to become very muddied. Harman clearly believes that ‘dead labour’ (commodities produced in the past that contribute to production -i.e. the labour invested in a hammer) and constant capital still play an integral role in the production of value. I’m just not so sure that’s true in a post-scarcity economy. Whether ‘real costs’ are at all important in contemporary economics is inherently questionable (although I certainly agree that they ought to be).

Despite these minor issues its clear that Harman is (was) a decent academic and a strong critical reader of economic theory. I have my reservations about focusing on production, when I see very little opportunity to alter that relationship without also focusing on consumption (which I believe is the more pressing symptom of contemporary capitalism – not that our workers don’t get enough to eat, rather that they are encouraged to eat too much in order to generate higher rates of profit). But what Harman has reminded me about is that a strong materialist philosophy is another solid way to escape relying on philosophies of consciousness to create a better world. It was refreshing to see a marxist ‘stick to their guns’ and point out why capitalism might eat itself after all.

I’ll finish this rather long post with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

on the inherent immorality of the capitalist system:

in every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Apres moi le deluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? [Marx, The working day, Capital]

on the need for class consciouness rather than ethnic consciousness:

…there are two different directions in which the despair and bitterness that exist among the ‘multitudes’ in the great cities of the Third World can go. One direction involves workers struggling collectively and pulling millions of other impoverished people behind them. The other involves demagogues exploiting the sense of hopelessness, demoralisation [346] and fragmentation to direct the bitterness ofone section of the impoverished mass against the other sections. That is why the working class cannot simply be seen as just another grouping within ‘the multitude’ or ‘the people’, and of no intrinsic importance for the struggle against the system. p.345-346

on the inherent contradictions of the system:

As the runaway system lurches from boom to slump and tries to boost profits and write off debts in a wild attempt to lurch back again it dashes the very hopes of a secure life that it has encouraged in the past. It insists the mass of people have to work longer for less, to accept they must lose their jobs because bankers lost their heads, to resign themselves to hardship in old age, to give up their homes to pay the repo men, to go hungry on peasant plots so as to pay the moneylender and the fertiliser supplier. p.350

on the rise of finance in the economy:

Global financial assets were equal to 316 percent of annual world output in 2005, as against only 109 percent in 1980. p.278

Quoting Engels on private interest vs public interest and failure of process perspective:

The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions… In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character. [Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, in Marx and Englels, Collected Works, Volume 25, p.461] p.83

 

 

Footnotes

  1. (Harman recounts a lesson I learned in undegrad uni, that the onset of the Imperial wars in the 20th Century caused a panic in the UK as it was found that industrial production had rendered a large percentage of the working class lacking the physical fitness to fight for their country – the lesson I learned at Uni was that the scout movement was a direct attempt to foster some physicality in the working class). p.134
  2. One of the highlights of the book was the way Harman deals directly with global warming as an immutable challenge to the system of profitability in the closing sections of the book.

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