Review: A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse, by David Harvey
David Harvey. A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse (London and New York: Verso, 2023).
David Harvey may be familiar to some from his background as a Marxist geographer focusing on neoliberalism and uneven development, or for his development of Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” concept.
The Grundrisse itself amounts, more or less, to a voluminous collection of notebooks or commonplace books, filled with Marx’s notes and commentary from his readings through the 1850s. Its relationship to Capital is a major point of contention between the various factions and sects of Marxism. To put it in quick and dirty terms that will probably offend just about everybody, the interpretations fall into two broad categories. The first is dominated by the vulgar Marxists, and particularly adherents of vulgar Marxism’s highest expression in Marxism-Leninism; members of this category see the three volumes of Capital as essentially a completed, stand-alone work in their own right, and dismiss the Grundrisse as yet another of Marx’s “juvenalia.” The other group, among which autonomists like Antonio Negri and Harry Cleaver figure prominently, sees Capital as only one component of a larger, unfinished project envisioned in the Grundrisse.
It would probably be unfair to assign Harvey to the second broad category without qualification; nevertheless, his sympathies are suggested by his profession elsewhere to “a deep commitment,” shared with Murray Bookchin and some others, “to the humanist perspective as opposed to the scientism that dominates the Althusserian and scientific communism traditions.”
And in particular, his Marxism displays libertarian tendencies which make his thought especially relevant to anarchists. He puts a special emphasis on the agency and subjectivity of working people. In considering the role of the social reproduction process in the larger circulation of labor capacity, he speculates
that Marx’s purpose in defining the circulation of labor capacity in this way is to offer a framework in which working people might reflect upon their situation and come to terms with all of the forces that condemn them to conditions of living and working that are, to say the least, so inadequate and oppressive to them… as to conjure up the prospect of revolt. It is almost as if Marx plans to invite workers to join with him in dissecting the body of their discontents. The historical materialist and anti-idealist method laid out in Marx’s “Introduction” suggests how workers might look upon and appropriate the totality of their life experience, their culture, as political subjects in the process of becoming class-conscious beings.
He also repeatedly argues that Capital’s intended readership was not academic intellectuals, but literate working class autodidacts, and he criticizes mainstream Marxism for its emphasis on productive relations as an axis of struggle at the expense of other forms of oppression, like the politics of daily life in the urban sphere. Harvey makes it clear from the outset that his goal is not to overshadow the text with his personal interpretations, and to stress the non-dogmatic character of the “companionship” he intends to provide the reader.
My aim was and is to open a door into Marx’s thinking and to encourage as many people as possible to pass through it and take a closer look at the texts and make of them what they will. I have no interest in trying to impose my own particular interpretations on anyone. That is why I call my books on Marx “companions” rather than guides… I imagine myself… accompanying the reader on a long hike in which I point out this and that particular feature here and there, drawing upon my long experience of working the text, and highlight moments of epiphany for me, linking ideas together… while always wondering and asking what it is that you, the reader, might make of it all… I have learned immensely from the very divergent ways in which people can make sense of what Marx is saying.
So for the most part, Harvey’s organization follows Marx’s lead, rather than attempting to analyze the work thematically.
One recurring theme on which Harvey does place special emphasis, however, is the dialectical character of Marx’s thought. Even the most concrete functional analyses of capitalism are within the context of Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a totality with a beginning and an end, and changing over time. Human society as a whole is in a process of change; relationships within it change along with the larger whole, and the nature of individual entities is defined by their functional relation to the whole.
This necessarily entails the recovery of history, in the face of bourgeois liberalism’s largely ahistorical approach (e.g. the origin of private property in peaceful individual appropriation from the common, the original accumulation of capital through abstention, and the predominance of the cash nexus as the result of an innate tendency to truck and barter). Marx rejects “robinsonades” or “bourgeois nursery fables” in which the institutions of capitalist society emerged spontaneously in prehistory from the voluntary interactions of individuals. All human productive activity, going back to our earliest history, has been within the context of an ongoing set of organic social relationships. And — contrary to liberalism’s view of human relationships being governed by “eternal natural laws independent of history” — the specific character of that productive activity has been defined by its relationship to the social context. The social model which bourgeois liberalism framed as natural — one of atomistic individuals relating through contract — was constructed through the forcible suppression of earlier social relationships. And those natural laws, far from being eternal or independent of history, were the conditioned outcome of a historical process.
The conflict between these two approaches was at the heart of the so-called Methodenstreit, a dispute over economic methodology in the German-speaking world in which Menger (a founding father of Austrian economics) posited fundamental economic laws which were good for all times and places. Menger was the winner in this dispute, to the extent that mainstream capitalist economics operates from the same assumption. But it does so largely by concealing power relations behind the appearance of neutral relations of exchange. And despite this ostensible victory, the institutional school continued to explore the actual power relations which marginalist orthodoxy attempted to hide.
This brings in a closely related theme of Marx’s: commodity fetishism. The most egregious form taken by commodity fetishism is the fiction by which the party with the social power to withhold an input from production is said to contribute its productivity. Marx anticipated the theory of marginal productivity in volume 3 of Capital, illustrating with the example in which “land becomes personified in the landlord and… gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help.”
We see another example of this in our own day, with the common capitalist apologetic response to observations that Elon Musk didn’t actually invent, design or build anything: “His capital enabled the engineers and production workers to do so.” Of course in purely material terms, the raw materials and intermediate goods that go into his cars or rockets, the production machinery used to build them, and the food and other consumption goods consumed by workers during the production process, all take the form of various groups of workers constantly advancing their production streams to one another. Musk’s “capital” is nothing but a socially constructed ownership chit over these production streams, and over the right to direct them — fundamentally no different from a feudal landlord’s ownership chit over the right to control access to the land.
Probably the most famous section of the Grundrisse is the so-called “Fragment on Machines,” which has inspired endless theorization on the “end of work” or “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” by autonomists like Negri and Dyer-Witheford. Marx envisioned a level of automation in which “an automatic system of machinery” was “set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself . . . consisting of many mechanical and intellectual organs.” The significance, as Harvey describes it, is that
[t]he worker becomes a machine-minder rather than a direct producer. Hitherto, productive labor has been conceptualized in relation to the individual, but now it has to be understood as social, a mass of workers organized together, which renders discussion of productive versus unproductive labor within the detail divisions of labor and hierarchies of managerial authority in the factory somewhat irrelevant.
The result is that value theory ceases to work — not only because of the incorporation of “productive” and “unproductive” (in the Marxist sense) labor within a larger social complex, but also because the sheer mass of constant capital relative to living labor becomes so great (“the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal diminishing magnitude”) as to undermine the conditions for surplus value. So the “social intellect” of labor, collectively, is incorporated into fixed capital, while the individual worker is deskilled.
At the same time, this at least opens up the possibility of creating the material preconditions for liberating labor from the realm of necessity. If so, the overall tendency — because, among other things, of the tendency to reduce surplus value to an “infinitesimal vanishing magnitude” relative to the mass of fixed capital — would be one of capital working toward “its own dissolution as the form dominating production.”
At one point, Marx comments that capital’s penchant to reduce human labor, and the expenditure of energy, to a minimum “will redound to the benefit of… labour,” and that this constituted “the condition of emancipation.” While Marx only uses the concept once, the voice of this “emancipated labourer” can be heard from time to time, as Marx asks how things would look if the associated workers would take command of machine technologies and artificial intelligence to reduce their material burdens to a minimum and thus liberate their own time for other more joyful and worthwhile things…. The political issue is not what would Marx do, but what would the emancipated laborer, in full cognizance of their situation, do to make this world a better place for the masses of people rendered marginal, impoverished and disposable within the current system?
But for this to happen, the machine as embodiment of social intellect must lose its character as “fixed capital.” Rather than serving to generate surplus value and further accumulation, the machines “would simply assist in producing the use-values socially needed to survive.”
In any case, Harvey argues that this is simply one possible outcome of automation. He speculates that capitalism could do an end-run around the possibility of dissolution, insofar as this highly-automated and capital-intensive form of production constituted only one sector of the larger economy, and labor-intensive forms of production persisted in other sectors. In that state of affairs, the bulk of surplus value would be generated by the mass of circulating capital as workers spent their wages on subsistence goods from labor-intensive bakeries, heavy industry purchased comparatively less mechanized raw material inputs, etc.
For Harvey as for Marx, the task of constructing a successor system to capitalism is very much one for the working class itself. And he appears to suggest that the task is an interstitial one starting here and now, and not waiting until “after the Revolution.”
The task of the emancipated laborer is . . . not to draw up blueprints for a future socialist society from outside or to explore utopian options and schemas…. Marx’s explorations of the mechanisms of capital’s becoming taught him that the building of an alternative mode of production — in the Grundrisse the transition from precapitalist to a capitalist social formation — would entail the slow but persistent “dissolution”. . . of older material and social forms, which had somehow or other created situations or contradictions in which the transition to “something else” was made possible. That something had already to be in process so that the emancipated laborer would or should know and be ready to guide, foment and exploit it in the search of relief from daily burdens and oppressions.
Harvey’s Marxism is of a clearly liberatory character, and overlaps considerably with both autonomism and social anarchism. It is well worth investigating for anarchists, and Companion to Grundrisse is a good place to start.
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