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[Administrator’s Note: The following is the introductory section of Brendan Cooney’s essay, posted on November 22, 2011. The full essay will be posted in installments and discussed on the Discussion page of (accessible to NCTS participants only).]


That 70’s Show
Starring David Harvey, Overaccumulation,
and the Baggage of the 70’s

by Brendan Cooney, November 2011.

Looking for coherent critique of capitalism aimed at revolutionary change. No baggage, please. –if Occupy Wall Street had a personal ad

Despite the astonishing and inspiring mass mobilizations of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the collision of analyses amongst the participants, from neo-Keynesian to libertarian to anarchist to Trotskyist, bears a vague similarity to the collision of baggage-laden divorcees on an internet dating site. These are all ideologies that can’t help being defined by their failures. Try as they might to put on a confident face and proclaim a new day, one can’t help but wonder how they could ever escape their past baggage.

No group of thinkers is more defined by defeat than the Marxists. As we search through the contemporary Marxists milieu for a coherent critique of capitalism we should remember that these greying Marxists also have their origin in a certain time and place and that their approach to Marx is informed by this origin. The time is the 1970’s and the place is the western academy.

The 1970’s was a time of challenge and defeat for Marxists but these experiences also opened up space for new approaches to Marx and to reappraisals. The bitter end of the Stalin-era (marked by Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956) provided a space for a critique of so-called “orthodox Marxism”, allowing for a reappraisal of Marx himself, not filtered through the politics of the Soviet era. This combined with a trend of academic Marxism, tracing itself back to figures like Paul Sweezy, who worked to establish more space for Marxian ideas in the academy by developing a non-sectarian Marxist tradition which often borrowed language and tools of neo-classical economics. On the positive side, this has led to some great scholarship and debates on many topics from dialectics to value theory, revealing the great depth and richness of Marx’s analysis, and freeing Marx from the stodgy determinism of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand there has been too great, and often too superficial, a rush to distance oneself from this so-called “orthodoxy”, often confusing this “orthodoxy” with Marx himself. It seems almost every book on Marx written in the last 40 years must have as a subtitle “a reinterpretation”, “a reformulation”, or “a critical appraisal”. Public speak events require a ritualistic, undeveloped castigation of some aspect of Marx in order to prove to the audience that one is not a Stalinist (ie. Zizek’s constant public claims that Marx’s value theory can’t work in the information age, a claim which he never develops since it is an incoherent claim designed to score points with his audience.) Academic careers were made based on the uniqueness of one’s reinterpretation. And, worst of all, the charge of “orthodox marxism”, has too often been used as a rhetorical weapon to silence critics of reformist theories. A false-dichotomy between “open-minded reinterpretations” and “deterministic orthodoxy” is too-often erected as a substitute for a real argument. (1)

As 70’s Marxists wrestled with their identity in the post-Stalin era they also had to fend off the theoretical assault of the Sraffian’s, the transformation problem, and the Okishio Theorem. The inability of Marxists of this era to defend Marx’s transformation procedure (2) or the theory of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) (3) produced a myriad of theoretical approaches, all attempting to rescue some aspect of Marx from the burning wreckage of Marxism, while erecting work-arounds, synthesis with other traditions, etc. The end result of most of these efforts was quite pathetic, forcing many to abandon Marx altogether. Those who tried to remain within the tradition often were only able to do so by drastically reducing the radical scope of the Marxist project, adopting an entirely un-Marxist framework, focusing on the non-economic aspects of Marx, or creating vague reformulations which side-stepped these problems in a dialectical sleight-of-hand. “Marxian” replaced “Marxist”.

This all took place against the backdrop of a major crisis of capitalism, one which produced sharp conflicts over how best to interpret it. The tone of these debates were predictable: Those who advanced Marx’s theory of the TRPF were labelled as “orthodox” and dogmatic. Those who advanced an underconsumption thesis were labelled as reformist or worse. But there was also a 3rd approach, defined by thinkers who attempted to find some synthesis of Marx’s work on crisis that transcended these debates. David Harvey is one of those who attempted a 3rd way.

David Harvey’s distinctive approach to working in the Marxist tradition has been wildly successful if one considers the popularity of his books, his numerous awards (including the Isaac Deutscher award for his most recent book, Enigma of Capital), his busy public-speaking schedule, and, of course, the epically successful timing of his online course to Marx’s ‘Capital’, released just in time for the resurgent interest in Marx at the beginning of this crisis. There is much to be celebrated in Harvey’s work, especially his genius for incorporating the logic of space and time into an analysis of the flow of capital. This has allowed his writing to link together a great diversity of real-world phenomenon, relating Marx to the diversity of lived experience in a capitalist society, and creating theoretical ground for the combining of diverse struggles around a common anti-capitalist project. Given the often closed, narrow picture of class struggle associated with the “orthodox marxist” tradition, Harvey’s expansive analysis is a positive start in the struggle to bring a coherent anti-capitalist analysis to left movements today.

But while Harvey’s work represents many of the strengths of this post-70’s revitalization of Marx, his work is also marred by much of the theoretical baggage of his generation. I do not believe that the theoretical problems in Harvey’s work are enough to warrant a rejection of his geographical project, or his politics. But I do think that there are serious problems in his concept of crisis, overaccumulation and surplus-capital and that these problems, unfortunately, cause what would otherwise be a very powerful theoretical project to be at best vague, and at worst incoherent. This paper has 3 parts. In part 1 I discuss some of the general tendencies that mar Harvey’s first major theoretical work, Limits to Capital (1982), relating them to the intellectual climate they came from. In part 2 I critique Harvey’s critique (or non-critique) of Marx’s notion of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. In Part 3 I discuss the problems with Harvey’s concept of “overaccumulation”.


1. I submit another amusing example here. In the Nov. 2010 crisis conference in NY called “The Economic Crisis and the Left Response” I shared a panel with Rick Wolff, famous Marxist writer and professor. In response to my critique of underconsumption theory Wolff insinuated that I had argued that there was “only one way to read Marx”. This is a great example of the substitution of the charge of orthodoxy for a real argument. This particular charge is ironic since it is the underconsumption tradition that more adequately fits under the label of “orthodoxy”, since that was the dominant theory of crisis in the 2nd Internationale. I also find it amusing that accusing someone of claiming “there is only one way to read Marx” is considered a cardinal sin of orthodoxy. After all, if I went around espousing a Wolffian theory of crisis which was completely different that Wolff’s and he took me to task for it could I respond by accusing him of saying there was only one way to read Wolff?

2. The transformation problem deals with the relation of value to price in Marx’s system. Bortkiewicz argued that there was an internal contradiction in Marx’s transformation procedure and several generations of Marxist scholars accepted his argument. In the 80’s and 90’s a school of thought called the “temporal single-system interpretation” advanced an interpretation of Marx’s transformation procedure that refuted Bortkiewicz’s charge. I discuss this issue in my video “What Transformation Problem”. The script can be read here:

3. Marx called the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall the most important law in all political economy. It states that as capitalists, driven by competition over surplus value, replace workers with machines that they actually produce less and less value in relation to overall costs, which drives down the aggregate rate of profit. While competition to increase the efficiency of labor by investing more in machines might increase the amount of surplus value individual capitalists gain in competition the overall effect is to decrease the aggregate rate of profit in the economy. I discuss this theory more here:

and here:


Harvey, David. Limits to Capital; New and Fully Updated Edition, London: Verso 2006, originally published by Basil Blackwell in Oxford in 1982

Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital, New York: The Oxford Univeristy Press, 2010