Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Totality and Capital

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In this episode, Prof. Harvey tackles the question of the relationship between cultural transformations and economic transformations and the roles technology, nature, and daily life play in relationship to each other and our mental conceptions of the world. He emphasizes the importance of tackling societal transformation with an approach that addresses all of these things together.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.


This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work. 

Last week, I was reflecting a little bit on the whole question of the relationship between cultural transformations and economic transformations, and how war often attempts to alter cultural configurations. But, [it] generates frequently a backlash of a certain sort and that some of the wishes for cultural transformations also generate backlashes of various sorts. I was particularly interested in the way in which Margaret Thatcher, for example, set about trying to change the cultural presuppositions of the whole population of Britain so that the cultural presuppositions were more in line with a competitive neoliberal market economy. In more recent times, I think we have to see that Donald Trump is actually engaging in an attempt to transform the cultural configurations that exist in the United States. That cultural transformation is therefore also in alignment with the perpetuation of a neoliberal order in which wealth can accumulate without restraint in the upper classes. 

Now, this idea of the relationship between cultural transformations and economic transformations is something, which I think needs to be unpacked. But, it has to be unpacked in the following kinds of ways: we need a theoretical understanding of how an economy as a whole works. One of the things I value about Marx's conception of economy is that he tries to embed the idea of an economy in the practices of what he calls a totality, an organic totality of how a capitalist society is organized and how that totality is constructed. He talks about the way in which it has been constructed historically by the emergence of certain economic and political and cultural practices at the same time as it has to be reconstructed in our heads so that we understand our position in relationship to that totality. 

The Marxist way of thinking about the totality really rests upon the following idea: in Capital, in one of the footnotes he starts off with the chapter on machinery, Marx talks about the way in which different moments of the social process actually link together into some kind of totality. The moments that he identifies are roughly these: he talks about the way in which technology discloses our relation to nature. Now, there are two things there: one is the relation to nature and one is the technology. Notice that Marx talks about the relation between technology and relation to nature as disclosing or revealing not determining. So, the technology does not determine but it discloses our relation to nature. 

What Marx means by this, is that if you investigate in great detail what the nature of the technology is you'll find a great deal about the relation that it proposes to a natural world and their understanding of the natural world and that the technology and the natural world are related. The same thing applies if we decide to investigate in detail our relation to nature because what we would discover as we looked at the nature is how much our understanding of nature is dependent upon technology. In a world in which there were no technologies to understand DNA or, more simply, in a world where we had no microscopes and no telescopes we would not be able to understand the world in the way we currently understand it. So, the investigation of our relation to nature inevitably leads us to talk about the technology through which we understand nature. 

This is not only, however, about understanding because how we use nature also depends very much on our technology. Our technology depends very much on that part of nature, which we are into investigating. So, as we investigate the evolutionary process and we move from, say, reading Darwin to reading about DNA we move from different levels. So, we understand nature in a different way, and we understand the technology in a different way. There's a co-evolution of the technology and our understanding of nature. Marx then goes on to say it's not only technology and nature that we need to look at. We need to look at the technology and the nature in relationship to our mental conceptions of the world. You can see immediately that our mental conceptions of the world are not independent of the kind of technologies that we can use to examine the world. And they are not independent either of the kinds of experiences we're having of our relation to nature so our mental conceptions of the world are built up out of the technologies and the relation to nature. But, that mental conception of the world is just partial because it's focused upon the technology in the relation to nature. 

So, Marx introduces another aspect of the society and says well, we can't understand the technology and the relation to nature or our mental conceptions of the world without understanding the foundational social relations, which exist in society. The social relations are not independent of those other two moments—technology in relation to nature—and they're not independent of our mental conceptions. And, our mental conceptions are drawn, of course, very much from experience of the social relations. 

Now, what kind of social relations do we require to manage certain technologies? If we have a technology of, say, the automobile then obviously the automobile has a set of experiences, which we have and capacities, which we have coming out of the automobile, which affect the nature of our social relations and affect also our mental conceptions. There's a wonderful book by a man called [Wolfgang] Schivelbusch, which is about the railroad. What Schivelbusch does is to say well, when people could travel through countryside by horse and cart they had a completely different conception of how the world was outside than when you travel through train. If you take the train from London to Newcastle or now from London to Paris or you take the train from New York to Washington then you end up looking at the world in a different way because you're looking at it through a window, which a certain kind of speed goes on. So, the technology of motion is very important. The technologies of, I mentioned microscopes and telescopes and so on, change our mental conceptions at the same time as they also play a very important role in defining what the possibility is of certain social relations. 

If we live in a class bound society, then the class bound society also is going to be caught up with a certain set of practices, profit seeking and so on and social relations between capital and labor. They are mediated by the nature of technologies and the nature of our social relations and the nature of mental conceptions and the nature of our experience of nature. So, you take those four components but then you add something else and say well there’s a fifth one in here and the fifth one is what you might call a politics of daily life or the experience of daily life. And you then say to what degree [does] our experience of daily life reveal about our technologies? What does it reveal about our relation to nature? What does it reveal about our mental conceptions? What does it reveal about our social relations?

You can see what Marx is doing here; he's taking each one of these moments and saying this is a window upon all of the other moments and we cannot understand our social relations or our daily life without understanding our relation to all of these other moments within the totality. And, that our understanding of the qualities of daily life and the culture of daily life and what that culture is about cannot be understood independent of the technology. Again, we don't want to get to into a language of “determines.” In other words, there's no “determines” go[ing] on here. There are key influences that flow, relations that flow between the technologies and everyday life, between the technologies and the social relations, between the technologies and mental conceptions and so on. There are influences that flow, but those influences are reciprocated so that the totality is working together through all of these elements. Then there is another feature;  this whole system of structure we're looking at cannot work without some sort of organization of production. 

Here we start to look then clearly at the actual production processes, which exist in society. We're not simply talking about production processes of steel or automobiles or something like that. We're talking about the product processes of the world in which we live. We're talking about the production of infrastructures. The production even of social relations, the production of nature. In fact, the idea that nature is something, which human beings produce is a very important idea because production is not simply about the production of things, it’s about the production of a whole way of life. It's about the production of the environmental and ecological circumstances in which we live. It's about the production of cities. It's about the production of what Marx called second nature. So, we're talking about the production moment. 

And then we have to start to say well, how is it all of this organized? What are the major institutions, which [are] set up? There are institutions of law. There are institutions of governance. There are institutions of education. There are institutions of religious education. We end up with a model of a working society, which says ok, we have to look at the relationships between technology, relation to nature, social relations, mental conceptions of the world, production processes, daily life and institutional arrangements. We put all of that together and say all of those moments are working together. If we wish to revolutionize the kind of society we are in, we cannot revolutionize any one of those moments without there being impacts and implications and relations and flows of energy from one moment to another. In other words, the introduction of a technological innovation, there's a transformative effect on a relation to nature.

But, it is not a passive transformative effect. Our conception of the relation to nature will change and mental conception will change; all of these elements will start to change together.

Now this seems like a very complicated theoretical kind of way of thinking about it, but I think about it in the following terms of saying well in practical terms, I've lived through transformations of this kind. What was my life like in 1970? Well, in 1970, I didn't have a photocopying machine. … I couldn't imagine back in 1970 picking up a phone and ordering takeout. There was no takeout services at that time. In 1970, when you wanted to have something to eat you had to cook it yourself, basically. So, everybody cooked at home. There were the beginnings at that time of going out and eating McDonald's or something like that, but by and large, life was lived by eating at home. If we ate at home, you generally ate collectively at home. There was a notion of a social life, a family life if you like, which was well, somebody cooked dinner and somebody put dinner on the table. If there was a family of five, then the whole five people would gather around the table and there would be a collective experience of having a meal together. Breakfast in the morning might be more hurried, Corn Flakes here, you know. But, generally speaking, the style of life was very distinctive back then. Contrast it with the situation now, in the United States people use takeout, a lot of countries of the world they do so. The whole idea of a family dinner has almost disappeared because everybody can get things from here there and everywhere. The communication structures are, of course, radically different. Mental conceptions are radically different as to what is possible and what is impossible. The social relations and social institutions are radically different. Back in 1970 in the kind of countries that I was familiar with, the trade unions were very powerful and very significant. The trade unions were not only about work. They were also about a certain sociality. They were also about a certain building of sociality, building a certain community. To live in a working-class neighborhood in 1970 was very different from living in a working-class neighborhood now—to the degree that you can even call neighborhoods working-class anymore. 

So, all of those elements have changed. But, it's not one single change that we can point to. There's a change of institutions, the law has changed in significant ways. Politics has changed in significant ways. Politics started to be monetized in very big ways from the 1970s onwards. Television, and in all of those, there were the beginnings of that in the 1960s, but the whole nature of political life started to change. There's been a significant change in governance as we've seen between executive power, which is increasingly dominated over legislative power. The president in the United States is now much more powerful than was the case back in 1970. In 1970, Congress was much more powerful relative to the president than Congress now is. What we see is a situation right now in which presidential power and prime ministerial power in Britain or in France is essentially dominating over legislative power. Parliament has become less and less of a powerful institution. Institutions of law have also become politicized. Cultural configurations have changed. The cultural world has changed in radically different ways. Our sense of time has changed. This is also very significant because, again, back in 1970, the turnover time of cultural forms was relatively slow. Right now, cultural transformations are occurring almost weekly, if not daily. 

The turnover time of a lot of productive activity is very short. We've moved from a society where a great deal of consumption is about consumption of spectacle. So, we moved to a kind of society where instead of there being the production of things, which last a long time, there is a production of events, which are ephemeral. We moved to something, which I call the Netflix economy. The Netflix economy is something where there's a lot of work, which goes into the production of a Netflix special but the consumption of it occurs, you know: ok, the episode is next Sunday and it's consumed in an hour by millions of people. … and if people don't get it then there's also a long tail of consumerism where people can see it again three weeks later, or if you miss it, you can get your episode later. So, there's a consumerism, which has very radically different qualities. It's a consumerism that is based very much on the instantaneous consumption of a product, which has taken some considerable time to make. So, consumer time has actually ratcheted up in the sense that we now consume things very fast. That also means that a lot of what goes on in society is ephemeral. The solidity and the solidarities, which went with that solidity, which existed in the 1970s is no longer there. We actually have to work very hard at constructing solidarity. Many of us have become much more individualistic, much more isolated. And indeed, that was what neoliberal capitalism was all about: isolating the individual. When Margaret Thatcher said there's no such thing as society, there's only individuals and society, she was saying something—and later on she modified and said individuals and their families. So, the transformations, which have occurred, the cultural transformations are very substantial. 

When I sit back and take stock of how life was in 1970, what daily life was about, what the relations in nature was about, we were only then in 1970 just beginning to become aware that there might be an environmental problem. But, the environmental problem was largely about consumption of resources and that we might be running out of resources. It was not about climate change; climate change had not entered into the picture back then. The source of problems we now face with plastic disposal and waste disposal, those sorts of things are now radically different than they were in 1970. So, our relation to nature has transformed. Our mental conceptions have transformed. There's been a big battle over mental conceptions. The whole question of climate denial and how important climate change denial has become and the big battle over mental conceptions but the reality of a situation in terms of our experience of daily life and what that says about climate denial. People are more and more recognizing that something wonky’s going on with climate. Once you've lived through the fires of California and now the fires in Australia and you start to see accounts and the ratcheting up of hurricane strengths and all these kinds of things, once you start to see this and strange things happening in terms of warm days in December and the like, you start to realize, in terms of daily life, that something is going on. So, there's that there's a big battle over mental conceptions. 

And of course, our social relations have changed. The composition of the capitalist class has radically changed. Once upon a time, we were talking about industrialists. We're now talking of people that run Amazon or Facebook and the FANGs economy [Acronym stands for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google]. The power shift that's occurred in terms of the capitalist class has been very significant. There's also been a political transformation in the sense of the way in which the nation-state is positioned in relationship to these transformations. That has also undergone a change. So, when I outline this picture of what I would call these different moments of it within the totality, which is the moment of technology, the moment of relation to nature, the moment of mental conceptions, the moment of social relations, the moment of daily life, the moment of institutional arrangements, and so on. When you talk about those different moments, actually this gives us a map of how to interpret where we are in the world because we can see that the whole configuration of all of those elements has changed dramatically since 1970 in our part of the world. It’s changing dramatically in many other parts of the world. For instance, in China you can take all of those different moments and say look how China is organizing around them. We can see it.  

Now, what that says is that if we want to move away and if the economic model in our society is not working, we have to start to think about a transformation. Not only a transformation of the economic model, but a transformation of all of those different moments. We need to start to ask the question: what kind of technology can we actually start to think about, which is conformable with a set of social relations, which are radically different from those which currently exist? And how can that be transformed and transform our relations to nature? In other words, we can ask questions about each one of the moments and ask this the question: how can they all change together so that we end up living in a different world? A world, which satisfies our needs and wants and a world, which sits easily within the parameters of a natural world, which is clearly being transformed in ways, which are very negative from almost any perspective that we look upon. So, when we start to think about the politics of social change you don't say: we just change one element and everything else changes. No, we have to think about a simultaneous transformation, which is a cultural transformation, a transformation of daily life, transformation of social relations. We have to think about all of those elements together. We can't say that one element is more important than the other. They are all co-important. Therefore, to work on cultural transformations, to work on mental conceptions, the transformation and mental conceptions is just as important as working on the actual transformation of production and the production of nature and the like. All of them are equally important. 

We can specialize, but we should specialize in a way, which is humble in relationship to our position. I, as a person, I work on mental conceptions of the world. That's where I start. That’s my starting point. I want to try to influence your mental conceptions of the world. But, I recognize that I can't actually influence your mental conceptions of the world without at the same time you being able to locate the mental conceptions that I'm talking about in relationship to the practices of your daily life, the social relations. Then you ask the question: to what degree are my discontents in these different areas and seeing these different areas and they don't work, to what degree does that actually require mental conceptions? And are some of the mental conceptions that come out of reading Marx helpful in the current conjuncture in telling us what it is we need to do to arrive at a better kind of society than the crazy one we now inhabit?

Thank you for joining me today. You’ve been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.


Transcript by Jake Keyel
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Showing 1 comment

  • Edward Dodson
    commented 2020-02-01 10:01:30 -0500
    Professor Harvey,
    I assume that at some point in your studies you read the book “Power and Privilege” by Gerhard Lenski. Reading Lenski as a young man led me to Turgot, Proudhon, Marx and eventually to George. What strikes me as most important about Lenski’s analysis is the idea that all societies evolve in much the same pattern but at quite different rates of change given certain variables (e.g., the rate of population growth in relation to what nature yields to labor without herculean efforts, settlement in one place which then requires the establishment of formal rules regarding the allocation of access and control over basic natural resources, which leads both to accumulation of property and to hierarchical structure resulting in classes functioning as rentiers taking from the class responsible for production.

    It seems to me that Marx gives slight attention to the continuity that exists between the relations that existed during the long period in every society when almost all wealth was produced directly or nearly directly by labor (i.e., when capital goods were primitive and short-lived). It was clear for most of the settled history of human groups that control over nature was the key component to hierarchical privilege. Landed privilege was still quite evident during the time Marx was writing. The landed were turning their rent-derived wealth into the financial resources required to develop commercial agriculture, factories, banking, insurance and real estate. Profits from such enterprise was universally then converted into landed wealth. I see only an accelerated continuum in this process as the 19th century turned over into the 20th century on to today.

    Do I misunderstand Marx that he discounted this continuum?

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