Saturday, March 7, 2015


Harry Targ

…the most important contradiction of all [is] that between reality and appearance in the world in which we live (David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, 6).

In David Harvey’s opening chapter “On Contradiction,” the author refers to Karl Marx’s discussion of narratives about life that are distortions of reality. He quotes Marx: “If everything were as it appeared on the surface there would be no need for science.” He interprets Marx’s admonitions as requiring us to “get behind the surface appearances if we are to act coherently in the world.” (Harvey, 6).

David Harvey’s book identifies seventeen contradictions, seven “foundational” ones, seven “moving contradictions,” and three “dangerous” ones. The foundational ones address the fundamental economic underpinnings of a capitalist system; the moving ones represent those features of capitalism that change over time; and the dangerous ones represent the deepest changes that might cause chaos, pain, and suffering if not addressed by what he calls “anti-capitalist” movements.

Of course, most “foundational” to a capitalist system is the dynamic in which workers produce goods and services for a capitalist who sells them in the market. Some of the value of the goods and services, above the costs of hiring the worker, is appropriated by those who own or control capital. This is the substance of what is called profit. At root the workers do the work and those who own or control the productive process gain a disproportionate share of the value of it. Over time the value of the work done is accumulated and capitalist enterprises expand. 

This process was richly described by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Today economists tell us that profit comes from a variety of sources other than the amount of work time applied to produce goods and services: the skills of the entrepreneur, risk-taking, market forces, the supply of money in the economy, or technological advances. The problem with this analysis is not that these factors do not affect production, distribution, and profit but that the value of the amount of work that goes into the production of the product or service is not part of the narrative. In this view, workers, whether in the private or public sector, constitute a force that stifles the making of profit and the development of the society. Consequently today state governments are actively working to destroy the rights of workers--the producers of goods and services--to join together to secure a greater share of the value of what they produce.

Harvey elaborates on this fundamental feature of capitalism by describing the role of money, the glorification of commodities (or those goods and services produced by workers), the emphasis on the sale of products while deemphasizing the value of the work that produced them, the ways in which states support the accumulation of wealth, and how capitalism and the state expand the privatization of land, labor, and basic societal services.

In sum, Harvey argues that the definitions of the basic features of the economic system that dominate the globe are left out of public and academic discourse. Media and educational institutions reinforce a distorted view of how the basic conditions of life are produced and reproduced.

Harvey’s “moving contradictions” involve aspects of the evolution of capitalism: technology; transformations in the nature and meaning of work; monopolization; draconian shifts in the geographic distribution of economic development; environmental changes; and shifts in wealth and income.

The immediate and long-term “dangerous contradictions” involve the inexorable logic of capitalism requiring an unachievable continuation of compound growth; the privatization of nature; and the complete alienation of humans from themselves, society, and the environment.  

Therefore, Harvey’s analysis is based on the assertion that the reality of economic processes, institutions, sources of value, and prospects for economic justice are not addressed. Publics are presented with “appearances” that are radically different from the reality of capitalism and people’s lives.

Years ago political scientist Murray Edelman addressed the differences between appearance and reality in the political sphere. His book, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, postulated in politics what Harvey was suggesting in economics. Edelman argued that people engage in politics largely through the mental images they receive from two kinds of experiences. One kind of experience comes from direct participation in the political process. The mental images participants gain from direct and immediate involvement in the political process he called, “referential symbols.” 

Direct experiences of politics are limited for numerous reasons--power, money, and undemocratic institutions. However, people are engaged in the political process through emotionally-charged mental images, so-called “condensational symbols.” These may vary greatly from the reality of political life. For example, consider the emotion-laden relationship to the Iraq war. Most Americans received information over the years about the war framed by concepts such as democratization, modernization, the struggle against fundamentalism, or the danger of weapons of mass destruction. However, a veteran of the Iraq War might prioritize, or at least include, in his/her consciousness the physical devastation of that country, the killings of Iraqi citizens, and/or rising resistance to foreign intervention.

What analyses such as Edelman’s suggest is that the narratives which shape the consciousness of most people about politics, domestic and international, are emotionally-charged appearances rather than reality.

In the end, Karl Marx’s conception of science--uncovering realities that vary from appearances--is vital today if economic justice and democracy are to be achieved. With 21st century technologies bringing literally millions of new images to people all across the globe, the contradictions between appearance and reality have become more stark than ever.