On Faux Populism and some criticisms of David Harvey’s companion to Capital.

For sometime I have time I have thought the status of David Harvey’s Companion to Capital is undeserved. It was not until last night that I understood why this was the case.

Since Capital is a dense text with occasional ambiguities and contradictions it seems to me that the more lucid the companion or introduction to Capital is, the better it is. Yet, while Harvey’s guide has quickly become the go to guide for people trying to come to grips with Capital, it lacks cogence and lucidity.

This is because for someone who claims to have closely read Capital every year for something like 30 years the interpretation he provides of it is not close, but baggy and meandering. This is the case for at least three reasons

(1) He never refers to translation issues, which are well known to people studying Marx and are necessary for understanding Capital (for a discussion of some see http://content.csbs.utah.edu/~ehrbar/akmc.htm)

(2) He hasn’t cross referenced some of the words that are central to his interpretation with the original German. This leads him to misinterpret crucial parts of the text such as his use of the word ‘appearance’ in the first sentence (Harvey interprets Marx as making a distinction between essence and appearance when Marx is making a historical statement: wealth appears/exists in commodities in capitalism.) or his use of a distinction between material/immaterial which is based on Fowkes mistranslation of the word “sachlich”as material when it should be translated as ‘objective’

(3) His terminological distinctions and exposition are loose and baggy. For example, he (a) uses the term value to describe use-value and exchange value (b) states that socially necessary labour time defines value which is highly ambiguous and can easily contribute to misunderstandings or simplifications how value is constitutive of capitalist social production (c) his interpretation of fetishism is baggy and misconstrues fetishism as resulting from social relationships being ‘disguised in things’ rather than social relationships necessary appearing as relations between things as the result of the social division of labour.

This makes Harvey’s guide to Capital have an unfortunate resemblance to the vacuous type of faux populism that is valorized in certain segments of American culture. This faux populism is based on the premise that things are automatically lucid and cogent, no matter the complexity of the material, if you use plain-spoken conversational language. This can be seen in Harvey’s exposition of fetishism, which has an unfortunate resemblance to a Thomas Friedman column:

“So what’s going on here? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price-the “how much” …,..-is socially determined, and the price is a monetary representation of value. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers-those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange its impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them.

As a result, Harvey’s stated attempt to provide a close reading that reads Capital in ‘Marx’s own terms’ ultimately fails.  Fortunately, the recently published Heinrich introduction does address these issues. It is also properly lucid and cogent providing an overview of all three volumes of Capital in half of the space it takes Harvey to give an overview of volume 1. If I had my say it would become the go to guide not only for people who are trying to understand Capital, but for a number of people who think they already understand Capital.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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6 Responses to On Faux Populism and some criticisms of David Harvey’s companion to Capital.

  1. Pingback: Why You Need Yet Another Introduction to Capital « communism

  2. Sean Noonan says:

    Your review is baggy. “Baggy” is also a term you use three times in a mere 500 words. You make plenty of assertions and very few arguments. Comparing Harvey (warts and all) with Thomas Friedman only speaks to your priggish superficiality.

    • HR says:


      While I’m not sure what priggish superficiality is I thought I would let it speak a little more:

      I never intended my post to be a review. I simply intended to highlight some problems I had with Harvey’s text when I went through his exposition of the first part of Capital. So what I posted was not intended to be definitive or to meet polished stylistic standards you would find in a review. However, I do offer evidence from part one that back up my second and third assertions. I do not offer evidence for part one since I would have to use the entire book as evidence.

      I also think its clear that my comparison of Harvey to Friedman is intended as a humorous comparison between the way Harvey defines the genesis of the fetish characteristic form of the commodity by talking about shopping in the supermarket and the way Friedman discusses world politics with anecdotes about his friends. The larger point I was trying to illustrate is that these type of anecdotes are often presumed to make things easier to understand when there is often a reason that complex terminology is used.

      If you are interested in critical and proper review of Harvey, I suggest Paul Mattick’s review of The Limits of Capital, which points out the problematic understanding Harvey has of Marx that is generated by the problems I outlined http://libcom.org/library/review-david-harveys-limits-capital-paul-mattick-jr

  3. Anjie Zheng says:

    Should be of interest…. David Harvey has a forthcoming book on Capital volume 2 (which follows his “companion” book on Cv1): http://www.amazon.com/Companion-To-Marxs-Capital-Volume/dp/178168121X

  4. Sam says:

    You might find this critique of David Harvey’s A Companion useful: http://critisticuffs.org/texts/david-harvey/
    The focus of this piece is on abstract labour, the activity that creates value. That is, David Harvey’s definition of value as socially necessary labour time is not merely ” highly ambiguous and can easily contribute to misunderstandings or simplifications how value is constitutive of capitalist social production”. This notion of value is simply incorrect. It does not recognise what value is. Harvey’s failure to grasp the concept of abstract labour expresses his failure to understand and adequately critique production for exchange, i.e. the mode of production where the products of labour are commodities. This in turn is the premise for him suggesting alternative forms of money.

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