Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, by David Harvey, Profile Books, RRP£14.99, 336 pages

Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, by Benjamin Kunkel, Verso Books, RRP£8.99, 160 pages

If the fall of the Soviet Union ushered Marxist thinking off the intellectual stage, the global financial crisis provided the perfect opportunity for its return. First to rush in were leftist activists such as those involved in the Occupy movement. Now theory is catching up, as David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism and Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust illustrate in different ways.

True to his title, the veteran geographer and anthropologist Harvey offers an analysis of 17 “contradictions” he believes to be inherent in modern capitalism. It is a promising theme, over which a fertile debate could be imagined between Marxian ideas (or at least “Marxish” ones, as Kunkel charmingly dubs his own reflections) and conventional economic analysis – if only the two sides were willing to learn from each other.

Harvey uses the term “contradiction” to denote a pair of forces or phenomena whose coexistence, while not logically impossible, is sustained in practice only through tension or conflict. When they become sufficiently acute, such contradictions are what provide an impetus for the forces of progress to overcome capitalism and its inequities.

His examples are interesting but unoriginal. The chapter on “endless growth” – supposedly necessary for the survival of capitalism and incompatible with that of the planet – echoes the “limits to growth” debate that raged in the 1970s. Harvey’s contradiction between the prices of goods and the social value of the labour going into producing them is older still, harking back to Marx’s (erroneous) labour theory of value.

Conventionally trained neoclassical economists deal not in contradictions to be overcome but in trade-offs to be calibrated. Unlike Marxists, they assume that a social outcome can be found that perfectly balances any “contradictory” considerations – where the increased risk to the planet is exactly offset by the value of the extra growth, for example. (Whether free-market capitalism can implement the “optimal” solution to this problem in practice is another question.)

The difference matters. Even if we can all agree that something has gone badly wrong with financial capitalism, we might reach very different political conclusions depending on whether the source of the problem is a fundamental contradiction in the Marxian sense or just a bungled trade-off.

Consider Harvey’s “contradiction” between capital owners’ need to keep wage growth in check to boost profits, and their need for wage-earners to create sufficient demand for the products their capital churns out. Is this not really a trade-off, which conventional economics, for all its problems, is well equipped to investigate?

Seventeen Contradictions also proves that, when it comes to convolution, Marxists are the equals of the neoclassical economists they castigate. If Harvey means to convert waverers to his cause, this book – too doctrinaire to enlighten and too opaque to arouse – is not the way to do it.

Kunkel, a novelist and founding editor of the literary journal n+1, offers a more digestible survey of Marxist thought in Utopia or Bust. An exegesis of six leftist theorists (one of whom is Harvey), it is written in prose as fleet-footed as that of his intellectual heroes is heavy-handed. Often Kunkel’s thinking, too, seems clearer than those he has learnt from; he is not tripped up by the labour theory of value, for example.

Unfortunately, he remains too much in awe of his teachers. He refers to the “majestic style” of Fredric Jameson, the cultural critic, “one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan”. Kunkel seems to mean this as a compliment.

The deference is doubly irritating when he adopts his subjects’ shortcomings. Both Kunkel and Harvey overlook a middle class of people who are at once wage-labourers and capital owners. The omission is serious: if there is a fundamental contradiction (rather than a trade-off) between the interests of capital and labour, how this group resolves it is surely crucial.

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