David Harvey Responds

Apr 2nd, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

klimanA few weeks back Zero Squared featured a conversation with the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman about a pair of essays he'd written for the New Left Project in response to a paper the geographer and Marxist David Harvey had posted online. The paper was entitled Crisis Theory and the Falling Rate of Profit and Andrew Kliman's essays in response were entitled Harvey Versus Marx On Capitalism’s Crises Getting Marx wrong. This essay was broken into two halves, the first subtitled Getting Marx Wrong and the second entitled Getting Profitability Wrong.

A few days ago David Harvey responded to Kliman's criticisms of his paper, or failed to respond to them, depending on your point of view. What's clear is that Harvey did not refute to Kliman's arguments or counter Kliman's own refutations, nor did he accurately describe what he ultimately did decide to write about, namely an analogy Kliman used.

In the original paper David Harvey characterized the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall as a mono-casual theory. Harvey wrote: There is no point in trying to cram all of the fluidity and complexity of capital circulation into some unitary theory of a falling rate of profit. He suggested that those who held to LTRPF were trying to explain too much with a single cause. Kliman responded by pointing out that holding the LTRPF did not require him to explain economic crises with a single cause anymore than holding to the law of gravity required that he explain every motion of a body in the world by referring to gravity.

If I appeal to the universal law of gravitation in order to explain why apples have a tendency to fall off trees, without mentioning other factors that can make them fall, like the blowing of the wind, or counteracting factors, like air resistance, I am not assuming that these other things don’t exist. Much less am I constructing a mono-causal model that excludes them and which is therefore severely restricted in applicability. I am not doing so even if I explain that the law of gravitation follows from Newton’s second law of motion and refrain from introducing other factors into the equation when I show how it follows. If I then go on to talk about air resistance and the blowing of the wind, I am not exhibiting my ambivalence, vacillating, or admitting that the universal law of gravitation operates only in a vacuum, but fails to operate in the real world.
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This is what Harvey picked up on and what he spent the bulk of his response on, but rather than understanding that Kliman's reference to gravity was meant as an analogy, one that explained how it was possible to hold that that a natural law was true while still managing to fit a variety of other factors into one's accounts of economic crisis, motion, or anything else, Harvey asserted, perhaps not inaccurately, that Kliman felt the LTRPF held a lot more in common with the law of gravity than the simple fact that both laws avoided the problem of monocausality.

Again, Kliman clarified that he did not mean the analogy to stand in for a deeper argument about the significance of the LTRPF, and Harvey's assertions, while perhaps not wholly inaccurate, were ways to change the topic.

[What the analogy] reveals is how any explanation that appeals to a law of a tendency works, *whatever* the subject matter is. If I explain why students who study a lot tend to get good grades by appealing to the idea that knowledge and understanding tend to increase with study time, without mentioning other factors that can affect grades, like sleeping with the professor, or counteracting factors, like stupidity, I am not assuming that these other things don’t exist.

I agree with Kliman about the aim of his analogy and the merit of his essays, however while Harvey isn't debating fairly--in fact Harvey's response cedes the initial debate by letting every point Kliman actually made go unrefuted--he does raise an interesting issue. One that has been raised repeatedly and in various guises over the past forty years or more. That is, is reason itself too mechanistic, too rigid?

Harvey counters Kliman's falling apple with another image, that of an ecological system or, at other times, a human body. He suggests that if one posits a theory and holds that it is true, say the theory of germs, or to use Harvey's own analogy, the theory that bodies decay over time, that holding such theories will preclude you from being open to other explanations for illness. That is, if you believe in aging you will be closed off from understanding the possibility that not everyone dies of old age.

There is no argument directly stated that makes the case for why holding with the theory of aging should preclude you from understanding that a person can also die from a disease, be born with a defect that quickly kills him or her, or even get run over by a train.

I'm going to offer my own analogy at this point, one that I hope isn't too confusing. Imagine that you've been reading about longevity researchers, about two of researchers who are debating what is the best way to go about extending the human life span. One of them suggests that what's needed is an understanding of the aging process, the way the body damages itself as it reproduces its own cells and regenerates, and the other says that the theory of aging isn't the only thing that can cut a life short. Instead of arguing for more work and study on the issue of aging he suggests a hodgepodge of research opportunities. We could distribute more condoms and protect more people from STDs, we could do a study on traffic safety, we could put together a video explaining that kids should be safe around trains. Further, imagine that this second longevity researcher argued that the theory that the body tends to decay over time is mono-causal, mechanistic, teleological.  How seriously would you take him as a longevity researcher? Wouldn't you suspect that this second longevity guy, the one who didn't think aging was the most significant cause of mortality, who didn't think aging was the primary cause worth studying...wouldn't you suspect he didn't really believe in extending the human lifespan at all?

I'm going to leave off with that for now, but I hope to pick up on this subject again and write about the significance of Harvey's reference to Deleuze in his response. I want to explore how compatible Deleuzian thought is with Marxist thought (and maybe even to reason itself, dialectical or otherwise) but that'll have to wait for another day.

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8 Comments to “David Harvey Responds”

  1. Thanks for this, Doug,

    On the issue of “is reason itself too mechanistic, too rigid?”

    “He suggests that if one posits a theory and holds that it is true, say the theory of germs, or to use Harvey’s own analogy, the theory that bodies decay over time, that holding such theories will preclude you from being open to other explanations for illness. That is, if you believe in aging you will be closed off from understanding the possibility that not everyone dies of old age.”

    “Suggests” is one of those words. I wish he had *said* that if that’s what he meant. It’s easy to dispose of. Holding a theory (in any discipline oriented to getting at the truth) is not “believing” in the way that believing in, say, God, is believing. (Hawking makes this point in the recent movie about him and his first wife.) By their very nature, theories can be wrong. When one puts one forward, one is implicitly if not explicitly saying that it might be wrong. And it’s because of their potential wrongness that theories are, and need to be, tested. So putting forward a theory is in effect an invitation to other to show that it is wrong. Religious belief isn’t like that at all.

    Also, it’s generally accepted that no theory is ever *proven* to be true. It’s always possible that new evidence and other things could show even very successful theories t be false.

    The more important underlying point is this: there are two moments in the process of understanding why something is the way it is–(1) imagining possibilities and (2) deciding among them. With regard to (1) it’s desirable to be as open as possible because we don’t want to overlook possibilities, and things like metaphors play an extremely important role. But with regard to (2), it’s exactly the opposite. We are aiming for maximum “rigidity” (restrictiveness) and we need to decide on the basis of evidence and logic, not the appeal of the metaphor. Before you toss a match into a gas oven, you want to know the one thing that will happen, not the many things that might happen: your fairy godmother might appear, you might get blown to bits, the oven might toss the match back ….

    In my response to Harvey, I intend to show and emphasize that *he* is the one who is blocking the way of inquiry, as C. S. Peirce put it.

    • Douglas Lain says:

      I think your approach, your planned approach, is sound.

      What I’m curious about with Harvey is whether is approach, this erudite but airy approach, is strategic, adopted in order to defend an otherwise indefensible position, or if it’s his true position. That is, does he really think that we can’t seek explanations because that would be too teleological?

  2. CB says:

    Thank you Doug.
    Your own analogy is both quite comical, and devastating (for Harvey).

  3. Keith says:

    David Harvey doesnt really like to argue. In a way he is like an incumbent politician who doesn’t want to or need to debate. He has nothing to gain by it and much to lose. If you have ever seen him lecture he usually responds to any challenge to his arguments with a light joke and a suggestion that we wrap things up so we can get to the wine and cheese.

    Harvey says in his response “Andrew might be right” more than once. In effect he is saying “I dont really want to debate.” I wouldnt expect him to respond any further than he already has.

    • I have no expectations one way or another regarding Harvey’s future responses. I think it’s difficult not to like Harvey from his persona and I do appreciate wine and cheese myself. My difficulty with him saying “Andrew might be right” is that it’s a way to shut down thought in this case as you rightly point out. It’s a “let’s agree to disagree move” which might be worthwhile when proffered by a friend or a spouse to maintain a relationship, but is no good in the realm of intellectual debate.

  4. Marko Markovic says:

    What I found interesting, is that Harvey left out the whole underconsumption-topic Kliman brought up.

    A metaphor I encountered when talking to people resaerching gentrification, is that we don’t have to read process like gentrification as displacement, we can also read them as organic movements of parts within a unified whole. The boy, in this crude reading, becomes a naturalizing, soothing picture homogenizing the ailments as obscured pluralism.

    Harvey is very close to that kind of reading in my opinion. That he leaves out underconsumption as a topic points toward the possibly bigger problem: Like underconsumptionism, thinking of capital as body with maladies implies a possibility of cure.

    I was wondering if his omission could be read as part of a general accelerationst turn? After all, the talk of Capital as an organic body does eerily remind us of Nick Land’s (far-right) conceptuialization of it. I’m not saying Harvey supports that view, but I do wonder, if his ommission is designed to leave the door open for an accelartionist discussion to be developed.

    At least as far as I understand it, accelerationism is not compatible with LTRPF, right? Maybe that is why there is a shift happening on LTRPF, since accelarationist debate has arrived at Harvey’s doorstep?

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