Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Night before the dawn of the day

Destructive Zombie and Return of Karl Marx

Devdatt P. Dubhashi


Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx; by Chris Harman; Bookmarks Publications; 2009.

Marx compared capital to a vampire, that ‘only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. For Chris Harman, as pictured on the cover of the book, it is better compared to the mindless, destructive zombie, ’seemingly dead when it comes to achieving human goals and responding to human feelings, but capable of sudden spurts of activity that cause chaos all round’.

Zombie Capitalism is an elaborate justification of this description. It starts from a discussion of the basic precepts of Marxism and then applies it to the developments from the First World War to the current Great Recession. Harman was for many years, one of the main theorists of International Socialism and the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK and this book is witness to the many arguments and counter-arguments he engaged in as part of his role. As such it is not easy reading even though the original intention was to provide a more accessible version of his earlier book, Explaining the Crisis.

The first three chapters lay out the foundation stones of the analysis: Marx’s labour theory of value, surplus value and accumulation and the theory of the falling rate of profit. This is a direct plunge into a morass of arguments: Harman covers many critics of Marx, both well-known and less well-known, from within different Marxist traditions and without, and vigorously defends him from all. These are still unsettled issues; nevertheless, one can take away two undeniable empirical facts that are crucial to the analysis of the world in the rest of the book. First, the never ending drive to accumulation and profit co-extensive with suppression of the workers’ wages, and second, the decline of productive investment outlets for the surplus value and consequent tendency of the system to stagnation.

Exhibit A is the Great Depression of 1929. It is eerie to read the classic account by John Kenneth Galbraith1 and notice the similarities to the Great Depression of our times: speculative bubbles piled up until they burst catastro-phically. Harman argues that it was the falling rate of profit that led to these speculative booms and consequent bust. And subsequently, he argues that it was not classic Keynesian demand management that led to the recovery and long “Golden Age” of Capitalism from the 1940s till 1970. Rather it was Military Keynesianism – the military industrial complex providing the outlet for investment of surplus value. Nobody disputes anymore that the recovery from 1929 was due far more to the mobilisation effort for the war than Keynesian policies but the point that the military sector played the major role in the “Golden Age” is not just a Marxist rant— Harman also has the support of a highly praised study by a scholar of impeccable liberal credentials.2 Recently3 there was a plaintive plea in the op ed page of a major US newspaper for President Obama to further escalate wars by attacking Iran in order to break out of the recession!

AS the world tottered on the brink of the abyss following the crash of the Lehmann Brothers, the spectre returned to haunt the world. The smug world of “perfect, self-regulating free market” economics was torn to shreds. Mainstream economists like Paul Krugman wrote detailed mea culpas4 while Wilhem Buiter complained about “the unfortunate uselessness of most ’state-of-the-art’ academic monetary economics”. However, all such criticism ganged up on finance and the greedy shenanigans of its practitioners as the main culprit. As Harman persuasively argues, this misses the point completely. The reckless loans, the invention of complex utterly impenetrable financial instru-ments such as derivatives and the deregulation of the industry were not deviations from the system—they were the system. We only have to ask ourselves what would have been the result had none of these happened. The answer, as Harman argues, would just have been an earlier onset of the crisis (though perhaps not as dramatic). Finance capitalism was merely the latest invention to stave off the crisis by providing a temporary outlet for surplus value and countering the falling rate of profit. Finance, to use Harman’s phrase, was “the parasite on top of the parasite”. Read Harman’s analysis of the crisis and other Marxist accounts such as that of the Monthly Review5 and contrast it with the utter bewilderment and incoherence of main-stream economists even today.

It is very fashionable today to talk about the “Green Economy” and slick “Green” high tech solutions to climate change. So also is the talk about “market signals” and carbon trading schemes. Harman brings all this down to earth with a very simple question: are these signals going to be strong enough to resist the system’s drive to short term profit and accumulation?

Slavoj Zizek claims we are Living in the End Times,6 and that very soon something will have to give. To prepare ourselves for this, it would have been great to have someone like Harman with us, but alas he passed away earlier this year. Fortunately he has left behind this masterpiece and it is well worth our efforts to prepare for the future by gaining a better understanding of the ways of the Zombie.


1. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929, Mariner Books 1997.

2. Vernon W. Rutton, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?, Oxford University Press, 2006.

3. David Broder, “The War Recovery?”, Washington Post op. ed., October 31, 2010.

4. Paul Krugman, “How did Economists Get it So Wrong?”, New York Times, September 2, 2009.

5. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, Monthly Review Press, 2009.

6. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, Verso, 2010.

The reviewer is a Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Chalmers University, Sweden.

Marxist Update recommends starting a study group around this book [but no smoking!]

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