under-understanding overaccumulation

(Note: I’m writing this far from my office and most of my books, with the benefits of only some electronic sources stored on my computer and limited internet. I have not been able to return to all of Harvey’s work, or the related literature to see if I can answer my questions. It is possible someone, including Harvey, has clarified all of these matters and in that case I would love someone to call me a dumbass and throw me a reference that undermines all my concerns. I’d love to be wrong about the ambiguity of Harvey’s story. Also, my internet access will go from limited to likely nonexistent for a few days.)

In The New Imperialism (2005), David Harvey explains his spatio-temporal fix through reference to overaccumulation:

The basic idea of the spatio-temporal fix is simple enough. Overaccumulation within a given territorial system means a condition of surpluses of labour (rising unemployment) and surpluses of capital (registered as a glut of commodities on the market that cannot be disposed of without a loss, as idle productivity capacity and/or as surpluses of money capital lacking outlets for productive and profitable investment). Such surpluses can be potentially absorbed by (a) temporal displacement through investment in long-term capital projects or social expenditures (such as education and research) that defer the re-entry of capital values into circulation into the future, (b) spatial displacement through opening up new markets, new production capacities, and new resource, social, social, and labour possibilities elsewhere, or (c) some combination of (a) and (b). (p108)

Because Harvey understands the new imperialism and the dominant features of neoliberalism (dispossession) as fixes for the overaccumulation crisis of the 1970s, an assessment of his influential argument requires understanding his view on crisis. Unfortunately, I have don’t really know what his overaccumulation means.

I first read Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity as an undergraduate. I thought it was absolutely wonderful, but I didn’t fully understand the overaccumulation argument. I assumed the fault was my own. While I was a graduate student, Harvey gave a talk on his new imperialism at our political economy workshop. Someone (I believe it was Jerry Epstein) asked him exactly what he meant by overaccumulation. I do not think it was a nit-picky question. Floating around that very conference room were probably 5 or 6 different specific accounts of that crisis and transition, so who wouldn’t be curious to see where Harvey fits in. I do not remember Harvey’s exact response; I do remember that despite Harvey’s generally illuminating abilities it failed to illuminate anything for me.

I followed Harvey, and the literature on dispossession only casually over the last 6 or so years. I have recently returned to it more seriously in relation to a research project, which has brought me back to the question – what is overaccumulation? Much of the literature I’ve been reading in anthropology and geography on dispossession problematizes certain aspects of the process of accumulation, but basically accepts Harvey’s view on the crisis and neoliberalism.

One could imagine a naive critique of Harvey. For Harvey, the problem with the 1970s was overaccumulation. There was too much capital stuff. The solution to this excess of capital stuff? Dispossession across the globe which radically increases the amount of capital stuff. On the surface this makes no sense. Of course, I’ve qualified this critique as naive; it doesn’t appreciate the dialectical nature of capitalist accumulation and crisis. But in order to fully rebut this admittedly naive critique, we need to know the specific dialectical processes/tendencies Harvey has in mind. I’m not sure what they are.

Surpluses of labor, commodities, money, and productive capacity have very little in common. The first doesn’t appear to be a source of crisis at all. Surpluses of labor may be a result of a crisis, and possible condition for a return to accumulation, but I do not understand an argument that the crisis of the 1970s was a crisis of too much labor. In fact, if this were the case, how would neoliberalism’s radical increase in the masses of employable labor power be a solution? Why would dispossession, and the doubly-free workers it produces, be the cutting edge of this solution? The only way I can imagine a surplus of labor as a cause of crisis is through underconsumption, but based on my reading of Harvey on Luxemburg, he is not an underconsumptionist.

That Harvey is not an underconsumptionist (as I understand it) also problematizes the notion that the overaccumulated form of capital responsible for the crisis is the commodity.

A surplus of money is more intelligible to me, but it begs the question – why is it that there are no profitable outlets for money capital? A similar question can be posed with respect to excess capacity. Why is the excess capacity unable to be profitably used? Does Harvey have an answer that is not underconsumptionist. I am assuming he does. But what is it?

To be clear, although I do not think the 1970s crisis was one of underconsumption, my point here is not to criticize Harvey for implying an underconsumptionist argument. Rather, if he is not implying underconsumption (as he suggests), what does he mean?

If I think back into the history of crisis theory, I can think of a few different types of overaccumulation, broadly speaking. One version, typically described as overproduction, focuses on the limitless expansionary drive of capitalism and the limited consumption capacity of the working class. This is overaccumulation with respect to aggregate demand. Two different interpretations of overaccumulation with respect to labor exist – (1) the rising organic composition of capital driven fall in the rate of profit or (2) a falling reserve army profit squeeze. Finally, overaccumulation could be understood in sectoral terms, leading to a crisis of disproportionality.

None of these seem to really fit Harvey’s story entirely.

One defense of Harvey is to argue that I am being too deterministic, trying to find the singular source of crisis, but his argument does seem to require some specificity. Harvey argues accumulation by dispossession is (was?) the dominant tendency of neoliberalism because it is a fix to a specific crisis. Evaluating this claim requires understanding these specifics.

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One Response to under-understanding overaccumulation

  1. Pingback: harvey and primitive accumulation again |

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