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Some Books I Read in 2016

Bit late to this exercise in self-indulgence but I thought I’d give this end of year book list thing a go if only to prove to myself that I got quite a bit of reading done over the past 12 months or so. Given that I’ve had what feels like a constantly increasing workload in my day-job I’m quite pleased at how much I’ve completed. I’ve managed to keep up routine of 1-2 hrs on workday evenings and at least one day a weekend. The list includes research-related reading and reading for pleasure and doesn’t include teaching related stuff (oh so many research methods and sociology text books).

Victor Figueroa Clark (2013) Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat 

One of Pluto’s ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series. An enjoyable, short political biography of an admirable figure. Allende’s steadfast decency and courage comes through very strongly. Though it’s not uncritical of Allende’s excessive faith in the commitment of his enemies to the Chilean constitution, Clark is sympathetic to the Popular Unity strategy and indeed the insurrectionary outlook of MIR is shown convincingly to have lacked any serious popular base.

Regis Debray (1971) Conversations with Allende

Transcripts of two interviews conducted with Allende shortly after his 1970 presidential election victory. Quite interesting on the specifics of the Chilean class structure and economy at the time. Allende and Debray often seem to be talking at cross-purposes and Debray is, by turns, incisively critical but also rather star-struck and often fails to push home his points.

Philip K Dick (1962) The Man in the High Castle

Read it because of all the hype surrounding the Amazon Prime dramatisation. I found the ending (I won’t spoil it) really unsatisfying.

Daniel W. Drezner (2015) Theories of International Politics and Zombies

Witty and pretty entertaining. Not quite long enough to outstay its welcome, but some of it is a little forced (as you might expect). The most interesting part for me was the introduction which includes a good survey of the recent explosion in zombie films/books etc and also I think correctly argues that the zombie genre derives much of its force from the fact that, alone among the panoply of horror monsters, zombies ‘possess a patina of plausibility that vampires, ghosts, witches, demons or wizards lack’. There’s something about the brute physicality of the zombie that’s uncannily familiar to us.

Alan Freeman (1982) The Benn Heresy

A sympathetic but critical account of the rise of ‘Bennism’ in the late 70s and very early 80s, written from an FI perspective.

Danny Gluckstein (1994) The Tragedy of Bukharin

Read this for the account of the Bukharin-Preobrazhensky debate on the economics of transition in particular. Didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but I did.

Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright (2014) Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy

An extended debate between Robin Hahnel, one of the key theorists of ‘Parecon’, and one of (in my view) the most lucid thinkers in relation to socialist strategy today Erik Olin Wright. Many of the ideas developed in more depth in Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias (see below) are set out here, although Wright has much more to say here about his very interesting metaphor of institutional ‘ecosystems’ and structural ‘hybrids’. For me Wright also wipes the floor with Hahnel’s Parecon proposals especially in terms of the latter’s insistence on the absolute abolition of markets (which is a form of economic coordination, as Wright points out, that long pre-dated capitalism and that is not necessarily bound up – as of course Karl Polanyi pointed out – with the social domination of market forces).

Owen Hatherley (2009) Militant Modernism

Read this to see if I could develop a vague interest in architecture, but it turns out that I couldn’t.

Jim Jepps (2016) Saving Blighty

As the recommendation on the cover from Francesca Martinez reads this is certainly ‘the best EU referendum time travel novel you will ever read’. Really enjoyed this and liked in particular the non-chronological and fractured narrative structure that cleverly accompanies the time-hopping subject matter.

Roger Luckhurst (2015) Zombies: a Cultural History

Probably the best book on zombies I’ve read – and I’ve read a few. It’s a bit too cultural studies for my liking in places, but it just about manages to stay on the right side of the Americanised academese threshold. Very interesting on the colonial roots of the zombie genre with particular relation to the US occupation of Haiti. The author also draws a compelling and what I think may be an original (I’ve not seen it before) connection between modern fascination with zombies and the cultural-psychological legacies of the Holocaust.

Ernest Mandel (1978) From Stalinism to Eurocommunism

The major thesis of Mandel’s survey of the the historical emergence and specific development of Eurocommunism in its major centres – Italy, Spain and to some extent France – is that it represents what Mandel terms (and which is the title of one of the initial chapters) ‘the bitter fruits of socialism in one country’.  The argument boils down to the claim that while Eurocommunism provided a sort of discourse that allowed western CPs to distance themselves ideologically and organisationally from Moscow, it also represented at a more fundamental level, the political culmination of the Stalinist promulgation of various ‘national roads to socialism’ and concomitant capitulation to parliamentary reformism. While there’s clearly a compelling line of continuity to be traced from Stalin’s foreign policy to the ideas of Carrillo et al it just seems to me that Mandel underplays the extent to which the turn to Eurocommunism was determined by a much more complex series of political impetuses – not least among these the emerging necessity for rooted, mass parties to adapt their strategy to the political realities of late 20th century liberal capitalism in western Europe. Might it not have been the case that at least some of the figures and forces behind the Eurocommunist turn really did believe that parliamentary liberal democracy provided institutions and social norms worth preserving? Further, might it not have been the case that they really did not believe that Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy – much less Bolshevik insurrectionism – retained any serious political currency in the West? But Mandel cannot admit that there might have been good reasons for the turn, or even that the turn might have been made in good faith by anyone.

Marianna Mazzucato (2014) The Entrepreneurial State

(Cheating slightly here – because I didn’t read this until early January 2017. Still, close enough). Clearly very painstakingly researched and provides more than enough evidence to illustrate its central argument – that contrary to the common sense of neoliberalism it is the state that has driven all major technological and pharmaceutical innovations over recent decades since it alone has the capacity to finance high risk investments for which the rewards, if they materialise at all, will only pay off over the long term. However, I can tell you that it’s one of those books where you really only need to read the blurb. There are a couple of interesting case studies on how Apple and the ‘clean energy’ sector are totally reliant on state subsidy and state development of technology but most of the book is spent endlessly filling out the same few key points again and again. The book, as a whole, is highly repetitive.

Kevin Ovenden (2015) Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth

I have to confess that I find the self-appointed sage of the British left extraordinarily annoying – nevertheless he has a book writing style much less irritating than that of his social media persona. It’s very readable, but it’s very much a journalistic account of Syriza’s first few months in office. There’s little theory in here (though, to be fair, Ovenden is quite clear about this and doesn’t claim otherwise). The lessons Ovenden draws at the end of the book are less doctrinaire and more open than I had expected, but there’s still a tendency here I think to claim a series of strategic leftist truisms for the specific insights of a vaguely defined ‘revolutionary left’. Exactly the same observations might have been drawn, for example, by a left reformist or Eurocommunist.

Michel Raptis (1980) Socialism, Democracy and Self-Management: Political Essays by Michel Raptis

The infamous ‘Pablo’ on… well pretty much what it says on the tin. Raptis really liked self-management and autogestion. He wrote several essays about how much he really liked it.

Derek Robinson (1971) Goshawk Squadron

Read this on recommendation after finding out a little bit about the extraordinary and tragic lives and deaths of two British WW1 fighter pilots, James McCudden and Edward Mannock. The (anti)hero of the book – Woolley – is a sort of amalgamation of the two. He’s a pretty (though amusingly) unpleasant man – or at least seems to be so until you begin to understand that his  abrasiveness is a way of dealing with the terrible weight of responsibility on his shoulders: trying to keep as many of the young men in his squadron alive under conditions where the average life expectancy of a new pilot was little more than a few days. Robinson says that he wrote the book to dispel the various myths of romantic, chivalrous combat among WW1 ‘cavalry of the clouds’. The reality of course was much more brutal and sordid than that and the book pulls no punches in its depiction of the terror and ugliness of World War One aerial dog fighting. The most effective pilots – like Woolley – took few unnecessary risks and concentrated simply on surviving from one engagement to another. They found that the best tactic was to sneak up behind their opponents and machine gun the pilot in his back before he realised he’d been intercepted. It really is a very good book.

Donald Sassoon (2010) One Hundred Years of Socialism

Again, a bit of a cheat as I read much of this in 2015. At 800 pages it’s a real beast and it took me a long time – and several long breaks – to get through it. It’s incredibly detailed, but even at 800 pages of course it is necessarily, overall, a whistle-stop tour of a century of history across the whole of Western Europe and there’s much that’s rather hurried. Additionally, there’s very little theory and it tends to be rather dry. Nevertheless one of the central critical points Sassoon makes (and brings out with historical illustrations over the course of the book) is that the socialist left has always been caught in a kind of double bind – an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism. The reformist and revolutionary poles of socialist thought (and Sassoon gives rather short shrift to the latter)  represent, effectively, mirrored forms of political bad faith – the reformist pole constantly deferring the end-goal to which it (for much of the 20th century at least) paid lip service, while the revolutionary pole remains faithful to a utopian future that, while perpetually imminent, like Godot, never arrives. I think he puts his finger on something here.

Carmen Sirianni (1982) Workers Control and Socialist Democracy

A detailed historical and theoretical analysis of institutional forms of popular power that emerged during the revolutionary period in Russia. It studiously avoids romanticism and the breezy sort of revolutionary mythos characteristic of most sympathetic accounts of soviet type institutions. Sirianni brings out, in particular, the indifference, if not explicit hostility, toward workers’ control of production among leading Bolsheviks – Lenin included. The institutional separation between soviets and factory committees was something new to me – I had always assumed they were the same thing. I recommend the book highly.

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2013) Inventing the Future

I didn’t think I was going to like this left accelerationist text at all, but found it really engaging and useful. The key argument pivots on ‘full automation’, but for me the most powerful part of the book is an unabashed defence of the necessity of a sort of muscular normative universalism among the radical left. I wrote a full review of the book here.

Erik Olin Wright (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias

Wright’s not necessarily the most stylish of writers, but what is striking is how lucid he is and also how honest and careful. No false certainties. When he’s not sure about something he says it. Dare I say it, you can see the influence of analytic philosophy here – both in the dryness of style but also in the impatience with sweeping generalisations and the eye for glossed over gaps and silences in the material he refuses to take for granted. I found Wright’s careful analysis of what he calls the ‘symbiotic’ strategy associated with post-war social democracy and his associated concept of ‘positive class compromise’ very useful.

John Wyndham (1955) The Kraken Wakes

Very much enjoyed re-reading Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’ after 25 years. Something about the post-war world it depicts of very middle class decent chaps who say things like ‘Now look here…’ and ‘I dare say…’ makes me oddly nostalgic for a semi-mythical past I didn’t know.

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Review of Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism: is There No Alternative?’

First published in Historical Materialism, 20: 1, pp. 21-30. Available on Brill’s website. Published here on my personal website under the terms of Brill’s publications and copyright policy.

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fisher, Winchester: Zero Books, 2009


Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is a provocative polemical analysis of the narrowing of political horizons that has occurred over the past couple of decades and of the powerful ideological grip that capitalism holds on the collective, social psyche, destroying our capacity to imagine political alternatives. Fisher seeks to illuminate the major cultural and social effects of a post-Cold War politico-ideological condition in which (according to Žižek’s well known observation) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Building on this analysis, Fisher identifies some key tensions and contradictions in the ideological armour of contemporary capitalism and extrapolates from this some tentative strategic propositions for the anticapitalist Left. This review-article argues that, while Fisher’s book provides valuable conceptual and strategic resources for the Left, it is hamstrung by several weaknesses – not the least of these a tendency to make unconvincing, sweeping claims about the novelty and distinctness of what Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ and a tendency to present a caricature of current left-wing thinking.

critique of everyday life, capitalist ideology, philosophy, bureaucratisation, strategy, cultural
criticism, book-reviews, Marxist political theory, neoliberalism

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is a provocative account of the prevailing ideological conditions of contemporary capitalist society. It is a short polemical analysis of the powerful ideological grip that capitalism exerts on the collective psyche, destroying our capacity to imagine political alternatives. This is Fisher’s first book, but many readers may be familiar with his website, ‘K-Punk’,[1] which brings radical criticism to bear on a broad range of cultural subjects and issues. The same wide-ranging eclecticism is evident in this book in which the author draws on a welter of examples and ideas from both ‘popular culture’ and ‘high theory’. Fisher’s style of exposition has a fast-paced, free-wheeling quality to it reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s writing – and, indeed, there is a Žižekian audaciousness to many of the ideas that Fisher puts forward.

‘Put at its simplest,’ Mark Fisher explains (in an interview in which he discusses his book), ‘capitalist realism is the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’.[2] One of his central arguments in Capitalist Realism is that this idea has become the major legitimating ideological prop of the capitalist order today. Capitalism no longer presents itself as the ‘best’ social system amongst a range of possible alternatives in order to secure the ideological conditions necessary for its reproduction, but as the only feasible social order. It was, for Fisher, the collapse of the ‘actually existing socialist states’ of the Eastern Bloc that ushered in this new form of ideological legitimation. With the disappearance of these regimes and with the apparent final discrediting of the alternative they had claimed to represent, capitalism was free to present itself as ‘the only game in town’. Fisher suggests that capitalist realism is the first really successful totalitarian ideological system – ‘totalitarian’ in the sense that it permeates deep into the psyche of contemporary individuals, structuring their understanding of the possible and erecting invisible barriers and limits to thought and to the imagination. Under conditions of capitalist realism, indeed, the idea of any practical alternative to capitalism becomes not just ‘unrealistic’ but literally unthinkable – as Fisher puts it; ‘it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to [capitalism]’ (p. 2).

Capitalist realism incorporates, for Fisher, a kind of atemporality. It announces that we have reached the ‘end of history’ and, in so doing, obliterates any sense of time as a constantly progressing continuum. Instead we live in an eternal present. Under conditions of capitalist realism it becomes apparently self-evident that (in Terry Eagleton’s words) ‘the future will be pretty much like the present only more so.’[3] The ‘futurity of the future’[4] is cancelled. Indeed, for Fisher, Francis Fukuyama’s famous but widely derided thesis[5] (developed at the very beginning of the period in which capitalist realism emerged) articulated a certain fundamental truth. It was not, contra Fukuyama, that the world was converging on some stable liberal utopia of free trade and perpetual peace. On the contrary, Fisher indicates that the world of capitalist realism is characterised by the ‘normalization of crisis’ (p. 1). What Fukuyama correctly articulated was a vision of the ideological self-image of the post-Cold War period that would come to predominate – an apparent narrowing of the bounds of political possibility and a widespread sense that capitalism had not only defeated its major manifest Twentieth Century challenger, but that it had also, in so doing, destroyed once and for all the very possibility of serious challenge to its ascendency.[6]

The cancellation of the future, Fisher argues further, also robs of us of the past. Without novelty and change the significance of the past evaporates into nothingness. Capitalist realism’s eternal present gives rise to a collective social and cultural malaise. The absence of future and past drains the present of all meaning. Contemporary individuals, for Fisher, inhabit a melancholy and sterile world stripped of hope. It is a deeply unhealthy state of affairs in psychological terms which gives rise to profound anxieties and neuroses at both an individual and social level.

Fisher admits that his thesis is, in many ways, similar to Fredric Jameson’s account of postmodernism[7]. Fisher argues, however, that this does not make capitalist realism a superfluous concept because what Jameson called postmodernism has become so deeply embedded in the collective psyche and the lived reality of people today that it has undergone a kind of qualitative transformation. As Fisher comments elsewhere, ‘Capitalist realism, you might say, is what happens when postmodernism is naturalized’.[8]

Having provided an account of the contemporary cultural malaise, the author’s focus shifts to an analysis of what he argues are two major aporias in capitalist realism and to a discussion of how these might be exploited by the left.[9] Capitalist realism only appears to be seamless and all-encompassing. The naturalisation of capitalism is a measure of capitalist realism’s effectiveness as an ideology but all ideological systems, Fisher suggests, no matter how deeply embedded in the social fabric, have their weaknesses. The way to combat capitalist realism is to identify and tease out its gaps, tensions and contradictions. ‘Capitalist realism’, he states, ‘can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible “realism” turns out to be nothing of the sort’ (p. 16). The two major contradictions in capitalist realism on which Fisher concentrates are mental health and bureaucracy. Many of Fisher’s examples in relation to these two aporias are drawn from the world of Further Education.

Contra the neoliberal assertion that ‘free-market’ consumerism is liberating for individuals, neoliberal capitalism, according to Fisher, ‘installs a perpetual anxiety – there is no security: your position and status are under constant review’.[10] In such conditions a range of mental health problems – depression especially – proliferate. Since today’s burgeoning rates of depression and other forms of mental illness are largely socially and structurally generated they cry out, as Fisher argues, for radical social and political solutions. Yet ‘the current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness’ (p. 37) and insists that these are treated simply in terms of biological-chemical imbalances within specific individuals. The ‘chemico-biologization of mental illness’, Fisher notes, is ‘commensurate with its depoliticization’ (p. 37). Nevertheless, mental illness is one area in which capitalist realism might be challenged by left forces prepared to ‘repoliticize’ depression and mental distress – as Fisher argues, the ‘“mental health plague” in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is [actually] inherently dysfunctional’ (p. 19).

The second aporia on which Fisher focuses is bureaucracy. Neoliberal capitalism likes to present itself as radically anti-bureaucratic. Neoliberalism, indeed, is often defined against an antithetical bureaucratic Other – ‘socialism’ or post-war social democracy which was supposedly characterised by inefficiency, institutional sclerosis and bureaucratic centralisation. Yet the official ideology of neoliberalism ‘is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism’ (p. 20). Fisher points out that ‘new kinds of bureaucracy – “aims and objectives”, “outcomes”, “mission statements” – have proliferated, even as the neoliberal rhetoric about the end of top-down, centralized control has gained pre-eminence’ (p. 40). In fact, these new forms of administration and regulation are, if anything, much more intensely bureaucratic than previous kinds.

As he does for mental health, Fisher draws on examples from the world of education. The bureaucratic measures that he specifies will be painfully familiar to many readers of this journal – endless implementation of new procedures designed to assess and ‘measure’ teaching and research ‘performance’, the grading of research ‘output’ as part of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ and countless other forms of ‘target’ fetishism, hoop-jumping and pointless quantitative assessment of often unquantifiable forms of labour. As Fisher points out, these new forms of bureaucracy are certainly not confined to Higher and Further Education – they are ubiquitous throughout much of the public sector (and beyond). Such measures are, in a qualitative sense, much more oppressive and stifling than earlier Fordist forms of bureaucracy, Fisher suggests. This is because those subject to these procedures are forced to become complicit with them – they demand, and indeed very largely consist in, a kind of perpetual ‘auto-surveillance’ or internal policing on the part of individuals caught up in this system of administration and assessment.

Fisher points out that, inevitably, a ‘short-circuiting’ process occurs. Those caught up in this regime of surveillance know precisely what sort of data the system requires – what sort of ‘audited representation’ of their ‘performance and output’ it wishes to see – and so ‘work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself’ (p. 42). The auditing process, then, becomes more and more pointless – less and less reliable as an indicator of actual work ‘performance’ and increasingly useless as a means of actually improving ‘standards’. Bureaucracy in neoliberalism becomes an end in itself – sui generis – but which requires ever increasing layers of management and of (further) bureaucracy to administer.

Fisher identifies an interesting process of collective pretence that accompanies this system of bureaucracy – one that, ironically, resembles one of the processes that characterised those most bureaucratic of states in the Eastern Bloc. In the Stalinist states, Fisher suggests, (presumably) all of those responsible for the administration of the system must have been aware that it was shabby and corrupt. Yet they were required to pretend that they had not noticed – to act as if the official ideological representation of the system was accurate. A similar process occurs under neoliberalism – everybody caught up in neoliberal regimes of surveillance knows (and, indeed, everybody knows that everybody knows) that the bureaucratic tasks they are required to carry out are pointless, but continue to perform them anyway. Here, Fisher brings in Lacan’s concept of the big Other. Who, Fisher asks, is the consumer of the bureaucratic data we produce? Who is the naïve, gullible subject for whom this material is prepared? It is the big Other. We carry out these tasks in order both to conform to the expectations of this collective fiction and in order to trick it.

The ideologues of neoliberalism like to argue (much as the postmodernists have)[11] that free-market capitalism does away with collective fictions (‘there is no such thing as society’). Yet the continuing centrality of the big Other figure in the collective psyche under neoliberalism gives the lie to this claim. This is one of the ways in which, for Fisher, the self-image of neoliberal capitalism is contradicted by its actual practice. The major point Fisher draws from his analysis of bureaucracy, however, is that the anti-bureaucratic credentials that neoliberalism claims for itself are claimed falsely. Fisher believes that capitalist bureaucracy is a weak point that can be exploited in order to loosen the capitalist realist ideological grip on the contemporary imagination. He argues that the left should build on the desires for a massive reduction of bureaucracy that neoliberalism tapped into but has been incapable of satisfying. Reduction of bureaucracy requires a struggle to democratise the workplace, Fisher suggests – an assertion of worker autonomy.

In the final chapter, Fisher advances some further suggestions in relation to a strategy for the defeat of capitalist realism. He argues that the recent credit crisis and bank bail-outs have severely discredited neo-liberalism and that this has opened up a significant space for strategic manoeuvre on the part of the left. Yet Fisher warns that the current crisis of neoliberalism is not yet a crisis of capitalist realism and that, further, the left is still wedded to modes of thought and methods of organisation and struggle that will prevent it from successfully converting this crisis into a serious challenge to capitalism itself. Fisher implies that many on the left hoped or even expected that the credit crisis, when it broke, might bring down capitalism. However, ‘speculations that capitalism might be on the verge of collapsing soon proved to be unfounded’ (pp. 77-8) and further: ‘It quickly became clear that, far from constituting the end of capitalism, the bank bail-outs were a massive reassertion of the capitalist realist insistence that there is no alternative. Allowing the banking system to disintegrate was held to be unthinkable.’ (p. 78.) While the assumptions of neoliberalism were seriously shaken by the crisis, those of capitalist realism were not. ‘We can now see that, while neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist’, he comments, ‘capitalist realism need not be neoliberal’ (p. 78). Even so, capitalist realism is yet to settle on a coherent replacement for neoliberalism and this period of uncertainty on the part of capital presents a significant opportunity for the left.

Fisher feels, however, that the organised left is currently hamstrung by its continuing adherence to inadequate and out-dated ideas. For example, Fisher excoriates the left for ‘limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state’ (p. 77). He criticises, too, its unimaginative attachment to old forms of industrial action. The most significant problem, he suggests, is that the left is committed to the politics of what he calls ‘immobilization’ – that is, protest in the name of resistance to change rather than to struggle for change. The politics of immobilization implicitly concede that ‘capitalism can only be resisted, never overcome’ (p. 28) and furthermore, according to Fisher, often amounts to a demand that governments return to the comforting certainties of Fordism – a nostalgia for a bygone social-democratic capitalism rather than any sort of challenge to capitalism itself. However, ‘an effective anti-capitalism’, Fisher continues, ‘must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it. … Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality’ (p. 79).

The key to building such an oppositional, rival universality, according to Fisher, is to resurrect and take seriously the concept of the ‘general will’ – that is ‘the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests’ (p. 77). As Fisher indicates in his interview with Fuller[12] one could understand the concept of the ‘general will’, here, in terms of an alternative big Other – an egalitarian and socialist big Other. Here, Fisher draws on Žižek’s arguments in relation to the inescapability of the big Other – of the inevitability and necessity of such a symbolic fiction for society to function.[13] What he proposes, is the construction of a new symbolic fiction that could be counterposed to the prevailing one(s) under capitalist realism in order to provide coherence to a socialist challenge to the system. In this respect Fisher’s approach shares much common ground with Badiou’s ideas in relation to ‘the communist hypothesis’[14] and with Peter Hallward’s work on ‘the politics of prescription’[15] – indeed Hallward, like Fisher, seeks in particular to revive the idea of the ‘general will’ or ‘will of the people’ as the appropriate politico-philosophical embodiment, or bearer, of a new egalitarian symbolic fiction.[16]

Such an egalitarian big Other will not emerge spontaneously. One of the prerequisites for the emergence of such a collective identity, Fisher suggests, is that individuals are freed from the consumerist lassitude in which they are currently trapped and this requires organised political intervention on the part of what Fisher terms a ‘Marxist Supernanny’. The idea of a ‘Marxist Supernanny’ is certainly one of the most provocative ideas in the book and one with which many readers will be instinctively uncomfortable. In the TV programme Supernanny the eponymous protagonist turns up at the houses of parents with out-of-control children to ‘sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve’ (p. 71). Invariably the problem Supernanny identifies is that the children have not been provided with the ‘order’ or ‘structure’ that they need.  Supernanny knows that children are unable to identify their own interests and that without an authority figure in charge who will refuse to cave-in to their immediate demands, their behaviour will degenerate into a chaotic hedonism that, in fact, makes them profoundly unhappy. A ‘Marxist Supernanny’, according to Fisher, would do much the same thing for society as a whole. It would identify the structural causes that give rise to social dysfunction and would ‘be the one who laid down limitations, who acted in our own interests when we are incapable of recognising them ourselves’ (p. 76). Fisher is never quite clear how seriously we are meant to take the idea of a ‘Marxist Supernanny’, what organisational forms it would take, or who exactly might act in its name. Nevertheless, he does indicate that ‘artists and media professionals’ might play a key role. He calls for those employed in broadcasting to produce intellectually challenging pieces of work – to return to something like the BBC’s post-war public service ethic. This kind of ‘paternalism’, Fisher suggests, is not the same as ‘elitism’. On the contrary, it treats its audience with respect – as people capable of dealing with complex ideas.

Fisher is attempting to do something very important in this book. His aim is to grasp the central features of the political-ideological landscape in which we are currently located, and to identify a possible route of exit. It has a practical, strategic purpose – and fresh strategic thinking is precisely what is needed at a time when, even though capitalism is being shaken by severe economic crisis, the radical left seems incapable of making significant political headway. Nevertheless, Fisher, in my view, is not entirely successful in this endeavour and, despite its considerable strengths, the book contains several weaknesses.

I remain unconvinced by one of Fisher’s central contentions: that we have moved into a period qualitatively distinct from others in terms of the prevailing ideology. Fisher shares with postmodernists, in my view, a tendency to exaggerate the novelty and distinctness of the present – and there indeed (notwithstanding Fisher’s, for me, not wholly convincing attempts to draw a distinction between capitalist realism and the condition of postmodernity) is one indication of the non-novelty of capitalist realism. The feeling of having reached ‘the end of history’, in which it seems there is nothing left to do but to play with the wreckage of past belief systems and with inherited cultural and artistic artefacts now drained of all meaning, is nothing new. Fisher, indeed, references T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, which surely articulates the very sense of melancholic cultural and social paralysis, disillusionment and atemporality that Fisher suggests is characteristic of capitalist realism.

Fisher’s account of capitalist realism can be situated within a broader trend in recent thinking – a return to a discourse of chronic alienation. The recent anarchist text, The Coming Insurrection,[17] for example, although very different in many respects, shares much common ground with Fisher’s book in terms of its diagnoses of the various sicknesses and neuroses afflicting modern society – characterised by a stultifying collective sense of alienation. There is much in common with Oliver James’ recent work on mental distress and alienation under conditions of neoliberalism too.[18] Nevertheless, this discourse is very much a revival of ideas that have been in circulation for many decades. One can see very similar accounts of how capitalism gives rise to acute alienation and deep rooted social neuroses in texts from the 1950s and 1960s – in the work of Fromm, Marcuse, Debord and R. D. Laing for example. All of this suggests that there is nothing really very new about what Fisher observes in terms of modern alienation.

Fisher is right to argue that the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ has come to define politics and economics in the present period to an extent that has probably never been seen before and that this has entailed major social and cultural effects. However, I doubt that this narrowing of political horizons in recent years has been quite as dramatic as Fisher suggests. As we have seen, Fisher suggests that the collapse of ‘Really Existing Socialism’ was one of the major catalysts for the onset of the capitalist realist assumption that capitalism is ‘the only game in town’. The logic of Fisher’s argument implies that the apparent alternative represented by ‘Really Existing Socialism’ came to be seen by most people not simply as one form of alternative, but as the only alternative to capitalism – and this seems about right. But for a long time before the Eastern Bloc states collapsed, very few people saw the alternative they represented as an attractive one. So, long before capitalism appeared to become the only feasible political and economic system, it had seemed, to many people, to be the only acceptable one. The difference between acceptable and feasible, here, seems to be minor. If capitalism appears to be the only acceptable system then it is, for all intents and purposes, the ‘only game in town.’ One could argue, then, that the onset of capitalist realism, as Fisher describes it, began long before 1989.

In fact one often feels that what Fisher is really addressing here is not so much the social effects arising from the apparent closing down of alternatives to capitalism in recent years, as those arising out of the apparent closing down of alternatives within capitalism. The last few decades, of course, have seen a relentless assault on the tenets of social-democratic politics and Keynesian economics by neoliberal ideologues. It has been so successful that alternative schools of thought within bourgeois economics and politics have been almost entirely excluded from the mainstream. This, it strikes me, is where most of the narrowing of political-economic horizons has occurred in the period on which Fisher focuses. Of course, none of this is to suggest that Fisher is wrong to argue that the idea of socialism has been largely banished from the purview of popular consciousness. I think he is mistaken, however, to suggest that disbelief in the possibility of socialism is qualitatively more advanced today than it was before 1989 and mistaken, furthermore, to suggest that it is the ideological domination of capitalism in a general sense, rather than the domination of a particular (and particularly noxious) variant of capitalism that really defines the present period.

One of the major frustrations of the book is that Fisher is never quite clear about what exactly capitalist realism is – or, at least, where its conceptual boundaries lie. Of course it is quite possible to grasp what he means by the concept in the broad terms that are set out towards the beginning of the book; that it is a ‘pervasive atmosphere’ (p. 16) – the ‘widespread sense’ (p. 2) that there is no alternative to capitalism. It becomes a rather slippery concept, however, as the book progresses and as Fisher tries to add further substance to the term. In Fisher’s discussion of mental health and bureaucracy, for example, it is never made clear whether Fisher sees the forms of mental illness and the ‘audit culture’ associated with neoliberalism as, in some sense, component parts of capitalist realism (that is, as manifestations of capitalist realism itself), as symptoms of it (as illnesses/processes distinct from, but directly caused by, capitalist realism), or as pernicious social effects of contemporary capitalism more widely which are simply reproduced indirectly by capitalist realism (in that the latter helps to reproduce capitalism). This frustrating vagueness at the heart of the book might well be bound up very intimately with Fisher’s fast-paced writing style. The free-wheeling way in which Fisher writes is one of the book’s pleasures but it has an unfortunate flip-side – one can’t help feeling that Fisher’s argument has a certain cavalier quality to it. That is to say that it tends to move from idea to idea without quite dwelling on any of them long enough for Fisher to really consolidate his argument or reasoning before moving on to the next one. It is easy to suspect, as one is hustled along to the next dazzling point, that, if Fisher stopped to examine more closely the concepts and ideas he develops, many of them might start to unravel.

I was unimpressed by some of what Fisher had to say in relation to left-wing strategy. There is always something implicitly old-hat about claims that we are living in ‘new conditions’ that require ‘new thinking’ and the jettisoning of ‘old-fashioned’ forms of organisation and struggle. There is a history of such claims on the left that goes back at least as far as Bernstein – leftist thinkers have regularly proclaimed established socialist political traditions to be ‘out-dated’ ever since (Crosland, Lyotard and Giddens amongst others). This is not to deny, of course, that the left needs to adapt its thinking to changing circumstances. Fisher rather overstates his case, however, with exaggerated claims of novelty that many readers will feel they have encountered many times before. It does not help that Fisher tends to present a misleading picture of established left-wing thinking. When he writes, for example, that ‘it is now evident that the credit crisis will not lead to the end of capitalism all by itself’ (p. 78), it is clearly implied that some on the left thought this might happen. What serious left-wing thinker, however, believed that the crisis might lead to the collapse of capitalism ‘all by itself’? Fisher advances another caricature in relation to the left’s approach to the state. Since when have the contemporary radical left wanted to set up a ‘big state’, rather than to radically democratise what are currently state functions? Perhaps Fisher is talking about ‘the left’ in a broader sense here – encompassing social democrats and the centre-left – but, if so, he does not make this at all clear.

Fisher’s excoriation of the left for its commitment to ‘immobilization’ and ‘resistance’ to change is also rather wide of the mark. Fisher is right that a crucial part of any anti-capitalist strategy must be the development of an authentic socialist universality. However, he is wrong to suggest that resistance to capitalism, on the one hand, and the construction of a serious challenge to it, on the other, are mutually exclusive strategies. The traditional Marxist approach to this, of course, would be to say that there is a dialectical relationship between defensive struggles to resist the depredations of capital and offensive struggles to replace it. One cannot help feeling that Fisher is presenting a caricature of ‘traditional’ socialist thought in a rush to proclaim the necessity of new thinking.

Amongst the most interesting things about Capitalist Realism is that Fisher tries to rehabilitate a number of concepts that have become quite unfashionable on the left – key amongst these, ‘authority’ and the ‘general will’. Indeed ‘authority’ is, for many, a dirty word – something regarded as self-evidently politically suspect. One of Fisher’s purposes is to ‘think through the opposition between authority and authoritarianism’.[19] Many left-wingers simply assume that the two are synonymous, but ‘it is clear that culture and politics can’t proceed without some kind of authority structure’.[20] This is an important point and Fisher is to be admired for his unabashed defence of the necessity of authority. Similarly, Fisher, in my view, is right to argue that something like the notion of the ‘general will’ is indispensable for the left and for any conception of socialism.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the closely related suggestions Fisher makes in relation to left-wing ‘paternalism’ and what he calls a ‘Marxist Supernanny’. I am still unsure exactly how seriously or how literally we are meant to take these ideas. Clearly, an element of tongue-in-cheek playfulness is involved. It is also fairly clear that the concept of the Marxist Supernanny is bound up with Fisher’s ideas about a left-wing big Other – that is, the Marxist Supernanny refers as much to a collectively shared symbolic fiction as it does to an elite minority of individuals. Nevertheless it does also seem to signify the latter. There is something worrying about this. As we have seen, Fisher’s points about the necessity of authority are well made, and one would not want to fall into the kind of political childishness that regards any kind of leadership as, by definition, dangerous. Further, in terms of the ‘paternalist’ activity of specific individuals performing Supernanny functions, it is reasonably clear that Fisher has in mind, for the most part, nothing more sinister than what Fuller describes as ‘accentuating cultural seriousness’[21] – risk-taking on the part of artists, broadcasters and other cultural workers willing to produce intellectually demanding work for wide public consumption. Even so, there is still a disquieting element of political elitism to all of this – Fisher’s focus, in terms of strategy, seems to revolve very closely around the idea of action by a small group of people to free the majority from a state of childish wretchedness in which they are incapable of identifying their real interests for themselves. There is nothing about a dynamic of interaction between leaders and led, nothing about democratic mass action. One wonders how Marxist this Marxist Supernanny really is.

Capitalist Realism, then, fails to convince in several key respects. The problem often boils down, at least in great part, to Fisher’s tendency to make unsupported and sweeping claims – not least in regard to the supposed qualitative distinctiveness of the capitalist realist present. Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings and ambiguities, Capitalist Realism remains a valuable work of innovative social theory. It is also a highly readable book, not least because of the quality of Fisher’s (often very wry) anecdotal observations of life in capitalist realist society. If for no other reason I would recommend the book to colleagues on the basis of his extraordinarily satisfying description of ‘call center angst’ (p. 64). There is, however, much more to recommend the book than this. There is, for one thing, an impressive commitment to strategic thinking – Fisher wants us to think seriously about how to take advantage of the current economic crisis and the whole book is geared towards this aim. His identification of neoliberal bureaucracy and mental health as two key weak points in the seemingly impenetrable ideological armour of contemporary capitalism, are especially important contributions in this regard. Fisher’s argument would have been strengthened if he had been more careful to substantiate his claims in relation to the supposed novelty of the current period. The argument could also have been made stronger, perhaps, if it had considered the extent to which the prevailing assumption today that ‘there is no alternative’ is rooted in the apparent closing down of alternatives within capitalism – alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism that is – just as much as in the apparent collapse of confidence in the possibility of socialism. Further, Fisher’s ideas in relation to strategy might have been improved had he attempted to integrate his discussion of authority and concepts such as the ‘general will’ and the ‘Marxist Supernanny’ into a more dialectical account of the relationship between leadership and mass struggle ‘from below’ in socialist politics.

Reviewed by Ed Rooksby

Southampton University


Badiou, Alain 2010, The Communist Hypothesis, London: Verso.

Eagleton, Terry 2002, ‘A Shelter in the Tempest of History’, Red Pepper, available at:

Fisher, Mark 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.

Fukuyama, Francis 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, London: Penguin.

Fuller, Matthew 2009, ‘Questioning Capitalist Realism: An Interview with Mark Fuller’, MR Zine, available at:

Hallward, Peter 2005, ‘The Politics of Prescription’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 104, 4: 769-789.

Hallward, Peter 2009, ‘The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy, 155: 17-29.

James, Oliver 2007, Affluenza, London: Vermillion.

James, Oliver 2008, The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, London: Vermillion.

Jameson, Fredric 1991, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.

The Invisible Committee 2009, The Coming Insurrection, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Wilson, Rowan 2010, ‘Mark Fisher’, available at:

Žižek, Slavoj 1999, The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London: Verso

[2] Wilson 2010.

[3] Eagleton 2002. Eagleton uses this phrase in a slightly different context, but it seems appropriate here.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fukuyama 1991.

[6] Of course, Fukuyama believed all of this to be true rather than merely apparent.

[7] Jameson 1991.

[8] Wilson 2010.

[9] Here, indeed, Fisher goes beyond Jameson in identifying specific weak points in the almost all encompassing grip of capitalist ideological hegemony and in offering some relatively concrete suggestions in relation to a counter-hegemonic offensive.

[10] Wilson 2010.

[11] As Fisher points out, Lyotard’s notion of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ mirrors neoliberal claims that free-market capitalism dissolves the collective fantasies of earlier periods.

[12] Fuller 2009.

[13] Žižek 1999.

[14] Badiou 2010.

[15] Hallward 2005.

[16] See Hallward 2009.

[17] The Invisible Committee 2009.

[18] James 2007 and 2008.

[19] Fuller 2009.

[20] Ibid. On this point see also Žižek 1999.

[21] Fuller 2009.

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Review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History

This was first published at New Left Project in two parts.

Review of Liberalism: a Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo (London: Verso, 2011)

Ed Rooksby  

1. Summary 

Beyond liberal hagiography

As Anthony Arblaster has pointed out, the history of liberalism has, in the main, been written by liberals and, consequently, liberalism tends to get a rather better press than it would probably otherwise enjoy (see Arblaster, 1984: p. ix). Indeed liberal definitions of liberalism are often more than faintly self-congratulatory – frequently, they consist of a list of Good Things that are taken to be the core, defining values and commitments of this political tradition. A typical list might include such values as liberty, respect for the individual, democracy, tolerance, human rights, scepticism and reason for example. Thus, in many liberal accounts, the historical rise of this political ideology is a story of unalloyed progress – the emergence, generalisation and consolidation of enlightenment and freedom.

Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History is written in deliberate opposition to this prevailing wisdom. His aim is to get beyond what he calls the ‘habitual hagiography’ and to present a much more critical account of liberalism and its historical rise to ascendancy. Losurdo is clear that one cannot adequately understand this political tradition (or, by extension, any other) simply with reference to proclaimed normative commitments in abstraction from the concrete social and political relations that liberalism actually established and found expression in. It is a peculiar characteristic of liberal thought, in fact, to assume that political ideas can be analysed and grasped in a state of more or less abstract purity with little or no reference to the concrete social conditions in which those ideas emerge and are manifested. Indeed it is only on this basis that liberalism can maintain its highly flattering view of itself. The history of liberalism as a political movement – as an evolving set of political practices (as well as of ideas) that established and reproduced a shifting series of concrete social relations – is, in fact, not a very pretty one as Losurdo shows. Analysed in this way the history of liberalism as a political movement is a history of coercive expropriation, violence, racism and exploitation as much as, if not even more than, it is a history of the unfolding extension of modern individual liberty, political rights and so on. Losurdo’s focus throughout remains very much on the dark side of liberal history since it is this that is consistently obscured and repressed in the prevailing historical narrative. It is in this sense that Losurdo’s book is a counter-history – it is intended as a corrective or a counterweight to liberal hagiography.

Liberal paradoxes

Losurdo’s counter-history begins with a paradox. The birth and early consolidation of the liberal political order – supposedly an order devoted to liberty – was accompanied by concurrent expansion and intensification of colonial slavery. Indeed the three countries that Losurdo identifies as the key pioneers of liberalism – Holland, England/Britain and America – were all deeply involved in the slave trade and in the direct employment of slave labour. It is not just that slavery and the slave trade persisted despite the success of liberal revolutions in these countries, Losurdo stresses, it is that slavery ‘experienced its maximum development following that success’ (p. 35).[1] For example, liberalism was decisively consolidated in England, according to Losurdo, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – by the mid-18th Century Britain owned more slaves than any other country. The institution of slavery reached its fullest development in America only after the victory of the revolutionary war of independence that established a new liberal political order in that country. Furthermore, the institution of slavery took on its most historically oppressive form in this period. In previous ages slavery was not always hereditary and, in addition, slaves could reasonably hope that they or their children might be able to achieve free status. The form of slavery that emerged with the liberal revolutions, however, was much more radical. This period saw slaves increasingly reduced to chattels and established slavery as a permanent, hereditary condition from which it was almost impossible to escape.  Furthermore, slavery under liberalism took on a racial character – the institution was increasingly justified by its apologists in terms of an ideology of white supremacy and the non- or sub-human status of black people. The ‘rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery’, Losurdo points out, ‘are the product of a twin birth’ (p. 37) – one cannot adequately understand the former in abstraction from the latter and vice versa.

A similar paradox emerges in relation to liberalism and colonialism. The core liberal states were deeply involved in territorial and colonial conquest (whether overseas in the case of Holland and England/Britain or in terms of continental expansion in the case of the United States). Indeed, colonialism reached its apogee with the diffusion and consolidation of liberalism across Europe in the late 19th Century. The spread of a doctrine supposedly committed to ideals of freedom and self-government, then, seems to have been very closely bound up with practices of invasion, conquest, violent subjection and domination of foreign peoples. Just as in the case of slavery colonial expansionism in the liberal period was closely intertwined with an ideology of racial supremacy. This racism often took murderous, even genocidal, forms. The victory of the American Revolution for example was followed by accelerated seizure of land from Native Americans on the part of white settlers – a process of territorial expansion that involved not just expropriation and expulsion but organised and deliberate massacre too. This was justified with reference to the alleged inferiority of ‘Indian’ peoples – branded as ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘wild beasts’.

The forms of intensified oppression and domination bound up with the rise of liberalism were not confined, however, to the colonies. Losurdo shows how the lives of what he calls ‘white servants’ and the poor in the metropolis underwent, in many ways, a marked deterioration in at least the early period of liberalism’s ascendancy. The late 17th Century and 18th Century, Losurdo points out (quoting R. H. Tawney), saw ‘“an attitude of unprecedented harshness spread in England towards wage labourers and the unemployed”’ (p. 33). This harshness towards the poor was reflected in increasingly draconian criminal penalties. From 1688 to 1820 the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to around 200-250 and almost all of these were crimes against property. From 1717 deportation of criminals – which amounted to a form of penal slavery – assumed major proportions. Particularly harsh treatment was meted out to beggars, vagrants and those unable to support themselves financially. The workhouse system which reached its fullest development in the 19th Century was, of course, deliberately designed to be ‘as odious as possible in order to reduce the number of those who sought refuge in them’ (p.72). Orphans and children of the poor were often sold on the market as virtual slaves. Interestingly, the gulf between masters and servants in the metropolis was often explained or justified in semi-racial terms. The lower classes were regarded as, more or less, a race apart – born to serve their natural masters like black slaves in the colonies.

Losurdo is clear that there is no straight-forward conflict between contemporary liberal thought on the one hand and the practice of liberal states or dominant classes within those states on the other. Indeed Losurdo draws out the various justifications and apologetics for slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, and class oppression propagated by a range of figures from the canon of liberal thought. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Locke (usually regarded as the father of liberalism) emerges as a particularly unpleasant theorist in this respect. Infamously, Locke’s Second Treatise seeks to justify the forcible expropriation of ‘Indians’ and indeed the destruction of those who resist. Locke’s brutal views, however, are far from exceptional or unusual amongst key figures in the liberal tradition. Jefferson, for example, called for the ‘extermination’ of Native Americans (and, of course, most of the major protagonists of the American Revolution were slave owners). Bentham was an enthusiast of the workhouse system – which, famously, he wanted to perfect along the lines of his ‘Panopticon’ design for total control and surveillance. In one of the greatest texts of liberal political philosophy, On Liberty, J. S. Mill seeks to justify (temporary) colonialism and European ‘despotism’ over ‘barbarians’.

Liberalism’s logic of exclusion

How do we make sense of this paradox at the heart of liberalism – the simultaneous invocation of liberty on the one hand and the justification and promulgation of severe forms of oppression on the other? The key to all of this, Losurdo argues, is to grasp that liberalism is founded on an implicit logic of exclusion. Only once we have understood this can we start to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. Liberalism has always pivoted, Losurdo argues, on drawing a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those who are worthy or capable (morally, intellectually, biologically/racially) of the gamut of rights and liberties we associate with liberalism and those who are not. Liberalism was always, of course, centrally concerned with the condemnation and limitation of despotic power and the corresponding assertion of rights to self-government, autonomy and so on – but this struggle was always waged by, and on behalf of, an exclusive section of humanity – what Losurdo terms ‘the community of the free’. The history of liberalism is thus in great part a history of how the particular specification and location of the boundary line between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded has evolved and shifted.

With this exclusionary logic in mind we can make sense of the paradoxes of liberal slavery, liberal empire and liberal authoritarianism towards wage labourers and the poor. In each of these three apparent paradoxes we are, in fact, confronting particular instances of the opposition between the justly free and the justly unfree. It is not that the brutal world of slavery, for example, represented a failure or negation of proclaimed liberal values, or revealed the hypocrisy of contemporary liberals, it is that the ‘community of the free’ in which the sphere of liberal rights and freedoms applied did not, and was not intended, to encompass black people. Liberalism, for Losurdo, was never a doctrine of moral universalism. We can see now, how racism and class contempt operated as necessary ideological supports for this system of exclusion. Slavery and colonial expropriation and domination was justified on the grounds that non-white peoples were by definition uncivilised, in a condition of ‘nonage’ (Mill), not fully human or even ‘savage beasts’ (Locke) and were thus rightly excluded from the ‘community of the free’. Similarly, workers and the poor in the metropolis were not intelligent, morally developed or, again, human enough to be admitted into the sacred space of the free community of liberals.

It is not just that liberalism was long characterised by exclusion for Losurdo – it is also that, to a great extent, the liberty of the community of the free has depended on the exclusion and oppression of the unfree. That is, the relationship between the community of the free and the excluded has been one of exploitation in which the privileges of the former have been rooted in the expropriation and coercion of the unfree. It is here that class relations come into play. The twin birth of liberalism and the slave trade is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the changing self-conception and growing confidence of a propertied class becoming increasingly wealthy from the slave trade and from direct exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. ‘The wealth and leisure…  [that this class] enjoyed, and the culture it thus managed to acquire’, Losurdo argues:

reinforced the proud self-consciousness of a class that became ever more intolerant of the abuses of power, the intrusions, the interference and the constraints of political power or religious authority. Shanking off these constraints, the planter and slave owner developed a liberal spirit and liberal mentality. (p. 38)

This explains the intensification of slavery with the victory of the liberal revolutions. The defeat of the British in America, for example, allowed the American ex-colonists to intensify their accumulation of wealth and power through the exploitation of slave labour once they had achieved political and economic autonomy – once the externally imposed constraints on this process of expanding riches and power had been removed. Similarly, the increasingly draconian measures of repression and control exerted over ‘white servants’ in the metropolis is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the rise and generalisation of capitalist property relations. As the bourgeoisie became wealthier they demanded greater political power and condemned the ‘interferences’ and ‘intrusions’ of the ancien regime. The consolidation of liberalism – i.e. the new capitalist political and social relations – in England in 1688 set the scene for an intensification of capitalist exploitation. As Marx pointed out a process of accelerated ‘primitive accumulation’ – the expropriation of peasants to make way for large landowners – took place after the Glorious Revolution. This augmented the wealth, power and self-confidence of the propertied class but also gave rise to the need to strictly discipline the dispossessed and the emerging class of urban wage-labourers with little material stake in the new order.

We can see, then, that liberalism brought freedom for some and unfreedom for others and that, indeed this freedom and unfreedom were mutually intertwined. Losurdo, indeed, argues that (as against the hagiography) the history of liberalism must be understood as a ‘tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation’ (p. 301) rather than as a story of progressively unfolding freedom. The exclusionary logic of the tradition means that it can be no other. Interestingly, Losurdo argues that this exclusionary logic is present in the historical beginnings of the term ‘liberal’ as a political label. In the period of liberalism’s rise, Losurdo shows, the term ‘liberal’ was defined by antithesis both to monarchical absolutism and to the plebeian mass. One finds the term associated, for example, with those who have received a ‘liberal education’ – a group who are contrasted with those labelled ‘mechanics’ or ‘common people’ (see pp. 241-6). From the start, then, the label ‘liberal’ has possessed elite and exclusive, class connotations.

Liberals and radicals

With the French Revolution a new political tradition Losurdo terms ‘radicalism’ started to emerge. This tradition has a complex relationship with liberalism for the author, but Losurdo tends to treat them as more or less clearly distinct traditions. The main line of division between liberals and radicals, for Losurdo, is that the latter were prepared to support and encourage ‘revolution from below’. Indeed it was the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolution in France that transformed that revolt from a liberal revolution into a radical one. France was not the only major geographical locus of this emerging radical tradition. The slave revolt in San Domingo (Haiti) and the revolutions in Latin America associated with Simon Bolivar also manifested and drove forward this new tradition for Losurdo. All three radical revolutions met with great hostility on the part of liberalism in general – indeed, a kind of cold war stand-off developed between the US and San Domingo/Haiti after the slave revolt.

The struggle for recognition and the evolution of liberalism

Much of the book is taken up with an account of how liberalism’s demarcation of the boundary between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded shifted and evolved over the centuries. From the 19th Century especially liberalism was increasingly transformed by the struggles of the excluded within the metropolis. Losurdo characterises this struggle (along with the emancipatory struggles of the colonised) as a ‘struggle for recognition’. These were struggles for inclusion – for a redrawing of the line of division between the ‘community of the free’ and the excluded. Liberals responded to these social struggles in a variety of ways. In response to working class demands for the vote, for example, it was asserted that further expansion of the political to encompass the enfranchisement of the poor was intolerable and, anyway, impossible – the demands ran counter to the ‘natural’ hierarchical order ordained by God. Once the working class had won political concessions, however, the liberal reaction fell back on a new line of defence. While political rights for the lower orders might now be tolerable, the extension of social and economic rights had to be resisted. It was now asserted that working and living conditions had no political relevance. In this way material class inequalities were expelled from the realm of the political.

Nevertheless, social and economic concessions were increasingly wrung from the liberal state. By the late 19th Century liberalism had split into two major factions. One of these was prepared to reform capitalism fairly significantly in response to the struggles of the excluded – this faction, associated with figures such as T. H. Green, become known as ‘the New Liberalism’ and eventually produced key 20th Century liberal reformers such as Keynes and Beveridge. Opposed to this faction was a group of liberals (such as Herbert Spencer and, later, Ludwig Von Mises) who opposed and resented the concessions granted by the New Liberals – this group held fast to a more classical conception of liberalism and invoked the inviolable liberal right of the property-owner to dispose of his property without state ‘interference’. From Losurdo’s perspective this latter faction sought, essentially, to shore up and reassert a sharp dividing line in the metropolis between the ‘community of the free’ (bourgeois property owners) and the excluded (workers, servants, the poor and so on).

2. Critique

Losurdo’s argument is certainly striking. Even those familiar with radical critique of liberalism and, indeed, with the historical crimes committed in liberalism’s name, will find some of the practices and political positions uncovered by the author shocking. Certainly, as counter-history, as a broadside against liberal hagiography, the book is highly effective. Furthermore, Losurdo’s core argument – that, more than anything else, liberalism is defined by an internal logic of inclusion/exclusion – is original and audacious. It is, in a sense, an inversion of the prevailing view in relation to this political tradition. Liberalism, for Losurdo, is not, at its heart, a doctrine of universal normative principles, but an exercise in separating the legitimately free from the legitimately unfree, masters from servants, ‘us’ from ‘them’ and thus it is fundamentally an ideology of domination. This is a powerful argument. Nevertheless, while I am sympathetic to much of what Losurdo argues I am also unconvinced by much of the book.

Losurdo’s method

Jennifer Pitts has rightly pointed out that much of Losurdo’s argument feels extraordinarily tendentious and ungenerous in relation to liberal thought. The book is, of course, a counter-history – and as such it is not really meant to provide a painstakingly ‘balanced’ picture – but, even so, the narrative that Losurdo constructs is, as Pitts suggests, much ‘more “counter” than history’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8). That is, the argument tends frequently to slide into highly polemical form in which there seems to be little room for historical objectivity. Further, the method Losurdo uses to construct his narrative often feels rather suspect. As Pitts remarks, Losurdo tends to ‘string together passages from a disparate set of thinkers in order to construct “liberal” positions’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8) in favour of a range of brutal, racist, elitist and otherwise unpleasant practices, prejudices and beliefs. But Losurdo’s choices of passages and quotations often seem highly selective and, thus, not necessarily very representative of liberal thought generally. Losurdo’s modus operandi, quite frequently, is to present a snippet of writing from two or three theorists or essayists on a particular subject and to suggest or imply rather breezily that these are typical of liberal thought as a whole – but we are often given no very good reason to believe that they really are typical. All in all the reader is frequently left with the nagging suspicion that the narrative Losurdo presents is distorted by an over-riding intention to show liberalism in the worst possible light on any given issue. In a discussion of liberalism and eugenics, for example, Losurdo refers to a disturbing line of thought on the part of Sieyès who envisaged a ‘“cross” between monkeys and “blacks” for creating domesticated beings adapted to servile work’ (p. 114). Losurdo refers to several other ideas for ensuring the hereditary reproduction of a docile servant class proposed or imagined by other liberal figures, but Sieyès’ is by far the most shocking. The clear implication is that Sieyès’ fantasy is in some way representative of broader liberal thinking at the time – but Losurdo provides no evidence that other liberals (let alone a significant number of them) would ever have countenanced such an idea.

Liberals, conservatives and radicals

Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example.[2] The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well.

The problem we encounter in relation to Losurdo’s treatment of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is inverted when it comes to his presentation of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism – the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated. One of the problems with Losurdo’s argument in this respect is that the radical tradition, in his schema, seems to arrive out of nowhere as a more or less fully formed and distinct political outlook at the time of the French Revolution. But where have these radical ideas suddenly come from? What were the historical conditions of their emergence? Why did they emerge precisely at this point? They cannot simply have appeared spontaneously out of nothing. Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to regard radicalism as, precisely, a radicalised form of what already existed – didn’t radicalism involve, in other words, a radicalisation of liberal ideas? One can certainly trace, for example, a clear line of continuity between the ‘liberal’ beginnings of the revolution in France, driven largely from above by a wealthy social elite seeking to limit the power of the monarch, and the more radical Jacobin phase. We are not dealing with two hermetically sealed revolutionary processes here – an entirely liberal one and an entirely radical one with no relation between the two even though one happened to occur immediately after the other and involved many of the same participants. Clearly the radical phase of the revolution grew directly out of the ‘liberal’ phase. The clear point of transition between the two phases comes, as Losurdo rightly points out, with the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolutionary process. But this intervention is best explained in terms of the popular masses seeking directly to stake a claim in the new order of liberty and equality that had been declared earlier in the revolution. Essentially, the radical phase sought to realise the universalist principles that had been declared in the earlier period more fully and consistently. The relationship between the two phases of the French Revolution provides us, it seems to me, with a pretty good indication of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism more broadly. The two traditions are not sharply distinct from each other at all – radicalism emerges from within the liberal tradition and involves, furthermore, a radicalisation of liberal ideas and principles.

Exclusion as the defining feature of liberalism?

This brings us to the central part of Losurdo’s argument – his view that liberalism is defined by its implicit logic of exclusion. If radicalism did emerge from liberalism then it must follow that there is something much more substantial to liberalism than a core logic of exclusion – there must be some coherent ideological and normative content over and above its tendency to exclude, to be radicalised. Clearly, it is true that the history of liberalism has been marked by systematic exclusion as Losurdo ably shows – but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that exclusion is the core, defining feature of the tradition.

It is possible in fact (without falling into the trap of hagiography) to identify certain long running commitments on the part of liberalism in terms of ideas, values and principles. Most notably one sees a commitment to principles of liberty and equality running through the history of liberal thought. These principles crop up time and again in liberal political philosophy. These political commitments are, in addition, typically rooted in an underlying philosophical individualism. All political traditions are, in my view, based on a particular conception and theory of human nature and society – the core political commitments and values of any given tradition flow from, and are shaped by, that tradition’s particular conception of the nature of humanity. In the liberal approach human beings are, first and foremost, individuals. This foundation is simultaneously ontological and ethical. That is, it sees the human individual as more fundamental and more real, than society, and at the same time regards the individual as much more morally valuable than any collective entity. The commitment to liberty, then, is usually conceived in radically individualist terms – one exercises one’s freedom as a fundamentally self-sufficient individual. This is where the traditional liberal emphasis on individual rights and to freedom from government or social interference in the ‘private sphere’ comes from. The liberal view of individual liberty in itself implies equality. Liberal individuals are equal primarily in terms of their individuality. They are equally unique. This ontological and ethical worldview, then, and the normative commitments to liberty and equality (or a particular individualistic conception of those principles), is what defines liberalism as a political philosophical tradition.[3]

Losurdo rejects this sort of view – he argues that liberalism cannot possibly be defined in these terms because, historically, it rode roughshod over these principles in relation to the treatment of slaves, colonial peoples and the poor. Where was liberal liberty and equality for slaves, he asks, and how was the individuality of vagrants and Native Americans respected? In practice all of these groups were excluded. But this is precisely the issue. In practice these subaltern and dominated groups were excluded from the core principles that liberalism proclaimed for itself. So exclusion is a major feature of the history of liberalism – and Losurdo is right that we can’t grasp the concrete history of the tradition in any adequate or, indeed, in any honest way without acknowledging that terrible fact – but it is not the defining feature.

It is, in part, the particularly abstract terms in which liberalism conceives of its own core values and the similarly abstract conception of human nature that underpins these values that provides the conceptual space for exclusion and subordination in practice. Liberal philosophical individualism and the individualist conceptions of liberty and equality that flow from this basis typically take little account of concrete social relations and substantive, material inequalities of wealth and power. Class relations are largely invisible in this schema. Liberalism’s typical refusal to descend from realms of high philosophical abstraction allows it to claim, quite happily, that liberal society embodies universal liberty and equality even while actually existing liberal society is marked by deep inequalities, by relations of mastery and subjection in the realm of production and by systemic exploitation. It is this feature of liberalism, indeed, that Marx identifies in his critique of the ‘formally’ free and equal citizen of bourgeois society – liberal thinking here, provides an ideological mask for class exploitation by obscuring and refusing to acknowledge the concrete conditions in which human individuals actually live and work.

Beyond this, however, it is often more than clear that much classical liberal theory expends a lot of energy in trying to rationalise and explain away actually existing exclusion. Locke spends much of his time, for example, trying to square slavery, expropriation and exploitation with the basic principles he also espouses – the liberty and equality of ‘Man’. This, it is probably fair to say is the whole point of his theoretical endeavours. He is trying to justify the concrete forms of class and racial oppression that he supports and to reconcile these (through various theoretical acrobatic contortions) with the core normative principles he claims to espouse. So it is possible to argue, then, that much liberal philosophy is driven by the fundamental tension between liberalism’s core normative commitments, on the one hand, and the way in which liberal society is founded on relations of oppression and exploitation on the other. Liberal philosophy, in other words, is continually engaged in an agonised and never-ending process of trying to square a circle. That is one reason why there is so much of it.

So exclusion, here, emerges as something that has to be continually explained away and rationalised in relation to liberal values rather than as, in itself, a core commitment. One can see the tension between exclusion and principle in the attacks of guilty conscience that occasionally afflict liberal thinkers. Losurdo himself points to such bad conscience on the part of liberals in relation to the oppressive politico-social relations that ‘most blatantly gave the lie to their proclaimed attachment to the cause of liberty’ (p. 278). Here, indeed, Losurdo lets slip liberal attachment to a universal normative principle – notwithstanding the reference to this attachment being a ‘lie’, the mismatch between proclaimed principle and concrete reality seems to be a matter of some importance. The proclaimed attachment is indeed a keenly felt one and the failure to live up to it is seen as a matter of real distress. This sort of bad conscience on the part of liberals is inexplicable if exclusion really is the central commitment at the heart of liberalism. If so, what is all the guilt and embarrassment about?

It is also quite difficult to explain the successes of the ‘struggle for recognition’ waged by the excluded unless we understand that this struggle drew on the normative resources provided by liberalism itself. From where did these struggles draw their moral force and power? The struggle for recognition was not just a matter of force (though that was a crucially important part of it) it was also a matter of shaming social elites and winning support from some of them – a process of moral persuasion and of winning the argument. It is precisely because liberalism proclaims universal values for itself – commitment to liberty and equality for all – that these values provide a kind of ideological-ethical ammunition for struggle on the part of those who are, in practice, subjected to conditions of unfreedom and inequality. Groups who are in reality excluded from the realm of liberal equality and freedom can draw on the stated or implicit universalism of these liberal principles and demand their inclusion.[4] The ‘struggle for recognition’ Losurdo describes then seems to have been dependent on some sort of universalist ethical and normative core to the liberal tradition over and above its exclusionary practices.

Absences and omissions

Another set of shortcomings in Losurdo’s book relates to absences and omissions. For one thing, several major figures in the history of liberal thought receive only minor walk on roles in the narrative or do not appear at all. Kant for example is surely a major figure in liberal philosophy. Yet he receives scant attention in this book. Perhaps the cursory attention he gets is related to the fact that Losurdo has to admit that (because of his condemnation of slavery and colonialism and his enthusiasm for the revolution in France), Kant ‘came close to radicalism’ (p. 178), which, given Kant’s indisputable importance within the liberal tradition, seems to throw Losurdo’s rather arbitrary distinction between radicals and liberals into confusion and also threatens to undermine the argument about the centrality within liberalism of commitment to exclusion. It is also rather strange that liberal economics is hardly mentioned at all. The history of liberal economic theory is a hugely important aspect of the history of the liberal tradition as a whole – it is surprising that it is largely ignored.

In addition relatively recent developments within liberal political philosophy are left out of the picture altogether. There is a very brief discussion of 20th Century liberalism but Losurdo’s narrative does not extend beyond 1914 in any detail and does not extend beyond 1945 at all. This, needless to say, means that a great deal of liberal thought is ignored altogether. Of course, the production of a fully comprehensive history of liberalism would have been a mammoth endeavour and could not possibly have been squeezed into one book. Nevertheless the book seems to come to a rather abrupt halt somewhere in the early 20th Century and the rationale for this stopping off point is never adequately explained. I would like to have seen how Losurdo believes his liberal logic of exclusion has evolved and developed in recent times – what are the continuing manifestations, effects and legacies of this logic today? It would also have been interesting to have seen how Losurdo situates recent egalitarian liberal political philosophy of the Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian type in relation to his argument about exclusion. I suspect that Losurdo would have had great difficulty in integrating contemporary liberal theory into his overall schema – is this, perhaps, one reason why his history ends where it does?


Overall, the book has much to recommend it. For one thing, Losurdo provides a valuable corrective to what he calls the hagiography – setting out, in great detail, the dark side of liberal thought and practice. For critics of liberalism, the book provides a useful compendium of the crimes of the liberal era and also of the more unpleasant things that liberal theorists have advocated and defended. The book will probably become a major ‘go to’ source of references for anyone seeking a choice quotation in which the unacceptable face of liberalism is revealed in its full ugliness. Nevertheless, many of Losurdo’s key arguments are not persuasive. The core argument in relation to the logic of exclusion that Losurdo believes really defines this tradition is an unusual and interesting one. While exclusion has certainly been a major feature of the history of liberalism (a fact much obscured by the hagiography) I do not believe that it is correct to regard this as the central and defining commitment at the heart of the liberal tradition. Instead it makes more sense, in my view, to regard liberalism as a political tradition defined by a long-running commitment to two core universal normative commitments – liberty and equality – which are, in turn, rooted in a radically individualist ontology. These principles are imbued with an inherently subversive quality in that they are always implicitly in conflict with social structures and institutions that manifest inequality and oppression. The history of the liberal era – which saw the consolidation and rapid growth of capitalism and, in its early phases (as part of this process of consolidation and growth), slavery and colonialism – has thus been one of permanent tension between the core principles liberalism has espoused and the supposed institutionalisation of these principles in the structures of liberal society. The problem for those whose interests have lain in the maintenance and defence of exploitation has been that those in practice excluded from the realm of liberal liberty and equality can appeal to liberal principles in order to demand inclusion – and with each rectification of injustice, further injustices are exposed and other oppressed groups are inspired to struggle for their own liberation too. Thus the age of liberalism is characterised not merely by exclusion but also by a process of permanent revolution in which a series of social groups – slaves, women, workers – rise up to stake their claim to liberty and equality. In this process liberal ideals are pushed forward and made progressively realised more fully by the struggles of the marginalised. Liberalism has never just been a simple legitimating ideology for the powerful and wealthy – drawing and justifying crude dividing lines between the free and unfree – as Losurdo’s argument suggests it has been. On the contrary, liberalism has always been a battleground – a shifting terrain of struggle on which a war between masters and servants, exploiters and exploited has been fought out.


Arblaster, Anthony. 1984. The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Balibar, Etienne. 1994. Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx. London: Routledge.

Balibar, Etienne. 2004. “Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible? New Reflections on Equaliberty”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103: 2/3 (Spring/Summer), 311-22.

Callinicos, Alex. 2000. Equality. Cambridge, England: Polity.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: a Counter-History. London: Verso.

Pitts, Jennifer. 2011. “Free for all”, Times Literary Supplement, September 23rd 2011.

Rooksby, Ed. (forthcoming). “The Relationship between Liberalism and Socialism”, Science & Society.

Seymour, Richard (2011) ‘Liberals and Reactionaries’, on ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ [available:]

[1] All quotations specifying page numbers only are quotations from Losurdo’s book.

[2] On this see Richard Seymour’s blog-post on Losurdo’s book – Seymour, 2011.

[3] This argument is developed in more depth in a forthcoming article in Science & Society (see references). See also Arblaster, 1984.

[4] For similar arguments developed in much more depth, see Balibar, 1994 and 2004, and Callinicos, 2000. See also Rooksby (forthcoming).


Domenico Losurdo’s ‘Liberalism: a Counter-History’

The first part of my review of Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History is now available at the New Left Project.

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Review of David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital

[This is a longer version – an earlier draft I had to cut down – of a review which first appeared on the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books website]

David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital:  and the Crises of Capitalism. Profile Books, London, 2010.

Mainstream economics, David Harvey points out, was taken completely by surprise when the current crisis first broke in 2007-8 and is still unable to provide an adequate account of the major economic difficulties still on-going two to three years later, let alone identify a convincing exit route.  It has never been clearer that the quasi-mathematical abstractions and dogmatic, otherworldly assertions that go to make up neoclassical orthodoxy simply do not successfully describe real economic processes. Yet, as Harvey laments, even despite its obvious failings, neoclassical economics continues to exert a tight hegemonic grip in universities and elsewhere. Indeed, one can’t help but admire the sheer chutzpah of a school of thought which, when confronted with economic realities that it cannot explain and which, indeed, seem to run counter to many of its central assumptions, simply carries on regardless (after, perhaps, a very brief moment of self-doubt) as if nothing very much had happened. Harvey’s aim in The Enigma of Capital is to cut through the hopelessly myopic orthodoxy and help restore a critical understanding of the systemic logic of capitalism and of the role that periodic crisis plays within that logic.

The organising metaphor that Harvey deploys at the beginning of the book is to describe capital as the ‘lifeblood that flows through the body politic… spreading out, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a flood, into every nook and cranny of the inhabited world’ (p. vi). Indeed the focus throughout the book is on the ‘flow’ of capital – which, for Harvey, is not a ‘thing’ but a constantly moving and dynamic process which cannot be analysed in static terms.  Like the human body, capitalism must be understood as an organic system that is constantly in motion – one cannot fully grasp any one component element of capitalism except in relation to its place within the systemic whole, just as one could not really understand the significance of a particular organ of the human body without reference to its function within the corporal totality. Furthermore, capitalism, for Harvey, is permanently in flux – constantly shifting and renewing itself in a perpetual process of what Schumpeter termed ‘creative destruction’.  For Harvey, Marxism provides by far the best conceptual and theoretical resources with which to understand capitalism – it is the only approach that is adequately equipped to analyse capitalism in the dialectical, dynamic terms that can provide us with an understanding of the systemic character of capital flow. It is, moreover, the only approach that can provide us with an adequate understanding of capitalist crisis, including the crisis that we are currently living through. In this respect, Harvey’s metaphorical description of capital as the ‘lifeblood’ of the body politic is particularly useful. As the ‘lifeblood’ of capitalism, should the flow of capital be slowed down or suspended the whole system goes into crisis. Much of the book is taken up with analysis of the various obstructions and barriers to capital flow that can bring about crisis.

The book begins with a detailed account of the current crisis. Harvey then sets this crisis in longer term historical context – presenting it as the latest (and most serious) of a series of structural crises that have emerged since the long post-war boom petered out in the early 1970s. For me, this is one of the most impressive sections of the book. Harvey manages to provide an in-depth, but still highly accessible, overview of the present crisis and of major macroeconomic developments and trends over the last 40 or so years in just under 40 pages. This is no mean feat. Harvey’s narrative here is of great interest. Capitalism, he explains, has in effect moved from one crisis to another since the end of the long boom. With falling profitability as the boom slowed, capital found the relative political and economic strength of organised labour (whose strength was institutionally embedded in, and bolstered by, the corporatist structures of the ‘Keynesian consensus’) increasingly constraining. Scarcities of labour further contributed to the problem. Capital and its political representatives responded to this crisis in a number of complementary ways in order to drive down wages – encouraging immigration to ease labour shortages and to undercut unionised labour, ‘going global’ in order to seek out cheaper pools of labour abroad and, probably most significantly, using state power to crush organised labour at home either directly (in, for example, Thatcher’s and Reagan’s confrontations with British miners and American air-traffic controllers respectively) or indirectly through the deliberate pushing up of unemployment. The overcoming of labour cost problems, however, eventually created further problems for capital – repression of wages simultaneously drove down workers’ spending power, too, and thus reduced the rate of effective demand. Capital’s solution to this problem was to extend the credit system and to encourage debt-fuelled consumer spending. However, this solution, in turn, eventually became the source of serious problems for capitalism because it ‘ultimately led to working-class over-indebtedness relative to income that in turn led to a crisis of confidence in the quality of debt instruments (as began to happen in 2006)’ (p. 117). Furthermore, the financial crisis that blew up in 2007-8 must be seen as the culmination of a series of inter-related financial crises over recent years (each with a different geographical epicentre) – the East-Asian crisis of 1997, the Russian crisis of 1998, the Argentine crisis of 2001. The 2007-8 crisis was the moment at which this rolling series of crises finally ‘came home’ to the centre of global finance. Capitalism, Harvey points out, never really resolves its crisis tendencies – they are merely shifted around, postponed and held off. Capitalism finds a way of overcoming one crisis only to discover, sooner or later, that the terms of this solution, in turn, throw up new problems which develop into a new crisis.

Capitalist crisis can erupt and manifest itself in myriad forms (much of the content of later chapters, as we shall see, is given over to a taxonomic account of the various limits and barriers that can obstruct capital accumulation). Underlying all of this, though, is a key problem – something that is, for Harvey, the fundamental source of capitalism’s crisis tendencies. He terms this ‘“the capital surplus absorption problem”’ (p. 26). This concept links in closely with Harvey’s ideas in relation to capitalism’s tendency towards ‘overaccumulation’ of capital more fully set out in previous publications (most notably The Limits to Capital). The logic of capital is one of perpetual accumulation – capitalists are forced, under pressure of competition, to recapitalise and reinvest in expansion a proportion of the surplus they produce. The corollary of accumulation at the level of the firm is, at the aggregate level of the economy as a whole, economic growth. The volume of capital flow must constantly increase. If capitalists encounter blockages in this process – if they fail to expand the volume of surplus they produce – the effect must be that they run into severe problems. At the level of the economy as a whole, absence of growth brings recession or depression.  All of this requires, of course, that new profitable outlets for investment are found so that the surplus can be absorbed and accumulation can continue. Overaccumulation of capital – lack of profitable investment opportunities – lies at the root of capitalism’s crisis tendencies.

As all of this suggests, crisis is inherent to capitalism. Crises are not, from a Marxist perspective, anomalous events, deviations from the ‘natural’ or normal functioning efficiency of capitalism. They are part and parcel of the logic of the system. In fact, as Harvey is at pains to point out, periodic crisis is absolutely necessary and indispensable for capitalism – it is the means by which capitalism renews itself. Crises devalue or destroy surpluses for which no profitable outlets can be found, clear-out inefficient capitals, push down wages through expansion of the ‘reserve army of labour’ and purge the system of debt for example, so creating the basis for renewed and reinvigorated growth.  As Harvey puts it, crises are the ‘irrational rationalisers of an irrational system’ (p. 215). Crises, however, are also moments of acute vulnerability for capitalism in which political opposition to it typically grows (although this opposition is also, typically, inchoate) – there is nothing inevitable about whether or how crisis is (temporarily) resolved.

Indeed, Harvey seems to feel that capitalism may well find it particularly difficult to find its way out of this crisis and get back to adequate rates of long-term growth.  Capitalism, he suggests, is running into serious constraints in relation to the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ (and has been since the early 1970s) and this, indeed, is a key problem underlying the current crisis. It is generally agreed, as Harvey points out, that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at a rate of about 3 per cent per annum. This means, of course, that more and more capital surplus must be absorbed – more and more profitable investment outlets for this growing surplus must be found every year.  In 1950 global capitalism needed to absorb $0.15 trillion in surplus capital, in 1973 it needed to find new outlets for $0.42 trillion and, if we are to return to 3 per cent compound growth today, $1.6 trillion in surplus capital would need to be profitably invested. If sustained growth returns the world economy will need to absorb some $3 trillion in surplus capital by 2030 (see p. 216 and see also pp. 26-27). This, Harvey remarks, is ‘a very tall order’ (p. 27). There simply must come a point where capital accumulation outstrips the capacity of the world economy to absorb the growing surplus of capital. We may, Harvey indicates, be reaching this point. The depth of the current crisis may well be a reflection of this problem.

Harvey seems to feel that there are two possible ways out of this crisis for the capitalist class. The first route is a reversion to large-scale fictitious capital manipulations – speculation in asset prices and the like – of the sort that brought on the present crisis. Even if such a return to debt-financed growth can be arranged it cannot fail, however, to produce another deep crisis in a few years’ time when that bubble, too, inevitably bursts. The second exit route involves massive destruction of excess capital and a fundamental restructuring of world capitalism. This route also involves shifting most of the costs of readjustment onto the working class and the poor. Harvey is clear that any attempt to return to long-term growth through by such means will involve large-scale infliction of hardship and suffering on the mass of people and that, furthermore, ‘[more] than a little political repression, police violence and militarised state control will be necessary to stifle the ensuing unrest’ (p. 216). Nevertheless, Harvey is not at all convinced that either route can be successful – he warns that there may be no effective long-term capitalist solutions to this crisis.

After having provided an account of the current crisis and its historical origins and after having introduced us to the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’, Harvey moves on to examine the different types of blockages and obstructions to capital flow that can bring about capitalist crisis. The bulk of the book is devoted to analysis of these barriers. One of Harvey’s major arguments is that – beyond the general underlying problem of capital surplus absorption at least – it is a mistake to seek to identify ‘one dominant explanation for the crisis-prone character of capitalism’ (p. 116) and that, instead, we should ‘recognise the multiple ways in which crises can form in different historical and geographical situations’ (p. 117). As he points out, there are three major schools of thought within Marxism in relation to theorisation of capitalism’s tendency towards periodic crisis – the profit squeeze tradition, the falling rate of profit tradition and the underconsumptionist tradition. None of these approaches are adequate according to Harvey because they seek to provide monocausal explanations of crisis and, as such, fail to grasp the fact that crises can stem from many different factors. Harvey argues that it is much more helpful to think about crisis formation in terms of barriers that disrupt or slow down the flow of capital and to recognise that these barriers can take many different forms. Harvey is also keen to stress that none of these barriers constitute absolute limits – that, in principle, capital can find ways to overcome or circumvent any one of them – but that we should also recognise that capital is always and perpetually running up against new barriers. Furthermore, the very solutions that capital finds that enable it to overcome one barrier will often throw up further barriers to deal with. There is, then, a fluid, dialectical logic to crisis formation – solutions are perpetually transformed into problems.

Harvey identifies six general kinds of potential barriers. These are:

i) insufficient initial money capital; ii) scarcities of, or political difficulties with, labour supply; iii) inadequate means of production, including so-called ‘natural limits’; iv) inappropriate technologies and organisational forms; v) resistance or inefficiencies in the labour process; and vi) lack of demand backed up by money to pay in the market. (p. 47)

‘Blockage at any one of these points’, Harvey argues, ‘will disrupt the continuity of capital flow and, if prolonged, eventually produce a crisis of devaluation’ (p. 47). Perhaps the most interesting (and, possibly, the most controversial) part of this analysis is Harvey’s discussion of potential ‘natural limits’ to accumulation. Harvey does not deny that capitalism is likely to encounter ecological ‘limits and barriers which will become increasingly hard to circumvent’ (p. 72) and is open to the possibility that there ‘may be an imminent crisis in our relation to nature that will require widespread adaptations (cultural and social as well as technical)’ (p. 78). However, Harvey is sceptical in relation to the idea that absolute, impassable or ‘final’ ecological limits to capital accumulation exist. Capital, Harvey stresses, is hugely adaptable and he suggests, furthermore, that there ‘are all sorts of ways… in which supposed limits in nature can be confronted, sometimes overcome and more often than not circumvented’ (p. 73). This view is founded, in part, on the observation that ‘nature’ is not simply some given and essentially unchanging entity and nor is it a sphere of reality absolutely separate from human society – the relationship between human action (including economic behaviours) and nature is inherently dialectical and constantly evolving.

In the next section of the book Harvey seeks to integrate an account of uneven development in space and time into his analysis of capital flow. This part of the book provides a very interesting analysis of the historical geographical evolution of capitalism from its beginnings to the present day. He points out, for example, that capitalism ‘seems to have evolved in ways somewhat similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” theory of natural evolution’ (p. 130) –  long periods of reasonably stable and slow reform, punctuated by phases of revolutionary disruption. In this section of the book Harvey also provides an account of the ways in which capitalism continually produces new spaces and new space relations – capitalism’s geographical landscape is ceaselessly shaped and reshaped. He also analyses the tendency for ‘agglomerations’ or ‘clusters’ of inter-reliant capitals in close geographical proximity to emerge and sets out, in addition, the place and function of the (relatively autonomous) modern state within the logic of capital flow. There is also a brief account of imperialism in this part of the book which draws heavily on the notion of dialectical interaction between two ‘logics of power’ – the ‘territorial’ and the ‘capitalist’ – first developed in his 2003 book, The New Imperialism.

Possibly the most important and novel aspect of this part of the book is Harvey’s identification, and delineation of the significance, of seven ‘activity spheres’. Drawing, and further elaborating, on a brief comment in Capital Volume 1, Harvey argues that capital ‘cannot circulate or accumulate without touching upon each and all of these activity spheres in some way’ (p. 124). These spheres are:

technologies and organisational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labour processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and of the species; and ‘mental conceptions of the world’. (p. 123)


No one of these spheres dominates even as none of them are independent of the others. But nor is any one of them determined even collectively by all of the others. Each sphere evolves on its own account but always in dynamic interaction with the others. (p. 123)

‘A study of the co-evolution of activity spheres’, he goes on to say, ‘provides a framework within which to think through the overall evolution and crisis-prone character of capitalist society’ (p. 124). Indeed, ‘we can reconceptualise crisis formation’, he suggests, ‘in terms of the tensions and antagonisms that arise between the different activity spheres’ – the interactions between them ‘are not necessarily harmonious’ (p. 123).

In the final chapter of the book, Harvey advances some general strategic guidelines and principles in relation to possible forms and methods of anti-capitalist struggle. Crises of capitalism, for Harvey, are ‘moments of paradox and possibility’ (p. 216) in which a space opens up for radical alternatives. He suggests that ‘it could be that where we are now is only at the beginning of a prolonged shake-out in which the question of grand and far reaching alternatives will gradually bubble to the surface in one part of the world or another’ (p. 225). As things stand, however, the radical left finds itself in something of a double-bind: its lack of a worked-out vision of an alternative social order ‘prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative’ (p. 227). The way out of this bind, Harvey suggests, is to transform it from a vicious circle into a creative ‘spiral’ – both parts of the problem have to be turned into a sort of work-in-progress in which the development of each reinforces and drives on development in the other. Harvey suggests, further, that the theory of co-evolution of ‘activity spheres’ set out earlier in the book provides important conceptual resources for thinking about how a successful transition beyond capitalism might take place. Harvey suggests, in other words, that his co-evolutionary theory of social change might form the basis for a ‘co-revolutionary’ theory. Just as the historical evolution of capitalism involved inter-linked and interacting changes within each of the seven spheres, any transition towards a democratic and egalitarian post-capitalist society must also involve complementary changes and transformations within each one of these spheres. Harvey suggests that the failure of past endeavours to build socialism and communism can be understood in terms of the failure to see that wide ranging and radical changes within each of these spheres were necessary.  Harvey argues that a transformative anti-capitalist movement could start in any of the seven spheres. ‘The trick’, he continues, ‘is to keep the political movement moving from one sphere of activity to another in mutually reinforcing ways. This was how capitalism arose out of feudalism and this is how something radically different… must arise out of capitalism’ (p. 228). Left wing intellectuals can and must play a key part in this process, Harvey argues, and one of their key tasks is to unravel ‘the enigma of capital, rendering transparent what political power always wants to keep opaque’ (p. 241).

Harvey has certainly made a very powerful and important contribution to this process of unravelling. Though it covers complex processes and advances sophisticated ideas, the book is written in a relatively accessible style that will appeal to a wide readership. Indeed it is clear that Harvey’s intended audience extends beyond academia. There is, then, clearly a radical and democratic political purpose to Harvey’s elucidation of the logic of capitalism in this book – it is intended to contribute to popular debate in relation to the economic crisis and is, as such, designed as a serious political intervention. Harvey, indeed, operates in the best traditions of the politically committed ‘public intellectual’ – seeking to convey complex ideas in accessible terms to a broad audience with the intention of providing conceptual and theoretical resources to help inspire and guide political struggle. None of this, however, is to say that The Enigma of Capital will be of little interest to scholars. Harvey advances some very interesting and innovative new ideas in this book – the theory of dialectically intertwining ‘activity spheres’ for example – that surely make an important contribution to advanced debates in relation to the analysis of capitalism and to theories of social change. His reconceptualization of capitalism’s tendency towards crisis in terms of barriers to capital flow that can be manifested in a variety of forms also represents a powerful challenge to the current Marxist orthodoxy in this regard which tends to privilege one dominant causal factor in relation to crisis formation. The book also provides a very useful and interesting synthesis of many key ideas first put forward in previous works by Harvey – his theories of ‘spatial fix’, ‘time-space compression’ and ‘switching crises’, for example, are all integrated into the overview of the logic of capital flow presented in this book.

However the book contains a few weaknesses in my view. One of the most frustrating things about it is that Harvey is never quite clear about the relationship between the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ and his account of the different kinds of barriers to capital flow that can bring on a crisis. Should these barriers be understood as different kinds of manifestations, or aspects, of the capital surplus problem? Is there any necessary connection or interaction between these barriers and the capital surplus absorption problem? Harvey does not spell this out and the reader is left, in the end, feeling slightly unsure of Harvey’s theory of crisis formation.

Harvey is also rather unclear about whether or not capitalism can return to long-term growth. At some points in the book one gets the distinct impression that he feels that it cannot and, at other times, that it can. Part of the problem, here, is that the relationship between the notion of ‘a return to long-term growth’ on the one hand and the notion of an exit-route from the current crisis, on the other, is rather ambiguous – are these distinct possibilities (so that it is possible to exit the current crisis, but without a successful return to long-term growth) or are the two synonymous? Harvey does not make this clear. The picture is clouded still further by the fact that Harvey’s focus seems to oscillate between the question of whether or not it is possible for capitalism to grow indefinitely and the question of whether or not it can find a way out of the current crisis – and, again, the relationship between these two questions is not completely clear.  His answer to the first question seems to be ‘no’ (but even this is not completely clear as I shall go on to explain) and at various points in the book he seems to suggest that capitalism is very close to reaching a point at which it simply cannot find outlets for the colossal capital surpluses that it has accumulated. If this is so, and the current crisis signals that capitalism is reaching impassable limits, it would seem that there is no exit route from the current crisis. At other times, however, Harvey seems to be quite emphatic that capitalism can find a way to exit from its current problems, which suggests – despite what he has written elsewhere in the book – that the ‘ultimate limits’ to accumulation are still some way off.

There is a further ambiguity. Harvey states that ‘compound growth for ever is not possible’ (p. 227) which, given that fact that perpetual accumulation of capital is absolutely fundamental to the logic of capitalism, implies that capitalism cannot survive for ever. Yet, in his discussion of the various limits and barriers to capital flow, Harvey is pretty clear that, in principle, capitalism possesses ‘sufficient fluidity and flexibility to overcome all limits’ (p. 46). There seems to be something of a contradiction here. Perhaps it is possible that Harvey means that it is only the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ in general that cannot, in the end, be overcome and that it is only the various sorts of barriers to capital flow he identifies that capitalism may always, in principle, circumvent and dismantle. Even if that is the case, however, there is reason to question Harvey’s argument. For many socialists today, one of the key reasons to believe that capitalism is unsustainable and cannot continue for ever is the judgement that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible – that there are ecological ‘ultimate limits’ to capital accumulation. As we have seen, however, Harvey is sceptical about this. It is hard to see, though, why if, in principle, these ‘natural limits’ can be overcome, capitalism should not also possess the capacity for perpetual overcoming of problems related to surplus absorption (through creation of new consumer desires, new product ranges, new technology paradigms and so on). Furthermore, I am not at all convinced by the argument that there are no necessary absolute ecological limits to growth – in my view the arguments of ‘ecosocialists’ such as John Bellamy Foster are much stronger in this respect.

Many readers may baulk at Harvey’s dismissiveness in relation to the theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) which he argues is rendered ’more than a little moot’ (p. 94) by the long list of counter-acting influences Marx identifies – counter-tendencies that, notoriously, seem to entail that the TRPF seldom has any actual material effect. Even if one is not sure whether one agrees with his position, Harvey’s brusque scepticism in relation to a Marxist orthodoxy, here, is refreshing. Harvey’s neglect of a closely connected, but much more fundamental issue in Marxian economics is, for me, more concerning. Harvey makes very little mention of labour as the source of value (it is mentioned only in passing on a couple of pages) or of related matters such as surplus value extraction and exploitation of labour. This seems rather strange, to say the least, in a book about the flow of capital written from a Marxist perspective.

Another rather odd aspect of the book is Harvey’s unusual definition of socialism. He suggests, for example, that socialism:

aims to democratically manage and regulate capitalism in ways that calm its excesses and redistribute its benefits for the common good. It is about spreading the wealth around through progressive taxation arrangements while basic needs – such as education, healthcare and even housing – are provided by the state out of reach of market forces. (p. 224)

Communism, on the other hand, ‘seeks to displace capitalism by creating an entirely different mode of both the production and distribution of goods and services’ (p. 225). Few would dissent from the latter definition, but his definition of socialism is, for European leftists at least (perhaps Harvey articulates an Americanised understanding of the term), bizarre. What Harvey calls ‘socialism’ – a variety of capitalism with a human face – most (European) socialists would call ‘social democracy’. Harvey’s definition of socialism, it should be said, is not the same as Marx’s.

In addition, much of what Harvey has to say in the final chapter is unconvincing. Rather predictably, perhaps, this final part of the book in which Harvey discusses anti-capitalist alternatives and the possibility of building a movement against capitalism often descends into vague, hand-waving remarks. Certainly, there is much here that is valuable – the argument that a ‘co-revolutionary movement’ must seek to keep a mutually reinforcing dialectic of change within each of the seven ‘activity spheres’ in motion particularly so. Nevertheless there are echoes of Hardt and Negri and of John Holloway in Harvey’s conception of anti-capitalist strategy, which, while not totally eschewing the need for political organisation and clear that a left-wing movement cannot simply ignore state power, seems to me rather naïvely optimistic in relation to ideas such as the notion that a political movement against capitalism ‘can start anywhere’ (p. 228) and could operate (or so Harvey appears to suggest), simply, as some loose alliance of well-meaning people.

Despite these shortcomings The Enigma of Capital is, nevertheless, an extremely impressive book overall. It is almost certainly destined to become a seminal work amongst contemporary Marxist literature – as have so many of Harvey’s previous publications. Perhaps the most valuable property of The Enigma of Capital is that it manages to be accessible to non-specialist readers while still having many important things to say to scholars of political theory and political economy. As such, I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone seeking to develop a critical understanding of the logic of capitalism.

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