The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism


David Harvey (Geographer/Radical Sociologist) delivers a fascinating lecture at RSA.

The crises are not, exclusively, ECONOMIC. Nor is it entirely due to the global inter-connectedness but the “solution” does begin with tracking the inter-connectedness and managing rising complexity within every domain to attempt to bring about CULTURAL CHANGE and to rebuild for a SUSTAINABLE future.

“Capital is the lifeblood that flows through the body politic of all those societies we call capitalist, spreading out, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a flood, into every nook and cranny of the inhabited world”

Harvey maintains that: modern economics has buried its head in detail but ignored the systematic character of capital flow, he claims, and it is time for a restore an understanding of how capital works.

Statements like “The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power,” and “It will have to be dispossessed” echo the words of Dr Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) and of Ulrich Beck – refer links to previous blog items below.

Who am I to argue!?

The book:

The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism
David Harvey
Profile Books, 256pp, £14.99

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Revisited: Ulrich Beck on Complex societies and politicians


Few people ever apply a name that sticks to an entire social order, but sociologist Ulrich Beck is one of them. In 1986 in Germany he published Risk Society, and the name has become a touchstone in contemporary sociology. Among the attributes of Risk Society is the one he just mentioned: science has become so powerful that it can neither predict nor control its effects. It generates risks too vast to calculate.

Listen to conversation here

imageHis sociological work focuses on understanding the immediate present without renouncing a critical posture that offers a guide to the future. Current societies, according to Beck, are characterised by their extreme complexity at a moment in history in which traditional political institutions have lost much of the power, a power which has now passed into the hands of multinational companies with their relocation strategies. In this situation, a growing deregulation can also be observed which, in turn, redounds in the appearance of new risks and uncertainties.

As you will have realised Prof Beck is a guy worth listening to and, interestingly, on the day that the UK General Election is called, here are a couple of comments that appealed to me. Perhaps this explains why Politicians felt the need to spend time on other jobs and fiddling their expenses!?

“The task of politics has come up against its own limit…Politics has come to seem a satire of reality”

Interpret his words how you wish but when viewed in the context of the lack of a long term solution to the financial crisis, failure to actually punish those responsible and little or no convincing leadership in response to consistent “right wing” sniping at even feeble attempts to change things I reckon he really does have (yet another) good point.

Related!? I have already used this quote in another blog but it merits inclusion here too :

Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies

“When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”

Complexity: Clay Shirky draws attention to this major threat…


Clay Shirky

Image via Wikipedia

I have lifted this text directly from Clay Shirky’s blog and, if your interest is in TV and media I would urge you to read it. On the other hand UNLESS the lessons about the impact of COMPLEXITY upon society itself are learnt your focus may be upon more practical issues like…survival!

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archaeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and then some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

buiding-collapse In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden de-coherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

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