College Quarterly
Spring 2009 - Volume 12 Number 2
Reviews Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx
Chris Harman
London: Bookmarks Publications, 2009

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

As teachers in a corporate college environment, we are well advised to avoid serious talk of the economy and flee from discussions of Marx in polite company. Still, the latest “economic crisis” seems to have captured our attention and to beg comment. And, frankly, sense cannot be made of it unless we attend to the insights of “the Moor” and his jolly band of followers.

I am, of course, neither endorsing Marxist economics nor touting any of the myriad Marxisms still floating about in serious intellectual circles; I am merely stating the obvious: the policies of Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and their ideological kin will fail, even if they succeed since, at best, they will restore the train to the tracks, restart the engine and send us hurtling toward the same old cliff … but with renewed confidence and increased indifference to such issues as growing domestic and international inequality as well as the toxic problems of environmental degradation that threaten us all.

So, what to do?
For a start, I’d recommend reading Chris Harman’s new book Zombie Capitalism. Mr. (or should I say “Comrade”) Harman is an important figure in English Marxism, especially the Trotskyist faction. A prolific author and editor, he is unlike many grazers in leftist pastures, for he is capable of more than munching endlessly on his abstruse, polysyllabic cud. Zombie Capitalism is, as they say, “accessible” to non-Trotskyists, non-Marxists and non-economists alike.

Plenty of people like us—of modest intelligence and occasionally attuned to current events—have been gobsmacked by the malfeasance at Enron, the criminality of Bernie Madoff, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the desperate dole payments to General Motors (not to mention the tremendous hit taken by our pension plans). We are not much assisted by the local press or CNN’s Sunday afternoon money-man Ali Velshi. Indeed, some of us long to throw up our hands, declare defeat and scuttle away to our paneled basement dens.

It’s not that experts don’t try to explain capitalism’s calamities and looming collapse; they just do so inadequately. Conservative sociologist Daniel Bell tried to sell the slogan of “post-capitalism" for a “post-industrial” society in the 1960s. Belgian economist Ernest Mandel and American culture critic Frederic Jameson gave the notion of “late capitalism” some life in the 1980s, and Canadian journalist Naomi Klein chimed in with “disaster capitalism” in 2007. We still have some distance to go before we figure it all out.

Chris Harman helps. He starts with a useful review of Marx’s basic concepts and timely rebuttals of criticisms from both within and without the Marxian tradition. He then demystifies the workings of the market and the market mentality, which both fail to explain our system of production and distribution of goods and services, but which also hold us in thrall to the myths that this is “the way it is”, and the only way it can be. He undercuts capitalism’s apologists such as Canadian politician Bob Rae who contumaciously insists that the permanence of capitalism is no longer at issue, and that the only remaining question is what kind of capitalism we are to have. Sorry Bob, but nothing lasts forever (ask the Romans); and sometimes there is not much to choose among different versions of a declining system.

Harman emphasizes the dynamics of capitalism itself, as a set of economic arrangements that constantly revise and often reinvent themselves, while maintaining the fundamental framework. Throughout its storied history, capitalism has endured cyclical crises and, more recently, has been sustained by permanent war. It also engages in what Joseph A. Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction.”

Sometimes, capitalism approaches tyranny. No less a figure than President Eisenhower famously warned us against the “military-industrial complex”; what few recall is that he originally intended to say the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but was dissuaded at the last moment lest the accusation cost the Republicans votes in the 1960 election.

Me? I’d expand it to the “military-industrial-congressional-ideological complex” (substituting “parliamentary” for “congressional” in most non-presidential systems), and including the mass media and educational institutions under the rubric of “ideology). Not only is it plain that the political economies of North America, Europe and the rest of the “Western” world are economically inequitable and experiencing a “democratic deficit,” but the corporate media and the corporate classroom legitimize both in theory and practice.

Ever since George H. W. Bush proclaimed the coming of the “new world order,” global corporations and their hired analysts and apologists have been doing whatever they can to fuel what Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig called “the cult of impotence.” Chris Harman makes it difficult to continue to do so in good conscience.

Zombie Capitalism is not a rushed account of economic issues torn from yesterday’s headlines. It builds on work that Harman has been doing since his publication of Explaining the Crisis: A Marxist Re-Appraisal a quarter-century ago. In his new book, Harman explains that there is nothing much “new” about the new crisis. He provides a cogent analysis of the era of global capitalist hegemony from the end of World War II to the “collapse of communism” in 1989, and beyond. The dependency on the profitability of our system had much to do with the state of perpetual war and the massive investment in weaponry and “ordnance.” He also explains the stagnant condition of salaries and wages for earners in the working and middle classes since about 1970, accompanied by the tremendous increases in investment income and remuneration for stockholders and senior executives—both at a time when worker productivity has grown massively.

At my own college, we have some hint of this in our daily affairs. For example, when I started in the late 1960s, the “productivity” of teachers could be counted as a maximum of 120 students per annum (four classes per semester, capped at 15 students each, for two semesters). Now, we commonly teach five classes per semester, more-or-less capped at 35 to 40 each, for two semesters plus a compulsory Summer program with a total minimum of more than 450 students per year. That’s a “production” rate increase of close to 400%, not remotely equaled by stagnant wage increases in constant 1970 dollars.

You don’t have to be a “filthy godless communist” to understand those numbers and similar assessments in other domains of both the private and the public sectors. When combined with a appraisal of the degree to which “contract” labour (the increasing dominance of instability—sometimes euphemized as “flexibility” in an unsteady and unpredictable labour market—the implications for social and political dynamics are troubling. To grasp some of the potential consequences, you could do worse than to pay attention to an occasional voice from outside the corporate chorus.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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