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The Enigma of David Harvey

Ideas to Work With

David Harvey addressed a crowd in the heart of London’s financial district early in November 2011. “We need to mobilize in such a way that we can genuinely threaten major commercial and financial interests,” Harvey said in his speech at Occupy London. “You’re in the heart of the beast, the belly of the beast. And your job is to give the beast a stomach ache.” The radical imagination has been rekindled, and Harvey is actively fostering dissent.

Harvey has remained at the forefront of radical thought for nearly 40 years, since he was politicized upon leaving Cambridge, England, in the early 1970s. Upon his arrival in Baltimore, Harvey was struck by the widespread social unrest, race riots, deep inequality and growing resistance to the Vietnam War. Trying to make sense of it all, he and some graduate students turned to reading Karl Marx. The rest, they say, is historical materialism.

The Marx Project

Harvey is now a professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York. He has arguably done more than any other living scholar to develop and popularize Marxist thought, and he has recently begun a new venture. His recently launched “Marx project” emerged after nearly 40 years of offering public lectures on the works of Marx. These sessions continue to draw a wide array of students, academics and activists who navigate the vast and turbulent waters of Marx’s thought. Hundreds of academics and activists have drawn inspiration from these lectures.

The Marx project has assembled these lectures in audio and video format, allowing for countless reading groups and spaces of intellectual dissent to spring up across the world. A network of reading groups is slowly emerging from Montréal to London and Dublin based largely around Harvey’s lectures. And coordinators of the Marx project are now posting free online lectures by Harvey covering volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, which will be translated into a handful of languages.

His project is proving successful in popularizing Marx’s classical work, while simultaneously creating spaces of political resistance. Harvey states himself that he would like for this project to help people with their “practical engagements.” In other words, like Marx and many others that have followed, Harvey is seeking not only to understand the world, but to change it.

The project is having its desired effect. By bringing people together in reading groups, people not only gain a critical understanding of capitalism. They also create a political space for planning and action. Several reading groups across North America and Europe that use Harvey’s audio and video lectures are heavily engaged as activists.

All of this is incredibly refreshing. Many Marxist scholars remain confined within an almost cultish group of academics who debate furiously amongst themselves in a language that nobody understands. Noam Chomsky notes with a degree of truth that “Marxism in my view belongs in the history of organized religion.”

More problematic still, the obscurity of Marxist academia has contributed to a malaise in radical political practice. Socialism has a big head and a very small body, as Marxist scholar G.M. Tamás recently noted. Harvey and a growing body of scholar-activists are trying to change that by getting actively involved in grassroots resistance. But Harvey’s story did not begin on a radical note. His early thinking existed well within the mainstream of the academy.

From Science to Dissent

Harvey describes his first book, Explanation in Geography (Edward Arnold, 1969), as an attempt to provide philosophical logic to the scientific method being applied to geography. These were the same scientific methods used with such devastation in waging imperial wars of the time.

However, Harvey quickly came to recognize that geography cannot strictly be reduced to static numbers. “I have this problem with maps. You look at the map and it doesn’t move,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Minnesota Review. “One of the reasons I like the Weather Channel is that you can see those hurricanes moving.” The Marxist dialectical method appealed to Harvey for precisely this reason. Capitalism is a highly fluid system in a constant state of flux and change, like the global weather system.

He also came to recognize that the universities were essential to the functioning of capitalism and imperialism. “The corporate state requires a technically proficient bureaucracy if it is to function,” he wrote in the 1980s. “The commodity we now produce [i.e. students] is in part tailored to fit the needs of this market. We have, in short, been co-opted. Yet there has been virtually no sign of any resistance on our part.” Harvey came to argue that workplaces, cities and universities themselves are political spaces where struggles must be waged.

His evolution toward Marxism culminated with the publication of his The Limits to Capital (Verso, 1982), one of the most sustained and complex elaborations of Marxism existing today. Harvey writes in the introduction of Limits that the book is “a treatise on Marxian theory in general, paying particular attention to the circulation of capital in built environments, the credit system and the production of spatial configurations.”

Harvey does not simply unpack some of the most complex ideas of Marxist theory in this book. He provides a rich critique of some of the shortcomings of Marx’s original ideas. He also attempts to patch up some of the gaps in Marx’s thinking by weaving together fragments from Marx’s notes and published works. Limits remains a magisterial work that will remain a benchmark of Marxist theory.

The Geography of Capitalism

Harvey began his career as a geographer above all else. Tracing the geographic dynamics of capitalism has remained a consistent focus of his work to the present day. Building on the classical ideas of Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin, Harvey argues that capital must grow in order to survive. It therefore continually expands onto new geographic terrains through expropriation or violence.

Communities living outside of capitalist systems must be forcefully and often violently expropriated. For example, communities in West Bengal are being violently expropriated from their lands in eastern India in order for multinational corporations to expropriate the minerals there. The commons and indigenous peoples must be expropriated or expunged in order to introduce private property and capital. Imperialism is likewise a means of solving the problem of where capital can expand. Imperialist wars are a means of expanding the sphere of influence of capitalist interests, as nation-states go to war for regional control of people and resources.

The geographic dynamics of capitalism play themselves out in a more subtle way as well. Cities and towns are developed as a means of insuring that capital can grow. These physical spaces are constantly evolving as capital flows through the streets and buildings. There is an element of beauty and danger to the geographic flow of capitalism that Harvey eloquently captures in his latest book, The Enigma of Capital (Profile Books, 2010). The extract is worth quoting in full:

“If we could somehow map the movement of capital occurring in different places across the globe, then the picture would look something like the satellite images taken from outer space of the weather systems swirling across the oceans, mountains and plains of planet earth. We would see an upwelling of activity here, becalmed zones there, anticyclonic swirls in another place and cyclonic depressions of various depths and sizes elsewhere. Here and there tornadoes would be ripping up the land and at certain times typhoons and hurricanes would be coursing across the oceans posing imminent dangers for those in their paths. Refreshing rains would turn pastures green while droughts elsewhere leave a scorched earth brown.”

This is the story of capitalism as it sweeps through our communities, cities, nation-states and entire regions in order to survive.

Culture and Capital

Harvey does not look at capitalism as simply an economic system with geographic consequences. Drawing directly from Marx’s dynamic mode of thought, Harvey looks at capitalism as a highly intricate and interconnected social and productive system. Relations to nature, culture, consciousness and daily life must all be configured in such a way as to permit sustained capital accumulation. Harvey has offered remarkable insights by looking at capitalism in this dynamic way.

The Condition of Postmodernity (Wiley-Blackwell, 1989) is arguably his most compelling synthesis of this approach. Trying to make sense of the emerging term “postmodernism,” Harvey argued that capitalism was the driving force behind social change. In making this argument, Harvey weaved his understanding of literature, the arts, industry, politics and daily life from World War II to the present day.

Modernism was typified by industrial production, standardization and cultural conformity. Everyone drove the same black car as the cookie-cutter suburban dream flourished. Culture was fairly homogenous, and production systems were based on large-scale industrial output. This was all a means of sustaining capital accumulation after the end of the war.

But this entire modernist system unravelled with the crisis of capitalism in the early 1970s. Industrial production was outsourced and job security became more precarious. This erosion and relocation of manufacturing and industry spurred a complete reconfiguration of human relations to nature, culture, the arts and daily life. The postmodern world came to embrace individualism, difference, eclecticism and volatility. Harvey argued that this radical transition was spurred by the inherent dynamics and crisis tendencies of capitalism.

The Condition of Postmodernity was not without its critics. Rosalyn Deutsche and Doreen Massey criticized Harvey for refusing to engage with feminist thought. Massey stressed some 20 years ago that Harvey was effectively “consigning these groups to parentheses after the supposed universal of the white, male, heterosexual.” This critique could reasonably be applied to Harvey’s work today.

He recently argued that feminist, racial and queer struggles and analysis often take priority over class-based struggles and critique — a trend which Harvey clearly regards as unfortunate. Harvey has recognized that one of his major failures is the Euro-centrism of his work, a shortcoming to which other Marxists like Robert Brenner are prone.

More recently, Harvey has deliberately sought to popularize Marxist theory by shedding its obscure language while retaining its critical insights. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005) remains a hallmark of his popular form of writing, whileEnigma of Capital is his most accessible theoretical work yet. This is a deliberate effort on Harvey’s part to bring radical ideas into public debate and practice.

Reform and Revolution

Perhaps the greatest enigma of Harvey is his political stance. Many radicals tend to dichotomize between reform and revolution, sticking doggedly to one camp or the other. Harvey dissolves these distinctions, embracing both reformist and revolutionary ideas. Social democratic efforts to sustain and expand public health care and education should be supported, but political ambitions need not limit themselves to reforming an existing system.

In a period when dominant liberal ideas are being challenged, Harvey’s intellectual radicalism is refreshing. He does not hesitate to call the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “a foundational document for a bourgeois, market-based individualism,” nor does he shy away from suggesting that readers are “kidding themselves” if they think global warming can be curbed “without actually confronting the question of by whom and how the foundational value structure of our society is being determined.”

His address to the 2010 World Social Forum threw the gauntlet down with a bold title, “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition.” He argued that socialism is a means of democratically regulating capitalism to more evenly distribute its benefits, and that an alternative system like communism seeks nothing less than the abolition of private property and the capitalist system. He then began to elaborate on how people could organize in a way to challenge the existing system and develop some alternative.

Capital must continually flow in order to survive, yet it has a number of blockage points. Workers can stop the production process, activists can block ports and the natural environment can reach its own limits. Capital can be stopped at any of these blockage points to achieve political ends.

Of equal importance, dominant ideologies and the way people conduct their daily lives must be configured in a way that will sustain capital growth. Capitalists and capitalist states must work to ensure that people conform with dominant ideologies and modes of daily living. Challenges to these dominant ideas and modes of living are not taken lightly by those in power.

Yet the global Occupy movement has proven that people can work together in order to change the way people think and interact with the world. The port disruptions and transit shut-downs across Europe have proven that capital flow can be blocked.

Movements are emerging with sufficient power to challenge the existing order, and the timing could not be more important. New imperial wars of aggression are impending and degradation of the natural environment for economic gain threatens the very survival of the species.

Harvey’s intellectual and political career continues to cover one of the most dynamic and troubling periods of capitalism’s history. Driving both Harvey’s reformist and revolutionary tendencies is a clear political desire on his part to challenge the overwhelming power of capitalism today. And the need for effective challenge and change could not be more urgent. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Canadian Dimension March/April 2012

This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.

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James Petras, professor and author

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