Human Geography, (November 2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/19427786211046291.
I have written quite a few books over the course of my academic career, beginning with Explanation in Geography (Harvey, 1969) and most recently Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Harvey, 2017). I am often asked which of these many books I consider to be the most important. My invariable answer is Limits to Capital (Harvey, 1982) and Paris, Capital of Modernity (Harvey, 2003), the first draft of which appeared in Consciousness and the Urban Experience (Harvey, 1985). Why those two bodies of work rather than others, such as The Condition of Postmodernity (Harvey, 1989) or A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005) which are by far my most cited works?
The answer lies in what for me was the driving force, the central animating theme, of my thinking, reading, and writing from the late 1960s on. During the 1960s I had already left behind the particularist and nominalist perspectives of traditional regional geography that dominated the discipline in favor of a more “scientific” universalizing and theoretical approach to the subject. I was aided in this by the rise of a more quantitative approach to geography (powerfully advocated by Dick Chorley and Peter Haggett during my doctoral research years at Cambridge), incorporating statistical methods and more positivist methods. It was in this spirit (and very much under their influence) that I wrote Explanation in Geography. In the conclusion to that work I ended with the hopeful utopian slogan: “by our theories you shall know us.” That slogan is, I believe, more relevant than ever.
But I also worried about the possibility of a new “scientific” exclusionary orthodoxy taking over. I therefore insisted on a difference between the scientific methodologies that provide crucial tools for investigation and what I then dubbed “philosophical perspectives” guided by social concerns and the search for meaning and social truth. I sought to bring together ethical concerns for social justice and geographical methodologies in Social Justice and the City (Harvey, 1973). This was a peculiar book by standards of the time because it offered dual perspectives—liberal versus socialist—between the Escher covers. Many commentators saw this book as signaling a radical epistemological break in my work and I am to this day often asked to explain that break. But that was not how I experienced or conceived of it. Explanation was about methods and the application of scientific methodologies. Social Justice was about the qualities of social relations, about relevance, ethics, and human meaning. These two perspectives, I felt at the time and continue to believe to this day, should complement and not conflict with each other, even if there is bound to be a productive tension between them. This should surely be the stance of all geographers sensitive to the subject matter of a discipline that focuses on the diversity and qualities of human life on planet earth. True, in the course of writing the essays that constituted the text of Social Justice and the City, I came to reject “the tendency to regard facts as separate from values, objects as independent of subjects, ‘things’ as possessing an identity separate from human perception and action, and the ‘private’ process of discovery as separate from the ‘public’ process of communicating the results.” I rejected, in short, the narrow exclusionary definition of positivist science and its modes of theorizing that increasingly constituted the “scientific” orthodoxy of the day. I made much of Thomas Kuhn’s arguments in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that challenged that orthodoxy and postulated the existence of alternative “paradigms” for scientific explanation. I looked for such alternatives and encountered dialectics (thanks to the work of Bertell Ollman) and a range of different methods of scientific enquiry some, but not all of which derived from Marx’s historical materialism. These alternative formulations were intriguing.
They also proved useful in the empirical research I was then engaged upon concerning the failure of housing markets in Baltimore to deliver to everyone (but particularly the Black population living under conditions of acute discrimination) the “decent house in a decent living environment” that congressional legislation assured us was the right of every US citizen. The fraught relation between use and exchange values in housing markets turned out to be a compelling way to unpack what was going on in housing provision. I was surprised that this framework from the first pages of Capital was so well received when presented to a round table of Baltimore notables, policy makers and financiers. Of course I did not tell them where the idea came from. “A great way to formulate the problem” they said.
The move from Bristol to Baltimore in 1969 had a huge impact on my politics and my thinking. Bristol had its social problems and racial conflicts to say nothing of the residue of all that eighteenth century wealth culled from the slave trade (a history that drove Bill Bunge apoplectic when he visited with us in the 1960s). But the conditions of the St Pauls district in Bristol paled into insignificance relative to the massive impoverishment of a huge black population in Baltimore that had risen up and taken to the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968. The scars of that urban uprising and conflagration were everywhere in evidence when I arrived in the city a year later. This immediately posed the question for me as to how it was that the richest nation by far in the world could tolerate such mass impoverishment and destitution in the midst of such enormous wealth? Academics who move from Britain to the United States often undergo a political evolution that takes them either to the far left or the far right. It soon became clear which way I was moving. Johns Hopkins was and still is an elite institution and at that time was male and almost entirely white in the midst of a predominantly black city. But the Chaplain, Chester Wickwire, had a long record of being deeply engaged in the Civil Rights movement in the city. He was the one white cleric to spend time in jail with the leading figures of the Black Ministerial Alliance and they all respected him immensely. And it was through Chet (along with the Left-Bank Jazz club which I regularly attended and which was almost entirely black in its clientele) that I got access to some of what was going on in the city across the racial divide. It was also through Chet that I found myself sleeping on the pavement, with a dozen or so faculty and students from Johns Hopkins, guarding the local headquarters of the Black Panther Party, in the wake of the assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago on December 4, 1969. The fear was that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was seeking a systematic elimination of the Black Panthers from coast to coast. Chet was determined it not happen in Baltimore and he recruited several of us to be the human shield to stop it. After a couple of weeks Chet had elicited guarantees from the Police Chief that nothing would happen. So we all went home. The only time I got scared was when the Panthers gave us instructions on what to do in the event of a shoot out.
It was Social Justice and the City (Harvey, 1973) which began an endless dialogue between investigations of the laws of motion of capital grounded in Marx’s writings and the dynamics of urbanization and of uneven geographical development at a variety of scales (from local to global). In part this book arose out of my encounter with the conditions of life in Baltimore. I published a preliminary account of that in a Resource Paper (No.18) for the Commission on College Geography in the Association of American Geographers in 1972 (“Society, The City and the Space-Economy of Urbanism”). I also found myself working closely with the geography colleagues who had established Antipode in the late 1960s and who organized the first major radical geographers meeting at the Boston AAG in 1971. It was there that I delivered the talk on “Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory in Geography” which is the key transition essay in Social Justice from liberal to revolutionary formulations. But I now sometimes find it said that I was strongly influenced by Henri Lefebvre in writing Social Justice. But that was simply not the case. His signal work on The Production of Space was not published in French until 1974 and I only came across La Revolution Urbaine (Lefebvre, 1970) and La Pensee Marxiste et la Ville (Lefebvre, 1972) when the different essays that constituted the core of Social Justice were being readied for publication (my primitive French was not up to much either). Much of my thinking at this time was influenced by an on-going and sometimes acerbic critical dialogue with ideas about spatiality and urbanization emanating from geographers such as Bill Garrison, Brian Berry, Richard Morrill, Bill Bunge, Torsten Hagerstrand, Alan Pred, Gunnar Olsson, and from planning theory where a whole group of remarkably distinguished practitioners, such as John Friedmann, Mel Webber, Jack Dyckman, Britt Harris along with maverick critic Jane Jacobs and others held sway. The Regional Science initiative that revolved around Walter Isard (whose parallel ethical dedication to “peace research” was remarkable) was also influential. The brief commentary on the nature of space in Social Justice that this tumultuous conversation sparked is still foundational for me. I there first argued that “space is neither absolute, relative or relational in itself, but it can become one or all simultaneously depending on the circumstances,” adding the historical materialist inspired comment that “the problem of the proper conceptualization of space is resolved through human practice with respect to it.” If there was any outside philosophical influence over formulations largely evolved out of the practices of human geographers, regional scientists and urban planners, it lay in those of Ernst Cassirer, Susan Langer and Jean Piaget along with the anthropological work on the social and cultural nature of space by Irving Hallowell, which I had already invoked in Explanation.
This led to a determination on my part to investigate the spatiality of urbanization and uneven geographical development in tandem with a critical exploration of the social, economic and political processes shaping capitalism in general and the evolution of social relations through spatial systems in particular. The latter increasingly involved a reconstruction and elaboration of Marx’s theory of what he called “the laws of motion of capital” as these were manifest in space and time. The circulation and accumulation of capital through urbanization and the production of space, place and nature increasingly became the focus of my studies. Initially I had hoped to fuse the theoretical work with the dissection of urban processes in all their gory historical detail as they were taking place in Baltimore or New York, where the fiscal crisis of 1975 provided a glorious opportunity for the kind of study I had in mind (I did some preliminary work on this topic around that time).
But I then had a frustrating sabbatical year in Paris in 1975–1976. I had gone there in order to get a better grasp of Marxist theory, to sit at the feet, as it were, of the great expositors of Marx’s thought, but found myself stymied by the mixture of my weak language skills, communist party dogmatism (which included at that time a ban even on conversations with academics from North America) and gallic left wing arrogance (with the great exception of Manuel Castells, Christian Topalov and Edmond Preteceille to whom I am eternally grateful) that viewed anyone from North America as a political ignoramus who could not possibly understand class let alone class struggle. Having read Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the Civil War in France, I thought it would be fascinating to read more about what happened to Paris between the revolution of 1848 and the Commune of 1871. I became particularly fascinated by the building and symbolism of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur and began a study of it more or less as an enjoyable side-line. There was something creepy about being inside that building and I was determined to find out what it was. And so the parallel historical-geographical study of urbanization that I planned shifted to Second Empire Paris, even as I ploughed ahead step by step with my Marx studies. The Paris project turned into a labor of love, a respite from the world particularly when everything else seemed to be going very badly. I relished spending summers in Paris reading all sorts of accounts and documents in the stunningly beautiful Biblioteque Historique de la Ville de Paris in the Marais.
Thus I arrived at the core of my interests: to redirect and advance Marx’s theoretical exploration of the laws of motion of capital in relation to a historical-geographical materialist enquiry into the transformation of Paris between 1848 and 1871. The Paris study was always in the back of my mind as I was writing Limits just as Limits was in my mind while exploring what happened in Second Empire Paris. Bouncing back and forth between the two perspectives was a thrilling intellectual experience. The “bouncing” was in part between theory and practices but it went far deeper than that: it was anchored by the sense of a contradictory unity between social relations in constant transformation on the ground and alien processes of capital accumulation and overaccumulation that rule the economic system as real abstractions. What I learned from doing these two studies in dialogue made the subsequent writing of The Condition of Postmodernity incredibly easy. What I learned from that whole experience has underpinned my work ever since.
It took a long time and quite a struggle to write Limits. In part this was because I needed to command the dialectical mode of investigation as an intellectual practice rather than as an abstract idealist principle (derived from Hegel). I learned my dialectics by immersing myself in how Marx produced and presented his findings particularly throughout Capital. This I could do through teaching Marx’s Capital (usually Volume 1) at least once a year (in some years I taught it two or three times) for more than 40 years. Each year, it seemed, I learned something new and different. But I also needed to grapple with those aspects of Marx’s work which were generally neglected in the literature of the time. The study of urbanization required an understanding of the circulation and accumulation of capital through land and property markets, through infrastructures embedded in the land, through investments in transport and communications and through the existence of agglomeration economies and other economies involved in the production of space, place, and nature. In Marx the question of the circulation of fixed capital turned out to be quite problematic theoretically and even more so when this concerned “fixed capital of an independent kind” embedded in the land. How interest-bearing capital flowed into fixed capital and what Marx called “the consumption fund” (which permitted the purchase of big ticket items such as housing or cars through the use of credit) was also of importance. The relation between flows of interest-bearing capital and land markets (and particularly speculation therein) stood out as something that required better theorization in the Marxist literature. What made Limits so special as a text was that it went beyond the standard representations of Marx’s political economy and sought to integrate fixed capital, finance and credit, the circulation of interest bearing capital, as well as questions of land rent and property markets along with the production of nature and spatial configurations. It also emphasized the importance of accelerating turnover times and the progressive “annihilation of space through time” in the theory of capital circulation and accumulation.
I wrote as thorough a survey as I could of everything that Marx had to say about these matters with special emphasis upon the geography of capital accumulation (which turned out to be quite a lot). I sought to close the gap as well as I could between Marx’s theory of capital accumulation that rested in principle on the exploitation of one class by another and theories of imperialism that rested basically upon the way people in one part of the world exploited those in another. I sought to close the gap with the aid of a geographical theory of the production of spaces, places, and environments as part of the dynamics of capital accumulation. I began to theorize this in terms of what I called “the spatial fix”—which explained how overaccumulation of capital in one territory was relieved by movement of capital into some open and as yet undeveloped economy elsewhere. I also found myself more and more engaged (along with many radical sociologists, most prominently Manuel Castells and all those writing in the newly founded International Journal of Urban and Regional Research) in studying how social movements in general and urban social movements in particular related to the dynamics of class struggle. I early on decided that there was much more to class struggle than the movements formed around factory labor and that a place had to be found to bring social movements into the picture, even as it also became clear that the nature of urban struggles entailed the evocation of different social relations than those typically appealed to in the more conventional Marxist literature. How did the analysis change when the primary antagonism was between renters and landlords extracting rents (and how come one of the first measures of the Paris Commune was a moratorium on rental payments?). I welcomed the publication of Castells’ The City and the Grassroots but could not understand why he saw this as a radical break with Marxist theoretical formulations. To be sure, the latter needed to be extended and reformulated but it was wrong, in my view, to abandon existing insights to be had from reading Capital and the politics that flowed therefrom. And to the degree that studies on the built environment could not be separated from studies of environmental issues in general, so the question of what Marx called “the metabolic relation to nature” (including the “second nature” produced through human action) required attention. It was not hard for geographers to take this matter up seriously, as Neil Smith demonstrated in his brilliant work on the production of nature in Uneven Geographical Development (Smith, 1984). On this last point I should stress that quite a few on the conventional Marxist left in the 1970s considered work on environmental issues as petite bourgeois sentimentalism if not bourgeois romanticism. It took many years for that hostility to disappear. Jim O’Connor’s emphasis upon “the second contradiction of capital” in the journal he founded Capitalism, Nature, Socialism ultimately became more acceptable and was followed by deep studies on the destructive consequences of capital for environmental conditions in mainstream Marxist circles (such as Monthly Review).
This was the context in which I set out to write Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Harvey, 1996) as an exemplar of what I had come to think of as historical-geographical materialism. This was a book written under some duress. To begin with, when I returned to Baltimore in 1993 after six years in Oxford, I found Johns Hopkins University (and the Department in which I was lodged) to be a far more hostile environment than it had been during my early years there (with the exception of Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver in Sociology who were wonderful intellectual companions). The collapse of communism with the end of the Soviet Union and its Empire led many to claim that Marxism was dead, so my continuing interest in exploring the interstices of Marx’s thought looked increasingly anachronistic. The academic turn to post-structuralism and identity politics in the English speaking world was often articulated (wrongly in my minority view, even in the case of Foucault) as a rebuttal of Marxist perspectives. I had very few students in my class on Capital. What was so odd was that changing material transformations of capitalism under neoliberalism were making Marx’s analysis in Volume 1 of Capital more rather than less relevant during these years. The descriptions widely circulating in the mainstream press of sweatshop conditions of labor all around the world (feeding stores like The Gap and Walmart) during the 1990s could be inserted into Marx’s chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital without there being any marked difference. The world of work and labor was aligning more and more closely with Capital Volume 1, than had been the case when I first started teaching it in the early 1970s. In those earlier years, a regulated capitalism along with strong elements of a welfare state made working and living conditions acceptable at least for privileged segments of the mainly white, male working class in the advanced capitalist countries (albeit to some degree supported by imperialist and colonialist extractivism). Even more peculiar from a purely intellectual standpoint was that the post-structuralist turn frequently invoked spatiality in its refutation of Marx’s universality when I had striven mightily to bring theoretical perspectives on space, place and environment into some sort of alignment with Marx’s theoretical contributions. It was my irritation at all this that led me to slog away at writing Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.
The method adopted was broadly dialectical but I had increasingly come to see that Marx’s method (or at least my interpretation of it) was an interesting combination of abstract dialectical logic (where the influence of Hegel’s Logic was strong) and a process-based philosophy which saw all things as contingent upon the processes (such as the endless circulation and accumulation of capital) that created, sustained, and ultimately dissolved them. When Marx studies the circulation of capital and looks at questions such as turnover time, fixed capital circulation and the annihilation of space through time (which produces time space compressions in how global capital works) he appeals to process-based relational thinking rather than to Hegel. Once I got into the literature on that I found a fascinating and in many respects a fantastic world in which Marx’s account of flows of the circulation and accumulation of capital could be re-cast in terms not bound by the rigidities that all too often derived from Hegelian logic. My earlier roots in Ollman’s relational thinking now blossomed into a close reading of process-based thinking as exemplified in Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical reconstructions of space, time, and nature, David Bohm’s re-writing of quantum theory and above all the statements laid out in Levins and Lewontin’s Marxist exposition in Dialectical Biology. The liberation of my interpretation of Marx from traces of mechanical or even Hegelian readings had remarkable effects. The fact that process-based philosophy proliferated in scientific and philosophical enquiries (albeit by such rank conservative thinkers as Whitehead) embracing physics and biology made the discoveries even more exciting. It opened up a possible means, for example, to better integrate an understanding of the metabolic relation to nature and the production of nature into the general corpus of Marx’s theories. At the same time, the collapse of actually existing communism meant the circumstances were right for exploring a non-dogmatic Marxism in the wake of communist experiments that were hardly a model of human emancipation for all of their worthy concrete material achievements. The qualities of social relations and their potential transformation moved front and center without falling into the trap of the idealist humanism that grounded Marx’s early explorations of alienation in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
My deep concern for the significance of flows and of processes occurred at a moment in my life when the life-flows in my own body were failing, culminating in 1996 in a major heart by-pass operation that clearly saved my life. I sometimes think there was a hidden mind-body preoccupation with flows going on within me during these years. So the duress under which I was writing was physical as well as professional, intellectual, and political. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference was, after Limits, the hardest book I ever had to write and particularly difficult to bring to closure. My close colleague Neil Smith and my editor friend John Davey (who was editorially involved in more than 15 of the books I have published from the very first to the very last) both read the draft and helped me see that the book was in fact already finished insofar as it could be and that I should therefore let it go even though I felt there was much more to be said.
After my heart operation my cardiologist warned me of the possibility of personality change. I remember at the time thinking that was not a bad idea. I fantasized as to what kind of person I would want to become if the choice was mine. I knew for sure that deferred gratification with a heart condition was ridiculous. If I had something more to say then I had better say it as soon as possible. I have, as a result, published rather a lot of books since 1996.
There had also been a not totally unexpected shift in content in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. I had been surprised at the depiction of Limits in some quarters as a closed and deterministic text when I had explicitly argued at the end of it that dialectical method mandated a perpetual opening up. “A work of this sort admits of no conclusion. The dialectical mode of thinking, at least as I construe it, precludes closure of the argument.” I argued that there were two immediate areas that needed far more attention: a better and more robust theory of the state and state action and a more adequate theory of social reproduction, particularly the reproduction of labor power. In the latter case, the starting point “is not the commodity, but a simple event—the birth of a working class child.” In the Paris study I had paid close attention to this and offered a more detailed analysis of gender and the changing role of women. These issues clearly needed closer attention. Strong and sometimes strident criticisms from some feminists of my insensitivities to the gender question in The Condition of Postmodernity also pointed to the necessity of incorporating gender and feminist perspectives, though I was not impressed by what I sometimes felt were attempts to guilt-trip me personally over the evident sins of centuries of male patriarchal dominance. The feminization of the working classes and of poverty world-wide could obviously not be ignored any more than the long-standing dismissal of feminist perspectives in much of academia. The feminists I knew at Hopkins such as Nancy Hartsock, Donna Harraway, Emily Martin and Katherine Verdery were very influential. These days I admire the work of Silvia Federici and Nancy Fraser among others.
Furthermore, I needed to get far more explicit as to exactly how geographical perspectives could be integrated into the study of the laws of motion of capital. This meant deeper conceptual and theoretical explorations of the roles of space, place, and environment in relation to Marx’s formulations as well as more generally throughout all the social sciences. Most social science theories ignore these dimensionalities and even when, as in Paul Krugman’s work on spatial economics, attention is paid to such issues, it always seemed to me that something very important and potentially powerful gets lost. The same was true of quite a bit of the work in the humanities, where there was a strong preference to ignore the political economic processes and capital circulations that were producing transformations in place, space, and nature in favor of more symbolic or psycho-analytic investigations. Given the process-based and relational dialectical method I was adopting, there could be no closure to such questions. While new understandings and exciting perspectives could be generated, everything remained open for further development and practical explorations. Lack of closure in Justice, Nature and Geography of Difference (JNGD) was frustrating, but I now recognize the openness of the method and of the book makes for its peculiar strength and appeal. In any case, the broadening of the reference base did not weaken but strengthened the range of application of what I was seeking to accomplish. Study of hermeneutical approaches to the philosophy of place, for example, entailed critical engagement with the Heideggerian tradition as well as the extensive literatures on the meaning of place in a world where places were in the process of dissolution through the deindustrialization wrought by the dynamics of capital accumulation and devaluation in space and time.
This book, perhaps more than any other, is my most open, exploratory and imaginative, even as it is by no means easy to grapple with the content since it emphasizes the importance of theory. I think it repays careful study not because of what it says but because of what it opens up. I tried to ground the theorizing in actual events. This led to the detailed examination of a devastating fire in a chicken processing plant in Hamlet North Carolina in 1991 in the context of environmental justice movements and the Reaganite transformation of the state apparatus into a system of neoliberal neglect. The latter was unfortunately echoed in a growing tendency in radical academia to ignore the plight of low-income black women as opposed to fighting the racial and gender discriminations evident in the middle and upper classes.
Yet there was something odd about the reception of JNGD. I had thought that those Marxists who had turned to the exploration of environmental questions would have welcomed its contribution. Instead, I experienced either a negative reaction (as exemplified in the interchange with John Bellamy Foster in Monthly Review)2 or a tendency to ignore the work. This response occurred in part, I suspect, because of the low reputational status of geography as a discipline but also it occurred because of my refusal to accept an apocalyptic reading of the global environmental situation. Capital, I asserted, can continue to prevail as a social relation and as a mode of accumulation even in the face of the direst and most unwanted forms of environmental transformation that it produces. The problem is not that capital cannot possibly survive but that the social, economic, political, and material conditions of that survival would be devastating for large swathes of the world’s population while the ultra-rich would probably happily continue their elite and sheltered ways of life. I take environmental issues very seriously but it is impossible to do so in my view without being anti-capitalist.
The 1990s was the highpoint of the neoliberal wave that produced the “Washington Consensus” along with Fukuyama’s supposed final “end of history” with the supposed total triumph of free market liberalism aligned with parliamentary democracy. But it seemed doubly insane to me to abandon or overtly reject on this basis any further study of Marx’s fecund and suggestive critical theories of how capital was working. We were living in an era when Marx’s critical findings were plainly more relevant than ever. And we also lived in a time when the possibility (and this is what JNGD was designed to explore) existed to transcend traditional political constraints to Marxist theorizing and to extend it across entirely new horizons. Of course there were many barriers to so doing in a university world becoming increasingly corporatist and neoliberal in its governance and orientation. But there were also internal barriers within the Marxist tradition that derived from a traditionalist dogmatism and what can only be described as an innate conservativism.
It was in this frame of mind that I came to work on what I now in retrospect call “the Marx Project.” I say “in retrospect” because I never imagined it as a long-lasting project (nearly twenty years and on-going) when I began. The beginning point was obvious. Nobody cared much to read let alone study Marx at a time when the analysis Marx offered was spot on. Furthermore, there were from my standpoint serious misrepresentations and misreadings by both opponents and advocates alike as to how Marx might best be read and interpreted in relation to contemporary conditions.
The sudden irruption of mass discontent as symbolized by the events at the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 raised a whole raft of questions within the “anti-globalization movement” as to the success of the Washington Consensus in resolving questions of poverty, democracy, and environmental degradation word-wide. I recognized that there were barriers to reading Marx that needed to be overcome. His work is often difficult to understand. But far too many expositions inspired by his thought make him far more complicated than he already is. I wanted an exposition that was as simple as possible but, as Einstein once put it, “no simpler.” With nearly 40 years of teaching Volume 1 of Capital to different audiences under my belt I surely had the experience to do that. Much of Marx’s work was speculative, tentative, and incomplete, but I had been forced to deal with and in some instances to overcome much of that in the course of my urban studies. I knew how to make and tentatively complete Marx’s theoretical commentaries in ways that were relevant to what was going on around us. The process-based and relational approaches emphasized in JNGD allowed me to “jump scales” and to extend outwards conceptually as well as practically and even imaginatively.
But none of this would have mattered had I not moved from the increasingly toxic environment (I actually became physically sick as well as mentally distressed) of Johns Hopkins and moved to the wonderfully welcoming environment of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2001. Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, close friends both, were there. I received institutional backing at all levels (from the Department of Anthropology to Bill Kelly, the President of the Graduate Center—only the Geographers were hostile as they had previously been when Neil Smith arrived from Rutgers a few years before; they did not care for our kind of geography which explains why both Neil and I ended up in Anthropology!). And I was in an activist environment with students who, particularly after Seattle, the economic recession of 2000 and of course the events of 9/11, were engaged in a lot of soul-searching within a highly politicized graduate student body (very different from the graduate student body typical of elite institutions such as Johns Hopkins). Suddenly my Capital class was flooded with takers. After a few years, Chris Caruso, a talented and dedicated student with remarkable media skills offered to put the Marx course on line with the help of several volunteers (some of whom travelled from Philadelphia to do the filming and editing). I initially demurred, thinking no one would really have much interest but then agreed. The success of the Web site, which opened in 2007, was remarkable. It was the product of a creative collaboration between my content and Chris’s incredible media skills. That then led to the publication, at the invitation of Verso, of the two Companions to Marx’s |Capital (Harvey, 2010; Harvey, 2013). It also led to the writing of what I hoped would be exemplars of Marx’s thinking in action in relation to contemporary conditions either in narrative form (such as The New Imperialism (Harvey, 2003) and A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005), both of which proved popular) followed by more analytic texts such as The Enigma of Capital (Harvey, 2010), Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Harvey, 2014) and most recently Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Harvey, 2017). From the differential reception of these texts I have concluded there is a strong preference for the narrative over the analytic form. I also continued to publish on urban questions (Spaces of Hope, Harvey, 2000; the revised version of the Paris text, Harvey, 2003; Rebel Cities, Harvey, 2012; and Abstract from the Concrete, Harvey, 2016, which focused on China).
The economic disruption of 2007–2008 raised a lot of questions regarding the stability and the future evolution of global capitalism. Even in bourgeois academic circles it was conceded that Marx was pre-eminently a crisis theorist and he might have something to say though most conventional economists, sociologists, and political scientists particularly in the United States had no idea what that might be. Some revival of interest in Marx was, however, to be expected. But the work on a Marxist interpretation of internal contradictions in the English-speaking world was confined to a small underworld of analysts, thinkers, curious students, and leaders of key social and political movements. It proved difficult, though not impossible, to escape the Marxist ghetto but after several years there are some signs of progress. Questions of identity and intersectionality now loom large, of course. In the last few years in particular the right wing assault on black populations and other minority groups (e.g. welfare and indigenous populations) as well as upon women’s and LGBTQ rights have spawned powerful responses such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Me-too” in the United States that have spilled over elsewhere in the world. The rise to prominence of an anti-immigrant, often xenophobic populist right wing in many parts of the world (including the United States) in the wake of the neoliberal loss of legitimacy after the financial crisis, has posed political problems that require immediate responses. While it would be utopian to think that there are no problems arising in relations between Marxism, the traditional socialist left and identity, intersectional and environmental politics, there is enough evidence of alliance formation and a willingness to explore the unities within the differences to make this a potentially critical time for a re-foundation of a broader left politics, albeit on a somewhat different basis than in the past. The search is on, as it were, for some sort of political glue to connect an immense diversity of oppositional movements together without suppressing differences. My own choice is to explore the theme of anti-capitalism. A podcast entitled The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles became the basis for a book of essays with that title, dedicated to the exploration of that theme.
I do not take this position because of some defect in my DNA. Nor am I anti-capitalist because I was raised as a “red-diaper” babe or intellectually seduced by some left wing sect in my impressionable youth. Indeed, I did not start reading Marx until I was 35 years old. I had long been sympathetic to all those struggling against social injustices and multiple forms of oppression. I early on felt considerable sympathy for the dreams of utopian socialism and that predilection has never entirely left me (it became explicit in the utopian sketch of “Edilia” in Spaces of Hope). I became an anti-capitalist during the pursuit of the Marx project because my sober and sane evaluation of how capital is working in our times (and yes I increasingly rely upon Marx’s account as the best there is) points inexorably to anti-capitalist conclusions.
But in this I am almost certainly too naïve. I believe that rationally superior arguments will ultimately win the day, when, as many critics hasten to point out, it is affect and the unconscious and the wily ruses of political subjectivity that really shape political outcomes. Those who use abstract categories like “capital” fail, writes Chantal Mouffe, “to mobilize the affective dimension to motivate people to act politically anti-capitalist rhetoric does not find any echo in the groups whose interests they pretend to represent. This is why they always remain in marginal positions.”3 Well yes, maybe. Rational arguments about, for example, climate changes have not been anywhere near as effective as one might hope (though previous arguments over chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the ozone hole did produce the Montreal protocol). But that is no reason to reject rational arguments and to go solely with affect. Without the rational formulations it would be hard to make a case for anything. Rational arguments may not be sufficient for political action but they are absolutely necessary. The question as to why we all should be anti-capitalist is, I submit, critically important as an absolutely necessary basis for political action even though it is clearly not sufficient.
I prefer the term “anti-capitalist” rather than socialist, communist, anarchist, populist or whatever because it invites everyone who has been negatively affected in some way by the circulation and accumulation of capital to come together around the cause of finding an alternative mode of production, circulation, distribution, and consumption to that which we have right now. In subscribing to such a project, no one is required to accept some essentialist foundation to politics such as that proposed through the formation of a proletarian vanguard, a vanguard party, a particular ideology of individual liberty, democracy, equality, and freedom or a particular theory of the just society to be justly arrived at. The only requirement is collectively working towards a common future in which the current economic system is replaced by social forms of organization that facilitate the production and distribution of adequate use values for all to have decent life prospects. The realm of freedom, said Marx, begins when the realm of necessity is left behind. The task is simple. Everyone should be able to live however they want beyond the realm of necessity. In today’s world we clearly have the productive capacity and the organizational capacity to realize that ambition. Only the capitalist classes and capitalist institutions and structures of market exchange stand in the way.
The virtue of the anti-capitalist stance is that it can bring in all manner of different groups and interests that have been negatively affected by the exploitations, dispossessions, appropriations, and extractions engineered through capitalist mechanisms of domination. It includes the family restaurant owner who works incredibly long hours and who pays her workers badly while paying out most of what she brings in to the banks, to landlords who raise rents in the blink of an eye, to the state as taxes on property values pushed inexorably upwards by market forces. It can animate tenants who not only face the threat of eviction but who are increasingly tormented by the growth of an increasingly capitalized Airbnb industry that fills apartment blocks with drunken and noisy tourists. It unites low-income black residents in central cities with white rural farmers who have both gone through the trauma of foreclosure on their properties by financial institutions that lured them into the debt trap with glowing promises of a rosy future. It brings together precarious workers and unionized but seriously underpaid school teachers. It encompasses all those dispossessed of meaningful jobs and their livelihoods through deindustrialization, automation, and now artificial intelligence. It provides an active space and role for indigenous groups militating against the destruction of their culture through capitalist extractivism. It can appeal, in short, to all the alienated of the earth.
So what, then, is the basic problem that mandates anti-capitalism as the logical answer? In the Seventeen Contradictions I ended with three dangerous contradictions, the first of which makes the most compelling case for an anti-capitalist project. Capital has to accumulate and it has to do so at a compound rate (e.g. circa 3% per annum). Compound growth of 3% means exponential growth which typically begins slowly until it reaches an inflection point where it begins to accelerate before soaring upwards at an increasingly impossible rate. When the global capitalist production economy was confined to Britain, Western Europe and the Eastern seaboard of the United States with global market links around the world, as was the case when Marx was writing, then the compounding growth of industrial production posed no serious problem. The case for socialism rested on objections to the levels of poverty and exploitation of one class by another. But by the time the industrial economy had grown as it had in the post-World War II period in the advanced capitalist countries to a point of saturation and overaccumulation, some radical expansion was called for. After 1970, the incorporation of China, the ex-Soviet Empire and large segments of the post-colonial world through neoliberal globalization sustained global growth though at somewhat lower rates than those of the post-World War Two “golden age.” The global wage labor force increased dramatically from two to more than three billion persons between 1980 and 2010. This was a one-time expansion that can never be repeated. Globalization as a means to discipline labor power depended upon fluid movement of capital around the world. Money is by far the most geographically mobile form of capital. The abandonment of the gold peg for the US dollar and other financial innovations opened the world to unlimited money creation and open flows of money around the world that forged the global relocation of industrial activity. The increase in the global work forces meant the expansion of output, of the market, and in the extraction of mineral, energy and agricultural resources at an accelerating rate. While there are no obvious fixed limits to endless growth, the tensions now involved in sustaining compound growth are everywhere apparent.
For this reason I have been paying close attention to what is happening in China in recent years because it is there that some of the most obvious contradictions of sustaining capitalism are playing out before our very eyes. Global capital was saved from a grand depression in 2007–2008 by the huge expansion of urban and infrastructural investment in China. This stimulated a massive demand for raw materials such that producers in Latin America, South Asia, and Australia could exit crisis conditions very quickly. In the same way that Haussmann had helped Louis Bonaparte solve the economic problems of 1848–1850 through the rebuilding of Paris, and Robert Moses had done much the same for the United States after 1945 in creating metropolitan regions around strong processes of suburbanization, so the Chinese did something similar but at an unprecedented scale that had them consuming more cement between 2012 and 2014 than the United States had consumed in the preceding 100 years. Cement production, it also turns out, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions!
The hyper-urbanization of China began in the mid-1990s. It entailed the granting of private property rights to households, new financial structures and institutions, a radical transformation of lifestyles and many other social, political, and economic adjustments similar to those that had characterized earlier episodes (such as that of Second Empire Paris) of rescuing capital, albeit temporarily, through urbanization, infrastructural investments, and the production of space, place, and second nature. When the financial crisis hit in 2007–2008 and China’s export industries crashed in tandem with the contraction of the US consumer market, the Chinese authorities simply ratcheted up the urbanization and infrastructural investment process already under way to compensate almost overnight for the losses. But then, in the same way that Haussmann’s project crashed in 1867 and Moses’s grand project for metropolitan New York gradually became unstuck after 1968, so China’s project has been wobbling back and forth between doses of stimulus followed by attempts to curb overaccumulation and speculative excesses from 2014 onwards. The future stabilization of capitalism is clearly under threat even as China seeks to deal with its problems by resort to a “spatial fix” to its overaccumulation of capital by economically colonizing other lands through investments of surplus capital in Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
On the one hand China over the last 30 years has rescued more than 800 million of its people from poverty and currently plans to eliminate all poverty in the country by 2022. Life expectancy is high. Internal space relations have been revolutionized by the construction of some 20,000 miles of high-speed rail network in 10 years. No one in China would, I suspect, want to go back to 1978. China plans a fully socialist society (characterized by equality, democracy, well-being, and harmony between people and with nature) by 2050. China, now the second largest economy in the world, has contributed more to global growth since 2012 than North America, Europe, and Japan combined. But at the same time China went from one of the most to one of the least egalitarian countries in the world. It has accumulated chronic environmental issues of almost every sort at almost every level. Uneven geographical development is rampant. Local “growth machines” are out of control. Structures of government are authoritarian, often arbitrary and prone to corruption. Growth rates which were once in double digits are now closer to 6%. The accumulated debt is now one of the highest in the world (close to 300%) in relation to GDP. What will happen to global capitalism if Chinese growth declines even further? How will the debt be redeemed? To top it all, popular protests (against employment conditions and dispossessions) have escalated even as the party (with some 90 million members) consolidates its powers. The contradictions of the Chinese case are rampant and bear watching closely.
This is, however, yet another case where the future of capital depends upon the intertwining of an urbanization and infrastructural investment process that entails revolutionizing space relations, places, and second natures but this time on a scale and at a speed (turnover time) that is almost impossible to grasp except through the powers of abstraction that Marx fortunately bequeathed to us. On the one hand it seems there is a huge distance between Haussmann’s project in Paris in the Second Empire and the contemporary urbanization of China. But when we abstract from the specificities and look at the form we see remarkable similarities. This is what theory can reveal. It also re-emphasizes the continuity of the human dilemma: the “contradictory unity between social relations in constant transformation on the ground and alien processes of capital accumulation and overaccumulation that rule the economic system as real abstractions.” Explanation/Social Justice, Paris/Limits: this contradictory unity is what has preoccupied me, as the recent collection Ways of the World (2015) so beautifully illustrates, all along. Yet, as an academic, I am always mindful of the gratitude W.B.Yeats expressed to his unknown instructors:
What they set out to do
They brought to pass
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
Actually, Yeats had something else to say that appears all too apposite for our own trembling and tumultuous times:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
While the sentiment resonates as a general commentary, I like to think I have not lost my passionate intensity and that it is still possible to strive to articulate the convictions of the best.
- Abstract and key words for this article have been provided by Ipsita Chatterjee (Editor of Human Geography).
- David Harvey, “Marxism, metaphors, and ecological politics,” Monthly Review, April 1998, 17-31.
- Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism, Verso, London, 2018.
|Harvey, D (1969) Explanation in Geography. London: Edward Arnold; New York: St Martin’s Press. (translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese); reprinted Rawat Publications, New Delhi, India, 2003.|
|Harvey, D (1973) Social Justice and the City. London: Edward Arnold; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. (translated into Japanese; Spanish; Italian; Korean); reissued with an introduction by Ira Katnelson, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1992; revised edition re-published by Georgia University Press, Athens Georgia, 2009.|
|Harvey, D (1982) The Limits to Capital. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (translated into Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish; Korean, Chinese); reissued in 1999 with a new introduction by Verso, London; new Verso edition with a new introduction in 2006.|
|Harvey, D (1985) Consciousness and the Urban Experience. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.|
|Harvey, D (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass. (translated into Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Turkish, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic).|
|Harvey, D (1996) Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese).|
|Harvey, D (2000) Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (translated into Korean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese).|
|Harvey, D (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Turkish, Rumanian, French, Greek, Chinese and Arabic); reissued in 2005 with an Afterword.|
Google Scholar | Crossref
|Harvey, D (2003) Paris, Capital of Modernity. New York: Routledge. (translated into Spanish, French, Korean, Turkish, Portuguese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese).|
|Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (translations into Spanish, Russian, Japanese, German, Romanian, Finnish, Norwegian, Turkish, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese).|
Google Scholar | Crossref
|Harvey, D (2010) A Companion to Reading Marx’s Capital. New York: Verso. (translated into German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish).|
|Harvey, D (2010) The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books; New York: Oxford University Press. (translated into Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Turkish).|
|Harvey, D (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso. (translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, French, Turkish, Greek, German).|
|Harvey, D (2013) A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Vol 2. London: Verso. (translated into Portuguese, Japanese, German, Chinese).|
|Harvey, D (2014) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. London: Profile Press; New York: Oxford University Press. (translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean).|
|Harvey, D (2015) Ways of the World. London: Profile Press; New York: Oxford University Press. (Chinese, Greek, Korean, Turkish translations)|
|Harvey, D (2016) Abstract From the Concrete. Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Sternberg Press.|
|Harvey, D (2017) Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason. London: Profile Press; New York: Oxford University Press. (translations already scheduled in Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian).|
|Lefebvre, H (1970) La Révolution Urbaine. France: Gallimard.|
|Lefebvre, H (1972) La Pensee Marxiste et la Ville. France: Casterman.|
|Smith, N (1984) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.|