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28 June 2023

The Marx whisperer

The geographer David Harvey’s videos on Capital have made him an internet intellectual. But he has been observing the carnage of capitalism his whole life.

By Owen Hatherley

The Shanghai Expo of 2010 was, along with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the event that showcased China to the world. Sprawling across a former industrial site on the Huangpu river, it was linked by new metro lines and flyovers, flanked by scores of new high-rise blocks, with the container port in the near distance. At the Expo itself, past the pavilions of the participating countries and businesses was the “Future Pavilion”. At its centre was a pile of giant books, each one representing the history of utopian thinking. Le Corbusier, Robert Owen, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Campanella, Plato. There was just one living author in the pile – David Harvey, represented by his 2000 volume Spaces of Hope.

David Harvey is now in his late eighties. He has a dedicated YouTube channel, where his course on Marx’s Capital has more than a million views. He has advised states, co-directing the Ecuadorian Rafael Correa government’s National Strategy Centre for the Right to the Territory (Cenedet) in the 2010s, and advising the centre-left Roh Moo-hyun government on the planning of Sejong, a planned capital city in South Korea. This fame is all the more peculiar given that Harvey has never been a fashionable figure. He is a genial presence – Jeremy Corbyn-like, with white beard and jumper, in his fireside chat-like “Anti-Capitalist Chronicles” on YouTube – but does not tell off-colour jokes, or indeed any jokes. He does not probe the deeper mysteries of the value form. He has maintained a curious distance from “theory”. Since the early 1970s Harvey has been a straight-up revolutionary socialist, his eye focused on the class war and the apparently endless transformations of capital.

It is a good time to pause and consider this rise to popularity. Harvey has just published his 25th book, A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse, the latest instalment in a self-described two-decade “Marx Project”, and his work has just been ordered and put into context in Noel Castree, Greig Charnock and Brett Christophers’ lively David Harvey: A Critical Introduction to His Thought – one of only a handful of books dedicated to his career. Harvey’s life has been, like that of most academics, uneventful. He is around a decade too old to be a boomer, but his trajectory from a working-class household in the Medway town of Gillingham to Cambridge to teaching positions in Bristol, Baltimore and New York is a perhaps extreme example of postwar social mobility (it’s also the source of Harvey’s mid-Atlantic, half-cockney, half-East Coast accent). Harvey has not lived in the UK for 30 years, and it has seldom been his subject, aside from a co-written study of industrial struggles in Cowley, Oxford, in the 1980s. He has suffered the fate of many British intellectuals who make their name abroad – being neglected at home. When I met him in 2017, I asked if Corbyn and John McDonnell had ever contacted him. I was a little shocked to find that, unlike Rafael Correa or Roh Moo-hyun, they hadn’t. Harvey seemed less surprised.

At the centre of Harvey’s trajectory is a three-decade experience in Baltimore that clearly transformed the man. As a geographer, Harvey began – Castree, Charnock and Christophers point out – as a “Fabian progressivist”; what made him a Marxist was seeing Baltimore at the end of the 1960s and watching its racialised slums decline, its suburbs expand, its industries collapse and its elites reshape the industrial areas into conference centres, luxury flats and office complexes. Harvey’s turn to Marxism was signposted in a 1972 journal article, “Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation”, which was written for other geographers as a means of explaining just how Procrustean it was to attempt to understand Baltimore’s housing inequalities without understanding capital. In the work of the next few decades, Harvey tried to put Marxism at the centre of geography and vice versa, particularly in the book he regards as his magnum opus, Limits to Capital (1982).

[See also: Why Marx is more relevant than ever in the age of automation]

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Harvey’s concepts are often subtle restatements of the Marxist classics, particularly focusing on how capital survives and adapts despite its propensity to crisis. Limits to Capital focused on the “spatial fix” – that is, on how capital adapts by shifting the geographical location of production and realisation; from Manchester to Bangladesh, from Pittsburgh to Hebei. Similarly, The New Imperialism (2003) coined “accumulation by dispossession”, which reconceived of what Marx called “primitive accumulation” – violent appropriation of formerly public goods – as something that recurs throughout capital’s history, rather than what simply happens at its start. But as Castree, Charnock and Christophers note, “to the educated, radical but non-academic Left, Harvey is indisputably best known as a general interpreter of Marx” and “not as a Marxist geographer”. This is a shame, as Harvey’s most exciting work has been his extended studies of space, particularly of Baltimore, Paris and, more recently, China.

In the 21st century, Marx has taken over his oeuvre. Without denying the merits of these books, I suspect I’m not the only long-standing reader of Harvey’s to feel a little disappointed when a new book arrives and it is – like Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014) or Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (2017) – another exegesis of Marx rather than a work of geography.

To get a sense of what Harvey at his best is capable of, one could turn to Spaces of Hope, the book in the Shanghai Expo utopian pile-up, and its centrepiece, a relentless, moving account of Baltimore. His affection for the place is clear, but “Baltimore is, for the most part, a mess. Not the kind of enchanting mess that makes cities such interesting places to explore, but an awful mess.” He illustrates this with a barrage of statistics and photographs, depicting how building projects from the 1970s exhibited a combination of corporate welfare and drastic impoverishment for the city’s working class, particularly its black working class. Subjects range from the Maryland Science Center, with its welcoming glass front, to the redeveloped harbour and a windowless concrete wall to the ghetto, to the “New Urbanism” on the outskirts in the form of Kentlands, where:

“The cars (mainly gas-guzzling Sports Utility Vehicles) are housed better than two-thirds of the world’s population, and a nod to ecological benevolence is given by the existence of a pond, the preservation of a few patches of woodland and naming the Elementary School after Rachel Carson.”

Among this, he finds a proliferation of prisons, “the only investment of direct interest to the city’s poor”, built between the 1980s and 2000s. The Wire said it in five series, Harvey in 40 pages.  

These books are sometimes a lot more academic than one might expect from the relaxed, friendly tone of his Marx guides, but they stand up well. Few of the dozens of books published on postmodernism in the 1980s are as engaging as The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), which took a quizzical and open-minded but firmly socialist look at the culture of the Ronald Reagan era, rooting it in neoliberal transformations in the economy. Few monographs on a city are quite as fascinating as Paris – Capital of Modernity (2003), which reads as an attempt to reconceive Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, an unfinished mass of poetic fragments on the Paris of the Second Empire, a work of scientific geographical history. These works are not “vulgar Marxist” in the sense of seeing all culture as a simple emanation of capital, but the economy is never far away. This has secured Harvey against a certain amount of bulls**t, such as the popular position among “post-Marxists” in the 1980s that the new privatised culture was the result of some uncomplicated popular desire. “Homeownership may be a deeply held cultural value in the United States,” wrote Harvey in Rebel Cities (2012), “but cultural values flourish remarkably when promoted and subsidised by state policies.” Similarly, his Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) portrays the Pinochet-Thatcher-Reagan revolution as a straightforward reassertion of class power, which needs to be opposed more than theorised.

Harvey would probably chide a stated preference of his relatively “straight” works of geography over his works on Marx. I once made the mistake of telling him I had only read volume one of Capital, and after looking at me with scorn, he grinned and explained how his own concept of “time-space compression”, which he uses to vivid effect in The Condition of Postmodernity to describe the media culture of the 1980s, was taken entirely from Marx’s formidably difficult second volume. The roots of Harvey’s Marx Project also lie in Baltimore – in the reading group on Capital he set up there in 1971. At first, it was “disguised” from the university administrators at Johns Hopkins, so comprehensively that it took the institution, as he writes in Spaces of Hope, “nearly a decade to figure out it was Marx’s Capital that was being taught”.

[See also: The conflicted legacy of Karl Marx]

The new volume on the Grundrisse, like the earlier companion to volume two of Capital, takes on a book that is notoriously difficult to read and explains it with elegance, economy and a willingness to tell you when Marx is being “tedious”. But the Grundrisse, a set of notebooks Marx wrote for himself between 1857 and 1858 as preparation for what became Capital, intersperses its longueurs and equations with pearls that have become the foundation of entire schools of thought – on pre-capitalist economies, on alienation, on “totality”, on culture and art, on monetary reform, on nature and especially on automation and “the general intellect”, which in the hands of Italian Marxists from the 1970s became the rock around which developed a novel theory of “cognitive capitalism” (something rather “presumptuous” for a couple of pages in a notebook, according to Harvey).

Harvey tends to relate Marx’s concepts with contemporary examples – for example, on fixed capital vs capital proper, via the price difference between cheap inkjet printers sold at a loss and wildly overpriced printer inks. But the most interesting asides in the Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse are on China. As Castree, Charnock and Christophers write, “Harvey is mesmerised by China,” and the most exciting and frightening moments in his recent books are all on the country. In the Grundrisse companion, Harvey notes how in recent years the country has followed its immense infrastructural expansion in response to the crisis of 2008 with an attempt to shift from being a “labour-intensive” economy, which assembles industrial goods for the Western market, into a “capital-intensive” one, with a major internal market and the ability to export its infrastructural expertise, as seen in the Belt and Road Initiative. This is a transformation that the US “is desperately seeking to forestall”.

The fear of China was also at the centre of Harvey’s 2003 account of George W Bush-era imperialism, in which he noted that “it is hard to imagine that the USA would peacefully accept and adapt” to the fact “that we are in the midst of a major transition towards Asia as the hegemonic centre of global power”. If, as some have recently argued, neoliberalism is ending in the US – with Joe Biden’s promises of industrial policy and infrastructural expansion – it is, Harvey would argue, less out of any renewed New Deal social democracy so much as a means to block this historic transition.

This may make Harvey sound like the kind of Marxist who reduces everything to the economic “base”. Yet a lot of his recent work on class and culture takes a rather unusual line on the debate that has wracked much of the post-Corbyn and post-Bernie Sanders left; that is, over “class” vs “culture”, and whether the left’s subject is the “traditional working class” or some newer, less easily understood formation.

In the Grundrisse guide, Harvey differentiates his own position on some of the specifics of class from that of Marx, who in those notebooks dismisses service workers, as opposed to industrial workers, as a “rabble”, whether they be “whore or pope”. By contrast, in Rebel Cities, Harvey pointed to the example of the 1871 Paris Commune, a revolutionary experiment driven by a proletariat “characterised by insecurity, by episodic, temporary and spatially diffuse employment, and very difficult to organise on a workplace basis”. This working class was as interested in questions of social reproduction (rents, debts, the oppression of women) and culture (the monumental bourgeois “appropriation” of Paris under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann) as it was in the conditions of the workplace.

In the same book, Harvey argued that “mobilising the political and agitational powers of cultural producers is surely a worthwhile objective for the left”, and a “fertile field for critical expression and political agitation for the production of a new kind of commons”. Or, more spontaneously, he asks in a 2016 lecture on urbanism published as Abstract from the Concrete of the then-recent mass protests in Istanbul: “Gezi Park – what was that about? It wasn’t a working-class uprising. This was a cultural and popular uprising against the diminished and degraded qualities of urban life.”

[See also: What Marx got right]

Even in the hard class-war analysis of A Brief History of Neoliberalism, he argues that “so-called ‘culture wars’ – however misguided some of them may have been” simply can’t be dismissed as an “unwelcome distraction (as some on the traditional left argue) from class politics”.

That book on the pile at the Expo was where Harvey tried to outline some sort of alternative. In Spaces of Hope, Harvey ended with a description of Edilia, his own utopia, written in frustration as “I walk the streets of Baltimore” wondering where that “order of unity, friendliness and justice” was, where “the inequalities are so striking, so blatantly unnecessary, so against any kind of reason, and so accepted as part of some immutable ‘natural order of things’ that I can scarcely contain my outrage and frustration”.

In Edilia, after a revolution precipitated by a global debt crisis, the poor remake the urban world into a series of municipal “hearths” and communal child-rearing “pradashas”: into a society of green technologies, urban farms, decentralised democracy and associative democracy, where heterosexuality has disappeared as a category, as, of course, has the nuclear family. In Edilia everyone has a lot of sex, and the hydroponic urban glasshouses “guarantee a year-round supply of everything from salad vegetables to excellent high-quality marijuana”. He does not discuss aesthetics, except to note that “the roofs of the habitations are adorned with solar panels and small wind sails – the effect is somewhat Heath Robinsonish and would probably not be aesthetically pleasing to you”.

But who will get us there? Harvey dedicates A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse to his “thoroughly apolitical father”, something that he concedes “probably seems strange coming from someone who is eighty-five years old”. Harvey’s father was a shipyard worker at Chatham Naval Dockyard in Kent, and in 1950 took in exam in naval engineering. Working for a couple of hours every night, this manual labourer who had left school at 13 taught himself calculus and passed with flying colours. “I often had a picture of my father in my mind,” Harvey writes, “as I retired to some space for a couple of hours almost every day during Covid lockdown” to write his study of Marx studying capital. The imagined reader of the Grundrisse was Marx himself, which is why Harvey’s guide is so necessary, but the imagined reader of Capital was a figure Marx called “the emancipated labourer”. That is what Harvey’s dad became for a few hours every day, as he exercised his brain rather than his hands. We need the “emancipated labourer” still, Harvey argues – nobody else, certainly not academics like himself, will truly be able “to evaluate the socialist potential within capitalist technologies and organisational forms”. He concludes:

“At a time when there is a pressing need for creative and extensive intervention in the foundations of economic life, and at a time when there is a clear need for collective action to address problems of environmental degradation and the devaluation of human life to almost nothing, the voice of the emancipated labourer needs to be heard and magnified by all possible means.”

Harvey has argued there’s a revolutionary subject to be found today in the delivery driver, in the barista, in the precarious cultural worker, and in the millions of industrial proletarians in China. But it is oddly charming to find that, 70 years on, he has also found it in his own house in 1950s Gillingham.

[See also: China Miéville: “If you don’t feel despair, you’re not opening your eyes”]

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