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David Harvey Interviewed in the Weekly Worker August 1, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Marxism, Political Philosophy.

I stopped reading the Weekly Worker some time ago. It bore a certain lurid fascination with its accounts of the sometimes bizarre goings on in the various British far left groups, interspersed with the occasional interesting long article. At the end of the day though, most people read it for the gossip, and with blogs having taken on that role, there didn’t seem much point in wading though its often deeply strange screeds any longer. However, I was flicking through its archives this weekend, and came across an extended interview from June with the current doyen of the left on the web, David Harvey. Definitely worth reading in full; both for his basic analysis of the crisis but especially for Harvey’s reflections on the idea of the historic mission of the proletariat, which help put his overall ideas, and what benefit they may have for political activists, in better persepective.

Asked about what has surprised him about the crisis, he talked about the class nature of the crisis, and the propagadanda that stock market recovery meant the economy had recovered.

what surprises me is how clear and unambiguous the nature of this crisis is and – paradoxically – the inability of people to grasp what is happening and why, even when it is staring them in the face.

It seems he isn’t a regular reader of the Sunday Independent, nor are its columnists fans of his.

Now nobody sane would attribute the current crisis to the idea that labour has too much power. I have not heard greedy unions blamed this time around, as opposed to in the 70s. At that time, you could say the crisis really was in the labour market and in shop-floor discipline.
Since then we have had the mass disciplining of the working classes by offshoring and by technological change. If that ‘peaceful’ process did not work, people like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and general Pinochet were ‘invented’ to do it violently.

Credit was the means used by capital to sustain demand among workers whose living conditions had been attacked by thatcherism in its various forms, and the result was the growing power of financial institutions seeking to manipulate the debt.

The crisis this time therefore has a different manifestation. My argument has always been that you cannot go to one single-bullet theory of crisis. You always have to look at its dynamic development, moving from one manifestation in one sphere to another. At one moment, it can appear like an underconsumption problem (there is discussion about underconsumption at present, which I think is a serious problem). It moves on and presents itself as a profit-squeeze problem. Then it appears as the falling rate of profit (which has a narrow, technical meaning in conventional Marxist theory, although profits can fall for all sorts of reasons, including the lack of effective demand). I see the notion of crisis as being spread throughout the system.
In this context, I am very interested in some of the language Marx used in the Grundrisse, where he talks about limits and barriers. As an incredibly dynamic system, capital cannot abide limits on its development. It converts those limits into barriers, which it transcends and circumvents.
I think the theory of crisis has to be rewritten around this idea of a movable crisis form. I call it a movable famine, as opposed to a movable feast. One minute it is a credit famine, the next a famine in the labour market. It can also be shortages of raw materials, so there can be a limit imposed by nature, which has to be transcended by technological change. We have seen this happen historically many times.

Harvey is sceptical of the notion that we are seeing the death-throes of capitalism, although he does point to its need to invent fictional assets in order to sustain growth.

The point I am making is that we have reached what I call an inflection point in the history of capitalism, where sustaining a 3% compound growth indefinitely is becoming less and less feasible. What that implies is that we are facing an historic choice. We can organise to get rid of capitalism, or capitalism can keep on inventing new, ever more intangible asset markets which peak, bubble and burst. The big one they are talking about these days is carbon trading. You can invest in weather futures. We are living in this world of incredible, notional, fictional investments.
While people are starving or trying to live on two dollars a day, others are making incredible amounts of money trading in such fictional investment markets. Just last year, five hedge fund managers had personal incomes of $3 billion each in just one year. Meanwhile, in Haiti you had a spiral downwards into ever more terrible poverty, even before the earthquake came along. You have to question what kind of world we are living in.
So, yes, capital can last, the capitalist class can preserve itself and even thrive – they are in fact getting extremely rich through this crisis. However, at some point people are going to look at this increasing class polarisation, say enough is enough and do something about it.

Having discussed the shift from private to sovereign debt, he discusses his fears that China and east Asia may be on the verge of a crisis, and he is then asked about the left’s response to the crisis.

I find the left is very conservative sometimes. There are some real problems with its analytical framework for interpreting this crisis. One of the aims of Enigma is to try and lay out an alternative.
There is a theoretical problem to be addressed and I see some attempt at that, which is encouraging. But there is the question of the popular response and the degree to which we can build upon mass anger. The historical pattern I would look to is 1929 in the United States and the stock market crash. Social movements didn’t really get into motion until 1933. The initial reaction to a crisis is to sit tight and hope it goes away. But by 1933 Roosevelt had to do something. Whether he wanted to or not, he had to act, because he was being pushed by very articulate leftwing forces. It was a powder keg waiting to blow. We are in the early stages of this process.

Asked whether the working class remains the key agent in effective the transformation of society, he questions the focus on the factory worker.

This question of agency has to be rethought. I have never been happy with the general depiction in a lot of Marxist thinking of the working class as the agent – particularly when the working class is limited to the factory worker. For me, you would have to incorporate all the people who make the railroads, the cities, etc. It is not simply about the production of things: it is also about the production of spaces.
I have always thought that the general aura surrounding the proletariat in Marxist thinking is too narrow. I wanted it to be much broader, to be much more inclusive of all the people who are working on everything, everywhere – some of whom are easier to organise than others. To me this is very important as a first step, but the second thing is that it is not simply about being exploited in the workplace.

However, he isn’t very clear on how resistance to capitalism must be organised.

I ask how we can construct an alliance which is really going to go for the jugular. For me agency right now is a question mark – I do not have a clear theory of it. I know it has to be broader and bigger than the traditional notion of the proletarian revolution. That is one of the things we have to really think about and work on … I cannot say the answer is that there has to be the creation of a political party. A political party would need to do the right things, the right way and make the revolution happen. But if you look at the history of political parties, it has not always been the case. I veer between thinking maybe we would be better off going with a more spontaneous theory of revolution, like the sort that Henri Lefebvre talks about. This sort of uprising has worked in many instances, including the Paris Commune, which was not organised by a political party.

The party political activists among us may wonder how someone who stresses the increasing sophistication and dynamism of capitalism expects a spontaneous wave to overthrow it, but I digress.

Harvey argues that the theory of revolution held by Marx, and that is needed for today, is better termed a theory of co-revolution.

One of the things I have tried to do in the book is talk about processes of transition. I used Marx’s way of talking about the transition from feudalism to capitalism to illustrate what I thought would be needed to go from capitalism to communism.
One of the things that became apparent to me is that Marx actually has a theory of what I would call co-revolution. The way I modelled this, based on what he wrote in Capital, is to say there are seven ‘moments’. There is a technological/organisational moment, where change must happen; there is the relation to nature, which becomes unsustainable and must change; social relations, which have to change; there are production forms and labour processes, which have to change; there is daily life, which has to change; there is mental conceptions of the world, which no longer fit and must change; and institutional arrangements, which have to change.
I got this from a footnote in chapter 15 of Capital, which talks about the way in which capital consolidated its power by coming up with new technological forms. When you look at this account, Marx suggests that no single one of those moments, as I have dubbed them, is actually the main trigger, the most powerful cause. All of them were co-evolving.

He sees revolution as a long duration process, and calls for an alliance between environmentalists seeking to change humanity’s relationship with nature and those seeking to change social relations among humans. It seems he thinks there has been too great a focus on the seizure of state power.

The instant of a revolution, of a revolutionary change of government, is just one moment in that process that can succeed or not succeed. In many ways the problem with revolutionary transformations, including the one that was associated with 1917, was that there was no real theory of revolutionary change and how the dynamic of revolutionary movement was going to be kept going, and to me that is the most important thing.

He sees hope for the future in the renewed interest in the writings of Marx and Engels (although it’s perhaps worth remembering 1998).

When I put Marx’s Capital on the web for my course, I was very surprised: there have been close to a million hits and that is being reproduced all over the place in other forms. So my personal response is that there is much more interest than was the case in the early 1990s, when everyone was declaring Marxism was dead and I was teaching a class of about seven bored students – people who could not find another class to go to.

So interesting and stimulating stuff. And once again, we are back to the issue of theory and praxis, and how to change the world as well as interpret it. Same as ever.


1. goodhardrant - August 1, 2010

Substantial stuff for a Sunday morning, Garibaldy. I’m not a party-activist, so what you see as Harvey’s lack of clarity about the means of moving from capitalism to socialism I view somewhat differently. I like the fact he hasn’t decided in advance what the answer is.

To be fair to him, and the interviewer, Mark Fisher, Harvey says he “veers between” ideas of spontaneous action and, the more accountable, organised party version of change. That seems a pretty honest account of the idealist urges of many left-wingers. What I like about Harvey is the way in which he doesn’t merely demonise capitalism, but acknowledges its perpetual inventiveness: saying that capital has been a “permanently revolutionary force in history” capable of transforming its forms of crisis and that makes it formidable. His idea is that we have to be more inclusive, less “conservative” in our opposition. I don’t think he’s wildly utopian in his thinking but trying to avoid lingering dogmatism. There’s much that is encouraging here. For instance, the idea that we’re still early on in this particular crisis, and that it’s not (as some have suggested) that the left have already failed to seize the moment. His book ‘The Enigma of Capitalism’ seems to suggest that capitalism retains powers through its riddles (like the bit in ‘Capitalism: a love story’ where the expert banker cannot explain what derivatives trading is but expects people to trust him with their finances) and that we need to work out new solutions. Same as ever, only different.


Garibaldy - August 2, 2010

Obviously not substantial enough when faced with competition from the Sindo’s stupidity 😉

I am all in favour of a flexible and open-minded approach as to how the transition can be achieved. Ditto acknowledging that capitalism remains a dynamic and expansionary force in many ways. Much of what Marx and Engels said about it in the Communist Manifesto remains true. The internet itself I would say tells us a great deal about the technological advances that remain possible under capitalism despite its contradictions.

Equally, it’s clear that socialists have to adapt their message and how they deliver it to move with the times, and to keep our analysis up to date. So too that the defeat of capitalism will involve mobilising as many layers of the population in opposition to it as possible.

Having said all that, I don’t think it’s dogmatic to maintain a focus on the central question of power, and how that can be achieved. In my view, a dogmatic approach would be to say that it must happen in this way or that way, and to adap your political strategy accordingly while ignoring objective circumstances. However, given capitalism’s remarkable resilience, the coercive power it has at its command, and the sheer scale of its global reach, I find it remarkable that as sophisticated a thinker as Harvey would be tempted to place such faith in spontaneity.

I don’t know about other people, but I find the Paris Commune an odd choice for an example of a successful revolution. An important moment in world history, yes, because it pointed to the future. But look how it finished up. 1848 teaches the same lesson about the resilience of the forces of reaction. I’d agree with you that the idea of spontaneity appeals to the urges of many leftists. I wonder though if that is because it seems to offer a short-cut, and the long drudgery of building a party political consciousness bit by bit.

I agree the point about still being early in this crisis, and so it’s possible we haven’t missed the boat is certainly an interesting one.


2. Pope Epopt - August 1, 2010

I appreciate David Harvey for many of the reasons listed by @goodhardrant – non-doctinaire and willing to acknowledge that the inventiveness of capitalism must be challenged by equal inventiveness, while admitting that he doesn’t have the strategic answers.

A particularly valuable part of his analysis is his emphasis on the spatial aspects of capitalism’s crises. Falling rates of profit / under-consumption has many times in the past lead to a dive of capital into property development and speculation. The social and economic consequences have been drastic, as they are now.

This truth is written particularly starkly over the face of this country.


Garibaldy - August 2, 2010


Like your point about the dive into property development and speculation.


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4. THATS NOT MY NAMA! - August 19, 2010

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