Friday, April 23, 2010

David Harvey, "Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development"

(Verso, 2006)

David Harvey is one the premiere academic Marxists writing today. He's a geographer by training, but his analysis of post-Fordist capitalism and his materialist critique of cultural postmodernism have earned him a notable place in debates ranging across a number of other disciplines. Unfortunately for the Harvey neophyte, much of his work is packaged in daunting paving stone sized volumes. Spaces of Global Capitalism, clocking in at a mere 148 pages, comprises a lecture series given by Harvey in 2004. It makes for a concise introduction to Harvey and has the added benefit of drawing a neat, if somewhat artificial, division between three levels of ascending explanatory abstraction with which Harvey is concerned.
I should comment further on this last point. Much as Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit figures as the ladder to the greater Encyclopaedic system, but at the same time a concluding gloss on the very same, Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism is structured to reward repeated readings. The first lecture is the most easily digestable. Having made it to the end of the third lecture, however, one will have better grasped the theoretical abstractions Harvey employs and be in a better position to start again.

Lecture 1: "Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power"
Lecture 1 is a concise restatement of the narrative contained in Harvey's essential A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005). The global fortunes and local determinations of neo-liberalism are briefly recounted, with particular emphasis on its political causes and mechanisms. Harvey argues that the history of neo-liberalism shows it to be a failed and mystifying economic program masking a retrenchment of upper-class power. He explains with precision neo-liberalism's inherent contradictions and goes on to examine both the neo-conservative and progressive responses to these. Of particular interest to me was his critique of human rights discourses as engendered by and responding to neoliberalism. Harvey ends on a hopeful note.

Lecture 2: "Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development"
Here Harvey takes a step back and sketches the components of a "'unified' field theory of uneven geographical development" ("unified" in scare-quotes because harvey seeks a dialectical rather than a reductionist or organicist theory). In brief, Harvey uses Marxist conceptual tools (updated and broadened in certain respects; for instance, his interpretation of "primitive accumulation" as "accumulation by dispossession") to make sense theoretically of the kinds of events tracked by the first lecture. The subsection "Capital accumulation in space and time" on pages 95-96 is as concise a statement as one can find of Harvey's general theory (though it should also be understood that for Harvey, theory is not a static but rather a dynamic discourse). One will find that Harvey is open to explanatory tools from a variety of traditions, but, given his penchant for dialectics, is sensitive to where these have potential to become sclerotic and obfuscating. This lecture could be titled: "Harvey's Marxism in Brief".

Lecture 3: "Space as a keyword" 
Harvey's main contribution to Marxism, following Lefebvre, is in pushing space to the forefront of Marxian analysis. More accurately, he has insisted on a variegated category of "space-time" in studying capital accumulation and, by extension, uneven geographical development. In this lecture he analyzes the notion of "space" and how it may be cashed out into three different conceptions (Cartesian/Newtonian "Absolute space", Einsteinean "Relative space(-time)", and Leibnizean "Relational space(-time)"). All of these stand in dialectical tension with each other and form a grid with "experienced", "concepualized" and "lived" variants. One must "roam the grid" to construct or reconstruct the role of space(-time) in a given materialist explanation. There's much fuel for philosophical reflection here, and ultimately one gets a sense of how even at a highly abstract level, Harvey's spatial/geographical thinking can be brought to bear on his history of neo-liberalism and his search for a "unified" theory of uneven geographical development. He signals that such a thinking is "rich in possibilities"; his history of neo-liberalism is a skeleton to be filled in by richer spatializations which must, however, keep in mind the dialectical unity of the spatial grid and not founder on specificities. For Harvey, there are real consequences to such an error: by focusing on place, rather than space, one courts political irrelevance and defeat. Hence his call for an enriched Marxism beyond the impasse of culturalism/postmodernism.

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