The Geography of Accumulation: David Harvey with Jeffrey J. Williams

photo of David Harvey
David Harvey

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with David Harvey took place September 20, 2007 and originally appeared in minnesota review Fall/Winter 2007 (69). Transcribed by Heather Steffen.

Jeffrey Williams: I want to cover the arc of your work and how you went from Explanation in Geography to A Brief History of Neoliberalism. But first, because the readers of minnesota review are largely a cultural studies audience and the book we probably know the best is The Condition of Postmodernity, I want to ask about that. It’s become a canonical theory book explaining the shift in production from Fordism to post-Fordism during the 1970s. How did you come to outline this change to post-Fordism?

David Harvey: I think there were a number of things going on around that time. I was getting irritated by the material coming out in the name of postmodernism, whatever that was. I was finding more and more people talking about it, and I think that, for people like myself who were coming out of a more straight Marxist tradition, you had to face up to either ignoring it or confronting it. At some point or other, I decided I’d confront it and try to reinterpret it. Since it seemed to me nobody really knew what postmodernism was, there was an opening there. But also it seemed to me I was fairly well-equipped because I had written this lengthy study on Second Empire Paris, where I had used people like Baudelaire and Zola and Balzac to help me interpret some of the shift into modernity during that period. So I felt that I had a good grasp on, if you like, the cultural transformations that occurred in Second Empire Paris alongside of the political economy, and I could redeploy it to the contemporary period.

And postmodernity during this period had a very strong architectural foundation, in terms of urban transformations and urban studies. To me the urban side of it was crucial, and again, there was a parallel with what happened in the Second Empire transformations. I had a good basis to have a crack at trying to understand what was going on in all of these areas and trying to connect the political-economic changes that were occurring. At that time I called it “post-Fordism” or, as I preferred, “flexible accumulation”; now I prefer to wrap that all together in the term “neoliberalism.”

I guess this is where you also have to understand that my arguments within Marxism have always been about how Marxists didn’t get geography. They didn’t get difference, and I understood that part of the critique of Marxism that was coming out at that time was probably correct. But I didn’t think you had to go postmodernist to do that; I thought you could just be a good geographer, and you would automatically start dealing with the complicated differences you always encounter in large cities, the confusions of the street, which had always been part of my understanding of what a good Marxist should be talking about. But a lot of the theoretical Marxists weren’t interested in urbanization or geography or space, and I’d always been interested in that, so in a sense Condition of Postmodernity was where I could put my glass on what was going on in terms of this cultural and aesthetic movement, and connect it to the political economy and give it a Marxist interpretation, but at the same time indicate that Marxism needed to change quite a lot, in terms of taking account of many of the things the postmodernists were talking about.

JW: One way I would describe much of your work is that it is a return to political economy. You didn’t start out that way, though. To loop back, your dissertation was fairly traditional in that it had a regional focus, on hop picking in Kent. What was geography like when you started?

DH: Essentially, geography was atheoretical. It was descriptive. You became an expert on a particular region of the world or a particular place. You became an expert on Southeast Asia, and you didn’t speculate too much on what connected Southeast Asia with anything else. I worked on the hop industry in Kent in the nineteenth century, which is a very obscure topic, but one of the things I learned during it is that there were major transformations going on in the global economy that were very significant to what happened in this part of the world. For instance, there were cycles of hop cultivation and a lot of that had to do with the availability of funds in credit markets in London. So I had to deal with credit cycles in London, and then global credit cycles. If you look at what I’m doing now, I was discovering the connectivity between something like the hop growers in Kent and the financial conditions globally. I also was interested in the fruit industry. There was a great deal of political agitation in Kent in the middle of the nineteenth century against the sugar duties, which connected to West Indies plantations, which were also militating. So there was an alliance between the Kent fruit growers because they wanted cheap sugar to make preserves to feed to the working class in the north of England. If you’ve read Sid Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, which came out after I’d done all of this, he says you can’t understand what was going on in West Indian sugar plantations without understanding the connectivity of providing stimulants to the working class. Sugar, tea, preserves, bread with a bit of jam on it was the standard breakfast thing, and the jam had a lot of sugar in it, which is instant energy. So even when I was doing my dissertation, even though it seemed it was this remote and very peculiar little area of agriculture in Britain, I could see these connectivities.

The other thing I did was read the local newspaper from 1815 to 1873, every edition, and there was an incredible transformation in how the press was reporting the world. In 1815 you’re getting the London Times two days late and what interested me were the ads for agricultural things. By the time you get to the mid-1840s, the 1850s, you get this incredible flourishing of a regional culture. The newspaper begins to articulate all these things about agriculture and class over things like the agitation over sugar duties. It becomes a regional connectivity to the rest of the world. By 1873 or so, the newspapers from London, the tabloids, start to come in, brought in by train, so the local press declines back into ads and other local gossip.

JW: Kind of like now.

DH: Exactly. So this microcosm was constantly drawing me to look at the relationship between it and the macrocosm. Even at that point I would argue that I started to have this perspective on the world that says, no matter what kind of thing you’re looking at, how small it is, go look also at connectivity to all these forces, which at that time were global as well. And coming out of that I asked myself the question: is there a theoretical framework to handle all of this? I began to look at location theory.

JW: Let me ask you, why Kent? Were you interested because you came from there?

DH: Yes.

JW: What kind of background did you have?

DH: My father worked in the naval shipyards during the war. We were close to a naval shipyard—Chatham is one of the largest naval shipyards in Britain. So he worked there and became a supervisor of reconstruction of battleships destroyed in the war. He was at the Dunkirk evacuation, working day and night. He went to Dover and he was patching up boats and sending them back across the channel, this kind of stuff. I was around with him at that time.

I went to a local state school, but early on I used to like to bicycle a lot, so I bicycled all over the countryside and I used to go into the orchards, the cherry orchards. So I got curious as to when they started growing cherries, and in fact it was Henry VIII who introduced them. And then I would go on and look at the hop fields. Even when I was still at school, I discovered the local archive office, where you could go and study old maps and things. They had all these estate accounts, and that’s where I saw clippings from newspapers from long ago, and I found this interesting even before I went to university.

JW: That’s really interesting. I always wonder how people start out and come to do what they do. It might be idiosyncratic, but there is usually a lot of consistency too. So, you wrote your dissertation on Kent but you realized there was not much theory in geography? This is after you got your first job and were teaching at Bristol?

DH: I had a year in Sweden, too, which was quite influential because there were some important theorists there at the time who were talking about time and space. The most famous one was a man called Hägerstrand, who wrote books about diffusion and time-space, mappings of people’s daily lives, and things like this. So different notions of time and space began to come in there, and what kind of theory there could be that would help us understand the nature of time and space in human affairs, which led me into Explanation in Geography. The answer I was seeking at that time was largely given by positivism, by empiricist methods. I was immersing myself in the philosophy of science, reading all these books about the nature of time and space in physics and then asking, how does this work for geography? Can we take these big ideas about time and space and import them into geography? So that was one of the questions that lay behind Explanation in Geography.

At the same time, there was also a movement in geography toward quantitative methods, so I was trying to philosophize about the role of quantitative methods and quantitative theories in geography. That’s what Explanation in Geography was about. That sort of thing I subsequently dropped—not in the sense that I’m against quantitative investigations, but I would not say that’s all there is. The main question about time and space and how we can understand it in relationship to human affairs was very important to me. Actually, in my first radical book, Social Justice and the City, there’s a section where I talk about the nature of time and space, so there’s a strong link between that and Explanation in Geography. I took the time and space questions but I abandoned what you might call the positivist, quantitative method, and then tried to move to a more dialectical understanding in Social Justice in the City.

JW: So that’s how you depart from standard geography?

DH: The quantitative methods problem, for me, was about how geography got defined increasingly as almost a geometric science of spatial form. Now that’s what information systems is all about. You can take anything and map it—you can get the address and send a missile into it, that kind of thing. It’s about spatial organization, and it’s about the mathematical properties of that spatial order. A lot of research at the time was moving into geometry, into spatial statistics and so on. My problem with it was that it was static.

I have this problem with maps. You look at the map and it doesn’t move. One of the reasons I like the Weather Channel is that you can see those hurricanes moving. I was always interested in the dynamics, as you can see from my accounting of the Kent case, for instance in the way the media was working or the way in which the hop cultivators were working in Kent. I was interested in process rather than spatial form. So I wrote some things about the relationship between process and spatial form. I wanted a more accurate way of thinking about processes of social transformation. Geography at the time could only do that by what we call comparative statics. That is, you have a map for 1870 and a map for 1890 and you say, well okay, there’s been a change, but it doesn’t tell you how. And I was interested in how it changed and who changed it and why.

Then of course the other side was I started to read Marx and think about dialectics and all those things, and it seemed to me that this was a superior way to approach the question of dynamics and transformation.

JW: Has most geography gone to mathematical models? Is that the main line?

DH: I think the big thing in geography right now is geographical information systems, which is about spatial order. There are many departments which heavily specialize in that, and it’s a training in classic quantitative, spatial methods. Most geography is along those lines.

JW: You can see where there would be a use and funding for that.

DH: Yes, a lot of use for it. It’s the kind of things deans love to have on campus. Even if you don’t have a geography department, like Harvard, you’re going to have a geographical information systems center. Michigan has one too.

JW: You’re affiliated with what would be called radical geography. Is there a strong line of that?

DH: I think there was a very strong and coherent movement in, say, the 1970s into the early 1980s, which was very much about bringing both anarchist and Marxist ideas into geography. The anarchists because, for instance, Kropotkin was a geographer. He was bailed out of jail several times by the World Geographical Society. He was offered the secretaryship of the Russian Geographical Society. He wrote fantastic physical geographic works. And there’s another guy, Elisé Reclus, who wrote the nineteen-volume Nouvelle geographie universelle and masses of other works. So the tradition in geography of radicalism is anarchist, from the nineteenth century, and you can see why, because the anarchists are deeply concerned with the qualities of life of particular places, about relation to environment, so they’re much more sensitive to those questions than, say, traditional Marxists would be.

Anarchism came back into geography in the 1970s, but some of us also began reading Marx, and we were asking the question, in what ways can we utilize Marx to help illuminate the subject matters that are of interest to us? There was a strong flowering of that, and I would say it was broad-based, in the sense that there was not a narrow Maoist line or a Trotskyist line. How can we utilize Marx in geographical work and also utilize the anarchists’ insights? It was fairly coherent until about the early 1980s, and then after the 1980s the fragmentation that you will be familiar with—identity politics—comes in. Many of the people in the 1970s and 1980s were feminists as well as Marxists, but there was not a lot of conflict over those kinds of questions in the 1970s. Then it started to get much more into Foucault and deconstruction and so on. The question of what is radical geography now is wide open, it seems to me—multiculturalism, postcolonial theory, there’s a strong queer theory streak, and so on. In other words, you could take all of the currents that you’re familiar with in cultural theory and you will find all of them represented by some people in contemporary radical geography, so it’s a fragmented scene. Probably people like myself are the dinosaurs of radicalism in many people’s views.

At the same time, there is something else going on which I think is very interesting. Some time back, it was decided to set up an international critical geographers group, and the rule we have is we never meet in Britain or the United States. We only meet in places like South Korea, Hungary, Mexico City, and we’re going to meet in Mumbai shortly. As geographers, shouldn’t we really go out of our way to think about the geography of a radical geographical meeting? And to what degree does radical geography have an international meaning? It turns out that the kinds of things you can say in the United States you would not be able to say in, for instance, Taiwan very easily. They like it if I come and say things, but they are more constrained. But if you’re in Argentina or in Mexico, people are talking about revolutionary movements in a very open way that you would feel stupid doing here. The constraints are different in different countries. There’s some interesting dialogue going on, trying to learn from each other what it means to be an academic embedded in a certain social system.

One other thing that did happen was that our strong interest in notions of spatiality were taken up all over the place. There is a lot of work going on that is talking about temporality and spatiality— the kinds of things that we were concentrating on, and which, of course, is a very important part of Condition of Postmodernity. I think that geographers sometimes feel that they’ve had their best ideas stolen from them by anthropologists and social scientists and so on, because everybody’s into space these days, and you kind of think, well, they’re not necessarily into it in the right way.

JW: To fill in the timeline, you said you started reading Marx in the early 70s. Was that a result of the 60s? Was it in the air? Or you just came to it?

DH: It was a result of the ’60s. For me personally it was a result of moving to the United States from Britain.

JW: You moved in ’69?

DH: Yes. You know, there’s a joke Europeans have about academics that move to the United States—they either become raving right-wingers or raving left-wingers. So I took the left path. I was wanting to shift my focus to urban issues. I got to Baltimore, and frankly I was appalled by what I encountered—the racism, the incredible class character of the place, the desolation of a lot of the inner city. Of course I arrived a year after the riots of ’68 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. I became involved in a lot of investigations into housing quality in the city.

Coming from Britain, which we always thought of as a poor country, I had never encountered situations of this sort, where you’d go into people’s houses and rats were scurrying everywhere and plaster’s falling off the wall and people are living in it. It really appalled me. I always find that a little bit of outrage is a good thing, and I was pretty outraged by what I encountered, so I felt that something radical had to happen. I’d always been a kind of sympathizer, if you like, with socialists. My grandmother was a very fierce Labor Party fan, and she educated me into the idea that there is a future for the working classes. It was an interesting collision where I felt that my techniques of inquiry didn’t work or weren’t working very well, and here I was doing inquiries into a situation that was outraging me.

JW: What were the techniques?

DH: The spatial analysis kind of techniques, where we were interested in things like where housing inspectors go when they inspect houses and nothing happens after they inspect, that kind of issue. You can make lots of maps of that, and I’m not averse to making maps of it, but I really wanted to know what the dynamics of it were that stopped anything from actually happening.

So I felt I needed a new technique, and that’s when I started to cast around for new ways of thinking. I read some of the Marx and Engels literature and I was very impressed with, for instance, Engels’ analysis of the housing question, where he says the bourgeoisie only has one way to solve its problems: it moves them around. They eradicate the slums here and they simply pop up somewhere else. So I thought, this is a pretty good line, and I cited it several times. I didn’t cite Engels, and people thought this was a really stunning insight into what was actually happening.

Then there were other things, like when we did this report on housing. I started off with saying you have to look at housing from the standpoint of use-value and exchange-value and how they work together and counteract each other—classical Marxian categories.

We were working with a bunch of landlords, and the landlords thought this was great way of analyzing things. I started to think, well, this way of analyzing things is obviously making common sense to landlords. Bankers recognized that they were moving the problem around. They would target some neighborhood and do that, and then they would say, well, the same people aren’t living there. It’s become gentrified, and that’s not what we had in mind. I’m talking about good bankers. There were people who genuinely wanted to find a solution to the problem, so this analysis was very helpful. That’s when I started setting up the Marx reading groups with some graduate students.

JW: You talk about that in a couple of books, at the beginning of Spaces of Hope for one. So Social Justice and the City comes from your interaction with Baltimore?

DH: Right.

JW: Then you did a lot more work on urbanism, which was still in the camp of geography.

DH: Except that I was really building in a strong understanding of political-economic processes to how cities get produced, how urban spaces get produced. I don’t know at what point the geographical side of it got lost as a distinctive center, because in a way I was just interested in understanding the processes that make cities. I don’t think that you could do that by being a geographer or an economist or an anthropologist or whatever; you’ve just got to do that as an urbanist. I suppose in a funny kind of way at the end of the 1970s I was defining myself as an urbanist with a strong interest in political-economic processes and the transformation of cities that was occurring, and what its relationship was with how people were living. So I kind of forgot about my identity as a geographer at that point.

The old issues that had concerned me were still central to what I was doing, but I didn’t feel at that point that I was under the gun in terms of the disciplinary apparatus. I didn’t feel that anyone was in a position to stop me doing what I wanted to do. That’s partly because I had tenure at Hopkins in a very peculiar department where nobody knew what geography was, in a university where nobody cared. In fact, there was a really funny moment: I was teaching Capital in the engineering school in a department of geography and environmental engineering, and the central administration thought it must have had something to do with capital cities. It was only about three or four years later they found out I was teaching Marx’s Capital. I think they thought I was totally irrelevant.

The emphasis for me was very much on how new geographies are produced and on what the consequences are of producing new geographies of production, consumption, cultural configurations, power relations, and the like. The production of geographies is what I’m interested in, and all the processes that contribute to that. It’s still a geographical project, but it’s not confined to some definition of geography which is set up by the Association of American Geographers. Quite a few of my early articles, by the way, got rejected by standard geographical journals on the grounds that they were not geography.

JW: Really? Their loss. I was wondering how you would define what you do. In a few places, you call it historical-geographical materialism. I might call it socio-spatial materialism, but I was wondering how it relates to cultural materialism. Obviously Spaces of Hope evokes Raymond Williams’ Resources of Hope.

DH: Let me try to unpack it in terms of a number of different angles. The first angle is this: during the 1960s I was in revolt against certain aspects of geography, and I was in search of a general theory that could encompass particularities, but do it in an effective way. So I wanted to bring together the universal and the particular, or the global and the local, not with the idea that there’s a universal over there and a particular over there, but asking in what ways are they part and parcel of each other, at the same time that you recognize the tensions which exist. That’s what animates my method.

What interested me about Raymond Williams was this: he uses phrases like “structures of feeling,” but it was only when I went to his novels that I could figure out exactly what he meant. He couldn’t in his criticism deal with ideas of particular places.

JW: Even in The Country and the City?

DH: Well, that’s a dialectic of the country and the city, but for him, that’s two formal categories which arise out of literature. They’re not necessarily about the geography on the ground, whereas in his novels, in particular the novel about loyalties, he’s dealing with people living in South Wales in the coal fields, and their politics, and people living in London, and what’s going on in Spain and this kind of stuff. So he actually had to go to the novel form in order to explore those questions. Why do you have to go to the novel form to explain those questions? Why can’t you have a theoretical understanding of categories like space and place and environment and so on? So what I wanted to do, and still want to do, is to talk about a general theory and the relationship of that general theory to a lot of universal theories we have around right now.

I don’t like the way that question is being handled in general. Some people talk about “rooted cosmopolitanism”— there’s a universal principle, cosmopolitanism, but then what does “rooted” mean? That’s pretending to handle multiculturalism but it doesn’t make any sense to me. What would make sense would be to understand the notion of place, for example, and geography’s concept of region or territory. What does it mean to have a regional affiliation? To be Catalan or Scottish or from Minnesota? And how does that work out politically?

Right now there are a lot of people in the anti-globalization movement that say the local is the only place where real politics can occur and that all this other stuff is chaff in the wind. And the local movements are about particular issues, and therefore there is no global agenda. Some people would justify this by going back to Foucault and having a suspicion of all meta-narratives. My methodological stance is to try to find a way not to drop the question of universality and totality and general theory, but to try to rewrite it in a way that is much more nuanced in how it handles questions of space and place and environment and transformations. That is the ambition I have—whether I can ever realize it, I don’t know, but that’s where I’m headed.

JW: I assume you’re not going to write novels like Raymond Williams, but then what does that lead you to write about?

DH: Well, the last book that I struggled with was about the problems of universality when they get projected into particular circumstances. The founding figure for this is Immanuel Kant and his theory of cosmopolitanism. Most people don’t know this, but the second most important course that Kant taught was geography. He taught it 49 times, and he taught anthropology something like 26 or 27 times. Well, when you look at his geography, it is appalling. He’s racist, he talks about racial superiority—whites versus browns versus blacks versus Amerindians—and he talks about the way in which the Javanese are thieving, conniving, every possible stereotype—people when in hot climates act in certain ways. It’s racist environmentalism. And you ask yourself, how can a major thinker on the one hand write about the cosmopolitan method, which everybody now quotes, and on the other, write this? And how can they all quote him on cosmopolitanism while ignoring his geography?

His geography has never been translated into English. It’s about to come out, and we’re going to have some meetings about it soon. When I talk to Kantian theorists about this, they say, “Oh, it’s not important, the geography, it’s trivial,” and I say, “No, no, it’s very important.” Actually, the only person who realized this clearly about the anthropology—not the geography because he hadn’t seen the geography—is Foucault. Foucault translated Kant’s anthropology into French back in the 60s, and he left behind a commentary where he said you can’t understand the three critiques without understanding Kant’s position on anthropology—which is nearly as bad, by the way, as his geography. Foucault said there are some serious questions that need to be asked about these relations. I use that as a starting point to ask what happens when some universal theorist has these particular views about various places in the world. How does Bush articulate ideas about freedom and liberty and democracy, and the idea that there’s an axis of evil in the world? You can see how those two things collide and you get Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

This whole kind of discourse about spatiality goes back to Kant’s conundrum. One of the things I started out with in the book I just finished were Bush’s speeches on liberty and freedom and that sort of thing, and I contrasted them with Kant’s wonderful ethics and his actual geography. There was a survey done in the 1990s that showed that the more people know about a country, the less likely they were to support military interventions or economic sanctions against it. Now, the interesting thing about the survey was that it was commissioned by Exxon because they were interested in having the sanctions lifted against Iran. So Exxon figured, we have to find ways to promote deeper understandings of what Iran and Iranians are about. Of course that was before the current regime in Iran. But the point is that if you look at American foreign policy, a lot of the time it is about demonizing certain spaces or infantilizing them, and the imagery of politics, like containment post-World War II, for example, is geographical.

I want to pay attention to the connectivity between this universalistic discourse by Locke or Kant or John Stuart Mill and what their geographical and anthropological vision is. I want to critique the universal categories. For instance, the liberal concept of the individual as an autonomous entity, endowed with the potential for freedom and property rights, is totally outside of any spatio-temporal configuration. It’s totally outside of any place-bound alignments.

JW: As if we are just free-floating atoms in the universe.

DH: Right. Is that who you are? Is that who I am? But that theory underpins most of political theory, most of economics. You read Nozick or something like that, and there they are quoting John Locke and saying this is the foundation of liberalism and neoliberal theorizing, and it is fundamentally wrong. Adam Smith actually said he realized this was a total fiction, but then he went on to say it’s a good idea for people to act as if they are that way, because the hidden hand of the market will then do its magic and everybody will be much better, so it’s a good fiction. Marx, for example, in “On The Jewish Question,” describes this as a total fiction, and starts to talk about the awful consequences that flow from it. Foucault, in his theory of governmentality, he goes back to the eighteenth century when this fiction of the autonomous individual enters into our psyches and we become self-regulating individuals. It seems to me Foucault is taking off from “On The Jewish Question,” but we still live with this question and it remains unchallenged. I just say it’s crap.

JW: I want to come back to neoliberalism and your recent work, but to loop back a bit, through the ’80s a lot of your work was about urbanism, and you also move to more general issues of political economy. Limits to Capital is a work of political economy in the Marxist tradition, then in the mid-80s you have two books on urbanism, and the ’80s culminates with The Condition of Postmodernity, which is a kind of big theory book. Is that an accurate rendering of how you see the course of your work?

DH: Yes. The aim that I had subsequent to Social Justice and the City was to explore Marxian theory in relationship to urban issues. The problem was that there are many elements in Marxian theory that are undeveloped in relationship to urbanization. For instance, I needed a better understanding of the theory of rent or land, and Marx has very long, complicated chapters about that, so I had to find some way of transforming that so I could understand how land allocation processes were working in cities. I needed to know much more about finance and, again, Marx has some shadowy ideas about that. I needed to know much more about space relations, transport structures and so on. Limits to Capital was partly about, how do I understand Marx’s basic argument in Capital? And then I wanted to project it into things like fixed capital and built environment, land allocation, the temporality of finance capital and mortgages and all those kinds of complications. So I needed to take Marx into terrain that he didn’t actually go in detail, but he has lots of fragments, so the idea of Limits to Capital was to find those fragments and try to pin them together to get some idea as to what that theory would say.

At the same time I was working on a particular urban study, of Second Empire Paris and Haussmannization, which ultimately came out in separate book form. Ideally I would have wanted to write one volume, but I ended up writing the theoretical volume, and then I wrote the Paris study and other essays around the Paris study, which came out in the two urbanization books which were published in 1985. It became clear to me that the insights I got from writing Limits to Capital were extremely powerful in terms of revealing certain things that were going on in Second Empire Paris, but they didn’t get me all the way. They didn’t get me to some of the issues which were coming up around that time about gender and labor markets. It didn’t get me to understand some of the significance of cultural transformations, for instance painting that was going on or how the world was being represented at the time in terms of popular literature. So I started to realize that, yeah, the political economy was getting me so far, but I really needed to go a bit further if was going to encompass all the richness of the urban transformation that occurred in Paris during this time.

On the one hand I felt it validated the power of the political- economic analysis that Marx had undertaken, but at the same time it indicated that there were a lot of empty areas in Marxian theory that needed much more attention, but I didn’t want to pay attention to them by abandoning the original insights. I said, well, this bit is not fully taken care of, but I’ve got a sense of how it works when you integrate these other kinds of questions. For me there’s always been a dialogue between the attempt to extend the theory and the encounter with specific circumstances. During that period it was mainly what was going on in Baltimore, a little bit about what was going on in the New York fiscal crisis, and back to what was going on in Paris during the period between the 1848 revolution and the Commune of 1871. I was very animated with the transition that occurred in Paris during that period. I thought the theoretical apparatus worked part of the way—no theoretical apparatus can work all of the way. I wanted to maintain the original insights, but at the same time rewrite it to go a little bit further.

JW: I was wondering how you had come to write about Paris, although I can see how it connects to the development of modern capital.

DH: But I didn’t undertake it for that reason. You know, I went to Paris to study contemporary Marxian theory about cities, because that was where the Communist Party had a lot of good theorists, where Manuel Castells was dominant, and Henri Lefebvre was there, so I went to study the contemporary situation. A couple of things happened. One was I got very frustrated with most of the French intellectuals. They wouldn’t talk to me because I was American. They didn’t believe I had anything to say.

JW: Even with Hopkins on your card?

DH: No, no. At that time, in 1976, the Communist Party had a ban on any of its intellectuals talking to Americans. They weren’t allowed to travel to America. It was a bit of a hostile environment. Then I got fascinated by this building, Sacré Coeur.

JW: A very peculiar building for Paris, I would have thought.

DH: A very peculiar building. There’s something creepy about it. So I started to investigate how it got there. I got into the archives, and I found it had a very strong connection with the Paris Commune. When the Bishop of Paris decided to put it there, he said, this will teach Paris a lesson, this will be a constant reminder never, never to rise up as the Communards had done. So it was built as an anti- Communard religious symbol. I discovered all kinds of funny things about it, like, at some point or other, the Paris counsels started to get more radical, so they wanted to mask it by putting our Statue of Liberty in front of it.

It was actually on that one hilltop that the Commune began, because the Versailles forces had stored all their cannon up there, and a lot of the cannon had been made during this German siege by Populists melting down their goods. The Populists felt they were their cannon, and the Versailles forces were saying, no, it doesn’t belong to you, but at a certain point the Populists said, we’re going to take our cannon back, they belong to us. Some generals tried to stop them, and they shot the generals, and off it went. So the Commune really began up there, and it was on that site this thing was built. I wrote about the building of the Sacré Coeur, and that led me back to what happened before that, and that’s when I decided I’d do the historical stuff on the Second Empire. I’m very glad I did; it was a great experience.

JW: That’s a great story of how one comes to a project.

DH: I confess it was nice to go to Paris in the summers. At that time there were lots of squats going on, and I knew this person who was close to Lefebvre, she was an American and needed to go back to the states because she had really old parents in California. So how do you maintain private property rights in a squat? Well, you have to have somebody stay there, so I would go and live in her very nice apartment, which was rent-free, and maintain her squatter rights while she was away.

At the same time I also got to learn a lot about the politics of the sqatter movement. It was a very big movement, and it effectively stopped the colonization of Paris by high-rise buildings. It was very interesting to me how the definition of the ecology movement there was about the quality of urban life. It wasn’t a rural thing, as it tended to be here; it was very much about urban life.

JW: That brings us up to your more recent work. It seems to me your work broadens out through the ’90s. You deal with issues like the body and globalization, and diagnose current economic changes and politics, in your more popular books on The New Imperialism and Neoliberalism. You bring scholarly work to bear on what’s going on now.

DH: Actually, in the 90s I would characterize my work as turning more double-edged. On the one hand, I’m becoming more concerned with theory of geography. What would a theory of geography look like? And what would it do to everything else if we imported that theory into it? I had a crack at that in Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. In some ways that book is profoundly unsatisfactory, but at the same time it has all kinds of openings and possibilities in it, so it’s also one of the most exciting books I’ve written. But it is not an easy read, it’s very intense, and it talks about Leibniz and space and Alfred North Whitehead and Raymond Williams, and then there’s politics in there too. So it’s mixing all of this stuff up at different levels.

I came out of that feeling I had to do something a bit more on the mark politically. That’s where I got into Spaces of Hope. In fact, Spaces of Hope was the final chapter that I had wanted to write for Justice, Nation, and the Geography of Difference, although I couldn’t get round to it. I said to my publisher friend, who happened to be in Washington, what the hell do I do? I need this last chapter. And he said, that last chapter is your next book. And he was right. So on the one hand, it’s sharpening the political angle, but at the same time I think it’s also trying to probe more deeply into the problems that arise from what I see as a serious lack of engagement with the ways in which notions of space and place and environment are crucial to who we are and what we are and how we are and what we do. We have all this rhetoric about liberty and freedom, but we don’t know what a geographical theory of that would mean.

So, on the one hand, I’m probing more the theoretical stuff, and on the other I feel I do have the knowledge and the background to write things like The New Imperialism or Neoliberalism. I felt in both instances I was encountering students who had no idea how we got to where we are now, and I thought, somebody needs to tell the story of how we got from the 1970s to now. It comes back to this notion of process, what got us from there to here. In a funny way the neoliberalism book was a bit like a political autobiography, in the sense that it’s the autobiography of my political history and what was going on that I didn’t really fully understand at the time. I didn’t quite understand the significance of the New York fiscal crisis when it happened. I knew that it was significant, but now in retrospect I see it as crucial and formative. I was heavily involved in helping try to rescue people from the Chilean coup, involved in petitions and trying to get people out of jail and things like that in Chile, and I didn’t quite understand at the time…

JW: …how it became a model. People in power probably didn’t entirely understand it either. I thought that was especially illuminating about the book, about how the solution to the New York fiscal crisis was a kind of experiment that became a precedent for later policies, how the deal that the bankers negotiated mandating that all the bonds had to be paid before social programs were funded set up the terms of Reaganism and the draining of the social welfare state. One would have thought that you pay for social programs before you pay the bonds so the bankers can get their profits.

DH: I also wanted to record the uneven geographical development of it. I didn’t simply say the US is imposing this on other people; it’s other people wanting to do some of this also, and sometimes using the US or the IMF to do what they want to do anyway, which I think is an element of what happens a lot in Latin America.

And then, how do you deal with China? It wasn’t as if the US took the IMF to China and said, hey, do this. The Chinese did it in their own way. There’s a certain logic about what they did, but my interpretation is that they didn’t fully understand where this was going to lead them; they were adaptive and crossing the river by groping the stones. I think they were groping the stones because the river had swept them along. Some people look at it as kind of a conspiratorial story, but I don’t think it is; I think it is precisely what you said—people didn’t know what to do and they tried this and they tried that, so if this worked and we’ve got the power to do it, then let’s do it. It worked for some people, and I think that is the point that is critical—the people that it worked for were a distinctive class, and therefore it is about the restoration of a certain kind of class power—not necessarily the same people, but a class.

JW: If you were to encapsulate it, what would be your current theory of geography?

DH: Well, I think it is about three basic categories. First, it’s about space and time and how spatio-temporality works in our society. You find a lot of literature in sociology and geography and anthropology, and also in literary studies where people ask these kinds of questions. Second, there is the issue of what’s meant by the term “place” and its relationship to spatio-temporality. How do we understand the way in which people forge attachments to distinctive places and the way in which places get built? What is a distinctive place? Why is New York a distinctive place, and what makes it distinctive? How do people actually start to respond to that distinctiveness—saying, “we’re New Yorkers,” or “we’re Minnesotans,” or whatever? That becomes important politically to how solidarities get formed. It’s important that we think about the significance that arises from how places get built, how they get made. You’re not thinking about a passive thing, you’re talking about who builds the city, who has the power to build it. To what degree did immigrants build New York, and have they built a different kind of New York than the developers have built? Now we’ve got Bloomberg’s New York, which is very much the Rockefeller brothers’ dream, what they wanted to do in the 1970s and couldn’t do, now efficiently organized.

And the third issue is the dynamics of environmental transformation—how we make the world, how we make environments, how environments make us, and how that unfolds historically. At the end of the day I see all of these themes as integrated with each other, so if there’s a geographical theory, it’s about how space and place and time and environmental transformations all work together. I would say that’s the heart of geographical theory, and if you want to remake the world, then you have to remake its geography. That has to be one of our primary tasks. We have to remake our cities, for example, so that you don’t need cars to get around, so it’s not based on individualism and all these kinds of things. We’ve got to remake places, we’ve got to remake spatio-temporal relations, we’ve got to rebuild our relationship with environments in a different kind of way.

I would argue that a lot of politics should be addressing those kinds of questions. But you can’t address those questions with some very abstract theory about humanity or cosmopolitanism or morality, you’ve got to think about the actual practices whereby our world gets remade by human activity and human action, and what kind of action is going to remake it. I think that was not understood very well by, for instance, communist regimes. I think part of the misery of communism was that they didn’t understand urbanization; they didn’t understand what a wonderful thing urbanization can be and how spaces of difference are absolutely crucial to making cities exciting places. What makes an exciting city, and how is that excitement generated? Capitalism has found certain answers to those questions, and it seems to me we have to study how capitalism found answers to those questions and how we would want to make alternative answers to those questions.

I think, again, this all goes back to the cultural transformations that occurred in, say, New York in the 1970s. On the other hand, this was a period of intense cultural creativity, when punk rock came in.

JW: And a lot of art downtown and on the lower east side, what’s now called the East Village.

DH: Partly because people could find places to live for almost nothing. Cultural creativity of that sort has been driven out of New York. You can’t find any place to live like that any more.

JW: I wanted to ask how you would respond to one criticism of your work, which is that it is overly abstract. I think Eagleton, in a review of Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference in the London Review of Books, talks about how capacious and abstract it is.

DH: I agree with that. But then, you know, you can’t walk away from the power of abstraction. I think it’s an incredibly important power. It’s always been an important part of what I do. I try to mobilize that power of abstraction and do it in a way that it allows me then to connect onto the ground. This goes back to my understanding of Marx’s method—as Marx points out in the introduction to Capital, the method of inquiry starts from what’s around you and moves down, as it were, to find the deep abstractions. And then you take the deep abstractions, and you come back up to the surface, and then you’re in a better position to interpret, to see through the fetishes and the masks, to interpret what’s going on around you. But you can’t do that without using the power of abstraction.

I could not have written The Condition of Postmodernity without having written Limits to Capital. I could not have written the book on neoliberalism if I had not written Limits to Capital and if I had not written Condition of Postmodernity and if I’d not written Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. What people see me doing in Neoliberalism, I think, is offering an interpretation which makes sense. Then you say to yourself, if it makes sense, how did I see it and they didn’t? Well, it’s partly because I was prepared to use the power of abstraction. And the abstractions are terribly important when I bring them back to interpreting what’s going on.

Again, my model here would be Marx. You read the first three chapters of Capital, which are incredibly abstract, and you’re going, labor, value, socially necessary labor time, what is all this stuff? And then you get to the chapter on the working day and you see what they mean in people’s lives. Why it is that moments are the elements of profit? If labor-time is crucial as a matter of value, then that is why capitalists are always chasing down a worker’s time, and constantly looking for a disciplinary apparatus. It’s not just that capitalists are miserable, nasty people; they may be nasty or nice people. Marx is saying that the logic of their situation leads to this, but in order to understand that logic you need to understand all these deeper concepts. So I make no apologies for sometimes being very abstract. What I would hope people do is recognize that a lot of insights come out of it, and I would want to encourage people to think that way.

JW: One other criticism is that the solution you talk about in the neoliberalism book is for a New New Deal. It’s hard not to think that the New Deal and the social welfare state was better empirically than what we have now, but the obvious political charge is that it’s reformist. Is it reformist or nostalgic, and how does it square with a more radical solution that you might imagine?

DH: It’s a strategic argument on my part; it’s not the solution I would most want. Here’s what worries me right now: we are so incredibly enmeshed in this international capitalist system, and you can see with the subprime mortgage crisis that the people who will get really hurt are those who can least afford to be hurt. Now if you extend what’s happening to a general collapse of capitalism, a lot of people who cannot afford to be hurt are going to be very seriously hurt.

I think the system’s in serious danger of crashing, and I’m very nervous about the prospect of a global crash. If we had a global crash it would be equivalent to the 1930s. It would be catastrophic economically for many, many people. Many people would die, actually. I don’t think the political solutions that would come out of it would be benevolent. They’re likely to be right wing, militaristic, authoritarian, and violent. So what I would argue for is, can we stabilize what seems to me to be a train that’s heading for a wreck; can we put the brakes on?

Asking for a New New Deal is reformist, and by it I don’t mean simply the nostalgia for reconstruction, although I think that in any political movement, historical memory is terribly important. I use this phrase from Balzac: “Hope is a memory that desires.” I think the fact that many people will have some historical memory and possibly some positive association with the New Deal has a certain force—if we could rescue ourselves back then from a disaster, we can do something like that now. I would want to put that on the table preemptively and say, we’ve got to have a politics that is moving in that direction. Yes, it is reformist, but I think that the only answer to the situation right now is to try to stabilize the situation and give ourselves a bit of breathing room to construct something completely different.

I think it is interesting that in the Democratic campaign right now the only person who is coming close to articulating those views is John Edwards. And he has, I think, pulled the rest of the field to talk about, what are you going to do about health care, what are you going to do about the inequalities, what are you going to do about the tax regime. I would like in the long run to think of much more radical solutions, but I’m very nervous about where the system’s at right now. I’m justified in that nervousness about what a collapse would look like and what the consequences would look like. If you could convince me that I’m wrong about that, then I would say let’s talk about much more radical solutions. I know that some people are disgusted with me for being sort of reformist. I don’t think of myself as reformist in the long run, but in the short run it’s the only place you’ve got to go.

JW: I think the phrase you use in the neoliberalism book, “accumulation by dispossession,” makes a very powerful diagnosis. It makes sense to people, like my students, when you talk about distribution, and actual occurrences like the Enron workers who lost all their retirement, when all the upper management made immense amounts of money from stock options. It shows that something is seriously wrong, even if you think that capitalism has a certain fairness to it.

DH: You think, well, okay, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy and then reneged on all its pension obligations. A lot of money got sucked out of people’s pockets, so where did it go? And all these other people, money’s flowing into their pockets, so there’s a connection. The difficulty is to prove that that money ended up there, but my inference is, somebody’s sucking in money, like the hedge fund guy who got $1.7 billion last year. Who is doing something that’s so valuable it’s worth $1.7 billion in one year? That is accumulation by dispossession, which I think has been ratcheting up over the last fifteen or twenty years and is what neoliberalism has been very much about.

We have to combat that, as well as engage in the classical forms of class struggle. I’m interested in forms of alliance between different movements that see the situation differently. Building alliances always means you’ve got to take something you don’t like and try to build it into a political movement that can go somewhere. So when I call for a New New Deal, that’s really what I’m trying to do— let’s think about it in those terms and counter the accumulation by dispossession and all the other forms of exploitation that we’re seeing. We can’t just get rid of capitalism tomorrow, we have to stabilize the system, and I think one of the ways of stabilizing it, interestingly, is by reconstructing far more in the way of public intervention. Corporations are being hauled over the coals about this business of lead paint on toys—in order to get themselves out of the picture, the corporations have now called for tighter government regulations so they can blame the government.

JW: Or people have realized that governments, contrary to the conservative litany, might actually do some good.

DH: Well, shield them, and if government takes over healthcare, my God, won’t General Motors be happy?


David Harvey was born in Gillingham, Kent, England in 1935. He attended St. John’s College, Cambridge University (BA, 1957; PhD, 1961). He was a lecturer (equivalent to an assistant professor in the US) at the University of Bristol from 1961-69, when he came to the US, teaching at Johns Hopkins from 1969 to 1987. He moved in 1987 to become Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford, but returned to Hopkins in 1993, where he taught until 2001, when he moved up the coast to become Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at CUNY. His books include Limits to Capital, The Condition of Postmodernity, Paris: Capital of Modernity, and Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development.

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  1. […] different strategies to discuss how we make environments and how environments make us. Following Harvey (2007), we asked: ”How do we understand the way in which people forge attachments to […]

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