The World and Its Particulars

Against the Current, No. 189, July/August 2017

Luke Pretz

The Ways of the World
By David Harvey
Oxford University Press, 2016, 384 pages,
$27.95 hardcover, forthcoming paperback $19.95.

DAVID HARVEY’S THE Ways of The World is an excellent collection of essays from an academic who has contributed significantly to Marxist theory and its popularization. Harvey is the acclaimed author of many works on geography, capitalism and politics, among the best-known of which is A Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010).

The Ways of the World works on two levels. First it gives a survey of the author’s self-selected work, highlighting his early work in the field of geography and later writings on ecology and crisis theory.

The second level deals with the relationship between the local and the global, or the relationship between the parts and the whole, a topic that Harvey has dealt with throughout his career. The wide range of subject matter in the book provides a fine source for exploring the relationships between localized activity and its relationship to global systems.

The examples, ranging from the more theoretical discussions of academic geography to the highly localized shop-floor struggle over automotive manufacturing in Oxford, England, afford ample material for the academic and the activist to explore the dialectical relationship between the particularities of a situation and the system they are enveloped in.

The opening essay, “Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation,” is an entry point into Harvey’s attempt to displace static and counter-revolutionary theories that dominated the field of geography at the time of its writing. Chapter one sets the stage for understanding not only Harvey’s role in revolutionizing the field of geography, but also his engagement with the tension between the parts and the whole and the role of dialectical thought in dealing with that tension.

Harvey begins by first calling into question the process that generates scientific knowledge as understood by Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). The view of Kuhn is that scientific activity is the process whereby a certain paradigm, e.g. Newtonian physics, is examined in all possible ways. In that process unresolvable anomalies and paradoxes are uncovered that give way to a new paradigm.

Harvey critiques this point, noting that the anomalies and paradoxes are historically contingent and bound to the transformation of the material world “in human interests.” This critique lays the foundation for reconstructing an understanding of social sciences that’s not just grounded in historical materialism, but helps to produce revolutionary theory.

For Harvey, revolutionary theory is not just an absolute necessity. The conditions for it are ripe, because there are numerous problems that are unresolvable within the dominant social scientific paradigm.

The status quo, positivism, holds that knowledge is derived from the observation of the material world and the application of an analytic framework. The positivist approach is limited, however, because it draws uncritically from the existing world, in stark contrast to the Marxist method that seeks to set theory and knowledge moving beyond a simple true-false binary and instead understand the world dialectically.

The dialectical approach, as Harvey describes it, is a process that recognizes the mutual effectivity of opposites, the contradictory nature of systems and attention to the process that resolves those systemic contradictions. The emphasis on dialectical thought in the Marxist approach allows us to see the world in motion; as the material conditions for one structure transform it, the transformation of that structure changes the conditions for all surrounding objects and structures.

The City in Its Global Environment

In this first essay Harvey applies his critique of positivist social science to the problem of “ghetto formation.” He also begins developing a more dialectical understanding of the issue.
The dominant positivist theory of urban land use, at the time of Harvey’s writing, was an analogous to the marginalist neoclassical theory now dominant in the field of economics, focusing on competitive bidding, utility maximization and market efficiency.

Such a theory describes the situation as one where individuals must make the best choice for housing location given a constrained budget. This optimization problem reveals that if you are poor you will “choose” to live in high-cost urban areas, while simultaneously economizing on space due to the relative expense of traveling from further out but more spacious living quarters.

Harvey acknowledges the truth of the statement made by that sort of model as an accurate depiction of the situation: poor people, because they lack resources, are stuck in cramped low quality housing. But while the model checks out, its form of individual choice and “optimization” limits the discussion of solutions to the problem to fixing market inefficiencies via zoning, price fixing and attempts to draw employment back into the urban cores — all policies that recent history has shown to be failures.

These solutions fail ultimately because they fail to address the conditions that generate this problem, the competitive bidding for use of the land — that is to say, the premise of the positive model itself.

Harvey’s solution to this problem is to investigate the conditions, the structures, themselves. In his response to the problem of ghetto formation, Harvey interrogates the characteristics of the market and the ways in which the social structures themselves generate the scarcity required for market allocation to function.

In “The Urban Process under Capital­ism,” Harvey digs into the underlying structures of capitalist urban development, investigating the circuit of capital accumulation and the role of class struggle. He begins with a Marxist analysis of the classical circuit of capital,where the fundamental distribution of appropriated surplus value takes place.

The key point for Harvey here is to highlight the dynamics within the fundamental process of capitalist accumulation. Its tendencies through the process of class struggle to deepen the exploitation of the working class. Yet it digs its own grave by way of overproducing commodities and over-accumulating capital, thus leading to a fall in the rate of profit.

The contradictory drive to accumulate and over-accumulate produces regular crises in capitalist producton that, from the perspective of the capitalist class, must be resolved. Harvey builds on to the primary circuit of capital a secondary circuit, which accounts for the flows of capital into the built environment and fixed capital stock, and a tertiary circuit, accounting for scientific and technical research as well as the social programs necessary for the reproduction of labor.

The expansion of the circuit of capital to include these additional realms of circulation help to center the role of class struggle and the contradictory nature of the capitalist system itself.

In the “primary circuit” there is the fundamental contradiction between classes at the site of exploitation, the production process itself. In the “secondary” and “tertiary circuits” we see how the fundamental contradiction of class society bleeds into the struggle for control of the state and financial apparatuses that fund and direct the large scale investments in infrastructure.

These additional circuits also help to reveal the pressure release valves that the capitalist system uses to overcome crises of over-accumulation, as well as those sites where class struggle is most pronounced in periods of crisis.

Imperialism and Crisis

Harvey takes a similar approach when exploring the linkages among crises that arise out of the contradictions within the system of capitalist accumulation and imperialism (Chapter 9). As mentioned above the capitalist system of accumulation is prone to crises of over-accumulation, whereby excess capital and labor cannot be combined in a profitable or socially useful manner.

In order to resolve a crisis of over-accumulation, capitalists must either find ways to delay the entrance of excess capital into circulation via long term capital projects and social expenditure, find new markets for new profitable production elsewhere, or some combination of the two. The process of resolving over-accumulation in this way is termed spaciotemporal fix.

The process of the spaciotemporal fix is one that is situated in a contradictory position, hinted at in Harvey’s use of the term “fix.” On the one hand, the spacial and temporal shifting of capital to lessen the effects of over-accumulation is a fix in that it resolves the crisis for the time being. On the other hand, the capital expended to delay an impending crisis becomes literally fixed in place — in the form of infrastructure, social spending and capital required to expand into a new location.

Furthermore, as capital is being shifted around, new crises emerge due to the tendency to over-accumulation revealing the need for a second round of fixing.

The process of these fixes is not in operation in isolation; they are constrained and shaped by existing institutions, inter-capitalist rivalries and class struggle. Examples include the struggles over free trade agreements and the portability of finance and capital across borders.

Looking closer at the idea of the spaciotemporal fix, Harvey explores its connections to imperialism and the lens of accumulation by dispossession. This accumulation is an extension of primitive accumulation into an era where the violence of past imperialism and colonialism must be minimized.

Accumulation by dispossession takes place through the means of the imposition of market liberalization, structural adjustments, privatization, fictionalization and the manufacture of financial crises. The process of liberalizing and privatizing the economies of neocolonial states paves the way for capital to be shifted from over-accumulated spaces into new ones.

Particularism and Transformation

The essay where Harvey’s threads about the city, crisis, the capitalist system and class struggle most clearly come together is his account of a volume of essays he edited from rank-and-file activists, academics and community members engaged in the struggle to keep the Oxford, England, Land Rover plant open (“The New Imperialism, Accumulation by Dispossession”).

Here Harvey wonders outloud about the relationship between individual struggles, the overarching struggle against capitalism and what level of abstraction is appropriate for the situation and respect for the immediate struggle.

The general situation in which the workers found themselves was, much like that of many industrial workers in the United States, quite precarious. They were caught up in a global capitalist system bent on a race to the bottom with shrinking wages, work opportunities and deteriorating work conditions, while simultaneously struggling internally against a more conservative union leadership over the nature of the broader fight. All this was set against the backdrop of a rising neoliberal global perspective.

The central tension in the volume discussed in the chapter is one built around the militant particularism of the workers. Their attention to the shop-specific struggle they were engaged in understandably narrowed their focus from the longer-run issues favored by academics and community members who contributed to the volume.

One such issue is the progressive struggle for environmental protections which, in the intermediate and ultimate term, would require at the very least a drastic reduction in the production and use of the luxury SUVs manufactured in the Oxford plant.

The militant particularism of those engaged in the immediate struggle, in this case for the protection of their livelihoods, often falls into a conservatism that excludes transformational possibilities. Such a position often alienates and is in stark contrast to those who have the luxury of perspective and are working on less immediate fights.

Harvey’s answer to this problem, not unlike his analysis of other issues, is to bring into question the scope of analysis. While he does not reject the importance of militant particularism — struggle after all must be particular to one group for it to be meaningful — Harvey notes the limitations of the factory level particularism’s usefulness, given its seemingly conservative nature with respect to broader struggles.

In a predictable turn from the urban geographer, Harvey suggests that we forgo the economism and workerist impulses of some socialists and labor organizers and re-imagine the scope of the working class. Here, for Harvey, we return to the city, a site that is the confluence of working-class activity, politics and engagement with issues intimately related to class like race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Lessons for Socialists

The Ways of the World is an expansive collection of essays touching on a wide variety of subjects, and the lessons are as numerous. However, if we are to boil down its content to an essential element, it is that as socialists we must think dialectically, especially in the face of seemingly impossible situations.

The world we live in is complicated and contradictory, and progress is often accompanied by self-generated roadblocks. However, by stepping back and placing the parts, especially those in which we as individuals are most involved, in context of the systemic whole, we can begin to understand what direction is “left” and how those struggles relate to it.

July-August 2017, ATC 189