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March 15, 2013
March 15, 2013

An interview with David Harvey

Authors: Cédric Durand, Elsa Boulet Translator: Eleni Nicolaou
Source: Contretempts  Categories: Dialogues, On the crisis
This article is also available in: frel
An interview with David Harvey

David Harvey is a geographer, he is lecturer and researcher at the City University of New York. His writings focus in particular on the recent dynamics of capitalism and urbanisation, through a Marxist perspective.

Neoliberalism as “class project”.

In this interview with Elsa Boulet, David Harvey looks back on the crisis of capitalism, that is, the crisis of the “class project” that constitutes the neoliberalism. He also discusses the transformations of the working class, the situation in Europe and the United States, the role that the intellectual critics can play and defends the need to build a utopic vision for changing the world.

From a class project to another

Contretemps: You have adopted the theory of the transition to neoliberalism as a transition from Fordism towards a flexible accumulation regime. Would you say that the economic crisis that broke out in 2008 reveals the failure of this type of flexible accumulation?

David Harvey: It depends on how the model of flexible accumulation is defined. If the model was designed to reinvigorate capitalism as a whole, I would say yes, but it failed from the start. If the model was designed to concentrate and increase the power of the capitalist class, especially certain sections of the capitalist class, then it was crowned with success. The 2008 crash is not really a particular event, when you look at all the crashes that took place since 1997, the crash in East and Southeast Asia in 1998, crashes in South America in 2001, etc. This entire period was characterised by short bursts of growth punctuated by these crashes, but the crashes have undoubtedly played an important role in consolidating more and more wealth and power in ever smaller fractions of the capitalist class. I think that 2008 was just another step towards the consolidation of wealth and power. From my perspective, neoliberalism is mainly a class project, of consolidation and greater domination.

Contretemps: But someone could say that liberalism was also a class project. So what is the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism?

David Harvey: I think the difference lies in the fact that the class project that emerged in the late 1960s and actually began to crystallise in the mid-1970s was much more centralised, in the sense that the power was shifted significantly towards the financial sector. The financial sector has become the main agent in a certain way, which was not the case with liberalism. Under liberalism, the financial sector was expected to facilitate productive activity, and it played the role of a lubricant rather than that of an engine in the accumulation process. I think that what mostly characterised neoliberalism was what I call the “accumulation by dispossession” rather than classical forms of accumulation – by expansion, growth – that in certain periods did not contradict the idea of increasing the living standards of workers. In many parts of the world, in the years 1960-1970, the increase of the workers’ living standards became possible at the same time that the accumulation rates were very high. It was a period when the economic powers were significant, but not dominant. And then, from the 1970s, this economy, characteried much more by dispossession, has emerged.

Contretemps: In this evolution towards neoliberalism, how do you interpret the role of finance, on one hand, and the role of globalisation on the other?

David Harvey: These two are actually intertwined. Money is what I call the “butterfly form” of capital, it can fly anywhere. The goods are a kind of “caterpillar form” of the capital: they move, but they move rather slowly. The production tends to adopt the “chrysalis form” of the capital. Giving more power to finance strengthens the “butterfly form” of the capital, which has the ability to go almost anywhere. I think that there has been a deliberate movement towards enhancing the “butterfly form” of the capital so it was able to find those areas where, for example, the labor cost was very low, where taxation was very low, etc. Thus the transportation becomes easier, resulting to lower workers’ wages in the old industrial regions of North America, Europe, etc… There is, thus, a de-industrialisation of the conventional production centers. This de-industrialisation is fueled by the flight of jobs to other places, and this flight of jobs should be facilitated by something, this “something” being the “financialisation”.

Contretemps: It seems that we are witnessing a growing commercialisation of intangible goods, such as ideas (with a sharp increase in the number of patents), education, culture and also a commercialisation of nature (financial securities on genes, rain, etc…). How do you interpret this trend? What is its role to the crisis of capitalism?

David Harvey: We produce an increasing amount of added value. And there is, for many years now, a real problem finding places to put this money. What has happened in the last 30-40 years is that the capital has been much more interested in increasing the value of assets and in speculating on the value of assets. But during this process, the capital has also become increasingly interested in annuities, which we have seen especially for real estate, land rent, land prices. And of course, the capital is interested in intellectual property rights. Suddenly, there has been an explosion of the so-called annuitant sector of the capitalist economy. The annuitant sector has always been very important. For example, in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are strong reasons to believe that the money obtained by the upper classes from land leasing and ownership was as important as the money obtained from the manufacturing sector. So the annuitant sector has always been important, especially in city building. And of course, it still is important: thus, in some advanced parts of the capitalist world, yields on the ownership of land and assets are very high, and intellectual property is a new form of property- which has always been there, to a certain way, but- has become very important. And if you can earn money just by owning patents, if you can earn good yields on capital without using any workforce, why bother to produce? So I think that over the past 30-40 years, there was plenty of evidence that a powerful annuitant sector was being built, with revenue coming from all kinds of sources: land, ownership of resources, property rights of various kinds, including, of course, intellectual property rights. The sector as a whole has become much more significant in the capitalist activity, and it does not use a lot of workforce.

Dispossession: a major dimension of capitalist accumulation

Contretemps: You have developed the concept of accumulation through dispossession, which has generated much discussion and debate. This concept has sometimes been regarded as too broad. What theoretical and political conclusions do you draw from these debates?

David Harvey: I think that somehow it was a very general argument, and that there are several kinds of dispossession. For example, what happens in the production process is depriving the workers of the surplus they produce, isn’t it?
When looking at the circuit of capital, we see that there is the circuit of merchandise, the circuit of currency, the circuit of production, and they can all be found in the second volume of Capital. These circuits are integrated with each other. But each one has its agent: the circuit of money has the financial sector, the circuit of production has the industrial sector and the circuit of merchandise has the commercial sector. So the question is how these different factions claim the surplus and appropriate it effectively? My thesis is that the financial sector and the circuit of merchandise operate on the principle of accumulation through dispossession, because what they do is to use their control on the merchandise or their control over the money to extort a tax from the workers. So, in a sense, the middle class can claim back through bankers and stockbrokers what it has granted to production.

Let us look at the question of where the added value is carried out as opposed to where it is produced. Marx explains that it is produced in the production, and I do not dispute that at all. What I question is the assumption that because it is produced in the production, it is also carried out in the production. In fact, it is possible that a very small part of the added value is carried out in the production. Let us have a look at the example of the supermarket chain Wall Mart, a capitalist business firm. It gets very high profit rates based on outsourcing to Chinese producers, who earn very low profits. It is thus a relationship of accumulation through dispossession. We can go further with the question I already mentioned, how capitalism acquires assets and then tries to exploit these assets, often depriving them from members of other classes. There is something like 6 million homes in the United States that have been seized, so 6 million people lost their homes. What happens to these units? For the moment their prices are very low. They have been acquired by large capitalist consortia who keep them for two or three years waiting for the market to recover, and then they fill their pockets. These units have been acquired for, I do not know, $ 200, 000 per home, and they will be sold at 300,000 or $ 400,000 each, if the market takes off. This is a tactic of speculative activity, and this is what I call accumulation through dispossession. And there are also forms of direct assault, when retirement pensions are suppressed, the rights to health reduced, or when people, now, have to pay for a free good that was previously produced by the state, e.g. university, education. I received free education in Britain, and now people have to pay. In the United States the cost of education increase more and more, people slip into debt and there is a huge student debt. This is also an economy of dispossession.

What I draw from this is that the forms of dispossession are varied, and as a general term it is probably too crude to say only “that is an economy of dispossession.” We must be more attentive to the variety of dispossession that takes place, where it takes place. I think it is a good idea to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the various forms the dispossession can take; this is what I draw from discussions. But I absolutely do not want to return to the idea that this is a very important part of the exploitation structure in a capitalist economy.

To change our conception of the working class

Contretemps: And politically, what do you get out of these discussions around the concept of dispossession?

David Harvey: Politically, what I get is the idea that the resistance to accumulation through dispossession- and there is a lot of resistance, everywhere- becomes part of the general dynamics of class struggle. This shifts the attention from the organisation and the political theory, moves it away from what has often been the sole object of attention of some leftist organisations, to move, for example, the factory to the city. Looking at the exploitation structure in and around a city we see the annuitant exploitation, the commercial exploitation. So we begin to have a very different concept of the policy of resistance to capitalist accumulation, once these other forms of exploitation are integrated into the landscape.

Contretemps: You wrote in an article published on Counterpunch in 2004, that the working class was not always and not in all countries in a position to be the cutting edge of social and political struggle. Can you develop this idea?

David Harvey: There are two ways to look at it. I could say that the working class, as it has been traditionally defined, is not in a position to be the avant-garde, though in some cases the social and political movements are or have been in the cutting edge. If you look at e.g. the Zapatista rebellion, it was not a revolt of the working class but a peasant revolt. It was also a revolt against accumulation through dispossession, and the same is true for e.g. the water wars in Bolivia, Cochabamba; this was also a struggle against accumulation through dispossession. And the fights in El Alto, where an entire city rebelled and destroyed the power of the presidency and paved the way for Evo Morales to come to power. These revolutionary movements were very strong and powerful, and they were not based on a traditional working class.

I assert that if we look at the dynamics of urbanisation, and raise the question “who produces the city, who reproduces the city?”, and if we say that all the people who produce and reproduce the city are part of the urban working class, then it goes much further than factory workers, it includes domestic workers, taxi drivers, and so we have a different conception of the working class. I am in favor of a change in our conception of the working class and of the types of jobs that are crucial. For example, the people of El Alto had the great strength to completely block the city, which is in fact a general strike; it is a strike in the urban space. I think the transport strikes are very effective, for example, in France there have been very significant transport strikes in 1990 and 2000. You can block a city and this is a very effective tool in the process of class struggle. And it is not just the factory workers who will do that, the whole city should defend this policy. So, I believe we should change our perception of the working class.

The uneven geography of the European crisis

Contretemps: How do you interpret the crisis of the European Union? It seems that a process of neoliberal radicalisation is being unfolded at the same time that neo-colonial relations emerge between the center and the periphery of Europe, especially with the Greek debt crisis.

David Harvey: I think that the crisis of the European Union should be analyzed in terms of classes. There is no doubt that the creation of the euro, for example, was a very advantageous move for the capitalist class, particularly for those parts of the capitalist class who were in the most advanced sectors in the most advanced countries of the union. So we have an uneven geographic field in which the unification took place, which is very advantageous for Germany in particular, but not only for Germany. Germany has gained much from the creation of the euro, and when you look at what happened in the economies of southern Europe in general, Greece in particular … I will not say that the Greeks did not themselves draw some of the disasters by committing all kinds of cheating in terms of accounting, etc.., but, on the other hand, Greece became a wonderful market for Germany who has been able to exploit it by virtue of its productive capacity and superior organisational skills. Germany has, in fact, become involved in a policy of accumulation through dispossession and reduced the productive capacity of Greece. And when difficulties emerged, of course, there was no obligation for any member of the union to help another member. At this point there is an uneven geographical development of the crisis which falls down on the most vulnerable populations and the most vulnerable areas. A similar case in the United States would be the state of California that has experienced considerable upheaval, but has not turned into a sort of a Greek case because the federal government was obliged to pay for the medical care etc.., while there is no such obligation towards Greece. Thus, we are facing these extraordinary circumstances, where people fall into a total shortage in Greece, in many aspects, because of the austerity imposed by the powers of the capitalist class, whose main interests are concentrated in Germany and North Europe. And I think this uneven geography will not change quickly. I do not see any change in policy either, so I think it will be a lasting problem for Europe. And it will not necessarily be solved by the exit of the South from Euro. So it’s a kind of a permanent dilemma that cannot be solved, I think, but only through a complete federalisation of the social base of the economy, by a collectivisation of pension rights and things like that, which is politically impossible, I do not think anyone would vote for it.

In the United States, the Republican Party opposes Keynesian policies

Contretemps: Do you think that we are witnessing currently a Keynesian turn in the United States? Is it possible that the Obama administration diverges from neoliberalism and enters into more Keynesian policies?

David Harvey: The United States have never been purely neoliberal, they have been enough Keynesians up to now. They have been rhetorically neoliberal, especially on things like social wages and protection, but the U.S. have never been strict on financing through deficit. The deficit of George Bush II has funded two wars, tax cuts for the rich, a huge social program of access to medicines that has been very profitable for pharmaceutical companies. Ronald Reagan, that is one of the figures associated with neoliberalism, was actually a Keynesian on defense, he funded with the public debt the standoff with the USSR. The United States has always been special, their rhetoric on the public sector has always been very neoliberal, their practices have always been partially Keynesian.

What is interesting in the current situation is that the Republican Party, that actually was an accomplice of George Bush to the Keynesian approach to the war, when it lost power, decided that it would actually abandon the austerity policy. So it tried to prevent the possibility of a weakly expansionist program, vaguely Keynesian, which the Obama administration favors from the beginning. They are on a slippery ground, I think, because they only have the House of Representatives, and if the Americans are convinced that what prevents the recovery of the U.S. is the way the Republican Party acts in the House of Representatives, well, when the next elections come in 2014 and there is a transfer of power towards the Democrats, the Republican Party would be destroyed. But it might as well not happen; it is a very complex situation. I think there are people in the Republican Party who realise that they are on a slippery ground and try to change that, but, for the time being, without much success. Until now there has never been any hesitation in the United States to use Keynesian practices such as financing through deficit, to be anti-Keynesian on social programs, welfare and to be unhesitatingly anti-Keynesian when it comes to grant more power to the institutions and organisations of the working class. Their pragmatic approach has always been to do what benefited the upper classes, and was restricted by it. I do not think this is changing so much, but I think that, right now, the Obama administration sees very clearly that the growth rate in the United States is very low and there is the possibility of a second recession. And if the Obama administration could act as it pleases, it would undertake expansionist practices, and, to some extent, expansionist practices that would grant more power to organisations and institutions of the working class. I think that the idea of a feeble and partial Keynesian policy under the Obama administration has already been advanced and accepted. But it will not be confirmed by the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, unless Republicans realise that it will be an electoral disaster for them, if they are seen as an obstacle to this. We’ll see how things evolve.

The intellectuals in the class struggle: to produce critical knowledge in dialogue with social movements

Contretemps: According to you, which may or should be the role of criticism from intellectuals or academics?

David Harvey: There are two things. What happens within the academic world is, of course, part of the class struggle, it is the class struggle in the realm of ideas. So I would like very much to see us all, in the academic world, fight for a different kind of knowledge production and reproduction. The university is a place of very fierce fight. I have spent a lot of time trying to keep open spaces for my work to develop and it is very hard when faced with the pressures of neoliberal and managerial transformation of universities. It’s a bit like working in a steel factory, we need to get organised within the university, and it takes a lot of time.

But I think that we also have an obligation to present some of our thoughts in such a way that a broad audience can understand them, to consider about how people can read them and draw their own conclusion. I do not think that the academics know the world better than anyone else. My opinion is that the social organisations that I work with know, better than me, what they want and what they do and it’s not my job to tell them what they should do. The idea did not even occur to me. But I can sometimes be useful when they want to know the connection of what they do with what happens in capitalism, the relations between what they do and the anti-capitalist struggle. I can help them understand what they do in relation with broader practices and issues. I think that in the academic world we try to develop this overview of how the economy works, and how the policy is deployed, and this is sometimes useful to political organisations and social movements. So I think it is necessary for us to maintain open areas within the academic world for progressive work, and to maintain links with social organisations so that we learn from them and they learn from us, in the process of political struggle.

But with the trend towards privatisation of education, especially higher education, it seems more difficult to sustain this space and debates within the university.

Yes. We are all attacked, even within the university. In the United States, the largest part of the teaching is done by people who do not have a permanent contract, and who live in appalling financial conditions. There is a battle to be fought on the living conditions of many people who are employed in universities. This is not an easy situation, but what can we do? We must organise and fight, as elsewhere.

Building the utopia through the negation

Contretemps: What is your personal vision of a communist society, if “communist” is the right word?

David Harvey: There are several ways to build a utopian vision. I think we should always have, one way or another, a utopian vision in our minds, a place where we want to go, even if, eventually, we do not arrive there- and, in a sense, arriving or not does not matter much. If you have a vision, trying to change things, things are moving in one direction or another. I do not have a fixed pattern, I wrote an appendix in a book titled “Spaces of hope”, a description of a utopian society built during a period of 20 years. And I think we need a method of construction through negation. We should understand the aspects of capitalism that we do not like, what we would refuse, what would a society, that no longer works on the basis of exchange value but on the basis of the use value, would look like, what forms of coordination of the social division of labor would be built, how it would be implemented in order to ensure that everybody’s supply of use value is sufficient and that there would not be any complete blockages and ruptures, any shortages. These are very practical questions.

We can, therefore, work on such ideas, we can build through negation: we do not want to do it through the market; we want to do it in another way, through the collaboration of the associated workers who will organise the social division of labor according to everyone’s needs. There is the possibility, with the help of technology, of coordinating the inputs and outputs in a new way. Some recovered factories in Argentina are networked now, through computers, and they organise the flow of inputs and outputs so as to begin to coordinate with each other, but it is not a centralised planning, it is organised as a network without central planner. I think that the technology provides us with new opportunities to address these questions in another way and to build a utopian vision where associated workers control their means of production, get organised and take their own decisions in productive unity, coordinating with each other, communicating with each other, in order to meet the needs of all.

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