British scholar David Harvey is one of the most renowned Marxist scholars in the world today. His course on Karl Marx’s Capital is highly popular and has even been turned into a series on YouTube. Harvey is known for his support of student activism, community and labour movements.
In an interview with The Wire, he talks about the problems arising out of the neo-liberal project, the resulting surge of populist politics and right-wing movements. He also talks about the relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism in the present context and the threat to labour from automation.
The interview has been edited slightly for style and clarity.
Could you trace the origin of neo-liberalism? What were the structural reasons for its emergence?
The idealist interpretation of liberalism rests on a utopian vision of a world of individual freedom and liberty for all guaranteed by an economy based on private property rights, self-regulating free markets and free trade, designed to foster technological progress and rising labour productivity to satisfy the wants and needs of all.
In liberal theory, the role of the state is minimal (a “night-watchman” state with laissez faire policies). In neo-liberalism it is accepted that the state play an active role in promoting technological changes and endless capital accumulation through the promotion of commodification and monetisation of everything along with the formation of powerful institutions (such as Central Banks and the International Monetary Fund) and the rebuilding of mental conceptions of the world in favor of neoliberal freedoms.
These liberal and neo-liberal utopian visions have long been critiqued as inadequate because as Marx so clearly shows in practice, they both support a world in which the rich get richer at the expense of the well-being and exploited labour of the mass of the population.
Keynesian policies and the redistributive state after 1945 proposed an alternative utopian vision that rested on the increasing empowerment of the working classes without challenging the power of private property. In the 1970s, a counter-revolutionary movement arose in Europe and the Americas organised by the large corporations and the capitalist classes to overthrow the Keynesian system and to replace it with a neo-liberal model (along with all its ideological baggage) as a means for the capitalist class to recuperate its waning economic strength and its fading political power.
This is what [Margaret] Thatcher, [Ronald] Reagan, [Augusto] Pinochet, the Argentinian generals etc did throughout the 1980s. It is continuing today. The result has been rising economic and political inequality and increasing environmental degradation across the globe.
You describe accumulation by dispossession as one of the most important characteristics of neo- liberalism. How does it work and what are its structural consequences?
Capital can accumulate in two ways. Labour can be exploited in production to create the surplus value that lies at the basis of the profit appropriated by capital. Capital can also accumulate by thievery, robbery, usury, commercial cheating and scams of all sorts.
In the theory of primitive accumulation, Marx points out how so much of the original accumulation of capital was based on such practices. These practices continue but have now been supplemented by a mass of new strategies.
In the foreclosure crisis in the USA of 2007-8 maybe 6-7 million people lost the asset values of their homes while Wall Street bonuses soared. Speculation in asset values (land and property for example) provides a non-productive avenue for accumulation.
Bankruptcy moves by major corporations (e.g. airlines) deprives employees of their pension and heath care rights. Monopoly pricing in pharmaceuticals, in telecommunications, in health care insurance in the USA provide lucrative avenues for profiteering. Increasing extraction of wealth through indebtedness is evident. Rentier extractions based on accumulation by dispossession (e.g. acquiring land or mineral resources illegally or at cut rates) have become more common because the rising mass of global capital is finding increasing difficulty in procuring productive uses for surplus capital.
Even during Marx’s time, there were several critiques of capitalism. How do you differentiate Marx’s critique from these strands?
Many of the critiques of capitalism were based on moral categories (evil and greedy capitalists versus impoverished and badly treated workers or more recently, environmentally callous capitalists versus the ecologists). Marx’s critique is systemic. Moral and ethical objections remain, but Marx treats them as secondary to the systemic problem of why and how to replace the capitalist mode of production and its disastrous laws of motion by some other way of meeting human wants and needs.
Do you think capitalism has reached a dead end, especially in context of the 2008 crisis? Can capital recover?
Capital is not at a dead end. The neo-liberal project is alive and well. Jair Bolsanaro, recently elected in Brazil, proposes to repeat what Pinochet did in Chile after 1973.
The problem is that neo-liberalism no longer commands the consent of the mass of the population. It has lost its legitimacy. I already pointed out in The Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) that neo-liberalism could not survive without entering into an alliance with state authoritarianism. It now is moving towards an alliance with neo-fascism, because as we see from all the protest movements around the world, everyone now sees neo-liberalism is about lining the pockets of the rich at the expense of the people (this was not so evident in the 1980s and early 1990s).
Marx believed that capitalism would die out due to its internal contradictions. You don’t agree with this. Why?
Marx sometimes makes it seem as if capital is destined to self-destruct. But in most instances, he looks on crises as moments of reconstruction for capital rather than of collapse. “[C]rises are never more than momentary, violent solutions for the existing contradictions, violent eruptions that re-establish the balance that has been disturbed,” as he says in Volume 3 of Capital.
Where he does see capital ending, it is because of a class movement. I believe my position is in agreement with Marx. Capitalism will not end of its own accord. It will have to be pushed, overthrown, abolished. I disagree with those who think all we have to do is wait for it to self-destruct. That is not, in my view, Marx’s position.
You consistently argue that Marx talked not just about value at the production level but also the arena of realisation. Could you elaborate this in the present context?
In the first chapter of Capital, Marx recognises that value is created in production and realised in the market. If there is no market, then there is no value. So value is dependent upon the contradictory unity between production and realisation. Realisation depends upon the wants, needs and desires of a population backed by the ability to pay.
The history of capitalism has been about the production of new wants, needs and desires (e.g. consumerism of various sorts and the production of daily forms of life to which we must conform in order to live reasonably such as automobiles and suburban living). I now teach an audience where everyone has a cell phone (which did not exist twenty years ago). To live in most US cities, you need an automobile which pollutes.
Marxists have paid a lot of attention to production, but have neglected issues of realisation. In my view, it is the contradictory unity of the two (which Marx mentions as crucial but does not elaborate upon) that should be the focus of our attention. Extraction and appropriation of value (often via dispossession) at the point of realisation is a political focus of struggle as are the qualities of daily life.
German socio-economist Wolfgang Streeck has identified five problems of capitalism in his How will Capitalism End. Instead, you identified 17 contradictions, not problems, of contemporary capitalism. What is the difference between problems and contradictions regarding the crisis of capitalism?
Problems have solutions. Contradictions do not: they always remain latent. They can only be managed and as Marx points out, crises arise when antagonisms are heightened into absolute contradictions. The contradiction between productive forces and social relations cannot be solved. It will always be with us. The contradiction between production and realisation will always be with us, etc.
I listed seventeen contradictions in order to emphasise that crises can arise in many different ways and that we need to develop a theory of crises which understands their multiple sources so we can get away from the “single bullet” theory that too often haunts Marxist thinking.
Under capitalism, automation causes significant job loss all over the world. Even the World Bank has raised concerns regarding automation. What is the challenge of automation under capitalism? What effect will it have on working class politics?
The parallel with automation in manufacturing and AI in services is useful. In manufacturing, labour was disempowered by tech change. Plus, offshoring with tech change is much more important. But manufacturing did not disappear. It continued to expand in different ways (e.g. fast food restaurants that produce hamburgers rather than factories that produce automobiles).
We will see much the same thing in services (we check ourselves in or out in supermarkets and airlines now). The left lost the battle against automation in manufacturing and is in danger of repeating its dismal record in services. We should welcome AI in services and promote it, but try to find a path towards a socialist alternative. AI will create new jobs as well as displace some. We need to adapt to that.
What do you mean by ‘new imperialism’? What is its basic characteristic? How is it qualitatively different from classical imperialism?
I called it “the new imperiliasm” since it was an explicit theory advanced by the neo-conservatives in the US in the run up to the Iraq war. I wanted to critique that, not to get back to Lenin’s theory, but to point out that the neo-liberal world order was sucking out value in all kinds of ways from all manner of places (e.g. through commodity chains). This was, of course, the topic of Brief History of Neoliberalism, which followed on from The New Imperialism. The two books should be read together.
There is an argument and belief, even among left intellectuals in the West, that the global south delinking from globalisation will result in a return to pre-modernity. What is your take on this? What should constitute the development agenda of the global south?
I think the idea of a total delinking would be disastrous. But I think selective delinking and the search for autonomous regionalities though bioregionalism is a good idea. The idea is to build alternative geographies of interrelations, but the global perspective (e.g. on global warming) is critical.
Study on cities is one of your areas of interest. You analyse cities as spaces of surplus appropriation. How does this work, especially in the context of neo-liberal cities? What is the importance of the right to city?
Urbanisation and capital accumulation go hand in hand and that is one of the aspects of Marxist thought that has been historically underdeveloped. Now half of the world’s populations live in cities. So questions of daily life in environments constructed for purposes of capital accumulation is a big issue and a source of contradiction and conflict. This is emphasised politically by the pursuit of the right to the city: e.g. class struggle in and over the qualities of urban life. Many of the major social movements in recent decades have been over such questions (e.g Gezi Park in Istanbul).
Your condition of post-modernity looks into its material base. On a philosophical level, what is the larger influence of post-modernism on social life? What about the idea of post-truth?
Like many other broad-based, and to some degree incoherent cultural movements, the post-modern turn created positive openings along with absurdities and retrogressive impacts. I liked the fact that it opened up perspectivism and emphasized space, but I could see no reason why this would be antagonistic to Marxism, since in my own work, I emphasize how to integrate space, geographies and perspectivism into Marxism.
At the end of the day, as Eagleton pointed out at the time, the movement went too far in seeing “no difference between truth, authority and rhetorical seductiveness” such that “he who has the smoothest tongue and the raciest story has the power.” It “junked history, refused argumentation, aestheticized politics and staked all on the charisma of those who told the stories.” Donald Trump is a product of this post-modern excess.
In the initial stage, we thought internet as the great liberating force. But over the course of time, big monopolies emerged, profiting from the digital space. Cases like Cambridge Analytica reveal how personal data is being manipulated by these monopolies. What is the danger it poses? How to liberate internet as a public utility?
There is no such thing as a good and emancipatory technology that cannot be co-opted and perverted into a power of capital. And so it is in this case.
How do you locate the emergence of Donald Trump? How can the rise of populism in different parts of the world be addressed?
He is a post-modern president of universal alienation.
Does the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jermy Corbyn in the US and UK elections respectively make you hopeful? Were they just election mobilisations? What should be the form and content of present day socialist politics?
There is a big difference between mobilisation and organisation. Only now, we are beginning to see elements on the left that see that building an organisation is crucial to gaining and holding political power.
In the British case, the rise of momentum alongside a resurgence of party building provides hopeful signs, as does the manifesto for bringing key elements of the economy into the public domain (which is different from nationalisation) as a political strategy. But the problem is that many in the parliamentary Labour party are as yet unsupportive. As yet, we do not see enough of this sort of thing in the US.
There is surge of right-wing politics across the world. The latest is example is the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Is the world moving towards fascism, similar to the 1930s and 40s? What is the political economy behind the sudden rise of ultra right-wing politicians like Bolsonaro in a Latin American country which was famous for left politics?
Alienation produced by neo-liberalism managed by the Workers Party, coupled with widespread corruption, produces a mass base prone to be exploited by neo-fascist delusions. The left failed to organise and now has to do so in the face of repressions.
Your course on Marx and Marxism has been very popular worldwide. How relevant is Marxism today? What do you think are Marx’s contributions?
Marx wrote the beginnings of a stunningly perceptive analysis of how capital works as a mode of production. Capital was developed in Marx’s time in only one minor part of the world. But it is now everywhere, so Marx’s analysis is far more relevant now than it was in his time. Everyone who studies Marx carefully recognises this, which in some ways, explains why political power is so desperate to repress this mode of thought.
There exist significant despair and dissatisfaction among the common masses under neo-liberal capitalism. Where does the hope for a better world lie? What sustains your hope?
In spite of all the attempts at repression, people are increasingly seeing that there is something wrong with not only neo-liberalism, but also capitalism. It plainly does not and cannot deliver on it promises and the need for some other form of political-economic organisation is becoming ever more obvious.
Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications including the Indian Express, The Wire, Frontline and Monthly Review. The writers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.