Capitalism and Geography (BkRev)

Chris Brady cdbrady at
Tue Jul 16 16:11:34 MDT 2002

 Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography.
David Harvey. New York: Routledge/Falmer, 2002, ISBN: 0415932408, 320

Reviewed by Gregory Martin and Peter McLaren
In Teachers College Record for the Week of July 15th, 2002

 Although he is not well-known among educators, David Harvey is one of
geography’s best-known social theorists and one of the most important
voices on the academic left in the United States. He is an ardent
defender of the Marxist theory of class, whose interdisciplinary work on
capitalist accumulation and the production of space and uneven
geographical development has genuine implications for those fighting for
social justice in urban spaces. A British import, Harvey was a professor
of geography at John Hopkins University when he stumbled onto Marxist
theory in 1971, after graduate students asked him to help organize a
reading group to study Capital. The rest is history, so to speak,
particularly as Harvey has now accepted a position in the anthropology
program at the City University of New York.  Thus, it seems fitting that
Harvey has put out his latest book, Spaces of Capital, an assortment of
essays written over the past thirty years, which constitute a blistering
indictment of contemporary capitalism.

 After the prologue (which consists of an interview with the editors of
New Left Review), the essays are divided into two parts. In the first
set of essays, Harvey examines how geographical knowledges have served
to naturalize and reproduce existing political-economic power
structures. What is important here is the development of a critical
geography, which is not only capable of “deconstructing” certain kinds
of knowledge and spatial forms but also transforming them.  Mollifying
the gnashing anti-theory critics, Harvey moves beyond mere abstractions.
For example, in “A view from Federal Hill,” he acts as our anti-tour
guide in his former adopted home of Baltimore, pointing out all the
horrors that lurk beneath the carnival of capitalism. Here, the
Baltimore that emerged as a tourist mecca during the 1980s, after a
slick marketing campaign, is a paradise only to oblivious tourists.  The
reality is that since the deadly race riots of the 1960s and a series of
economic convulsions in the 1970s, conditions (including access to
employment, education and health) have changed little for the majority
of Baltimore’s inner-city residents, proving that the city’s celebrated
achievement in urban renewal (Baltimore was featured twice in Time
magazine) is really just another example of public subsidy for private

 For Harvey, challenging such social inequality and uneven development
requires recognizing how capitalism is dependent upon certain kinds of
geographical understandings in the public domain. Implicit in this idea
is the notion that such geographical knowledges do not emerge
autonomously but are rather deliberately constructed and maintained by
the capitalist class so that it can pursue its own narrow interests,
albeit in the name of universal goodness. For example, in “Cartographic
Identities,” Harvey eerily reminds us of how access to certain forms of
geographical knowledge in the public domain has been responsible for
constructing various “demonized” spaces in the global economy such as
Cuba, China, Libya, Iran, Iraq and the ‘Evil Empire,’ of the former
Soviet Union. The tragedy here is that “A recent poll in the US showed
that the more knowledgeable people were about conditions and
circumstances of life in a given country, the less likely they were to
support US government military interventions or economic sanctions” (p.
211). Thus, the exercise of military power requires keeping the American
public in a chronic state of geographic ignorance about the role of the
United States as a bearer of a “global ethic,” when it is really
imposing a “rational” spatial order that opens up the possibility for
capital accumulation.

 In the second set of essays, Harvey’s central task is the
reconstruction of Marxist theory, in light of contemporary conditions
and historical-geographical experience. Indeed, for Harvey, it is clear
that capitalism has failed to deliver its promise of equality and
freedom for all, when material conditions are just as inhumane today as
when Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1847. Witness not only
spiraling social inequality in the home citadels of imperialism such as
the United States but also the trade in human misery and despair in the
neo-colonies, where the majority of the world’s gendered and raced
proletariat remain physically or economically shackled in factories
(producing commodities such as Nike shoes and Gap clothing) and in the
fields, almost 150 years since slavery was officially abolished. In
fact, despite the far-reaching claims of “globalization” theorists such
as Anthony Giddens (1999), the world imperialist economy is not becoming
homogenous, far from it. This is hardly surprising—as Marx points out in
Capital, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is
the accumulation of
misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental
degradation, at the opposite pole, i. e. on the side of the class the
produces its own product in the form of capital” (p.  645). It is little
wonder that for Harvey the working out of this contradiction constitutes
one of the major forms of motion that will inevitably determine human
history and geography.

 Deriving his analysis from the labor process, Harvey argues that it is
precisely within this context that it is possible to point to the limits
and reversibility of changes in the world economy. For example, in “The
Geography of Class Power,” he points out that as capital perpetually
turns to a “spatial fix” to resolve its internal contradictions, it not
only expands productive relations on a progressively larger scale but
also the bases for socialist revolution. Thus, even as the bourgeoisie
are driven to reorganize geographical space over time to create economic
and social surpluses, uneven development ultimately threatens to wreak
the whole system.  Although the Communist Manifesto implies that
capitalist development produces a homogenous working class, the
communist movement must begin to recognize the differentiating power of
capital, which has often absorbed class struggle by exacerbating
place-bound loyalties including all manner of gender, religious, ethnic
and cultural divisions.  Thus, just as uneven development itself is
shaped by particular geographical re-orderings, spatial strategies and
geo-politics, class struggle also unfolds differentially across this
varied landscape.

 What is more, Harvey argues that labor organizing must move beyond the
traditional starting point for class struggle – the factory. After all,
the geographical basis of such organizing is changing as factories
“disappear” by moving to another locale and as the workforce becomes
increasingly contingent, temporary, and casualized. As an example,
Harvey points to the campaign for a living wage in Baltimore—a citywide
movement for all workers—that brings various activist groups together at
the metropolitan scale. What matters here is that the fight against the
ability of the bourgeoisie to command and control space for capital
accumulation requires learning how to bridge the gap between the place
specific and the universal, by dialectically integrating struggles at
different spatial scales (e. g. local, metropolitan, regional and

 To sum up, Harvey’s analytical work is not always easily grasped but it
deserves to be taken up amongst critical educators, particularly as we
witness the current deforming of schools into precincts of free
enterprise. After all, the basic premise throughout these essays is that
capital must restrict and deny working and oppressed people access to
space, both physical and mental, if it is to maintain the division of
labor, which is necessary to the production of value. In such a context,
people choose what side they are on.

 Unfortunately, the academic left is not in the best condition to
appreciate Harvey’s work, as avant-garde theorists make a career out of
promoting the “proper” uses of theory. Today, the academic left is more
likely to spurn the clarion cry of class struggle as a shop-worn phrase
and the contributions of Marxism as burdened by economism, essentialism,
determinism, totalization, liberal humanism, and teleology.  The
liberalized, postmodernized left appears less interested in class
struggle than in making capitalism more ‘compassionate’ to the needs of
the poor, but in the process they unwittingly naturalize scarcity.
Capitalism is an overarching totality that is, unfortunately, becoming
increasingly invisible in postmodernist narratives that eschew and
reject such categories tout court or else resignify them in the doxology
of the establishment left so that instead of the determinate category of
capitalist exploitation, we are given the subjective notion of
‘oppression. ’ Postmodern normativity inheres in its assertion that
ambiguity and difference leak incessantly from the seams of totalizing

 In an attempt to challenge the ‘totalitarian certainties’ of the
Marxist problematic, and to dismember larger ‘totalities’ (such as
capitalism) by theoretically in-worming them (through processes of
resignification) and opening them up to multiple destinies other than
those analyzed by Marxists, academic postmodernists have too often
distracted attention from capital’s global project of accumulation. What
this approach exquisitely obfuscates is the way in which new capitalist
efforts to divide and conquer the working-class and to recompose class
relations have employed xenophobic nationalism, racism, sexism, ableism,
and homophobia. This conveniently draws attention away from the
crucially important ways in which women and people of color provide
capitalism with its superexploited labor pools—a phenomenon that is on
the upswing all over the world. Postmodernist educators tend to ignore
that capitalism is a ruthless totalizing process that subjects all
social life to the abstract requirements of the market. Or that it forms
the material basis of racism and sexism. The art school
transgressiveness and anti-Marxist high-mindedness of educational
postmodernists that gives primacy to incommensurability as the
touchstone of analysis and explanation has diverted critical analysis
from the global sweep of advanced capitalism and the imperialist
exploitation of the world’s laboring class. This is the class that has
been at the mercy of what has become known as ‘lean production’ and the
creation of a two-tiered workforce —the speeding up of the work process
and deskilling of the workforce; the increase in multitasking and
outsourcing work previously done by unionized workers; and the increased
flexibility for management in setting hours and tasks; and the
elimination of replacements for workers who are absent or who retire.

 The point is not that theoretical performances exercised in the
bourgeois salons of the postmodernists have not made some important
contributions in the area of cultural politics, or that they have not
exerted some influence (albeit proleptically) in the arena of social
justice reform efforts, but that, in the main, their efforts have helped
to protect the bulwark of ruling class power by limiting the options of
educational policy in order to perpetuate the hegemony of ruling class
academics. The succulent criticism of postmodernism is bereft of the
power to challenge the liberal-democratic consensus.

 Harvey is not a captive of such professionals of post-ideological
consensus. Clashing over the most basic issues of theory and practice,
Harvey argues that the immediate task today is not “the play of
signification” or a politics of “undecidability” but rather the creation
of geographical knowledges that will lead to the creation of alternative
geographies. Here, improving the lot of working people and the
oppressed, while building support for a broader revolutionary movement,
requires thinking dialectically, applying knowledge to concrete
situations and working in an organized way for liberation. At a time
when the fashionable abstractions of the bourgeois left just do not seem
cute anymore, Harvey’s historical geographic materialist analysis offers
a refreshingly real-and-imagined geography of radical hope.


 Giddens, Anthony (1999). Runaway world: How globalization is reshaping
our lives . New York: Routledge.

 Marx, Karl (1992). Capital: A critique of political economy.  New York:
International Publishers.

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list