[Marxism] Review of David Harvey's latest

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 2 09:50:08 MDT 2009

Sept/Oct/Nov 2009
Changing Places
Scott McLemee

It is unlikely that anyone has ever confused a page of Thomas Friedman’s 
with one of Immanuel Kant’s, but between them it is possible to 
triangulate a prevailing sensibility of the past two decades. Call it 
managerial cosmopolitanism. It celebrates the idea of a global civil 
society, with the states cooperating to play their proper (limited) role 
as guardians of public order and good business practices. The 
hospitality that each nation extends to visiting foreign traders grows 
ever wider and deeper; generalized, it becomes the most irenic of 
principles. And so there emerges on the horizon of the imaginable future 
something like a world republic, with liberty and frequent-flier miles 
for all.

Admittedly, that last clause owes more to Friedman than to the 
Königsberg homebody. But the sense that an emergent mode of governance 
is always already implicit within the routine conduct of international 
trade was there in Kant’s own popular writings. And with this came a 
Timesman-like spirit of acquiescence. Fostering 
cosmopolitanism—precisely by adapting to it—is the duty of the wise burgher.

Such notions have diffused widely enough that their provenance may not 
seem to matter. Besides, these ideas may not have as much market value 
now that even the erstwhile beneficiaries of “globalization” cannot 
regard it as quite the name of their desire. But this makes David 
Harvey’s Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom strangely 
timely. Harvey digs beneath the cosmopolitan doxa to a layer of Kant’s 
thought—his concern with geography—that has returned with a vengeance, 
even for those who only crib from thirdhand cribs of Kant’s corpus. For 
despite Friedman’s hectic urgings to the contrary, the world is not, as 
it happens, flat.

Indeed, its roundness and finitude are conditions for Kant’s own 
cosmopolitanism, because, he writes, human beings “cannot infinitely 
disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other.” 
Kant lectured on geography for decades, regarding it as the fundamental 
science needed to “create that unity of knowledge without which all 
learning remains only piece-work.” You can study a fair amount of Kant 
without ever suspecting this. The notes from the course—which he gave 
forty-nine times, nearly as often as those on logic and 
metaphysics—seldom receive more than a footnote in any biography. I have 
not read the notes, but the passages Harvey quotes are full of nonsense 
about how climate and terrain limit the moral and intellectual powers of 
lesser breeds in far-off lands.

But Harvey’s book is not, happily, just another reminder that 
Enlightenment thought was not so enlightened after all. Nor is it a 
polemic in which cosmopolitanism itself is unmasked as neoliberalism 
with a human face. Harvey’s patient and systematic labor here involves 
unpacking the notions about space, place, and the relation of culture 
and environment that are embedded in arguments about globalization.

To be sure, these are often implicitly deduced from neoliberal axioms. 
They “assume a world of deracinated men and women; producers and 
consumers; buyers and sellers; entrepreneurs, firms, and 
megacorporations; and supposedly neutral but placeless institutions of 
market and the law.” But at the antipode we find ideologies of 
postcolonial resistance that rhapsodize about the ineffable depths of 
subaltern tradition while drawing on Martin Heidegger or Edmund Burke 
(or both, which gets kind of creepy).

These are, obviously, counterposed ways of assessing capitalist 
modernity. But they both rest on implicit modes of cognitive mapping (to 
borrow a term from Fredric Jameson) that have political consequences. On 
the neoliberal globe, any local particularity (of landscape, climate, 
culture, etc.) exists primarily as a potential contributor or impediment 
to investment and accumulation. To oppose this reductive view of the 
lives of communities, something more is needed than dithyrambs to the 

Harvey is mainly seeking to define the terms for a new critical 
geography—one quite consistent with Kant’s call for a body of knowledge 
enabling the development of cosmopolitan citizens, but without all that 
stuff about the natural advantage given to white people in governing the 
world. For all their scope and high degree of generality, Harvey’s 
chapters on the categories of space, place, and environment seem less 
like an actual atlas and more like the prolegomenon to a Marxist 
geographic system. But Harvey’s presentation is cohesive and lucid 
enough, and in any case far preferable to the sketchy and largely 
gestural vocabulary that has become all too familiar from the 
cultural-studies vulgate, with its “sites,” “boundaries,” 
“displacements,” and whatnot.

Without revisiting The Communist Manifesto on capitalism’s insatiable 
and tireless need not only to expand but to reorganize the world in its 
own image (pages as fitting for the 1990s as the discussion of crises in 
volume 3 of Capital is for today), Harvey takes the continuing vitality 
of historical materialism as a given. This means taking the claims of 
cosmopolitanism seriously as well; more seriously, perhaps, than some of 
its recent publicists. For capital is not all that crosses borders and 
establishes new relationships, contractual and otherwise. So does labor. 
A few years ago, American investment firms would shore up their claims 
to being “global” by opening branches in distant countries, then not 
bothering to staff them. At the same time, their offices on Wall Street 
were cleaned by people whose map of the world included New York as the 
northernmost part of Latin America. Harvey’s book reflects the full 
range of this paradox—and thus serves as a reminder that there must be 
forged, somehow, a cosmopolitanism from below.

Scott McLemee is a writer for Inside Higher Ed.

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