“The power of ideas” – David Harvey at the LSE

By Tan Wah Piow

For many, the world is in a bigger mess now than at the start of 2015. As the year comes to an end, politicians compete to offer solutions to global issues ranging from terrorism, the financial crisis, income inequalities through to global warming. We hear them prescribing the  “how” to solve the myriad of problems, but hardly the “why”.

It was therefore refreshing to hear Professor David Harvey taking a different approach with particular reference to urbanization, and his critic of capitalism.

Prof David Harvey, described as the most well-known geographer since the 19th century, received a resounding applause at the London School of Economics recently  when he described the urbanization programme in the Gulf States as ‘fucking insane’.

He was speaking at an event organized by the Department of Geography & Environment at the LSE titled “Power of Ideas” prior to receiving the prestigious LSE Honorary Doctorate award which was given so far to only 26 other recipients.

Prof Harvey is well known for his politicizing the study of Geography, and adopting a Marxian approach in urbanization study, and his search for an alternative to capitalism.

Speaking to an audience of 500 at the Old Theatre, Prof Harvey revealed that he did not read Marx until he was 35. Such an admission is reassuring for the student audience in the hall.

“If I could teach you anything is the method of inquiry,” said Prof Harvey who complained about the misrepresentation of Marx “not just by the right wing but also by many Marxists and certainly what I called the dogmatic Marxists.”

“More and more of the time I found myself less and less impressed by the specific proposition that he (Marx) comes up with, and more and more impressed by his method of inquiry and following his method of investigation. And if you read him carefully, and watch him thinking, you suddenly get a very definite sense of a way of approaching raw materials which is dialectical, relational, diagnostic and very much process based rather than think base, and is very open. It always struck me as very irritating when I find people referring to Marx as somebody with a closed mind, and that his system is closed.”

Prof Harvey is radically anti-capitalist. As an academic, he is regarded by his peers as “one of the most influential geographers of the later twentieth century.” Prof Harvey has written numerous influential books, among them A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014), A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2013), Social Justice and the City (2009), and The Urbanization of Capital (1985).

Prof Harvey favourite theme is the critical link between the dynamics of housing and infrastructure developments,  and macro-economics –  which he examined using the Marxian methodology.

Quoting from a US geological survey, Prof Harvey told the audience that “between 2011 and 2013 China consumed 6,500 million tons of cement. Between 1900 and 1999 US consumed 4,500 million tons.  China in three years consumed 50% more cement than the United States in a whole century. This is an interesting fact. What the hell is going on? Why are they consuming all the cement. What is this about, and what are the consequences of pouring cement everywhere?”

The shrinking of the export industry in China brought about by the collapse of the consumer market in America in 2008, was followed by the mass massive urbanization project and infrastructure development in China, argued Prof Harvey. During that period, China lost 30 million jobs in the manufacturing industry, but 27 million jobs were created for people “pouring cement”.

“What is the dynamic here, why this?… That is the only way capital survive during the period, to pour cement everywhere… There is a tale to be told here about the over-accumulation of capital… and surplus capital and labour which had to be absorbed in order to keep stability within the global system of capital accumulation.”

“Again, I do not want to get into the situation of saying that we do not want to have growth anywhere. In some instances, it seems to me that it’s very important that some limited growth occur, there is plenty of places that we can do with some ‘degrowth’ and get rid of some of the more ridiculous forms of conspicuous consumption. “

Prof Harvey’s main concern is the insanity of profit driven urbanization.

“I mean, just look at the urbanization structures that are in the Gulf States and that region of the world that is crying out for alternative ways of building social relations that don’t drive (people) into radical Islam or the rest of it. And what do they do? They build a hotel in the middle of the desert with ski slopes inside of it … this is, this is absolutely fucking stupid! “

“And this is the sort of thing that totally exercises me and a lot of the buildings that are going on in New York City is kind of insane. I sort of say to graduate students that we should go into one of those building and get to the top of it and put a big banner on it saying ‘This is insane’ because it is, and actually my anti-capitalism is very sane compared to that sort of stuff. And that is actually what pro-capitalism is about this day.”

“..an  astonishing feature of cities, and a lot of building is about building an astonishing amount of housing and accommodation for people to invest in and not to live in? Why? And in New York City, we got a fantastic building boom going on and most of this places are empty. It’s a crisis of affordable housing. Globally, there is a crisis of affordable housing and at the same time, in Dubai, they are building all these ridiculous stuff and in New York and London, they are doing the same thing, the crisis of affordable housing and who buying all this stuff?

Interestingly enough, the Chinese are lending money to the United States then personally go and invest in a house or an apartment in Park Avenue or somewhere and not live in it. So, one of the things we do in New York is to go out and look at all those high rise condominiums after 8pm at night and see how many lights are on. The answer is hardly any. So we are building and building and building cities for people to invest in, not for people to live in.”

When asked at the start of the discussion “How to make ideas powerful?”, Prof Harvey acknowledged the Marxist view that ideas could be a material force in history. He, however, readily admitted “my deepest regret is that these really good ideas have not really become a material force for historical change”.

That may be the case, but Prof Harvey is determined to plough on with his conviction as he did for over half a century.

When asked, “what advice you have for young geographers doing research”, he gave a one-word reply “subversion”. After a momentary pause, the audience applauded. He then added, “you should keep one foot out in the radical fringe”.

Professor Wills Jane, one of the panelists at the Discussion told the audience how in 1983 as a 18-year-old Geography undergraduate she was overwhelmed by radical ideas in Geography where “Marxism was the new frontier”.  She read at the time David Harvey’s Social Justice in the City about the need for social revolution where he argued  that “a genuinely humanizing  urbanism has yet to be brought into being. It remains for revolutionary theory to chart the path for an urbanism based on exploitation to an urbanism appropriate for the human species and it remains for revolutionary practice to accomplish such a transformation.”

Professor Mills at Queens Mary college recalled that “this was a big thing for an 18-year-old to do, she wanted to be a Marxist geographer, a radical geographer and had to get to grips with a whole new lexicon… this is the power of ideas – ideas can mean that you see something that you did not see before. It was very transformatory for me.“

The event was certainly inspiring for the audience.

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