The Ways of the World – David Harvey

The Ways of the World – David Harvey

David Harvey is a Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York City, a position he combines with providing some of the world’s leading academic Marxist critiques of society in recent decades. If at first Marxism and geography may seem an unusual mix, Harvey has devoted much of his career to confounding this expectation, ademonstrating how Marxian conceptions of society can come to explain both the physical spaces in which we work and live, and how these in turn come back to influence our own actions and social relations (and how, in true ‘dialectic’ symbiotic form the latter come to inform the former once more, ad infinitum.)  This book is a collection of some of his key essays on the subject, spanning from all the way back from 1969 to just last year.

Whilst the continual theme is an examination of how the evolving processes of capitalism leave their physical mark in the city and townscape and the effect this has on class and social relations,  the actual subjects are eclectic and varied. Broader topics include the nature of what constitutes ‘environment’ given the interplay between nature and humankind’s own conscious manipulation of its own surroundings; the transition of capitalism in more recent decades from a more managerialist to entrepreneurial model; and the inherent limitations in any form of urban planning within this process to mitigate its excesses (e.g. ‘rejuvenating’ and gentrifying city centres does not abolish poverty, but simply moves it elsewhere.)  More closely focussed pieces include the conflicts between the trade union representatives on the shop floor and their more airily abstract allies in the socialist movement with reference to the industrial disputes around the Rover car plant in the Oxford of the 1970s, and the myriad social, political, religious and cultural conflicts which went into the building of the Sacre-Coeur building in the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th century.

For readers coming from a socialist perspective there is a multitude of original ideas and observations here  - not least an analysis of how the unbridled property market was just as much to blame for the 2007-9 credit crunch as the banking sector – and how China managed to avoid  the slump with a hyper-charged neo-Keynesian building programme. The problem for a reader not fully conversant with the most arcane and advanced Marxist terminology is that it can at times be an arid read;  the words ‘production’, ‘accumulation’, ‘surplus value’, ‘capital circuit’ et al bearing down with oppressive regularity.  Even for someone moderately au fait with the lingo (such as myself) may find themselves losing their way. I did lose grasp of some of the more cerebral and inter-spatial concepts at work at times, a failure on my part perhaps, though indicating the book is unlikely to find much of an audience beyond the academic. The frustration for me is that when Harvey does home in on more concrete concepts and uses abstract language more sparingly he can and does write in a clearer and more engaging manner.  No doubt he would counter his more purely theoretical work is the necessary underpinning for the rest, without which all else falls down. Still, I would argue one doesn’t need to resort to the showboating tactics of a Slavoj Zizek to inject just a little more ‘human interest’.

Ironically Harvey acknowledges this very tension in one of the book’s best sections – ‘Militant particularism and global ambition’ showing the conflict between the theoretical revolution and the lived struggle in both the works of Raymond Williams, and the clashes between the Marxist academic Harvey himself and his trade union allies during the 1970s Oxford Rover dispute. By far the most enjoyable chapter for me was that on Sacre-Coeur, which brings to real life the clashes between revolutionary and reactionary forces which brought the structure into being, though perhaps that simply shows my own prejudice for history and the political over geography and the sociological.

Stylistic concerns aside, there is a wealth of wisdom to dwell on here. From the revolution of the Paris Commune onward, Harvey demonstrates repeatedly and  convincingly how the human environment in its broader is just as vital as narrower definitions of class relations to both an analysis and a revolutionary critique of  society.  A serious and realistic modern Marxist work, the assiduous examination of the entrenched nature of capitalist hegemony and the seemingly unsurmountable barriers anyone seeking to change this society will face can ironically seem like a council of despair. But you need to know what you’re up against, and Harvey is a thorough and honest scholar in unearthing that knowledge.   

Any cop? This is not an easy read, but there’s treasure here if you dig deep enough.

[First published on Bookmunch, 2016]