Neil Smith's imperative: Honouring the spirit of a scholar and activist

"He only earns his freedom and his life who takes them every day by storm."                                    (Goethe, Faust)

Neil Smith passed away on September 29, 2012: he was a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, where he was the founding Director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics; as well he was the Sixth Century Chair in Geography and Social Theory at the University of Aberdeen. His early death -- he was only 58 years old -- came as a shock to many of us who knew him as a vibrant scholar, a generous teacher and a committed activist.

There are numerous theories for which he will be remembered but perhaps what is most important is the impulse which animated the development, expression and politics of his ideas. One of his exemplary essays was "The Revolutionary Imperative," published in 2009 in the journal Antipode. The article highlighted the great danger that Smith saw in our era, that is, the acquiescence to the limits of the present and the inability and unwillingness to fathom that greed was contingent and not humanity's inevitable destiny. The paper emphasized the importance of not losing the imaginative capacity that enabled us to see beyond the ideological constraints imposed by the current era.

Smith's analysis of economy and society, developed from his reading of Marx, contended that a blend of factors -- class relations, private property and competition -- created a mode of social production in which profit, economic growth irrespective of community or ecological costs, and anomic individualism had perversely come to be viewed as society's highest values. This irrational ideology in Smith's estimation was accompanied by an economic system that periodically entered into crisis. He argued that cyclical crisis was endemic to capitalism articulating via a mix of interrelated causes: first, an under-consumption process in which spending recedes; second, an over-accumulation dynamic in which too many commodities are produced for a market that cannot purchase them; and third, a longer-term decline in the profit rate which sends investors out of the productive sector into real estate, then into finance, and finally into collapse as demonstrated in 2009.

The question of course for Smith was "what was to be done?" in light of capitalism's latest depression. He praised militants, such as those involved in the alternative globalization movement, as well as progressive governments, such as those comprising the new left in Latin America. He did not however commend the postmoderns who emphasized that material change results from perceptual or discursive shifts nor did he applaud those activists who spend more time attending spectacular gatherings rather than organizing and engaging communities in radical party politics.

Smith was a Marxist and while many on the left and the right are critical of Marxism, and the history and theory of the last 50 years has given us ample reason to be unsympathetic to its cause, one should never forget the imperative that underpins its approach: despite the improvements that modernity has advanced, Smith understood that "the status quo is not much to quo about," that is, we remain in a world riven with suffocating inequalities. As long as we do not address them we will see many more revolutions in the future and not just of the egalitarian type. Neil Smith earned his freedom and his life by taking every day -- and us -- by storm: we honour his spirit by continuing in our diverse ways to pursue the goal of ending economic inequality and the conditions which give rise to it.

Image: Todd Berman/Flickr

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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