Global crisis and alternatives: A conversation with David Harvey

| April 29, 2014
Photo: flickr/Peter-Ashley Jackson

When David Harvey looks at the global economic crisis, he sees a situation that demands alternatives be found. Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY) and is currently a visiting scholar at the National Centre for Strategy on the Right to Space (CENEDET) at the National Institute of Post-Graduate Studies (IAEN) in Quito, Ecuador.

Harvey sat down with Patrick Clark, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Carleton University and a researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador, at the National Institute of Post-Graduate Studies (IAEN) in Quito, Ecuador.

 

The economic recovery in the global north has been stimulated thus far largely on credit, particularly for the middle classes in North America; there has been little real growth that is actually based on the expansion of new industries. What are the consequences of this?

One of the interesting things is that if you look historically, there is a very loose relationship between the accumulation of debt and the accumulation of wealth. However since the 1970s I think they have been more tightly related and there is recognition now that you can't get any further accumulation of wealth without accumulation of debt.

Economies become more dependent on debt -- for instance most pension funds in the Western world are invested in debt -- so 'security in your old age' is dependent upon the expansion of debt.

But then there is an interesting kind of question, a very tough one; can this fiction just go on indefinitely?

Marx's argument was that it couldn't because the value relation and debt would at some point collide and the debt would blow up. But there is a sense since the 1970s after we went off the gold standard in the world money supply that the relationship between money and value has been severed.

Now you depend entirely upon the Central Banks. If the rates of inflation are kept down, you can expand the economy monetarily as much as you like. What has surprised everyone is that Central Banks have been pumping money into the system like crazy and there has not been any sign of major inflation in the United States and there is deflation in Japan. However the money that has been pumped into the system since 2008 has largely gone into the stock market and speculation.

The evidence is that all of the quantitative easing has gone into the pockets of the top one per cent because they are the ones operating the stock markets.

 

If you look at the 1945 moment, Keynesian economic management did seem to regulate capital in many parts of the world. How does the current context differ from the 1945 context?

All the signs are now that we are confronting a situation in which the global oligarchy is essentially in control. In contrast to 1945, in the present context, the ruling class is not scared of working class militancy, much of this having to do with technological changes and deindustrialisation across the global north.

By and large labour unions aren't able to mount a counterattack because the dynamics of technological change are against them, even if there are places in the world where labour movements are still strong. This means that many of the traditional labour movements will not be able to take on capital. This is why I come back to urban struggles and what they are about as being a cutting edge of what a transformational movement might look like.

 

On the question of alternatives, what is your opinion about the commons[i] in relation to the state and the public? I know that you have taken a different view than Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri[ii] who in their book Commonwealth as well as in other works have discussed the idea of the commons or non-state forms of collective organization and cooperation? Can you explain where you differ from Hardt and Negri on this topic?

I thought that Commonwealth was incoherent in that on one page they smash the state and then five pages later the state is providing universal income and universal health care to everybody. Well you just smashed the state, so this is not coherent. Some of the researchers here at the Institute here, who are working on the intellectual commons and they argue that we cannot do without a 'partner state.' I tend to share this view.

This conception of the state is a different kind of state from a capitalist state even if there are aspects of the capitalist state that we probably would want to maintain. I have often argued the anarchists in New York that the sewage system has to work and the sewage system in New York City is a very complicated thing, it's not confined to 150 people living in a commune. So you want a sewage disposal department to work and the water department to function and you cannot do that without having a collaborative state structure that is dealing with major infrastructures.

This is one of the big problems about the notion of the commons; there is always a big distinction that I would want to make between public space and public works versus the commons. I certainly like the idea that public spaces should be under democratic control, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have to be a commons.

 

Well exactly, you certainly do need the public. How do you view the public in relation to the commons? So do we now need to think about new ways in the public and the commons can be combined in new ways?

Converting public spaces into commons is a political process and here is where you would want a 'partner state' instead of a 'daddy state' that would say this space is open for anyone to use for commons purposes and people can then start to turn it into a commons.

No commons is completely unregulated, most commons are regulated in some way, but there is a collective process of their regulation. Most of the commons are not just open in this sense; knowledge commons are of course different from pastures or common water resources. So I think there is a very dynamic way in which we could start thinking about 'commoning,' which is turning public space into commons.

 

Finally, I'd like to get your thoughts on the question of cities in the global north. Do you think it is easier for people to see their interests in terms of the public at the municipal level; is this a better scale for progressives to start at? What do you think about the election of Bill de Blassio in New York?

Well I like the municipal level, obviously because it's what I study, but I do think people have some notion of what their city is about. I think that you can reconstruct political subjectivity around the idea of the city.

I'd like to see us come back to the notion of the city as a political idea, to try to reconstruct the idea of the city on the basis of what I consider to be 'catastrophic urbanization' processes that you see in so many cities around the world.

With de Blassio's election in New York it's clear to me that people were thinking about 'what is New York?' and why is it the way it is and they were prepared to vote on that basis. I think it's a good sign that more progressive politics have come back with de Blassio.

I like working at the urban level, it's midway between the neighbourhood, which is too small it seems to me to be very effective, and the nation state, which is much harder to encompass politically.

 

Photo: flickr/Peter-Ashley Jackson

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