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International Socialism, Winter 2000


Judy Cox

Reasons to be cheerful

Theories of anti-capitalism


From International Socialism 2:89, Winter 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


David Harvey
Spaces of Hope
Edinburgh University Press 2000, £14.95

Ask first: where is anti-capitalist struggle to be found? The answer is everywhere. There is not a region in the world where manifestations of anger and discontent with the capitalist system cannot be found. [1]

David Harvey’s new book, Spaces of Hope, was written before the demonstrations in Seattle at the end of 1999, but it provides a theoretical background to many of the ideas and aspirations that have subsequently become hallmarks of the anti-capitalist movement. Resisting the recent dominance of postmodernism in academia, Harvey draws on his experience of teaching Marx in university to explain how Marx is more immediately relevant to the concerns of young students today than when Marx’s popularity among students was at its peak in the 1970s. Then, students’ interest in Marx was mediated through a range of other New Left writers, but now, ‘Students who stray into the course soon feel the heat of what amounts to a devastating critique of a world of free market liberalism run riot.’ [2] The project which Harvey outlines in Spaces of Hope is to construct an argument against the infamous cry of the Thatcher years – ‘There is no alternative.’ He refers to a slogan developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci when locked in a fascist jail and close to death: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ a slogan taken up by many left wing academics during the 1980s (who were in rather different material circumstances). Harvey argues that the time is now ripe for the left to develop an ‘optimism of the intellect’. [3]

Harvey reasserts some of the central themes of Marxism in order to engage critically with currently fashionable ways of looking at society. The first main idea he takes up is that of globalisation, which sees the world system as having entered a distinct new phase, a brave new world of globalising neo-liberalism. Harvey points out how this concept has been used to disempower working class movements across the world by posing them in eternal competition with each other. The second unit of analysis he explores is one which sees the human body as the only valid starting point for understanding the modern world, a view strongly influenced by feminism and the apparent collapse of all attempts to construct overarching theories capable of explaining society. These starting points are apparently diametrically opposed, but for Harvey the universality of the global system and the particularity of the human body are dialectically linked, most particularly through the labour process under capitalism. It is the labour process that connects the concrete labour performed by millions of individuals around the world with the global market and the international drive for profits.

In his discussion of globalisation Harvey takes The Communist Manifesto as his starting point. He is full of admiration for the most insightful and prophetic paragraphs in the pamphlet – the passages which describe how the cash nexus has drowned all old loyalties in the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation’, how the bourgeoisie constantly revolutionises the means of production so that ‘all that is solid melts into air, all this is holy is profaned’, and how the amelioration of economic crises paves the way for deeper crises in the future: ‘It still reads as an extraordinary document, full of insight, rich in meanings and bursting with political possibilities.’ [4] Harvey cites a wealth of evidence from both apologists and critics of the system to reveal the real position of the world working class today. His analysis includes moving descriptions of the ‘local reality of global inequality’ in countries like Indonesia, confirming Marx’s claim that private property has already been done away with for nine tenths of the population. His analysis also confirms the growing size, coherence and feminisation of the world working class.

Most important for Harvey’s argument are the passages that refer to the uneven geographical development of capitalism and hint at the possibility of capitalism finding a ‘spatial fix’ to its economic crises. The constantly expanding market, which chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe, results in the creation of a world in its own image – but this is not a smooth and even process. At the heart of Harvey’s argument is the way the Manifesto describes capitalism’s drive to reduce spatial barriers through innovations and investments in transport and communications. Marx later called this process the ‘annihilation of space through time’, and Harvey argues that this drive is embedded in the logic of capitalist accumulation. The spatial relations of capitalism are not neutral. They impact on the class struggle, creating competition between workers from different areas and strategies for the bourgeoisie in which relocating production helps to undermine workers’ power and organisation. Thus, Harvey argues, Marx’s powerful call for workers of the world to unite has proved to be an aspiration rather than a reality in a world where national and ethnic tensions are constantly recreated by imperialism. However, this unevenness and lack of unity can be theoretically addressed from within the Marxist tradition: ‘… a study of the Manifesto’s geography offers to provide a marvellous opportunity to wrestle with that task in such a way as to reignite the flame of socialism from Jakarta to Los Angeles, from Shanghai to New York City, from Porto Alegre to Liverpool, from Cairo to Warsaw, from Beijing to Turin.’ [5]

There are a series of contradictions implicit in Marx’s account of the circulation of capital and the exploitation of labour which are being exacerbated in the modern world. One is the drive to accelerate the turnover of capital which can only be achieved through investment in long term projects. This results in contradictions between finance capital on the one hand, and manufacturing, agrarian, construction, service and state capital on the other. Another contradiction is the drive to annihilate all spatial barriers to capital accumulation which can only be done through the construction of built environments, towns, transport infrastructures, factories, etc. These contradictions are embedded in, and sharpened by, the global free market system. Harvey acknowledges some recent shifts in the dynamics of globalisation: deregulation of the financial markets as a response to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods Agreement; rapid technological innovation, especially in the field of the ‘information revolution’; and the tumbling cost of moving people and commodities around the world. While noting these changes, Harvey insists that they have not led to the ‘hollowing out’ of the state, but that, on the contrary, the success of neo-liberalism requires a more interventionist state. Globalisation has been put on the agenda by the capitalist class operating ‘through the agency of the US foreign, military and commercial policy’. [6] Moreover, there has not been any qualitative transformation in the mode of production and its social relations that would necessitate an overhaul of our theoretical concepts and political aspirations. Globalisation may have created many localised opposition movements, but:

One of the historical strengths of Marxism has been its commitment to synthesise diverse struggles with divergent and multiple aims into a more universal anti-capitalist movement. The Marxist tradition here has an immense contribution to make because it has pioneered the tools with which to find the commonalities within multiplicities and differences (even if it has, at times, submerged the latter rather too readily in the former). [7]

Harvey also uses Marx as the starting point for his analysis of the human body, which he describes as an accumulation strategy, an unfinished entity that is previous to the historical and social developments that surround it: ‘Marx’s primary point of critique of capitalism is that it so frequently violates, disfigures, subdues, maims, and destroys the integrity of the labouring body (even in ways that can be dangerous to the further accumulation of capital). It is, furthermore, in terms of the potentialities and possibilities of the labouring body ... that the search for an alternative mode of production is initially cast.’ [8] Harvey outlines Marx’s theory of the body not as a pessimistic account which sees human beings as hopelessly trapped within the relations of capitalism. Rather he explains how bodies, ‘construed as passive entities occupying particular performative economic roles, are shaped by the external forces of capital circulation and accumulation’, but argues that ‘it is precisely this analysis that informs his other accounts of how transformative processes of human resistance, desire for reform, rebellion, and revolution, can and do occur’. [9]

Harvey highlights the contradictory nature of labour under capitalism, the mobilisation of creative powers to a given purpose defined by capitalism. Capitalism requires skilled workers but discourages independent thought, it requires submission but must also arouse the passions necessary to the ‘form-giving fire’ of the labour process, ‘healthy bodies may be needed but deformities, pathologies, sickness are often produced’. [10] An individual’s productivity is reduced to the production of surplus value so productivity ‘is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune’. [11] The worker exchanges the use value of labour power for the use value of the commodities that can be bought for wages. This process is very concrete – it takes place in specific factories and workplaces. However, labour power is part of the circulation of capital and thus escapes the restraints of local labour markets and operates on a world stage. Workers are linked together in one system, but it is a system that breeds fantastic levels of uneven development and inequality between them. For Harvey, as for Marx, the concept of the worker as the producer of variable capital is not a passive, reductionist conception. The idea of living labour and the existence of a class which can act for itself reintroduces the dynamic element of personal action and social movements. Thus the body is both an accumulation strategy for capital and a site of political resistance to capital.

Harvey’s critique of globalisation and capitalism’s impact on the human body are very effective. His solutions to the conditions imposed on the global working class are less so. At heart, he argues that the uneven geographical development of the modern working class can only be overcome by the fight for universal human rights. In support of this theory stands the inspiring declaration made by the Zapatistas in 1996 at their ‘World Gathering Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity’. The Zapatistas talked of neo-liberalism as a ‘historic crime in the concentration of privileges, wealth and impunities [which] democratises misery and hopelessness’ and of globalisation as the modern war of capital, against which the international banner of hope should be raised. The Zapatistas rose up against global capital, but their movement was seen to carry within it aspects of marginality, of an ‘authentic cultural identity’ separate from that of advanced capitalism. Harvey wants to develop a theory that locates such cultural diversity within a system of imperialism and modern capitalism. Such a theory would depend firstly on understanding the production of spatial scales, of the creation and constant transformation of households, communities and nations within which we organise our activities and understand our world. The second aspect of Harvey’s theory of uneven geographical developments is the production of geographical difference. The modern world is ‘an extraordinary geographical mosaic of socio-ecological environments and ways of life’. [12] Changes in the mosaic brought about by urbanisation and imperialism have deepened as a result of globalisation, of de-industrialisation and the relocation of manufacturing activities across the globe. Today cities can be built in a generation, while others suffer catastrophic economic collapse in the same time span, so contemporary geographical forms have great volatility and dynamism. Harvey’s account enables him to argue against the idea that everything is determined purely at the global level by the great clashes between civilisations and ideologies. Rather, particular local struggles can have a huge impact so it is at the local level that ‘a million and one oppositions to capitalist globalisation also form, crying out for some way to be articulated as a general oppositional interest’. [13]

Harvey wants to locate such a generalising interest. He focuses on the pattern of systematic damage being done across all the geographical spaces in order to embrace a diverse array of social and environmental issues such as AIDS and global warming: ‘This is not, I emphasise, a plea for pluralism, but a plea that we seek to uncover the class content of a wide array of anti-capitalist concerns.’ [14] However, having uncovered the class content, Harvey falls short of understanding how class could be the unifying force in practice. Harvey argues that the traditional method of Marxist intervention via the vanguard party involves the risk of seeking to impose one single aim on a diverse, inclusive movement, and of attempting to reduce all cultural differences to a common aim. This is a critique of a revolutionary party based on the experience of the old Stalinist parties, not one based on the continuing power of the greatest unifying factor in modern society – the working class and its diverse struggles. As a consequence of this misunderstanding, Harvey’s account collapses rapidly from a rigorous, materialist analysis of modern capitalism to an idealistic plea for a new utopianism: ‘… in a time when the class struggle has receded as a unified force in the advanced capitalist world (though it is still present in a thousand and one fragmented forms), is this not also a time when the painting of fantastic pictures of a future society has some role to play? We desperately need a revitalised socialist avant garde, an international political movement capable of bringing together in an appropriate way the multitudinous discontents that derive from the naked exercise of bourgeois power in pursuit of a utopian neo-liberalism.’ [15]

This utopianism takes two general forms. One is the hope that the struggle for a new declaration of human rights, in the tradition not only of the American Revolution, but also the United Nations Charter of 1948, which put forward a Universal Declaration on Human Rights, can guarantee some protection from global capitalism. He criticises both the ‘rigid Marxist stance’ which sees rights as ‘captive to bourgeois institutions’ and the postmodern view which sees the concept of inalienable human rights as the ‘stepchild of erroneous patterns of Enlightenment thought’. Harvey acknowledges the weaknesses inherent in the idea of purely political rights but believes contemporary class struggle will establish economic concerns, such as the global minimum wage, within the rights agenda. He points to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s campaign to defend the Ogoni people from Shell Oil as an example of the potential power of movements to make multinational companies accountable. What he fails to address is the question of agency, of what institutions will be capable of enforcing human rights more effectively than the UN has been able to do. The UN Charter of 1948 enshrines the right to work and to equal pay, commitments to healthcare and leisure, and security against unemployment and sickness. As Harvey points out, ‘almost all countries that were signatories to the Universal Declaration are in gross violation of these articles’. [16] Harvey sees the demand of universal human rights as the nemesis of globalisation and the lever to open up progressive political action. He sees the extension of these rights as potentially revolutionary, only possible to achieve through class struggle, and points to examples such as a meeting of workers’ representatives from 40 countries in 1998 to consider the question of campaigning for a global living wage. However, this strategy blurs the inevitability of class conflict that Harvey has illustrated so well. Can the rights of workers and capitalists both be represented, can both be afforded dignity and respect? If the rights of one clash with the rights of another, who arbitrates and enforces the decision? No institutions that are part of the apparatus of capitalism will guarantee demands for workers’ rights – the most effective strategy for winning workers’ rights is building independent action and international solidarity.

The second focus of Harvey’s utopianism is his long-standing emphasis on the possibility of transforming urban landscapes into new utopias through the actions of insurgent architects. He outlines a fascinating political and architectural history of the attempts to create utopias, and he also explores the material problems involved in realising them (such as how utopias rely on state or capital accumulation) and the political barriers (such as how ideas of community can be used as a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, social change). Against the ‘free market utopianism’ of the Thatcher years, which depended so heavily on the state, Harvey suggests ‘dialectical utopianism’, which could address both our capacity for social transformation and our embeddedness in our existing world, our dynamic relationship with our environment and nature and our species being. He acknowledges the possibility that, in an alienated world, our actions may not have the consequences we foresee, and so ends his materialist account with an idealist call for courage of the mind, courage to imagine a different sort of society.

Like all Harvey’s work, Spaces of Hope is a valuable attempt to apply a Marxist analysis to new, challenging developments in the world. That he focuses on globalisation and the potential developments within a worldwide anti-capitalist movement is testimony to his close relationship with contemporary radicalism and his political farsightedness. His analysis of many features of the system is fascinating and challenging, as he assumes a level of familiarity with Marx’s ideas. This is not an attempt to popularise and broaden the anti-capitalist movement in the way books like No Logo and The Lugano Report have done in recent years. However, it is an attempt to locate the issues and concerns raised by the anti-capitalist movement within the analysis Marx pioneered. Harvey’s critique of capitalism and its contradictions is penetrating and suggestive. His solutions fall into an idealistic, though heartfelt, plea for human rights and insurgent architects to unify and inspire a divided world. Read this book for a challenging theoretical analysis of the origins and aspirations of the anti-capitalist movement – and draw your own conclusions.


1. D Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh University Press 2000), p. 71.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Ibid., p. 52.

4. Ibid., p. 52.

5. Ibid., p. 62.

6. Ibid., p. 72.

7. Ibid., p. 108.

8. Ibid., p. 102.

9. Ibid., p. 103.

10. Ibid., p. 106.

11. Ibid., p. 73.

12. Ibid., p. 77.

13. Ibid., p. 73.

14. Ibid., p. 81.

15. Ibid., p. 49.

16. Ibid., p. 90.

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