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Karl Marx Is Useful for Our Time, Not Just His

David Harvey

The financial crash didn’t kill off neoliberalism — it actually embedded its logic ever deeper in our lives. Marxist geographer David Harvey says the only way to end this system for good is to change how we fight it.

A statue of philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx stands in a public park on May 4, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Interview by
Arnau Barquer

David Harvey is not just one of the most cited figures in the social sciences, but a leading contemporary Marxist. His Companion to Marx’s Capital series has allowed a generation to get to grips with the German thinker’s most important work, while his studies on the history of neoliberalism and on urban spaces have adapted Marx’s tools to today’s political realities.

Having begun his career studying the remodeling of cities like Baltimore, Harvey’s work is notable for its focus on the constant revolutions brought about by capitalism — the myriad ways that it reorganizes our lives and the environments in which we live. In this vein, he has keenly emphasized the importance of urban social movements and the fight for the city.

In June, the Marxist geographer visited Barcelona to promote a Spanish-language collection of his works. Catarsi magazine’s Arnau Barquer sat down with David to discuss the long-term effects of the financial crisis, the rising importance of the fight over urban space and affordable housing, and the ability of local and national governments to resist the power of finance.


AB

It’s been more than a decade since the financial crash. What is the role of crisis in capitalism, and what, specifically, was the outcome of that crisis — is it over, or, as some economists say, are we at the gates of a new recession?

DH

There are various ways you can think about crises. There are those who like to think that crises signal the end of capitalism. I tend to think they’re more about means for the reorganization of capital — its reshaping to meet new circumstances, with the rebuilding of an alternative model.

We often get situations in which the economy does well, but the people do badly. What happened in 2007–9 was a major disruption. But there was a big distinction in the response to the crisis.

In the West, by and large, the response was austerity. We were told this was a crisis of excessive debt and that we’d have to cut things back. The result was declining living standards for the mass of the population. This did not, however, affect the ultrarich: most of the data we have suggests that the top 1 or 5 percent came out of the crisis much better off and probably gained. There’s a phrase, “never let a good crisis go to waste,” and the financiers and such like came out of the crisis very well.

But there was another, totally different response — China’s. It didn’t engage in austerity policies. It instead massively invested in infrastructure, urbanization, and the like. This massive expansion increased the demand for raw materials, so countries supplying China — for instance, Chile with its supply of copper, Australia with its iron ore, Brazil with its iron ore, soy beans, and the like — came out of the crisis pretty fast. China itself has single-handedly saved global capitalism from serious collapse. I think this is not generally well understood in the West, but China has created more growth since 2007–8 than North America, Europe, and Japan combined.

All previous crises produced some new mode of the organization of capital. In the 1930s that meant Keynesianism, state interventions, state management, and so on, whereas the 1970s crisis brought neoliberal solutions. But this time around, I don’t think 2007–8 produced anything. The resulting policies were, if anything, even more neoliberal. But the problem is that neoliberalism has lost its attractiveness and legitimacy, so is now enforced by authoritarian and right-populist means. We see this in Donald Trump, whose policies are very neoliberal — they mean deregulation and lowering taxes for the rich.

AB

You mentioned Trump. Sometimes crises open up possibilities for people to organize. But in the United States and Europe, we have seen them instead following reactionary leaders. What does it mean to speak, in Marxist terms, of the objective conditions for mobilization?

DH

Well, of course we need to speak of the objective conditions — why wouldn’t we? And the objective conditions are also caught up with a certain kind of politics. I think the Left hasn’t responded very well to the transformations that have been occurring within capitalism and is in danger of repeating some of its past mistakes.

In the 1980s–90s there was a lot of deindustrialization in the West, much of it due to technological change, and the Left tried to defend against this in order to protect traditional working-class populations. But it lost that battle, losing a lot of credibility in the process. Now we are seeing artificial intelligence is going to do the same thing to services as automation did to manufacturing. The Left is in danger of protecting something that is going to disappear for technological reasons.

I think we should be a creative left that embraces AI, automation, and the whole idea of completely new job and employment structures — pushing far ahead of where capital is at in that regard.

But that also means an alternative politics. The classical working class no longer exists in many countries, and the basis of traditional-left politics has disappeared along with it. Of course, it hasn’t gone away entirely, but it’s been seriously undermined.

So, we need a new form of left approach focused on what I’d call anti-capitalist politics: not simply focused on the workplace, but on the conditions of everyday life, of housing, of social provision, of concern for the environment, of cultural change and cultural transformation.

AB

You’ve spoken of the revolutionary potential of urban movements. Do you think left-wing parties have underestimated this?

DH

There’s long been social movements in cities. For instance, over the last twenty years or so, the major movements were in cities and mainly focused on the deteriorating quality of everyday life. For instance, we had the Gezi Park uprising in Turkey and movements in Brazilian cities over transport and the failure to invest in adequate infrastructure for the population.

At a certain point, we had to recognize that this was an area of agitation and that there were far more uprisings over these questions than in the workplace, even though workplace problems do, of course, still exist.

That posed the problem of the Left’s positionality — whether there’d be a Left that came out of the urban social movements. Since the 1970s, I’ve been advocating that there should be one. Nobody was listening to me too much back then, but since the 2000s they have been.

The tenants’ movement growing up in Barcelona has been very important, as has the one in New York, while there’s also big agitation over rent control in California. If you look at the number of cities where tenants’ movements are beginning a real political push, it’s crazy for the Left to say they’re irrelevant.

This is especially true given that the problem these movements are facing is big capital — for instance, Blackstone, now the largest [residential landlord] in the world. You’ve got an anti-Blackstone coalition, because it dominates in California, it’s causing trouble in Barcelona, and so, too, in Mumbai, Shanghai, and everywhere else. So there’s an anti-capitalist movement, but it’s being built around the housing question. I’m excited about the possibilities this holds. An international movement trying to expropriate Blackstone’s properties would be very interesting.

AB

In your book you say that you arrived at Karl Marx relatively late. What led you to opt for this school of thought?

DH

I was working on urbanization in the city of Baltimore when I was thirty-five years old. I was involved in inquiries into the quality of the housing market and what had underpinned the uprisings in US cities in the late 1960s. And during that investigation I used traditional social-scientific methods, which didn’t seem to be working well, so I looked for some other way to formulate the issue. I just happened to say to some graduate students that maybe we should read Marx. So, I started to read Marx, and I found it more and more relevant.

In a sense, this was an intellectual more than a political choice. But after I cited Marx a few times favorably, people pretty soon said I was a Marxist. I didn’t know what it meant, but after a little while I gave up denying it and said, “Alright, if I’m a Marxist, I’m a Marxist, though I don’t know what it means” — and I still don’t know what it means. It clearly does have a political message, though, as a critique of capital.

I think Marx is more relevant today than ever before. When Marx was writing, capital was not dominant in the world. It was dominant in Britain and Western Europe and the eastern United States, but it wasn’t dominant in China or India. Now it’s dominant everywhere. So, I think Marx’s analysis of what capital is and its contradictions is more relevant now than ever.

AB

Younger generations of activists might be more interested in seeing Marx through the prism of political action than in academic terms. Could you comment on the effect of the crisis in feeding rediscovery of Marx, and what specific perspective we can get on Marx by reading him through the prism of a discipline like geography?

DH

Marx said our job is not to understand the world but to change it. But I don’t think his practice suggests he wasn’t interested in understanding and explaining the world. Why did he write Capital? Because he thought that in order to change the world, first you have to understand it properly. One of the things I think is important is to try to recuperate Marx’s understanding in a manner appropriate to current circumstances, so people get a better idea of what they’re fighting against.

My interest in geography and urbanization led me to read Marx in a different way than a lot of other people. So, in The Limits to Capital, I spend a lot of time talking about finance — which, strangely, not a lot of people were talking about in the 1970s — as well as how land is used. My reading and presentation of Marx has always been related to creating an understanding of him that is relevant to uneven geographical development and urbanization. That leads me to emphasize certain things in Marx that other people tend to ignore. The fact a book that came out in 1982 is still being republished suggests that this framework is relevant to people looking at housing and connected issues in a way that other Marxist approaches aren’t.

In teaching Marx over the years, I’ve been through waves of people wanting to read Marx or not, then coming back again. After the 2007–8 crisis there was, without question, a greater interest in Marx. Now it seems this interest has faded a bit, since most people are obsessed with trying to explain phenomena like Donald Trump and the turn to fascist-type stuff like Orbán, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, and all the rest. But, of course, if there’s a real hiccup in the global economy — and there’s lots of nervous signs — we’ll be back to talking more about political economy.

AB

Here in Barcelona, a left-wing party (Barcelona en Comú) has led the city council over the last five years, and there is also a web of social movements. But this has not been enough to fulfill its initial promise. If your work emphasizes the importance of local space, should this experience lead us to question the value of municipalism?

DH

One of the questions we’re only beginning to grapple with is what municipalities can actually do politically. We have quite a few radical municipal administrations in the United States. For instance, there’s Seattle; Los Angeles is also quite progressive; and there’s also a progressive wing in New York City. I think that given the shift in interest away from the problems of the workplace to the problems of daily life in the city and affordable housing, the Left has to have a new politics that focuses on all this.

We have very little experience of how much local administrations can do, given the limited resources they have. For instance, in New York City, the mayor is very much constrained by the fact that he cannot initiate any new taxation arrangements — they have to be done by the state. The state administration is Democratic but doesn’t like the mayor, so there’s a conflict between these two levels of government, and in Barcelona, too, you have the regional government at odds with the city government, with each trying to undermine the other.

The question you’re asking is an important one. But what interests me and some of my colleagues is: if a left-wing local government comes to power, is there a body of work and thinking on the Left that would be helpful to it, in terms of what it might reasonably try to do, given the nature of its powers? Local governments’ powers are circumscribed. In Britain, for instance, they have almost no ability to initiate anything, except keeping control of the garbage situation. There, I would like to see much more power devolved from central government to the municipalities, and I’d hope to see the same in Barcelona, too.

We’re in the early stages of working out how municipalism can be part and parcel of an overall socialist project. The answer to your question, therefore, is: we don’t yet know, but we also don’t have people looking at it, so it’s up to people like me to organize academics to build a think tank to say what could be tried.

AB

But to take an issue like housing, for example, what would be the key political problems that need resolving?

DH

I think housing is a right and should be thought of as such. Even congressional legislation in the United States back in 1949 said that every US citizen has the right to a home and a decent living environment. Now, if we treated it as a right, we would organize society in such a way that it delivered on that.

The trouble is that over time we’ve been told that the only way to deliver on that is through market forces. But if market forces do a fantastic job of delivering to the upper classes, they don’t do too good a job for the middle classes, and a dismal job to anyone having a hard time getting access to affordable housing.

Leaving things up to market forces is a disaster, from the standpoint for delivering a decent living environment to all citizens independent of income, race, gender, and so on. You can do things like rent controls, though in the long run I don’t think that’s a solution insofar as there’s still the market.

We should really try to decommodify housing provision. Historically that was done with the creation of social housing, where people had non-market residential rights — the right to a home, without having the right to buy and sell it. Under neoliberalism we’ve been told that’s inefficient. But now we know what happens when we instead follow the neoliberal rules.

AB

Could the market have any role in a socialist economy?

DH

I have no problem with there being a market in secondhand clothing, for instance. The big problem is when there is unequal market power. Marx took issue with the mass of power and who controls the mass.

If you look at Blackstone’s place in the housing market, it controls too much of the mass. A lot of people talk about the rate of profit, but it’s control of the mass of profit that really decides who the important players in the capitalist system are.

Insofar as big capital is about what Marx calls monstrous masses of capital, the important players can use these monstrous masses to corrupt politics, to dominate the media, to buy elections, and so on. To get a socialist democracy, we have to demolish those masses of power. That also makes it critical that we break up giants like Facebook and Google.

AB

In Catalonia there is a huge social movement for self-determination. But in all this, one question seems to be avoided: What does sovereignty really mean?

DH

The question of sovereignty is: Does the state control finance, or does finance control the state? In Greece, for instance, the latter is clearly the case — there, state sovereignty is pretty irrelevant, a minor part of the power relation running the country.

Interestingly, this is even what’s said in the United States. When Bill Clinton came to power after the 1992 election, he laid out an economic program. His policy advisor Robert Rubin — who came from Goldman Sachs, and later became secretary of the Treasury — said, “You can’t do that.” Clinton said, “Why not?” Rubin replied, “Because the bondholders won’t let you.” Clinton supposedly said, “You mean my whole economic policy and my whole chances of re-election are dependent on a bunch of fucking bond traders?” And Rubin said yes. So Clinton implemented neoliberal measures like NAFTA and a whole set of welfare measures and did not deliver what he’d promised — free health care.

I think we’re in a situation where it’s the money changers who rule, not the politicians. So, to get back to the question of sovereignty, when you imagine you can become autonomous from other jurisdictions, it still leaves you with the problem of how you’re going to deal with the power of the bondholders and the power of finance capital. I’m not so sure that there’s any real autonomy just from becoming politically independent.

AB

Looking at the United States, what do you think of the rise of democratic socialism, and what do you think it means for political movements elsewhere?

DH

Up till now we’ve had one party — the party of Wall Street — with Democratic and Republican wings. Hillary Clinton was a creature of Wall Street, and one of the crucial mistakes she made before the election was to go and give speeches to Goldman Sachs for $250,000 a time. I wrote to Goldman Sachs and said I’d speak to them for $200,000, but it seems they didn’t want a speech from me. She accepted big money, and everyone knew it. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, raised more money from Wall Street than anyone else. The Democratic Party is the party of Wall Street and has been ever since it lost its base in the unions in the 1980s.

Within the Democratic Party, there’s a movement to say we should try to escape this entanglement with Wall Street — Bernie Sanders says we need a political revolution. It seems about two-thirds of the party thinks it needs Wall Street’s support and a third don’t. But there’s a growing recognition that Wall Street is, indeed, the problem. At the popular level, it’d be interesting to see how far this goes.

The mobilization of people politically is going to very much depend on the radicalization of youth. In the post–Cold War context, they don’t understand all this anti-communist talk about how awful socialism is. The right wing is trying to tell them otherwise, but when young people hear that socialism is about abolishing student debt and getting free health care, they’ll likely think it sounds good: “If that’s what socialism is, then I’ll be a socialist.”

I think that’s the level we’re at. There’s no question that the advent of Donald Trump has stirred up a lot of people to political action, as has the offensive against abortion and women’s rights. I’m not sure we’re at a turning point, but there’s certainly a pushback. I think the next elections will see a push to the left, but the party of Wall Street will still be there.