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David Harvey – Spaces of Global Capitalism

David Harvey is one the premiere academic Marxists writing today. He's a geographer by training,
but his analysis of post-Fordist capitalism and his materialist critique of cultural postmodernism
have earned him a notable place in debates ranging across a number of other disciplines.
Unfortunately for the Harvey neophyte, much of his work is packaged in daunting paving stone sized
volumes. Spaces of Global Capitalism, clocking in at a mere 148 pages, comprises a lecture series
given by Harvey in 2004. It makes for a concise introduction to Harvey and has the added benefit of
drawing a neat, if somewhat artificial, division between three levels of ascending explanatory
abstraction with which Harvey is concerned.
I should comment further on this last point. Much as Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit figures as the
ladder to the greater Encyclopaedic system, but at the same time a concluding gloss on the very
same, Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism is structured to reward repeated readings. The first
lecture is the most easily digestable. Having made it to the end of the third lecture, however, one will
have better grasped the theoretical abstractions Harvey employs and be in a better position to start
again.

Lecture 1: "Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power"


Lecture 1 is a concise restatement of the narrative contained in Harvey's essential A Brief History of
Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005). The global fortunes and local determinations of neo-liberalism are
briefly recounted, with particular emphasis on its political causes and mechanisms. Harvey argues
that the history of neo-liberalism shows it to be a failed and mystifying economic program masking a
retrenchment of upper-class power. He explains with precision neo-liberalism's inherent
contradictions and goes on to examine both the neo-conservative and progressive responses to these.
Of particular interest to me was his critique of human rights discourses as engendered by and
responding to neoliberalism. Harvey ends on a hopeful note.

Lecture 2: "Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development"


Here Harvey takes a step back and sketches the components of a "'unified' field theory of uneven
geographical development" ("unified" in scare-quotes because harvey seeks a dialectical rather than a
reductionist or organicist theory). In brief, Harvey uses Marxist conceptual tools (updated and
broadened in certain respects; for instance, his interpretation of "primitive accumulation" as
"accumulation by dispossession") to make sense theoretically of the kinds of events tracked by the
first lecture. The subsection "Capital accumulation in space and time" on pages 95-96 is as concise a
statement as one can find of Harvey's general theory (though it should also be understood that for
Harvey, theory is not a static but rather a dynamic discourse). One will find that Harvey is open to
explanatory tools from a variety of traditions, but, given his penchant for dialectics, is sensitive to
where these have potential to become sclerotic and obfuscating. This lecture could be titled:
"Harvey's Marxism in Brief".
Lecture 3: "Space as a keyword"
Harvey's main contribution to Marxism, following Lefebvre, is in pushing space to the forefront of
Marxian analysis. More accurately, he has insisted on a variegated category of "space-time" in
studying capital accumulation and, by extension, uneven geographical development. In this lecture
he analyzes the notion of "space" and how it may be cashed out into three different conceptions
(Cartesian/Newtonian "Absolute space", Einsteinean "Relative space(-time)", and Leibnizean
"Relational space(-time)"). All of these stand in dialectical tension with each other and form a grid
with "experienced", "concepualized" and "lived" variants. One must "roam the grid" to construct or
reconstruct the role of space(-time) in a given materialist explanation. There's much fuel for
philosophical reflection here, and ultimately one gets a sense of how even at a highly abstract level,
Harvey's spatial/geographical thinking can be brought to bear on his history of neo-liberalism and
his search for a "unified" theory of uneven geographical development. He signals that such a thinking
is "rich in possibilities"; his history of neo-liberalism is a skeleton to be filled in by richer
spatializations which must, however, keep in mind the dialectical unity of the spatial grid and not
founder on specificities. For Harvey, there are real consequences to such an error: by focusing on
place, rather than space, one courts political irrelevance and defeat. Hence his call for an enriched
Marxism beyond the impasse of culturalism/postmodernism.