An Interview with David Harvey (2014)

An Interview with David Harvey (2014)

Back in March 2014, as several co-founders and members of Boğaziçi Political Economy Society (BPES), we met with David Harvey on the Boğaziçi South Campus before his book talk on the contradictions of capitalism. It was a very exciting moment for all of us for having chance to discuss urban protests across the world, neoliberalism, and many other topics with Harvey, who kindly accepted our invite.

As of August 2023, I fix the link to this interview. Fulya Pınar, Serkant Adıgüzel, Uğur Aytaç and Selim Gökçe Atıcı, and myself had recorded, transcribed, and translated the interview. Unfortunately, the English transcription of Professor Harvey’s answer to Selim Gökçe Atıcı’s question is missing. The question was about David Harvey’s take on postmodernism, poststructuralism, and what identity politics and multiculturalism had brought to or taken from the left politics.

Full text:


Uğur Aytaç (UA): Your views on neoliberal process of urbanization are well known in academic and intellectual circles. When you think of this sort of urbanization and reactions of new urban population to it all over the world, where do you locate last year’s famous Gezi Protests in Turkey? More or less similar revolts were observed in several countries in recent years. Some were triggered by fiscal crises and austerity policies as in Greece; some were presented as if they were much more related to political rights and “civil” democratic political regime, for instance in Egypt. What were the commonalities according to you?

David Harvey (DH): I don’t have a kind of secure theory about that. I think this is one of the questions, which is very much open for discussion. Clearly seems to me it is not accident that we see so many explosions of this sort around the world. There have been previous periods in history when there had been simultaneous outbreaks of discontent…say 1968. But it is always very difficult to exactly pinpoint what it is that gets these things moving together. My own way of looking that is to concentrate on the idea what I call “universal alienation”. Many people feel alienated from political process, they feel excluded from possibilities of economic advancement, they feel they have been dispossessed. So there are some generalities of that kind of thing that you can look inside of this common. But the specific reason why suddenly all of that feeling of being left outside and pushed to one side… what erupts?… In Gezi something is very specific. If you look at the eruption of last June, July in Brazil again, there were specific issues in fact several different issues, which came together. If you look at something like the event London flare up couple some months ago again very specific police repression and brutality and arbitrary killing of suspect. So in each case the trigger is something different but then you ask yourself the question “why does that trigger lead to that kind of explosion?” then the second question is that “when the explosion occurs, what forces come out would work?” I said works to join it. That tends to be well different in different situations, partly given the nature of the issue. But also given the extent of discontent. For example, in Brazilian case, to what degree do working class groups join in? To what degree stay aside. We saw in occupy movement in new york, the movement did not do very well, it seems to me, in animating working class support. Some but not never enough because a lot of discontent was articulated in sort of anarchist language rather than kind of social justice language. And Egypt is understood, trigger was … but very soon a lot of discontent amongst working class population have been … strikes in factories that before…Tahrir square happened… a lot of working class people who… joined it. So each instance has to be looked at in terms of specificity but I think beyond there is this generality that capital does not serve the people very well. State apparatus is totally aligned with capital as Marx called executive committee. And we see democracy, which is corrupted by Money power. Something, which is true almost everywhere you go. So the commonalities are there. But specifics are always specific when there is this distinction like who joins in and who does not. And that very often depends on how discourse arises out of the movement, who kind of finds that language is appropriate for expressing there particular anger, who feels alienated from this language. For instance, in the occupy movement in new york, immigrant groups who had been struggling on their own feel alienated by some of the language utilized… this is not their struggle… they don’t come forward. You have to tell me about who joined in Gezipark and who did not. I think it was a wonderful moment when Beşiktaş supporters joined in. That signals that something different is going on. What common language emerges from groups joined in in diversity of forces?

Serkant Adıgüzel (SA): In your talks, you frequently use examples of neoliberal attack on working class from both advanced and developing capitalist countries. In what different ways does the neoliberal attack happens in developing countries like India, Turkey or Brazil? What are changes in the composition of working class in recent decades in both advanced and developing countries regarding technological shift and expanding service sector?

DH: Yeah well, one of the reasons I am interested in the idea of uneven geographical development is to get past, I think, the idea that there is a unified, simple version of neoliberalism which is everywhere the same. Neoliberalism, neoliberal strategies and tactics are clearly going to be deployed through the state apparatuses, sometimes supported or pushed by international institutions like the IMF, or in the European case, the pushing of austerity measures on Greece through the troika. So the dynamics of the process of neoliberalization is being about very great deal from one country to another. And across the degree of resistance and effectiveness of the resistance can be very great deal from one place to another. The power relations, I mean, to what degree is, the IMF have the power to insist on a particular country that, in return for being bailed out of its debt problems, it will implement neoliberal reforms. This began in Mexico in 1983, and then went on in many other instances. In Chilean case, of course, it was an internal coup. Then, eventually, it embraced the Neoliberalism about 2-3 years after the coup when Pinochet turned to the Chicago boys. He didn’t come to Chicago; Chileans would be trained in Chicago. Because the US had this policy overlong, seeing that one of the ways in which they would exercise imperial power was to set up scholarships for people to study in the US and many of the economists in Latin America were trained in the US under these kinds of programs. So they were trained in the neoliberal orthodoxy from the very beginning and they turned back to their own countries. So that was very specific to what happened in many Latin American countries. But then, of course, in Latin America, after a decade or more what may now be called lost decade of development today, broadly moved towards anti-neoliberal stance but it is soft anti-neoliberal, which is not really radical. It is very different from, say, what happened in India, which resisted Neoliberalism for until the late 1990s and then instituted. It is kind of dynamism, neoliberal reforms, which is set up in a situation where there is a very large peasant population. They are still dealing with demographic situation, which is really quite different. Unfolding neoliberal practices and policies in India look very different from what might be on elsewhere. And the question of “what are we calling China?” Neoliberalism in Chinese characteristics? They call it socialism in Chinese characteristics. So, I think, the uneven geographical development of it has been very significant to its diffusion around the world. Because, in effect, what happens is that different countries experimenting certain aspects of neoliberalization to the degree that those experiments turned out to be successful, then they become part of the common sense of what Neoliberalism should look like. The Chilean model, for example, became very important because it worked very well at least for few years before it collapsed in 1982. The British Model, again, didn’t work in pure form and therefore you get a pragmatic adaptation of neoliberalization which is rather different from the theoretical apparatus that was in minds of Margaret Thatcher’s key economic advisors. So, what works then becomes part of the story of what is neoliberalization about. And the diversity of it, I think, is part of its strength. It is the decentralized strategy, if you like, to try to induce a form of a capitalist development where the state is reformed, the state is not abolished which some people like to say, it is actually reformed and actually made more powerful in certain dimensions. But the state is no longer responsible for social welfare considerations and is increasing emphasis across on privatization and considerable shift towards financialization has been dominant form of capital accumulation. So it was different in US, it was different in all over the place. It was almost a decentered adaptation of certain ideas about how the state should operate. But what is the commonality? One of the things you have to do was to suppress the working class power as much as you could, to raise the level of exploitation on labor as fast as and as strongly as you could and to reform the tax system in such a way as to get away from progressive forms of taxation and, if possible, move towards regressive forms of taxation in which states subsidize corporations and the rich becoming richer. It is dramatically oriented towards the creation of greater and greater levels of inequality. If you look at the data of most countries with the exception of few countries particularly Latin America most recently, distribution became far more unequal now globally than had been for many years. Many people would compare it back to the 1920s. So, I think that the process of neoliberalization has been going on in this uneven geographical way and to the degree that some of more neoliberalized countries have been competitively successful vis-á-vis the other countries they force through competition. Further diffusion of neoliberal practices and policies are pretty instructive and even after the crisis of 2007-08, this didn’t lead to an overthrown of neoliberal policies and practices throughout much of the world. It actually led to the deepening of those policies and practices. The idea that is there is a successful way out of this, which is to become even more neoliberal. And, as a result of that, the rich have recovered from the crisis very well and the billionaires’ club has become stronger and, in a way, constructed the global oligarchy or plutocracy whatever you want to call it with tremendous wealth, which they use for pursuing their own interest and protecting their own privileges.

Anıl Aşkın (AA): I want to ask the fourth question. It is again about Turkey but actually we may reach to some general conclusions about mass movements. During Gezi Protests I think we see a dilemma.  First, there are some neighborhoods in Istanbul, namely Sulukule, Gulsuyu and Sultangazi, where low-income families have been resisting against urban transformations and waiting for judiciary measures to be taken for a long time. Second, in the case of Gezi Protests, it was not the local communities’ ongoing struggles to urban transformation or the protest against the construction of the third bridge, but it something else which brought people together.  Did the Gezi Park represent a different sort of attachment to places than the people defending their neighborhoods?

DH: How do you mean by attachment to places?

AA: You know the Taksim Square is more central than the Northern Istanbul where the third bridge was built, or more people visit Taksim in one day than the working-class neighborhoods.

DH: Well… I mean there are number of things which were both, firstly you know Lefebvre for example after making point of this significance in power of centrality. And of course Gezi Park, Taksim Square, is a symbolic center; the same way Tahrir Square is a symbolic center. And to occupy a symbolic center is always dramatic in some way. And therefore you get into symbolic aspects of what the struggle is about, and if you can capture an iconic place some sort like Occupy movement did in Wall Street, and London…There always has bigger impact and I think as a leftist, if we set around strategic plan about what we’re going to do, why we would be always saying we want to do something, and that has certain symbolic power and this wake people up and the media will pay attention we are going to be seen and everybody, whereas set a camp in the north forest, in the north nobody will be fierce, I mean we can see…  I visited a group down, occupying river plane down in Diyarbakir, and there was a group of young Kurdish militants who set up a camp to try to stop the cutting down of trees. They were camping in an area that is way out of on the fringes of the city, down in the river plane, but it kind of drew attention and so it is much harder to draw attention and they were successful by the way in stopping the cutting down of trees. But again, one of the things what we have been seeing is of course very volatile; eruptions and protest which are rather spontaneous, and there is no kind of permanent organization which lies behind them. And if you look at this globally, I mean when I was, go back to 15 February 2003, when millions of people were on the streets of almost every major city around the world, protest the potentiality of outbreak of war. And you know it was about 3 million people in row, couple of million in Madrid, couple of million in Barcelona, couple of million in London, and I have no idea on how million were in New York, because I was in protests in New York, so people tried to protest and couldn’t find any place to go so just see chaos. And if you look, millions of people suddenly came out, and then of course they disappeared. You say where did they all go? But they came out and all went to symbolic center. Okay. You know, {let’s go} to periphery, all protested in symbolic center. We have similar movements I mentioned quite a bit in the Rebel Cities book, in immigrant rights in the US in 2006 where all of sudden millions of people were actually on the streets in the cities. And they really closed down Los Angeles, and closed down Chicago, pretty close much down New York, San Francisco and so on. And again, there they were in spring of 2006 and by the fall of 2006 they disappeared and no one knows where all these protestors are now. So, to protest something like you know the impact of this 3rd bridge and the destruction of forest landscape or around it the other likely destruction of forest landscape. And all of resources and rest of it, to organize protest you need a permanent organization and it has to be actually able to mobilize protest not only up there but also down here if necessary. And, it has to mobilize alliances, create alliances with different groups and why the reasons, why we are supporting sometime the idea of the Right to the City alone, is try tor find ways to get different social movements against gentrification here or about the destruction of public space there, or sort of gave rights on the street issue somewhere else, and try to figure out why to put all of that together, around the idea of we need a form of social organization, political organization that can actually take on the city as a whole, and not just struggle over the gentrification problem in Brooklyn, and of, sort of public space issue in Queens and you know so, but it has been very difficult to actually get the right to city organization into position where actually takes decisions and it has to start to think about organizing whole city and organizing around very specific issues. I don’t know what the answer is here but you know when you have entrenched poverty and certain communities something Gezi Park happens to some point or another, there has to be way to linking together the people who were in Gezi Park happens and the struggles over the impoverishment and displacement was going on in some of neighborhoods start to get gentrified, people get forcibly displaced, you know. I mean how you link all different issues. But all of the left these days is very antagonistic to being organized you know. There is a lot of trust, I mean this was trouble with or difficulty with the Occupy. All of it was so anarchist-inspired and therefore the idea of permanent organization was ‘no we don’t want that’, ‘we are into different kind of politics’ I think there are limits of insistence on horizontal organization and I think this anti-hierarchy kind of ideology is an antagonism to even thinking about every positive role of / the state or refusal to the latter over that… The left itself I think is adopted whole set of political attitudes, which to me are a lot of reflected over the neoliberal ethic. And I think it is very interesting that almost every governing mode of production and its political articulation actually generates certain kind of space for certain kind of position. In a same way Fordism generated you know the union movement and political parties so neoliberalism generated autonomy and dispersal and anti-authoritarian politics, and anti-statism and so on, you know. Sometimes you were listening to some people on the Left, he sounds like the Tea Party. And you can go in well you know they say ‘no no no no!’ we don’t buy on the other hand it sounds sometimes. So, I think the left has to actually sit back and think little bit about what it is doing and what its organizational forms are and you know perpetually find in myself well I’m sympathetic to horizontal forms of organization and I think they’re very good, I think the assembly structure that has emerged in some places is being very really quite innovative and quite powerful but it is not bigger than often and well articulated in after actually take-on issues like you know what is going to happen forests on the Bosphorus Region, what is going to happen these impoverished neighborhoods which are under assault. So, this is one of the questions on the Left, which I have no answer what to do about it. I’m not an organizer and I have hard to organize myself, and so I think, what you are asking is a critical question, the critical question that the left has to find an answer, but otherwise it will fail again as it did in 1970s. And this is a moment it could I think mobilize and capture a lot of the discontent it exists. What I am fearful of is the obvious fact that all of discontent is now being captured by the fascist right. It’s, the left in a way has to ride you know a counter-force to all of that. It’s not being able to do unless it actually thinks about forms of organization, which can somehow counter what is emerging and what is on rifling movements

Fulya Pınar (FA): Now that we acknowledge the heterogeneous understanding of what constitutes the proletariat and that its common is actually about the urban life mostly, the city; would you suggest the left to imagine a way to bring together the people living in the same district, like a community or a committee under the roofs of municipalities which would either replace or complete the factory committees or unions of occupational worker unions? Or if this implies too much to be embedded ‘within the system’, what other possibilities could we imagine to be achieved by people living in the same district?

You know, there is a very interesting formulation by Gramsci back in like 1918 I think, in some of his writings, where he was talking about the factory councils and all the rest of it but at some point he kind of said these units itself is not sufficient for organizing, we should supplement the factory committees with what he called the ward committees on neighborhood. And a very interesting observation that whereas on the perspective of the factory councils of course you understood the struggles located in particular sector of economy, by organizing of the neighborhood, the ward, you actually got the idea of what is going on in the whole of the working class, instead of just a sector of the working class. And for example, and this is where it gets really interesting, he says the transport workers, the taxi drivers, the street cleaners… And he said that from this perspective we would understand the condition of the working class as a whole in ways that we can’t understand from the politics of the factory council. So he was kind of arguing that we should put the two together. And that the ward should be organized to the point where it became a political unit as it were strong, disciplined, within the ward that could actually see all kinds of production and all the rest of it. I would say that it’s a pity that this kind of a formulation that came up in 1918 is generally escaped from left thinking. One of the things that I found when I went to Oxford, there were the trade unions but then there is something called the trade’s council which is old trade union, east in the city. And the trades council was much more radical than the unions. The unions were about demands for their membership and not concerned about the working class as a whole, whereas the trades council was very much considering what was going on about working class in Oxford. And so it was prepared to organize as much as it could. Trade union movement, by and large, didn’t pay any mind to the trade’s council, treating it as a marginal kind of parts. We have similar institutions in the U.S., called labor councils, in New York, Baltimore, and so on. But the trade unions which are supposed to support them, basically treat they as inferior organizations and therefore not central to what they are about. I would be very much in favor of going back and sort of creating a more dialectical relationship between work place organizing and neighborhood organizing, and seeing it as a unity. When you do that of course, and this is again going back to what Gramsci mentions as being significant, the street cleaners, and the delivery workers… There is still a tendency on the left to kind of look to factory labors centrally, who disappeared in many parts of the world, but we are still left with a huge working class population there, building and managing the city. And there is a theoretical argument here: “Are the people working in urban life are producing value or not? One of the things Marx does on transportation for example, is essentially saying transportation is value producing. And it also has a very peculiar character, which is that the value is consumed as it is produced. And there is a tendency these days to talk about immaterial labor and (Negri’s appropriation of Marx’s Grundrisse). But actually this has always been there in terms of something like transportation. If you really want to have a massive kind of a strike action in, say New York City; and if you gather all the cab drivers and the delivery workers to go on strike, it would stop the city! And pretty soon, somebody would have to negotiate. I’ve been seeing this in terms of the power of transport strikes. Some of these struggles of transportation workers, truck drivers go day and day. In France in the 1990s, there were these transport strikes, some of which were I think very very effective. So I think, thinking about the potential power to disrupt is going back to some ideas of Rosa Luxembourg about the general strike, but try to articulate it in relationship to neighbor organizing. So, maybe this is utopian but, if we had a strong right to the city movement and the right to the city movement was actually mobilizing the city as a whole, this would be a position to actually stop the city. As happened in the immigrant marches of 2006. Stopping the city is a very good thing we have to do politically. I mean, everybody wakes up! So I think this is one of the long-terming would be more neighborhood organizing, more right to the city organizing in alliance with unions, to create a radical block that is able to dictate, to some degree, the conditions of life and labor that exist in the city and also the questions about medications and health care. This might a bit a utopian vision. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it, and that’s why it’s so vague, but we should be thinking about it. 

UA: In one of your books ‘New Imperialism’ you explain imperialism as a temporal spatial fix of capitalism to find solutions for its own problems. Could you please state what are the converging and diverging points of this approach compared to Lenin’s account of imperialism?

DH: There has always been a problem for me of how do you reconcile a theory of exploitation one class by another class with a theory which is about exploitation of people in one part of the world by the people from another part of the world. And what is the relationship between those two? And one of the reasons of I wanted to specialize in Marx’s theory of capital accumulation and then started to talk about how capital accumulation necessarily is about production of space and about production of new spaces, about colonization of spaces and so on. And It is bound to be about that. How class privilege gets embedded in that kind of process. So it is a transformation of exploitation of class one by another into kind of geographical strategy. That’s why I wanted to talk about things like spatially fixed, which is in the way which surplus capital, gets. Lenin picked up on this idea of capital export as being crucial. Connected it to all sorts of monopoly idea and monopoly capitalism. I don’t think you have to be necessarily connected to monopoly capitalism even though right now I think he would argue that significant elements of monopoly around and therefore when you look at certain fields like agri-business for example, this is like what Lenin talks about. Monopoly capital, which is out there exploiting the world. Geographically Monsanto (MNC in agribusiness originated in US) is in India, in Latin America. You cannot find any other soy beans any more, they are all Monsanto. But I think Lenin’s construction of it needed to be made more geographical at the same time behind it there is an oversimplification treating as a monopoly capitalism. Monopoly is out there but in many aspects when we start to look at what is going on between different spaces then you see a lot of diversity. Giovanni Arrighi who I worked with quite a bit wrote this book “geometry of imperialism” in 1970s and the main theme of book is imperialism is not a good category. That really what we should have a look is competing hegemonies. There are hegemonic centers and visa shift therefore there is great fluidity. I think part of the problem with the concept of imperialism is we often understand fixed center which is imposing something to the world. But if you start to look at spatio fixes, you would say “look, towards the end of 1970s, there were lots of surplus capital in South Korea. So suddenly, capital starts to get exported from South Korea around the world. Few years later, Taiwan… surplus capital…so…”

And if you look at some of the more vicious kinds of exploitative practices against labour in central America, Latin America as Taiwan, Japan, Korea subcontracting to very often American and sometimes European firms. Just recently what we have been seeing is great deal of export of surplus capital from China. China is very active in Africa. Fact that of buying all kinds of resources… what can we say when we’re looking at copper about Zambia. Who is exploiting copper resources of Zambia? There are two big companies. One is Chinese, the other is Indian. So what do you say? This is Indian imperialism? Or Chinese imperialism? Which case do you end up with? There are many imperialisms. But I am kind of saying, look, if you look at it, it is a geographical process. There is no question that indian mining capital is very strong, very well organized. And it sees the possibility of exploitation of copper in Zambia. And Indian relates to Zambian elites exactly in the same way that American company would, that is to buy off the elites. So Zambian elites are very well but population doesn’t get much out of this at all… … …

So, I kind of find the concept of imperialism, you know ideologically is powerful, but too crude to capture what is going on and the complex relationships. After all, where is Chinese surplus capital invested right now? A lot of it is invested in United States. How do we talk about that? It is the export of capital to US. Is US colonized by China? No, this doesn’t make sense. You have to stop that actually. You have to look at competing hegemonies in the fact that US is borrowing up to the hill from China and covering its deficits by borrowing from the Chinese. The fact that Chinese cannot get out of lending US because it is one of their primary markets. If it stopped lending US, it will kill its market. So you know, this sort of Dynamics. And plainly there’s a kind of hegemonic relation between United States and China. It is better to look at in those kind of terms rather than saying that place is exploiting that place and this is imperialist impositions…. Another thing about imperialism. Everything is blamed on imperialism and IMF in Latin America. Then you return and say to people “what about your own elites?”. So richest person in the world is a Mexican, Carlos Slim. And Mexico has whole bunch of billionaires. So to blame all of the problems existing in Latin America on imperialism and not contact the fact that ruling classes in different countries are also deeply involved, in fact they love to have imperialism because that shifts the spotlight off them what they are doing, how much they are exploiting the country, puts it somewhere else. I like to nuance? Whole kind of argument about imperialism and about these kinds of Dynamics.

AA: Do you think that liberal economics’ claim to isolate the state from economy is honest? Where does the state stand in urban and financial economy?

 DH: Well… The state is always, I mean the state and capital has always been, if you like, a contradictory unity. And to treat the state something over there, then causal arrows only this way, it is wrong way to conceptualize it. That a lot of capital flows thru the state apparatus, I don’t know, if you look at well you know probably about third of the economy probably not more, of flow of money is money flowing thru the state in terms of taxes, in terms of grant-some, redistributions, so the state is in both part, now the state apparatus is not a unified feature, I always tried to segregate if you like, the idea that, I wish to call, state financed nexus, which we saw very clearly in the crisis of 2008 when two people came on the television and told what was going to happen where the chair of Federal Reserve – which is a peculiar institution because well it is licensed by the state it is actually a private institution, head of the banking system. So The Federal Reserve and Secretary of Treasury: You would see the chair of FED and Secretary of Treasury were standing side by side and saying this is what we’re going to do. We didn’t see the president, we didn’t see the Congress, we didn’t see anybody else apart from these two, and this is the state financed nexus in action. And actually around the world, you will see this. And there are kind of international versions of it, which are IMF, World Bank and Bank of International Settlements, and so on.

So, I think it is, you know, to me the dialectical unity of the state and capital is forged in certain institutional arrangements and in particular state financed nexus. I think the formation of the central banks: first central bank was formed in Britain in 1850-1854 and it was very interesting because the state needed money to borrow to fight wars. The merchant capitalist had the money, and they went to merchant capitalist and “Give us some money” and merchant capitalist said, “Well we lend you if you give us the power of the control of currency”. So, that is how the central bank is settled up. Merchant capitalist controlled the central bank, and state charted institution, state had some power in relationship to it. And since, ever since the power of central bank is very significant. If you look at the global situation right now, I think the power of CB is probably one of key centers of political power, political economic power. And how they work is absolutely crucial for understanding the economy the ECB is a disastrous institution and I think it is very clear that it made the crisis deeper and worst it needed to be, having a bad constitution. Marx actually had very interesting analysis of the bank of England in 1844, and argued that the crisis of 1847-48 was not due to fault of legislation that Bank Act of 1844 but that Bank Act prolonged the crisis and deepened the crisis. And I think it is very interesting analysis he does what was wrong with the bank of England. Because it has direct parallels what’s wrong with the European central Bank. So, I think we should concentrate on those institutional arrangements where capital works and of course these institutions are pure, not subjected to the competition and when you abandon money commodities which capitalist have been doing since 1970s, is essential now Central Banks that ones kind of charge what money is about, and therefore, you know, crucial institutions, I think that, to me, is very important to look at the state and capital,  notice things like dynamic.