David Harvey Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Geographer's Perspective on the New  American Imperialism: Conversation with David Harvery, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, CUNY; March 2, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Geography and Marxism

Most Americans don't know geography, and they don't know the discipline of geography. Tell us a little about the problem set that geography is concerned with. It's more than maps.

Oh, yes, a lot more than that.

Just to fill in some background, most of the people who taught me at Cambridge came out of either a military background or the colonial experience, so geographical knowledge had been very important to those two spheres of action. After World War II there was a withdrawal of geography very much into an association with regional planning, development, and so on, and so it became very much more a local discipline about what was going on in localities and the like. But I was raised in a situation where there was very little theoretical apparatus for this; it was more of an ad hoc empirical discipline. One of the ambitions I got into at a very early age was to give a theoretical basis to it, a theoretical center to what seemed to me to be a fascinating empirical set of issues.

What was your dissertation or your first major study on?

This will make you laugh. It was about hop cultivation in Kent in the nineteenth century. It's the kind of thing where you get prizes for the totally irrelevant. But, actually, I learned a great deal out of it. It was a wonderful thing about transitions that had occurred in my local area over about a hundred-year period in cultivation techniques and agricultural labor and financial conditions and so on. So it was very exciting to do, and I drew a lot from it, in terms of what I subsequently did on a much grander scale.

In this earlier phase of your work, were you more a traditional social scientist, or how would you distinguish that work from what we know as social science?

In my terms, I was just a traditional geographer, with a bit of an interest in what was universal, what was general about this. So even though I was doing something in a very local area at a very specific period of time, I was interested in what general principles were governing transformations in the landscape: transformations in social relations, transformation in production practices, and technologies, and financing, and all that kind of thing. So I was very interested in those universal principles as they were manifest in a very local area at a particular historical time.

Now, you were at the university, probably, in '68. Many of the European intellectuals whom I've interviewed were very much affected by that year. I'm curious how you were, whether you were still a student or already teaching.

No, no, I had already been teaching for eight or nine years.

Oh, all right.

I finished my Ph.D. in '61.

Okay. But were you affected by the radical movements of the 60s, or were you already radical?

Well, this is very funny story. I was always kind of left-leaning, but in the 1960s in Britain, you could be sort of left-leaning, but you didn't have to be radical in any way, because the Labour Party was there, and a lot of us had faith in Labour Party and its transformative capacities. But I was so busy writing a book in 1968 that I never really noticed what was happening, and I confess this. I finished the manuscript almost in May of '68, and I was so preoccupied with it that I put the manuscript on the desk and I went to Australia, and I got to Australia, and everybody in Australia said, "What the hell is happening in Europe in '68?" I said I had no idea, I had been so involved in writing this book. So it didn't affect me that way. I think it affected me subsequently, in terms of reflections on it.

Another part of your profile is the influence of Marxist theory on your work. I want to talk about that dynamic between geography and Marxism. What led you to Marxism as a system of analysis that you could build on and add to?

There's a bit of a joke that some Europeans like to tell, about Europeans who transfer to the United States (I moved to the United States in 1969). The U.S. has two effects on you: it either turns you really radical because you get shocked by the situations you encounter, or you sort of throw your lot in with the system, and you become kind of pre-right wing. I guess you've interviewed people who have done both.


Okay. So I took the left wing trajectory. I came to the United States. I went to Baltimore in the wake of the '68 uprising, riots, whatever you want to call them, around the death of Martin Luther King, and I was shocked at the conditions I found there. I was really, really shocked that in the wealthiest country in the world, people live in chronic impoverishment. I was really upset. So I started to participate much more in the political activism around that. Of course, the anti-war movement was in full swing, so I participated in that.

At that time, I felt that the theoretical framework I had been using for my own work wasn't adequate for that political situation. I thought, "Well, we should read Marx, just for interest." Some of us sat down and read Marx, and I found it a very compelling framework within which I could formulate problems, think through things in terms of my intellectual work. It was also increasingly helpful politically.

Was there a nice fit between geography and Marxism, or was that something you had to build?

That's something I had to build, and it's still the case that a lot of Marxists don't take geographical differentiation and all the issues that I'm concerned with seriously at all. When I started to work with Marxism, there was very little concern about urbanization, very little concern about environmental issues, both of which were crucial to the topics I was interested in. So in some ways, it was a bit of a battle to get Marxists to take the geographical angle seriously. Again, one of the quips I like to make, it was easier to bring Marxism into geography than it has been to take the geography back into Marxism. It wasn't an easy fit. It led me to reformulate and reconfigure some of the basic arguments that Marx makes in a much more down-to-earth way. My agenda was to take these rather grand abstractions of that theory and make them work in a geographically differentiated world.

You mentioned that you had come [to the U.S.], you had seen the American cities burning, you then began to look at a new body of theory that hadn't influenced you in the past. Some of your work has been on cities. Can you give us an example of how this all comes together in a way of seeing things, say, about cities? In an interview which I found on the web you said that you become aware of problems, and then you fight them out, finding different ways to frame the issues.

When I first got to Baltimore there were a lot of studies on cities, and I became very involved in the problem of housing -- housing finance, housing collapse in the inner city, housing conditions in general. I was fascinated to do a series of reports for the city, and also for other agencies, about how to approach the whole question of urban regeneration, which is very much on the agenda there.

It was extraordinary to me that some of the ideas I got for that came out of reading Engels's famous saying on the condition of the working class in England in 1844; and also the housing question where he says the bourgeoisie had only one way to solve its housing problem: it moved it around. When I started to look at what some of the proposals were, they were about gentrification, which, in effect, would displace people and just simply move the problem around.

So I made a big pitch in these reports, saying, "If you're going to address this question, you can't address it in a way that simply moves it around. In order not to move it around, we have to deal with basic questions about income distribution, wealth and the like, and, also, of course, racism, and housing markets and so on." This was a very important principle that came out of reading Engels, and then importing it. I put it into these reports; I didn't cite Engels. I didn't cite Engels, and everybody thought this was a fantastic insight, and somebody said to me, "Where did you get that from?" I said, "From Engels," and they said, "Who is he?"

"Tom Engels, the local congressman"!

"Does he work for the Brookings Institution?" or something like that. It was funny. But this was how I would sometimes find myself using this stuff in factual ways, and it resonated with people. I got a lot of encouragement to stay with this framework, that when you actually laid it out, used it in this way, using these kinds of concepts, people understood what you meant. The only time they turn around and walk the other way is when you tell them where it came from.

In what ways was Marxism not adequate, and was it informed by what you knew as a geographer?

I didn't find it adequate on things like, say, the environmental issue. I thought there was a lot of work to be done to bring that up to pace. It hadn't been very strong on urbanization, in general. I mean, Engels had these two things that were very useful. Marx himself didn't say that much about urbanization; a little bit. We had a big job to do, to talk about the massive transformation taking place around the world in terms of the urbanization of the earth's surface. It's not just simply what was going on in Baltimore, but things like Sao Paulo growing immensely, Mexico City growing immensely. A worldwide transformation was going on -- more and more people were living in massive urban centers, sometimes 20 million people. Marxism wasn't paying much attention to it, because it was mainly focused on what was going on at the point of production, what was going on in the factory. That was the center of Marxist theory. I was saying, "What's going on in the factory is very important; what's going on in the city is equally important." Of course, there were other people who were thinking that, too: Manuel Castells, for example. Several others were trying to push that line of argument within Marxism, but we didn't have a major audience within the Marxist fold, in general, until much later.

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