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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Teaching and Activism

I read that you got interested in environmentalism because of the work that your students were doing. Has there been an interaction as you've gone along where you're learning from students who are pointing you in the direction of new ideas that they're playing with?

I always love my students ... There is a great line Marx has, which is "Who is going to educate the educators?" My students have always been one of my primary sources of education. They force me to look at problems in a different way. They take up issues which I'm sometimes reluctant to take up, and they have to hit me over the head and drag me into these, and I eventually get into them.

On the environmental issue, it wasn't so much that; it was the Earth Day movement. It was more the political movement that was going on around at that time which was influencing me. But in many other regards, yes, indeed, my students have always been a primary source of education. Not only graduate students; also, undergraduates can sometimes pose you with compelling questions, which at some point or other you feel you have to address.

Talk a little about activism and your involvement in activism. How has that impacted your research? Or is it just being made aware of the activism, as you just cited with Earth Day?

I'm not an activist, I'm not an organizer. I'm not good at those things, it's not where my strengths lie. But I frequently try to work with movements and try to provide them with some sort of support, both in terms of analysis of situations, data on situations, sometimes logical support, sometimes financial support. I've always tried to act in a supportive role to what was going on out there. I've never been good at making things happen out there, but when things are happening out there I've always tried to move into a supportive role. Moving into a supportive role means that I sometimes do get involved in demonstrations, and you get involved in things like the rent control movement in Baltimore in the 1970s, the living wage movement in Baltimore in the 1990s. So you do get involved in an organization, but I've never taken a leading role. In some ways, I think it's good that academics like myself don't take leading roles in those things; it should be done by others. But we can certain offer a lot in the way of support.

One of the issues that arise in activist circles is the problem that you touched on in the beginning of our discussion, which is the tension, the synergy, sometimes the conflict between the local and the cosmopolitan or international. I would guess that your work as a geographer has sensitized you to that dynamic. You mentioned your first study was about a particular place in a particular industry, but it must have been embedded in the global even though it was local.

This is a perpetual problem. It never goes away, so it's not as if you can say, "Oh, there's a solution to it." But you're right to use the term, that we should be sensitized to it, and sensitive to it. Because there is always this issue if you're looking at questions of Baltimore politics, for example, or politics in Oxford. You look at the relationship between the political agenda which is going on in this particular place at this particular time, and global forces that are at work, and global issues which have been put on the agenda. Those are the kinds of things that somebody like myself can draw some attention to in relationship to local action.

At the same time, I'm almost always asking myself in the midst of local action, "What is the universal significance of this, or how will this change the world in general?" There are situations where a local movement -- and I think of, for example, the living wage movement, which originated in Baltimore -- becomes much more widespread across the country. Here's a local initiative that somehow or other has a national resonance and even international resonance. This seems to me to be part of the way in which politics gets done. It's what I call a politics' militant particularism. You start with a militant idea in a particular place, and then it gets translated into a much more global political movement. The living wage movement, anti-sweatshop movements, and the environmental movement have been full of that activity, where it's a local issue which suddenly becomes much more global in its scope.

What is the key element in seeing and making that link? With your background, you come to a local activism and see it right away. But what about the activists themselves, what is that process of making those linkages?

It's hard. This is one of the arguments I often have with local activists. It's not to say, "Look, what you're doing is wrong," it's to say, "Look, you should try to contextualize what you're doing in relationship to these other issues." A lot of the time, however, they say, "We can't do that. We're so concentrated on doing what we're doing here that we don't have time or space to think about that." That's a pity. I have had lots of arguments about that at the local level, and it's never easy. There is, of course, a tendency right now within, for example, the alternative globalization movement to say, "All the solutions are at the local level. We don't have to have a global trajectory in what we're doing, we just simply have to do this at the local level; this is where the solution lies." For me, that's a false hope, but nevertheless I can see it as part of the politics right now. All I can do is debate it and discuss it, and say, "This is a problem. We should be thinking about this is a rather different way."

Before we talk about your new book, I'm intrigued by the fact that you went to Oxford as the Mackinder Professor. Mackinder was the great geographer of empire. Geography was, in the beginning, the handmaiden of empire, but listening to your intellectual odyssey, it's clear that geography over time can become something else, in terms of where it stands on political issues.

It could be a vital tool of anti-imperialist politics. We have to look very closely at the nature of geographical relations. One of the things I drew from Mackinder is that if you do have a political project of some kind (and his was very conservative and very imperial), nevertheless you need to know what's there, and you need to have a good understanding of what's there in terms of populations dynamics, cultural forms, and physical environments and possibilities. You have a good idea of what's there in order to work through what your politics are about. It's hopeless for me to go into, say, Nicaragua and start to talk as if this is Sweden, and that they should have a politics like Sweden. That doesn't make sense. So what I would say is, if we are going to have an alternative globalization movement to capitalistic, imperialist forms, then we have to also pay great attention to what is there. The geographical knowledge then becomes a significant part of how political programs are formulated, but it's also a significant part of political power.

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