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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Understanding the New Imperialism

Your new book is The New Imperialism, and it seems to follow logically from your career. I'm sure this is problem that you thought about over time, although this is your first book on the topic, and it obviously relates to what is going on in the world today. What is new about the new imperialism?

That was one of the questions that I wanted to address. I'm not sure I found the complete solution to it; I identified some things. One of the things I would point out here is that for a long time I've been talking about the special or geographical dynamics of capital accumulation, and what I call uneven geographical development, how these molecular processes of capital flow, moving from one part of the country to another, build new spaces and geographical concentrations even within countries. When you look at the United States you see that fifty years ago, the Northeast and the Midwest were the center of everything. And then something happened; the capitalist flow went to the South and the West, and the changing dynamics of political power come out of that.

I've always been interested in these geographical processes whereby capital is creating landscapes, sometimes knocking down landscapes and building new landscapes. This leads in many instances to issues of domination. In the nineteenth century, it was Boston capital that dominated a lot of things, New York capital, and Chicago capital. So internally there's often relations of domination.

When it came to think about imperialism, in general, I wanted to locate the notion of imperialism against the background of those kinds of processes, of production of space by capital accumulation. That's what I wanted to do.

Explain to us for a wider audience what you mean by capitalist accumulation. Give us a way of understand that.

A capitalist has money, puts it into circulation, and comes out with more money at the end. That more money is an accumulation of capital. Then the question arises: what do they do with that more money that comes out at the end? In many instances, they plow it back in to make even more money. So there is a logical process of capital accumulation. Sometimes they make by money by other means -- by takeovers and all sorts of [other] strategies. The dynamic of our society, a capitalist society, is powered by the push always to accumulate capital, to make a profit. Profit means the system has to expand, because there has to be more at the end of the year than there was at the beginning. So we end up with the notion that, for example, growth is a significant indicator of the health of the system. A capitalist system must grow or bust, and it is that growth which I am talking about. Capital accumulation is the growth of capital.

You say in your book that it's important to distinguish between territorial and capitalist logics of power. You've just talked about that -- the interface, the synthesis, the interaction between a logic that expands the space on the one hand; and on the other, the need of capitalism to find new places to make profit.

I look at this not simply at the nation state level, but at the area of, say, a mayor of a city like Baltimore. Deindustrialization is going on. Capital is moving out. So what does the mayor do in charge of this territory? "Okay, that's okay"? Or do they say, "We have to find new ways to bring new capital in"? The territorial logic is about trying to maintain the health and well-being of a particular space in the face of this capillary movement of capital moving left, right, and center, and everywhere.

If the steel industry is collapsing and the shipbuilding is collapsing, what does somebody who is in charge of the territorial logic do? You say, "Well, maybe it's convention centers and the convention business. Maybe it's museums. Maybe it's tourism, or something of that kind." So the territorial logic is very much about trying to maintain the health and well-being of a particular place and space within this notion, which is very hard for anybody to control because capitalists decide they're going to take their money from here and put it there. You can't really stop them unless you've got strong regulatory controls, which by and large have disappeared, of course.

You have another concept which I want you to explain to us, which is central to your argument, and it's the distinction between accumulation by expanded reproduction and that by primitive accumulation. Or what you call accumulation by dispossession. Help us understand those terms.

Accumulation by dispossession is about dispossessing somebody of their assets or their rights. Traditionally there have been rights which have common property, and one of the ways in which you take these away is by privatizing them. We've seen moves in recent years to privatize water. Traditionally, everybody had had access to water, and [when] it gets privatized, you have to pay for it. We've seen the privatization of a lot of education by the defunding of the public sector, and so more and more people have to turn to the private sector. We've seen the same thing in health care.

What we're talking about here is the taking away of universal rights, and the privatization of them, so it [becomes] your particular responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the state. One of the proposals which we now have is the privatization of Social Security. Social Security may not be that generous, but it's universal and everybody has part of it. What we are now saying is, "That shouldn't be; it should be privatized," which, of course, means that people will then have to invest in their own pension funds, which means more money goes to Wall Street. So this is what I call privatization by dispossession in our particular circumstance.

A lot of other things are going on. For instance, look at the way in which lands have been taken away; peasant movements have been destroyed by state action. There are a lot of things of that sort happening around the world, where people are accumulating at other people's expense.

A good example of this would be the oil companies in places like Nigeria, for example, where the company comes in and displaces land and creates conditions that destroy a way of life.

Yes, that's right. Look at the way in which U.S.-subsidized agriculture is destroying rural life in Mexico since the Mexican [government] took away all the protections of collective ownership in peasant societies and privatized the land. Here you have another situation where a way of life is destroyed by a particular kind of economic and political process.

When we're talking about empire or imperialism today, we're talking about the United States. How should we understand the particular evolution of capitalism in the United States and the processes at work as our global role has taken a new form? You spoke yesterday in our lecture of the financialization of American capital.

The switch into financial domination of the world which occurred in the 1970s was a specific move taken within the United States to enhance finance capitalism against manufacturing and productive capitalism. Manufacturing and productive capitalism has largely been pushed out of the United States; not entirely, obviously, but much of it has moved to East and Southeast Asia, and, of course, quite a bit is in Europe as well. The United States is no longer a dominant player in the world of production. But the U.S. took the view that that didn't matter, provided it always had the financial power. It used the financial [power] to its advantage during the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, and assembled a great deal of wealth out of this particular financialization strategy. What we now see is that's coming to an end. The internal budget deficit of the United States, the current account deficit of the United States, is making the U.S. into a chronic debtor country, and if you're a debtor country you're vulnerable to those who hold your debt. This is a real threat to America hegemony, American domination.

How, then, in this situation of vulnerability do we account for the new emphasis on territoriality? The neoconservatives are leading the show right now, or appearing to lead the show, driven by what you would call the territorial logic. As leaders of the state, they are in a different situation than the mayor of Baltimore. What are those differences and why their new-found importance? Is it a weakness that you just talked about?

This is the big mystery, the question, and I think we can only make informed guesses about it. My informed guess is that, first off, this switch in the way in which the U.S. is approaching the world into a much more territorial vision by the occupation of Iraq is a great departure in U.S. political history. It's a new kind of imperialist practice which the U.S. has not followed for a hundred years or so. It takes us back to the McKinley period and what happened at the end of the nineteenth century.

So the big question is why that switch into a territorial mode, and also, why this switch into militarization? [It is] not exactly an entirely new thing, because U.S. military power has always been a significant aspect of U.S. imperialist practices, but to make it explicit in this way [is new]. This is rather different from what could be seen as a defensive war in Vietnam to an offensive, preemptive war to try to establish a territorial configuration, which is new in global politics. This is something which is distinctively new.

My feeling about it is that the neoconservative vision which is driving this is very, very much concerned about maintaining authority and maintaining order, and it hasn't got the leverage it once had through financial mechanisms or through productive capacity, or even through cultural persuasion that it once had. The only leverage it's got left is indeed the military one, and the military one, of course, is not very good at fighting diffuse forces. The military one has always been about territorial logic. So a return to militarization brings you back into territorial aggrandizement. I don't think this is consistent with U.S. imperialist practices, and I'm not sure it's going to last. It may, in fact, be something that they try, and then it's going to be found wanting.

In some ways the Iraq venture is already a failure, and if that is the case, then we're going to have to find a reconfiguration of U.S. imperialist practices, probably back to the sorts of things that were going on in the 1980s and 1990s, if they could possible do it. But again, the problem right now is the weakness of the United States in terms of its financial situation, and also in terms of its productive capacity.

You emphasize also the importance of the dynamic between the inner logic and the external logic. That also relates to what you're saying here.

The internal situation in the United States has a very important role to play in how things happen on the outside. And, conversely, what happens on the outside feeds back into the United States. I'm very, very concerned right now about this, the famous statement that Hannah Arendt made, which is that empire abroad means tyranny at home. We're seeing a militarization of action abroad, but we're also seeing an attempt to militarize U.S. society at home. It was a wonderful moment when Bush was introducing Attorney General Ashcroft, and he said, "He's a general. I wonder why we call him a general? Well, I guess it's because we're all in the military now."

This attitude, the militarization of U.S. political life, is a very scary aspect. Of course, the war on terror and fear of terror become part of the ways in which you justify that militarization both abroad and at home. So I'm rather nervous about how that fear is being used for a particular political end to try to establish order and authority both at home and abroad.

I'm curious what your thoughts are about the role of technology in all of this. As you pointed out, the country has failed, in some ways, in integrating technology into production that's actually located here; but in terms of integrating technology into the military, it provides a vehicle to be a global policeman in a new effective way in military terms, not necessarily in political. Comment on that, if you see that connection.

Two things: one area in which the U.S. still does have a lot of dominance is technological innovation. A lot of that does connect to the military aspect of things. About 50 percent of the world's R&D is done inside the United States. The United States is still the center of technological innovation. The big problem is it doesn't use that technological innovation internally; a lot of it goes abroad. The Japanese and the Chinese and people in Singapore are very adept at taking U.S. technologies, paying royalties for it, but then using them for their own specific production systems, so that that technological advantage doesn't necessarily remain within the United States, except through the flow of rent sent to the United States, paying for licensing fees and so on.

On the military side, we see a real problem. What we see is that technologically, the U.S. can dominate almost anything now from 30,000 feet up. But if you are into occupying a place like Iraq on the ground, dominating the world from 30,000 feet up with high technology is just not going to work. You need massive ground forces. Already, the United States is running out of forces to keep on the ground. It's trying to construct, in effect, a mercenary force by paying for Polish troops to be there, paying for twenty people to be there from Lithuania, or Estonia, or wherever. It's trying to construct almost a mercenary army because it doesn't have, as it were, the military power on the ground. What we're seeing is an overstretching of military manpower right now, which is a crucial problem that can't be resolved by this tremendous emphasis upon technological advantage.

You've discussed or hinted at the limits to the new imperialism in the United States: an anti-colonial tradition on the one hand, and the sorry state of American capitalism that moves to financialization. I would like to ask you about the oppositional element. As a Marxist, you are sensitive to the oppositional forces arising in a particular place as a result of the disenfranchisement from the processes afoot. What do you see as the basis for a politics grounded in true opposition to American imperialism?

There are several ways in which you can configure the opposition, and these aren't necessarily the ones that I would favor. There's a lot of nationalist opposition around the world to U.S. global domination, and some of that is beginning to provoke certain alliances amongst forces which are very resistant to what the U.S. is up to around the world. You can see this increasingly with alliances like the one that is emerging between Brazil and India and China and Russia, which is becoming quite nationalistic as well. So what we're seeing is a zone of resistance to what the U.S. is trying to do globally, which I don't think is progressive at all. I think in many ways it's regressive and I think it's dangerous. But nevertheless, it is a very strong force of opposition. An alliance between, say, Russian, China, India, and Brazil against the United States, or against Europe, seems to me to be quite a fierce global battle which I would not like to see unfold, but I think it's there.

Then there are many other forms of opposition at a much more local level. There's one wing of anti-globalization, alternative globalization, which I already mentioned, which says all the solutions lie at the local level, and is trying to construct local solutions. In some cases these can be very helpful, in the sense that the local solution can spill out and become general if people find a way to make something work in a particular place, in a particular way. There's a lot of experimentation at that level.

What worries me right now is that there's not a very coherent general opposition with a very good plan against what's happening both globally and locally. For example, I'm absolutely amazed that there is a great deal of discontent in this country over things like education, health care, public services, failing infrastructure, and yet there is no political movement which is articulating those ideas and saying that these have to be part of a new progressive politics in this country, and that anybody who comes to power must address those issues. I see the Democrats beginning to address those issues, not because they want to but because the base is forcing them. But I don't think they're speaking to the anger that exists amongst large groups in the population over what is happening to them in terms of their life -- having health care problems and insurance problems, and the lack of resources in the midst of tremendous wealth that is being accumulated by this plutocracy, the upper classes.

What explanations can you offer for that? Is it the failure of the media? Is it some element in post-modernity where people aren't able to make the connections that are necessary to move toward political action?

It's all of the above. It's a configuration of things that come together. The emphasis on special issues -- on, for instance, gay rights, women's movement, all those things which I think are very important and I would support them -- but if those are the only questions, then immediately it becomes hugely fragmentary. It would be appalling, for example, if the next election was decided mainly on the issue of do you or do you not support gay marriage. Nevertheless, you could see how those issues get used as part of the political means to remain in power. So I'm very concerned about that.

Then, of course, there is the media. The debasement of public discourse is very distressing to me. Even the responsible media now won't handle difficult questions in a responsible way. Much of what's happened is the whole world has been reduced into an O'Reilly shouting at Al Franken, or an Al Franken shouting back at O'Reilly. There seems to be absolutely no way in which we can sit down and have a sensible discussion about which way we should go and how we should go. As soon as you try to have a sensible discussion, it gets thrown into this maelstrom where it turns into a shouting match of slacking off each other. The media is complicit in that a lot of the time, because it's a spectacle. It's a reduction of public discourse to the spectacle of gladiatorial nonsense in the studio.

It's also the fact that there's been no institutional form. It's a failure of the party system in this country, and the fact that both parties are so beholden to big capital for their money that neither of them are going to take on a class issue, and say, "Yes, this is class war. Yes, this is a class issue. And, yes, we have to confront this as a class issue across race lines, across gender lines, across sexual orientation lines." This is a class issue, and we've got to get a class politics back into the country somehow.

I would like you to comment on the role of the Blair government and your country of origin with regard to the new imperialism, because Blair's Labour government became an instrument to further U.S. goals. How do you account for that, and what does it mean?

It has a long history. It goes back to Suez in 1956, when the British went on their own, and the U.S. rapped them over the knuckles and said, "Get out of there. Get out of Egypt." After that, the British tied themselves very much to U.S. foreign policy, and they've been very reluctant ever to go against U.S. foreign policy. So there's been that longstanding tie.

In addition, remember, the British and the Americans were patrolling Iraq in the air jointly during the 1990s, and maintaining the free-fly zone. So Britain was heavily involved in Iraq all the way through the Clinton years. When Bush came to power and took this position, the British had a difficult choice. You see, it's one thing for France to say they won't join in an action; it would be very difficult for Britain to say, "We are going to get out of an action."

The British knew, also, that Bush is a very vindictive politician: if you desert him, you're in trouble. The U.S. could have created real trouble for the British, particularly in Northern Ireland, interestingly. One of the reasons why Aznar in Spain went in and joined this whole thing had to do with getting ETA declared as a terrorist organization by the United States. So the United States is in a position to create trouble for those governments in some way, and Britain didn't want that.

But in addition, I think that Blair, in his messianic way, really believes in a different kind of imperialist practice to the United States. I found it fascinating when he gave a talk in Congress, he insisted that we not talk about American values, we talk about universal values, and we talk about them in way which doesn't privilege. Blair, I think, has been trying to set up a more cosmopolitan imperialism, as opposed to the almost nationalist imperialism that you're getting in the United States formulated by the Bush administration that says American values are supreme values -- everybody in the world wants to be an American, everybody believes that we are the beacon of freedom, and all of that. Blair was saying, "No, that's not the case."

I think that Blair had a view that somehow or other he could pull Bush into a different kind of imperialist practice that would be a little less nationalistic and more universal. We saw this in the fact that Blair was the one who pushed Bush into even setting up something like the "roadmap" in the Middle East for the Palestinian-Israelis. I don't think the Bush administration would have done it on its own. It did it because Britain was pushing them and they had to do something along those lines. The British situation in relationship to this has to be understood in those terms.

I guess also he sees Britain as a mediator with Europe, in a way.

Well, yes, he maybe thinks that, but, of course, he's not going to do that if it makes Britain more antagonistic to Europe. But recently he's been trying to win back a little bit of a position in Europe, because he realizes that he got isolated in the European context.

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