Spaces of Global Capitalism

Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London: Verso.

Harvey’s book is a collection of two lectures and an essay. The first lecture is mainly about how neoliberalism was constituted as a class project, and how it played out in and through uneven geographical development. The second lecture is an outline of a general theory of uneven geographical development. The final essay is titled, “Space as a Key Word,” where he discusses his thinking about space and brings the tripartite production of spatio-temporality within a Marxist political economic framework.

Neoliberalism: Class Rule

His take on neoliberalism is a tired little story, but it was worth revisiting it; and I even found some things more nuanced then I remembered. How does he account for the “rise” of neoliberalism? He recognizes, of course, that “not only were the 1970s characterized by a global crisis of stagflation, but this was the period when the power of upper classes was most threatened” (13). The compact established between capital and labor under Keynesian economic policies began to breakdown (oil crisis, too, played a role). For Harvey, it’s all about restoring order to crisis-prone capitalism and guarding against its social disorder. He puts it nicely when he notes that in the wake of the economic crisis in Britain, “A crisis of capitalism was interpreted as a crisis of governance” (16). The “market, depicted ideologically as the great means to foster competition and innovation, was in practice the great vehicle for the consolidation of monopoly corporate and multinational powers as the nexus of class rule” (18). The market was made to work squarely for the restoration of class power or, elsewhere as in China, its creation.

“This narrative sketch of the uneven geographical development of neo-liberalism suggests that its implantation was as much an outcome of diversification, innovation and competition (sometimes of the monopolistic sort) between national, regional, and in some instances even metropolitan models of governance and economic development, rather than the imposition of some model orthodoxy by some hegemonic power, such as the US” (34). Nonetheless, the uneven development caused by neoliberalism is attributable to three factors: 1) Financialization: The expansion of finance made it so that capital could seek out new spaces of investment through the explosion of FDI. 2) Wall St.-Dollar-IMF regime: This served to cajole poor countries into liberalizing their markets through structural adjustment, while the US economy boomed with these new opportunities to invest finance capital. This money was being pumped back into the US economy. 3) The global hegemony of monetarist policies. Still, he emphasizes: “The development of neo-liberalism must be regarded as a decentered and unstable evolutionary process characterized by uneven geographical developments and strong competitive pressures between a variety of dynamic centers of political-economic power” (41).

Because neoliberalism has not created stable growth rates, it turns out to be more redistributive (upwards) than generative of wealth; for this reason, Harvey gives accumulation by dispossession an important role in the process of wresting social forms of wealth into ever-fewer hands. Rather than extant wealth sloshing around the globe, primitive accumulation creates new frontiers of accumulation. He goes through the litany of dispossessions going on, and ends the lecture with a discussion about social movements and alternatives.

Uneven Development

The opening pages have some interesting things to say about theory, internal relations, and dialectics. He says we have to view uneven development within four broad rubrics: 1) The material embedding of capital accumulation in the web of social-ecological life; 2) accumulation by dispossession; 3) The law-like character of capital accumulation over time and space; 4) Political, social, and “class” struggles in various places. Ecological process are remade and transformed through the accumulation of capital (labor as much as the environment), so this is something that must be part of a theory of uneven development. He credits political ecology with taking up this task.

Primitive accumulation is sort of the same old story. Overaccumulation causes and expansionary spurt toward new space that are then integrated (violently) into capitalism. The cycle is compounded by the devaluation of capital during crisis, causing greater concentration and centralization, that then bursts forward with overaccumulation. Primitive accumulation, then, is an inherent necessity for the stability-seeking (but never achieved) dynamics of capital accumulation. “Overaccumulation crises can be at least temporarily relieved either by a temporal shift (the absorption of capital and labor surpluses in long-term projects such as large scale public works) or through a spatial fix (dispersing or exporting capital and labor surpluses into new and more profitable spaces)” (96). This process and the foot-loose capital movements it entails creates competition between various spaces and several territorial scales that contribute to uneven capitalist development, which feeds into spatial divisions of labor.

An important part of these uneven developments is what Marx called the “annihilation of space by time.” As Harvey puts it, “The general diminution of transport costs in no way disrupts the significance of territorial divisions and specializations of labor. Indeed, it makes for more fine-grained territorial divisions since small differences in production costs … are more easily exploitable by highly mobile capital. Reducing the friction of distance, in short, makes capital more rather than less sensitive to local geographical variations” (100). It all leaves a very material trace in the landscape through the often contradictory dynamic of fixity (infrastructures, real estate, and other kinds of “fixed” capitals) and movement (capital flight, investment, etc.). He makes some interesting comments on “regionality” and the way that unevenness reconfigures and constantly shifts local class alliances.

The final essay traces some of the critical approaches to space: absolute, relative, and relational. Absolute being the kind of abstract, fixed space open to measurement and calculation (geometric); relative space being that which is configured by objects in their relate to each other “within” that space (multiple geometries and dependent on the frame of reference); and relational space being multiply determined within a set of internal relations, wherein there is “no such thing as space and time outside of the processes that define them” (123). “Processes do not occur in space but define their own spatial frame. The concept of space is embedded in or internal to process” (123).

“The relational notion of space-time implies the idea of internal relations; external influences get internalized in specific processes or things through time … An event or thing at a point in space cannot be understood by appeal to what exists only at that point. It depends upon everything else going on around it… A wide variety of disparate influences swirling over space in the past, present and future concentrate and congeal at a certain point … to define the nature of that point” (124).

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