David Harvey: a Critique

I have begun reading David Harvey's "Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference" in earnest, since I have been invited to submit an article to one of those high-toned academic journals I am always railing against. The submission will critique Harvey's analysis of American Indians as being no more intrinsically ecological than the bourgeois society that conquered them. His proof? That they hunted the saber-tooth tiger into extinction. Good grief!

There is an interesting subtext that has to do with David Harvey as an existential type. He is representative of what my friend Mark Jones referred to in the following sentence: "We are not part of the bourgeois academy, we are not frightened, atomised intellectuals in anomic campuses struggling for tenure, or any kind of work." Of course, nobody could possibly describe the impeccably credentialed David Harvey as "frightened" or "struggling." I sent Mark a copy of Harvey's book for his perusal and, after taking a look on the back cover of the book at all the awards Harvey had amassed, he described Harvey as owning more blue-ribbons than Heineken beer.

What does interest me is the question of feeling "atomised" and being adrift in "anomic campuses." I have had enough conversations with my academic leftist friends both on and off the Columbia campus to realize that this is a painfully true description of the situation.

There are two passages in Harvey's book that address this existential angst. In the Introduction, he recounts his feeling of disaffection at a Duke conference on globalization in November, 1994 that was dominated by postmodernists. What was memorable for him was that he accidentally found himself in a hotel in Durham that was housing conventioneers from the Southeastern Regional Meeting of Evangelical Pentecostal Preachers. He was struck by the "incredible enthusiasm, joy and vigor" of the Pentecostal meeting he decided to attend out of curiosity. This was in vivid contrast to the "heard-it-all-before incredulity and resentful passivity of the campus audience."

In the Prologue to Part II "The Nature of Environment," he recounts his disaffection from another group of middle-class whites, namely the celebrants of Earth Day in 1970. He had attended a campus rally in Baltimore of "middle class white radicals" who attacked environmental despoliation. Later that day Harvey dropped in at the Left Bank Jazz Club, a "popular spot frequented by African-American families in Baltimore." There the complaint was not about polluted air and water, but lack of jobs, poor housing and race discrimination. What sent the whole place into "paroxysms of cheering" was one person's statement that Richard Nixon was their main environmental problem. The working-class blacks and the Pentecostals are more existentially authentic, as opposed to the Duke postmodernists or the Baltimore green activists. Harvey's angst reminds me of Jack Kerouac's vivid passage in On The Road as he walks through a black ghetto and envies the feeling of community that a rootless intellectual like himself could never experience. If only he could be a Negro, then he could be a real human being.

Harvey made an appearance at the Brecht Forum in NYC a few months ago. It was the third or fourth time I had heard him. On this occasion he led a day-long seminar on the Communist Manifesto. The seminar was just awful, since it lacked direction. Harvey sat impassively at the head of the table and allowed the discussion to go off on tangents. He didn't seem happy to be there. I now understand why he was unhappy. He was around people just like himself, and that is a source of great unhappiness. Later in the day, I asked the organizers why Harvey seemed so depressed. They told me that, to the contrary, he showed more energy and enthusiasm than usual. On reflection, I decided that they were correct. In the past, Harvey had lectured to an audience so his anomie was not so prominently displayed. In a small group setting like the CM seminar, he seemed virtually lifeless.

To one extent or another, his problem is faced by all Marxist-leaning academics. They are separated from their natural social base and have to gear their message to their professional colleagues, such as the Duke conference organizers. For someone like Harvey who genuinely seeks to connect with an authentic social base of oppressed and self-aware people, the frustration must run very deep. Perhaps one of the reasons he has decided to make ideological warfare on mainstream greens is that they epitomize the sort of middle-class smugness that exists in academia, but don't present any sort of threat to his professional interests. It is one thing to unload against the Sierra Club, it is another to go up against the Duke crowd. You might not get invited to give a plenary speech at the next bash.

Fortunately there is relief form this sort of existential angst. You can give classes on the labor movement to trade unionists like Michael Yates does. Or you can be the faculty adviser to American Indian undergraduates who organize anti-racist protests, like Jim Craven. To take this route involves a willingness to step outside the ivory tower. Not only does it help to change society, it is a good cure for weltschmertz.

I find myself increasingly drawn into the existential-political subtext of David Harvey's "Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference."

Although I began reading the book in order to prepare a rebuttal on the American Indian/ecology question, I find myself deeply fascinated with the self-portrait that is developing. Harvey wears his heart on his sleeve and is fetchingly open about his foibles. If only all academics maintained this posture, the world would be a better place.

What interests me in particular is his odyssey for a grass roots social base which will allow his theorizing to connect to some living struggle. He is a prestigious mandarin with enormous feelings of insecurity about his ability to make a difference in some mass movement. I, on the other hand, have been connected to some mass movement or another since 1967 but aspire for the sort of credibility he has achieved in academia. I always curse myself for having spent much too much time in the Trotskyist movement, when I should have been enrolled in some graduate school getting a Ph.D. With the proper credentials, I could be writing for Science and Society or Rethinking Marxism, couldn't I? But is that what I really want?

Returning to the angst-ridden Harvey, we discover in the chapter on "Militant Particularism and Global Ambition" that back in 1988 he had been invited to participate in a research project in Oxford concerning the fate of the local Rover auto plant. The union was fighting to keep the factory open in the face of a threat from Thatcher to shut it down. This was after a painful series of downsizings that had cut the workforce from 27,000 to 5,000. It invited Harvey and a number of other left-wing activists to prepare a report on the economic impact of a plant closing.

By his own admission, for "personal reasons" Harvey was not "active in the campaign" and did not "engage much with the initial research."

A key figure in the research project was Teresa Hayter, who received a research fellowship from St. Peter's College in 1989 to put out a book on the history of the auto workers' struggle. For purposes of "making the book more attractive to prospective publishers," Harvey agreed to be co-editor. This is another way of saying that his fame could open doors.

Pretty soon Hayter and Harvey began to clash. It reached the point where he proposed that the book have two conclusions, one by her and one by him. This idea was rejected and an attempt was made to synthesize the two points of view, but the political differences were intractable. Harvey says, "Matters became extremely tense, difficult, and sometimes hostile between Hayter and me..."

What was the problem?

Harvey says that in a showdown with Hayter, she challenged him to define his loyalties. "She was very clear about hers. They lay with the militant shop-stewards in the plant, who were not only staying on and laboring under the most appalling conditions but daily struggling to win back control from a reactionary union leadership so as to build a better basis for socialism. By contrast, she saw me as a free-floating Marxist intellectual who had no particular loyalties to anyone. So where did my loyalties lie?"

Harvey admits, "It was a stunning question and I have had to think about it a great deal since." I t turned out that Harvey had been ambivalent about the whole notion of keeping the plant open. As one can imagine, this would have caused strains working in a research group dedicated to that task. Harvey found himself scrutinizing and analyzing and criticizing every aspect of the struggle. Deteriorating working conditions made it hard for him to argue for the preservation of "shit-jobs." Perhaps it is a little difficult for a full tenured professor making $75,000 a year to appreciate the worth of such factory jobs?

He was also worried about the ecological impact of automobiles. This was very enlightened of him, needless to say. But what I found extremely troubling was his questioning of the need for automobile production in a context of overcapacity world-wide. He writes, "I found myself arguing for at least a European-wide perspective on adjustments in automobile production capacity, but found it hard to justify stopping at that scale when pressed."

What a startling formulation! Harvey the great Marxist, author of "Limits to Capital" is arguing for a "European-wide perspective?" What in god's name can this mean but a perspective based on the long-term interests of the bourgeoisie? Workers have completely different interests. From the point of view of the capitalist class, overcapacity can only be dealt with through downsizing. For the affected workers, this means permanent ruin. The only position worth defending is one that strengthens the self-confidence of the workers. In the face of Thatcher's attack, the only response that made sense was keeping the plant open.

Harvey decided to write "Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference" in order to subsume the dubious economic demands of the auto-workers into a grand abstraction that addressed injustice on a global scale. Oddly enough, the most concrete expression of this grand schema is the need to keep a distance between the workers movement and issues of sustainable growth and eco-limits, the sort of issues posed by Marx himself in V. 3 of Capital. When you combine this with poor Harvey's inability to understand the class priority of defending the Rover workers unambiguously, one can only conclude that there is a deep malaise in academic Marxism.

Louis Proyect