Data released by the anti-poverty charity Oxfam suggests that the world’s wealthiest 80 people are on track to own more than the poorer half of the world’s population (some 3.5 billion) by 2016. That’s not a reflection of a glitch in our economic system, says David Harvey, professor at the City University of New York. That’s our economic system at work; indeed, that’s our economic system in “recovery.”
Distinguished professor of anthropology and geography at the CUNY Graduate Center, Harvey argues that poverty and inequality can’t be explained away or blamed on personal problems, or what President Obama in his State of the Union address called the “loopholes that lead to inequality.” Inequality is what our economic system produces, and the cost of it can be measured in the despair many feel, and in our bitter relationships to ourselves, each other and the planet.
“It’s almost impossible to be really human,” says Harvey, in a world that measures life in earnings and wealth and productivity only.
“I get very tired when politicians go around saying: jobs, jobs, jobs. Yeah, but meaningful jobs.”
Centuries after the enclosure of the “commons” (land used by those without property), today’s society packages just about every aspect of existence up for pricing and selling, even our own knowledge. But just as feudalism contained within it the seeds of private enterprise, so too, within capitalism, Harvey sees the shoots of what might come next.
“We are going to see responses, which are not only outbreaks of fury and anger at the nature of the system, but also start to become locally constructing an alternative,” he told “The Laura Flanders Show.” To make needed change, we’re going to need utopian visions (one of Harvey’s is a world without money), and new forms of political opposition.
Harvey’s forthright talk and upbeat style have drawn millions to his classes and podcasts, even if he’s never in the moneyed media. His latest book is 17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. This interview was recorded during the fall of 2014 in New York City for Truthout and “The Laura Flanders Show,” which is syndicated by KCET/LinkTV and TeleSUR English and produced by GRITtv.org.
Laura Flanders: Growth is one of the contradictions you talk about in the book; there are several others that seem rather urgent. Do you want to talk about those?
David Harvey: The ones that to me are the most significant are the growth issue and the environmental issue and what I call “universal alienation.” The way in which we relate to each other, the way in which we relate to our jobs, the way in which relate to the natural world around us – is being constructed in a certain way through the dynamics of technological change and through the growth process to the point where it’s almost impossible to be really human in our relationships to people and in our relationships to life. I think that there’s a kind of sense of frustration, a tremendous sense of frustration. You see this in the younger generation that looks at the future and says, “Where are all the meaningful jobs?”
“Land is not a commodity that we’ve made. We’ve turned it into a commodity by establishing private property rights and we’re doing things of that sort with knowledge now. Knowledge, which should be a commons for everybody, is now being enclosed.”
It’s not only jobs. I get very tired when politicians go around saying: jobs, jobs, jobs. Yeah, but meaningful jobs. Back in the 1960s, when I first came to the United States, the biggest employers were US Steel, the auto industry and so on, and if you talked to a steel worker, they were kind of political and saw they were being exploited, but they had a certain kind of dignity in terms of the work they did and a certain pride in it.
The biggest employers now are no longer of that sort; they’re Walmart, McDonald’s and the rest . . . And if you talk to the people who are employed in that and say, “Do you feel this is dignified work?” They look at you and laugh. About 70 percent of the population of the United States is either totally upset at the nature of the work it has to do or totally indifferent to it. This is a kind of situation where you get a kind of visceral anger.
What we’ve seen over the last 20 or 30 years are sudden outbreaks of visceral anger. In London, for example, suddenly the whole thing is burning. We saw it last year in Stockholm; we saw it in Gezi Park in Istanbul; we’ve seen these events in North Africa. In Brazil, millions of people were out on the street complaining about the World Cup, about soccer. They’re angry and alienated that somehow or another they cannot have a meaningful life and a decent living environment with decent employment opportunities. And this sense of alienation is producing, at this point, not an alternative political movement, but outbreaks of fury and anger, which are actually very difficult to predict and very difficult to control.
What did we have before we had commercialization and capitalization, and the alienation of ourselves from our labor and each other?
Well, I think there was this period during the 1930s, the 1940s, and I don’t think we should romanticize it, but there was this period where labor felt it was able to have a piece of the pie and could influence things. And there was a social safety net, which was being constructed – a welfare state of sorts – which had a class character and had all kinds of things wrong with it. Its relationship to gender and race was absolutely awful. But, nevertheless, there was a kind of sense that there was a possibility of a better future, and people felt that. And then in the 1970s, all of that began to get eroded and was gradually washed away.
There was a time when people felt that being entrepreneurial was a good idea. “We can all go out and be entrepreneurs,” and so on. Of course some people did, and they made it. But a lot of people didn’t. Increasingly, we got the production of higher levels of poverty. The income inequalities start to sort of spiral out of hand, and so we get this transformation. And then it produces, through the technological changes, the artificial intelligence, the robotization and all the rest of it, this kind of meaningless labor where people don’t really understand what it is they’re doing. Society, by the way, is dedicated to be anti-government, but is more bureaucratic than ever before. I mean, I work in a university and the level of bureaucratic stuff we have to fill out to do anything is just enormous. We’ve got this system where I think it’s not working at any level.
And it’s wrong in the fundamentals. I mean, in your book you quote the wonderful Karl Polanyi [author of The Great Transformation.] He goes further back. He says that the fundamentals are wrong; that our relationship to land, to labor, to capital is in itself wrong. What did he add to the Marxist picture?
Well, I don’t know if he added anything. I mean I like Karl Polanyi precisely because he doesn’t come out of the Marxist camp. I think so much of what Marx talks about and what Polanyi talks about is common sense. Land is not a commodity that we’ve made. We’ve turned it into a commodity by establishing private property rights and we’re doing things of that sort with knowledge now. Knowledge, which should be a commons for everybody, is now being enclosed. I was stuck somewhere and needed my own articles, and I couldn’t find a copy of it, and I was traveling. I had to pay $25 to get it off the web. And I thought, here I am paying $25 for one of my own articles. This is ridiculous.
The cloud is not the commons.
No it’s not the commons. There is this privatization of everything, and it’s actually enclosed things. It’s increasingly done so. Of course what Polanyi is saying is when land got enclosed that way, when labor – which is not a commodity – gets commodified, and when capital also becomes a commodity, which you can charge interest on, then this is a wacky world. This is a fictitious world. Capital is always being built on certain fictions. But now those fictions are coming home to roost, I think, and we saw those fictions really go haywire entirely in 2007 and 2008.
If, as you write (and others have written), that we have in fact lost our community – that community has become commodities and money and exchange (you quote a great line from Marx on how money has become the only community), how do we undo it? Do we want to go back, forward, what?
No, we don’t want to go back. We want to really start to think how to go forward. And there are a lot of experiments going on right now of trying to say, alright, look, the social relations are terrible. Let’s try to set up a “solidarity economy.” Let’s try to set up worker cooperatives. Let’s do what the Argentinians do, which is create recuperated factories, take over the factories for ourselves. Of course there’s a lot of argument going on about how to relate to the deep ecology movement and so on. I don’t necessarily think these are great movements in the sense that they head in a real coherent political direction, but what it says is that in a world where there is mass alienation from our relation to nature and our relation to others, we are going to see responses, which are not only outbreaks of fury and anger at the nature of the system, but also start to become locally constructing something as an alternative.
So we’re seeing a lot of that in various parts of the world, and in some cases these experiments are actually sort of suggesting ways to go. We see, for instance, in various areas of Latin America [things like] the Bolivarian Revolution going on. There’s a lot wrong with it, but on the other hand, at least people are trying to find new ways of relating. And they talk now about, for instance, this idea of “buen vivir,”of good living, and that the idea of an economy is to create good living for everybody rather than maximize the GDP [gross domestic product]. This is a significant shift in the mentality of how we approach questions of development and how we approach reconstruction of urban and rural life.
Is it true amongst your students you’re finding a greater appetite for these conversations, and are the words “capitalism” and “socialism” being used?
Oh yes. Well, amongst my students anyway, there is a criticism of capitalism. There’s a good deal of interest in what might be called autonomous forms of organizing. There’s a great deal of suspicion of political parties, a great deal of suspicion about any appeal to state power and the like. But, there are movements – I think it’s wrong to call them anarchist because they’re not. It’s more about trying to create local democratic decision-making structures. And I think this is a very, very healthy phase of innovation at that level. The big problem for me is how do we actually turn it into something much greater.
And there’s a significant barrier. For instance, the unions are no longer as strong as they were. Where are the main centers of political organization right now, which are “oppositional?” It’s mainly of course through non-governmental organizations. And non-governmental organizations are not revolutionary. They address questions of poverty or environment or something that has a certain kind of scale, but they don’t challenge the nature of the general order because the general order is what funds them. We’ve got a situation right now in which the main political institutions, though not oppositional expressed, are not actually able to mount a challenge to the hegemonic and dominant forms of power, which are currently ruling the world.
I did appreciate at the end of your 17 Contradictions – you did have 17mandates. You make some clear suggestions; do you want to lay out a few of those here?
The first contradiction I deal with is the distinction between “use-value” and “exchange-value.” I use the example of housing. Housing has a use-value and has an exchange-value and there is a certain tension. If you want to maximize the exchange-value, we can lose the use-value. Now we’ve been told that the best way in which to get the use-values delivered to the mass of the population is to invent an exchange-value structure, which allows mortgage financing, private home ownership and the whole structure of the commodified world, which is very profitable for those people who are running it. So they get a profit, and we supposedly get the use-values of the housing. Well, what we saw in the housing crisis was 6 million people lost their use-values. What we should be doing is thinking about a society that delivers use-values to people directly and doesn’t have to go through this intermediary of the exchange-value system, from which a great deal of wealth is being extracted by small groups of people.
The same thing applies to education. The same thing applies to health care. There’s a use-value; it’s useful; it should be there. Education should be useful. We should keep the exchange-value dynamic out of it. My suggestion is to everybody: maximize the use-value provision character of the society; think about how to organize the provision of those use-values, and minimize the capacity of people to extract private wealth from an exchange-value system, which occasionally blows up like it did in 2007 and 2008 with disastrous consequences.
Is that different from the social welfare system that you grew up with in the UK?
Yes, I think with the nationalization of health care, and education. My education was free all the way through; I had free health care and I think that should be the case. Of course, that gets eroded. One of the difficulties with something like the National Health Service in Britain is while it was nationalized in terms of what it was providing to people, it was preyed upon by a lot of corporations. There’s always this awkward thing when you have a public organization, which is existing in a sea of private, entrepreneurial capital, which at some point starts to prey upon that and turn it into a victim of its own designs.
So let utopian visions run riot. You’re one who talks about utopian desires and how we need to express them. Express them!
Well, I think one of them is abolish the exchange-value structures. And, of course, the exchange-value also rests on something called money. And money is a great corrupter, as we know, of our desires and our needs. We spend a lot of time worrying about money, desiring money, wanting money, and then you think to yourself, “This is stupid.” You know, this is not a good life to become fetishistically focused on how much of this money . . . I mean this is crazy. Thomas More suggested a moneyless economy. And he then said, in a moneyless economy you would sleep very well at night. And I don’t sleep very well at night, so I’m looking forward to a moneyless economy where we can all sleep very well at night.
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Once upon a time there was this amazing land, placed on mountainous Balkan Peninsula, called Yugoslavia, built on ideas of brotherhood, equality and sharing. I grew up there living together side by side with many cultures and religions. I had wonderful childhood.
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
"Let me not prey to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them."