Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brief Thoughts on Harvey's The New Imperialism

In his book, The New Imperialism, David Harvey offers a post-classical Marxist account of what he understands to be the contemporary manifestation of imperialism. Harvey employs not only his theoretical greatest hit (the acclaimed ‘spatial fix’), as well as a couple of old Trotsky joints (‘uneven development,’ and ‘accumulation by dispossession’—though Trotsky is given credit for neither in Harvey’s book), but he also ‘develops’ two theoretical logics within the world-system (the ‘territorial’ and ‘capitalistic’ logics) in order to illustrate the spatial economy of imperialism (there is nothing really new about it). The case for imperialism is simple for Harvey: the (still) dominant U.S.—since it is in political-economic decline—must ‘accumulate through dispossession’ revenues from Middle Eastern oil in order to (1) buttress its military-financial position in relation to Europe and Japan, and (2) control the oil-spigot that is fueling a rapidly growing and threatening South-east Asia economic bloc, particularly China. One has to be careful when reading Harvey because he is masterful with his prose, and is very convincing despite his theoretical problems.

The restrictions in length with this blog entry unfortunately allow me to focus on only one of the theoretical problems of Harvey, though a thorough critical analysis of his oeuvre is a prescient book waiting to be written, especially given the scope of his ideas within the discipline. Nevertheless, I want to focus on Harvey’s ‘big Kahuna’: the spatial fix. The spatial fix is obviously the theoretical lynchpin for Harvey in this book, and it is clear that he wishes to employ it in order for the advanced reader to grasp the highlights of a geographical approach to (post)modern global politics. However, the question needs to be asked: would a ‘new imperialism’ make sense if the ‘spatial fix’ proved to be a largely inadequate theoretical concept?

Within the theoretical strains of economic Marxism, Harvey is situated within the ‘crisis theory’ school, particularly with those who emphasize a dynamic called the ‘tendency of the rate to profit to fall’ that was theoretically developed by Rosdolsky, Shaikh, Aglietta, and others from the French ‘regulation school.’ Harvey has accented the work of all these theorists in his books where he outlines in detail the mechanics of the spatial fix. Without getting into detail the complexities of and differences between these theorists, there is one common theoretical thread: that capitalists are incessant about seeking an appropriation of surplus value, and in order to ameliorate any pending crises of overaccumulation (i.e., the steadfast and essential contradiction in capitalism of the mode of production coming into contradiction with the relations of production) an investment into the primary (production), secondary (consumption), and tertiary (R&D; services) circuits must be made in order to temporally offset any crisis. It is with these investitures that new regimes of accumulation burgeon out of the spent infrastructures of the old (e.g., the shift from production-based Keynesian accumulation to consumer/financial-based flexible accumulation). It is upon this temporal fix that Harvey intervened with the spatial component by poignantly pointing out that molecular capital accumulates in clusters, and once it overaccumulates and exceeds its economy of scale, capital must, then, spatially reallocate resources—thus emphasizing the spatio-temporal side of the ‘fix’ equation. We can see that this is his basic premise in The New Imperialism: that there has been an overaccumulation of productive capital within the U.S. for the past twenty or so years (hence the need to export factories to the lowest paid worker sites), and the financial sector is now running into trouble, so there is a need to appropriate, or better, privatize through ‘dispossession’ those sectors that have remained outside of capital’s control, particularly those sectors that are critical for domestic interests: resources such as oil. This is where the intermingling and oft-contradictory logics of capital and territory—within the US—overlap in The New Imperialism, since capital wants the $$$$$, and politicians want happy constituents. One may ask, what is the engine behind all this, or that kernel of truth that is the essence of the spatial fix? Harvey says that we need to look no further than Marx for the answer (Marx has the answers for almost everything for Harvey): Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake; or what Marx famously called the “Moses and the Prophets of accumuation and production.”

This explanation seems simple enough, what could possibly be the problem? As mentioned above, Harvey’s convincing prose can often hide the theoretical problems that are at work. However, for Harvey, there is no room for contingency in the spatial fix. The moment the spatial fix is employed may be contingent, but the spatial fix embodies a paradoxical determinism; i.e., it is historically necessary that accumulated capital be spatially fixed (particularly in mechanized infrastructure/space), since it apparently has no other function or outlet. As Bruce Norton (2001: 35) has pointed out, there is an assumption at work of a historically necessary agent—properly known as ‘the agent of history’: the capitalist who exploits (appropriates surplus value) and expands (reinvests). Workers are largely irrelevant in falling rate of profit theorists’ writings, because they have no sincere agency; i.e., they are always working for the interests of capital. Workers have no agency, which postmodernists seem to not understand, and we must wait for the contradictions of capital to resolve themselves, which postmodernists naively avoid. We can see line of thinking in Harvey (63) when he boldly claims, “A wave of labor militancy swept the advanced capitalist world during the late 1970s and the 1980s as working-class movements [that is all they can be] everywhere sought to preserve the gains they had won during the 1960s and early 1970s. In retrospect, we can see this as a rearguard action to preserve the conditions and privileges gained within and around expanded reproduction and the welfare state, rather than a progressive movement seeking transformative changes [i.e., ‘they,’ all of them, were blindly working in the interests of capital].’ There is thus a necessary telos: appropriation that must be fixed. According to Harvey, there is no other dynamic of capital. Produce. Accumulate. Crisis. Fix. Produce. Accumulate. Crisis. Fix. Produce. Accumu… That’s it.

There are two problems with this formulation. First, is the assumption that capital is necessarily (re)appropriated and expands in order to reproduce itself. The work of Reznick, Wolff, Norton, and Gibson-Graham have all stressed ad nauseum that capital is not deterministic, and is allocated in ways where it does not reproduce itself, particularly in the multiplicity of class formations that are contingent and ever-changing (they focus on vols. 2 & 3 of Capital). This is something that needs to be dealt with at length in geography, and if I could do it all over again, this would be my thesis topic (maybe there is still time!), because it would insinuate that spatial fixes are not necessarily necessary. Secondly, there is the problem of agency, since it clear in Harvey’s work that the capitalist (TNC) is the dominant agent, and the State is the other (albeit secondary) agent. Again, Gibson-Graham have responded to this formulation at length. But, what would this non-historically-necessary spatial fix mean for Harvey’s new imperialism? In other words, what do we learn if the spatial fix is really only a minor, or even marginal feature in global affairs (assuming that all ‘molecular’ factors can miraculously align in order to produce an agency called a spatial fix on such a grand scale: that is a one big miraculating machine!)? There is a large bit of truth to Harvey’s formulation: the U.S. did invade Iraq and Central Asia in order to secure resources and control the growth of China. One would be naïve to think otherwise. But what Harvey seems to miss when he elides the ‘postmodern movements’ is the limits to his own formulation. It is now obvious that the U.S. has no power (in the traditional sense) in Iraq, and certainly never did. The government in Iraq has no power, and never did. The U.S. military is one militia among many (not even the most powerful) in a landscape were power is wielded literally on a neighborhood level. The so-called ‘Iraqi government’ (which is no doubt a fiction) has absolutely no power outside Baghdad, and certainly no power to speak of within Baghdad that would merit it as a ‘government’—Prime Minister Maliki (who has no militia) is completely reliant upon Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The Iraqi government has the limited power of words, since they have partial control over the media. What does all this mean? It means that one needs to seriously reconsider the way logics of capital and territory, along with their agents of history (the capitalist and worker), are represented in a world where they have increasingly declining power as proper categorizations of the social scene, especially when faced with the ‘molecular’ ‘multitude’ (if you will) that is being confronted on the streets of Baghdad. In other words, there needs to be a reorientation of ‘scale’ away from these grand schemas, to the actual molecular level: that level that Deleuze and Guattari understand to be the intensities on the BwO; that level that concerned Foucault; and that level that Hardt and Negri have identified as the multitude (though I hate this word as well). It is on this level that we can escape the historical necessity of Harvey, and instead grasp the contingencies that are playing out today.

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