| A Conversation with David Harvey
Q: Imperialism is something that you have written on very recently with your book, The New Imperialism. This leads me to a pretty important and timely question: why Iraq and why now?
A: Geopolitially, this is a critical region of the global economy and the US has been involved there since 1945, if not before. And the US involvement in that region has escalated very strongly since 1945. I think we should recognize that what Bush has done in the region is not off trajectory of the general pattern of American involvement. Before Bush, we had several thousand, maybe ten thousand troops in the Gulf region. We were already bombing parts of Iraq. There was already a huge sort of engagement in the region, and the only question is why did Bush decide to escalate it into active occupation of the territory? I think it had a lot to do with the particular vision of the neo-conservatives, that somehow the U.S. could get control of this region through a political and military process in Iraq.
Now, why they felt the need for that control has a long history and I think it has a lot to do with the control of oil supplies, but not simply for the U.S. That is the spigot for the global economy. The US has always wanted to have a strong presence so that it can not only control its own oil reserves and oil flows but also the oil flows of the whole global economy.
Q: One of the categories you’ve developed explicitly in your last two books is the idea of “accumulation by dispossession.” What is it, and how does it fit into this whole discussion of Iraq, and even beyond?
A: Accumulation by dispossession is about plundering, robbing other people of their rights. When we start to look at what has happened to the global economy for the past thirty years, a lot of that has been going on all over the place. In some instances, it is taking away peoples rights to dispose of their own resources, so you will find that there is resistance to that in the Middle East. Then for instance, one of the big issues behind the Zapatista movement was the control of resources.
One of the big issues in Bolivia right now is the control of natural resources. Capitalism is very much about taking away the rights people have over their natural resources. But it is not only natural resources when we are talking about dispossession. If you look at what is happening to people’s pension funds, it is the taking away of rights. And you take a look at the world andsome people are getting extremely rich right now. How are they getting rich? Are they getting rich because they are contributing to a global economy in productive ways or are they getting rich because they are taking away other people’s rights? If you look at the history of things such as Enron and you see that a lot of wealth is being accumulated in the world right now by dispossessing others of their rights and their wealth and it could be natural resources as in Iraq, or in Bolivia or Chiapas, or it could be rights which have been accumulated through pension funds and so on. You could look at something like eminent domain in this country right now, something that is now being used to take away people’s property so the developers of Wal-Mart can build a new store or a shopping mall. A whole pattern is emerging, and it seems to me that it is important to look so we can understand the dynamics of the accumulation of capital that are occuring right now.
Q: In what way can accumulation by dispossession be explanatory in American foreign policy? Is this the logic that is driving foreign policy decisions?
A: I don’t think it’s the explanatory variable, it is a key one which you have to look at again and again and again. For instance, the U.S. does have security concerns of some kind. The U.S. is concerned for a good reason, and in some instances it is about political movements which are occurring in various parts of the world, and therefore it will try to engage in pre-emptive politics, which it did in the invasion of Afghanistan. It seems to me that the invasion of Afghanistan was a very different story from the Iraq invasion. It was not simply that there were no good targets in Afghanistan; there was nothing really there in Afghanistan that we really wanted, except that the U.S. now has a very considerable geo-political presence in the whole region, not only in Afghanistan, but also Uzbekistan. It is trying to sort of spread its military power throughout this entire region because this is the key to ythe political region. Therefore, the US a has a legitimate interest in the stability of the region, but at the same time it is illegitimate because it is also about the taking away of oil assets from the people of the region.
Q: So is this what is new about the “New Imperialism”? The old Imperialism, as you said, was about the relationship of power and dominion. Is this what is new?
A: There are two things—in a funny kind of way, some of this is a reversion of certain events that happened at the end of the 19th century when there was a lot of accumulation by dispossession by the British Empire: taking away resources, destroying Indians’ indigenous industries and supplanting them, that sort of thing. So we look at our current situation, and it is sort of a repetition of what happened in the 19th century. The big distinction is that, apart from Iraq, it has generally not involved colonial occupation. It uses the power of the economy, the power of international institutions, such as the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. It uses the power of economic leverage, and in some instances will use covert power to put in power someone who is very convivial for the Unites States to live with: a dictator like Pinochet in Chile, or,before that, the Shah of Iran. The United States has worked that way through the colonial kind of problem, rather than going through direct occupation as the British, the French and the other imperial regimes did during the end of the 19th century.
Q: How do you think this whole problem with the New Imperialism is linked with globalization?
A: I think they are intimately related, but I also think that they are interrelated to the neo-liberalization which has been going on, that is neo-liberalization being about institutional reforms that are pro-market and pro-privatization, and against state interventions into welfare and so on. Neo-liberalization has involved in a very distinct kind of imperial project, which is rather different from the imperial project that existed in the 1950's and 1960's where the United States was essentially a super-imperialist power. And now it is involving itself in the spread of market ideology as being crucial to the sustenance of capitalism, of course that is now in dangerof undermining the US positionality in the global economy, because where the market moving to? It is moving to China and it is moving to India. There is a great proliferation, once you unleash market forces, that we are not in the position to totally control, which is what I think the U.S. is finding out.
Q: You know, Jagdish Baghwati recently published a book, In Defense of Globalization, where he argues that free market globalization has been a success in freeing people from poverty, political and social forms of domination, and even opening up a new kind of cosmopolitanism. How does your critical view of globalization respond to such claims?
A: I’ll respond in two ways, there is a lot of controversy over the kind of data you look at and how you prove that. For instance if you ask the question of how many people were in poverty in 1980 and how many people there are in poverty today, you might say, there are fewer people in poverty now than there was back then. But when you look at the economic performance, of say China and India, and you look at the aggregate data, it looks like the world is better off. If you start to look at social inequality however, you start to see in many instances, that neo-liberalization has increased social inequality, even at the same time that it has lifted some of the people at the bottom out of poverty. If you look at the concentration of wealth, at the very top bracket of society, you will see immense concentrations of wealth at the very top 0.1% of the population.
At this point the question is: who is neo-liberalization really benefiting? And if you look at concentrations of political and economic power, it has largely benefited a very very small elite. And we have to start looking at that. For instance, the New York Times had this interesting data a couple of months ago. How rich, on average, are the richest 200 (or 400) families in the United States? I think the data showed that back in 1980, they had something like $680 million. In constant dollars it is something like $2.8 billion. They have quadrupled their wealth in the last twenty years and this is a familiar story not just in the U.S but also globally. In Mexico, after neo-liberalization, you see the same thing. You see the same think happening in China and in India. When Thomas Friedman talks about a flat world, he is saying you do not have to come to America to be a billionaire; you can be a billionaire in Bangalore now. You do not have to migrate to America, but the social inequality in India is increasing dramatically.
Q: And this is what you talk about, in your book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, as the “restoration of class power.” How is this playing itself out here (in the U.S.)? Is it simply that social inequality is increasing? You have that and you have a certain amount of indifference among the population to this rising social inequality.
A: In this country of course, we have to be careful when we ask questions about, ‘Who controls the media? Who controls the general climate of opinion?’ And again, if we compare the situation with 30 years ago, and we look at levels of concentration of power in the media, and so on, I think you will see that the ability to express discontent, the kind of ideology of the time, is much more narrowly circumscribed now through these concentrations of economic and political power. If we look at the way the Republican Party has become a vehicle for special interest groups to accumulate more and more capital, and it is sort of scandalous, you see it day by day. New deals are cut in Congress, which somehow or other, give $20 billion d to the health insurance industry or something of that kind, these sorts of things are going on.
What we have is a political situation where the possibility of expression of political anger tends to get increasingly blocked. This, I think is a very interesting parallel. I jokingly say sometimes that I think China is Karl Rove’s dream. He would like it to be exactly like China, where the capacity to express political opposition in class terms China is blocked by the Communist Party, by the language and the discursive sort of structures. I think we are seeing something similar in this country, where the possibility to really express fierce opposition, in class terms to this immense concentration of wealth is essentially more and more blocked by all of these ideological barriers and also by the concentration of power in the media.
Q: Tell me about the ideological dimension of all this, because the ideological thought process is more complicated. You talk about the institutions, the concentration of wealth. But what is neo-liberalism, broadly speaking? And how does that relate not only to the economy but also to ideology and culture?
A: The strength of the neo-liberal ideology, on a popular level, is its emphasis individual liberty, freedom and personal responsibility. Those have all been very important aspects, of what you might call ‘American Ideology’ since the very inception of what the U.S. has been about. What neo-liberalism did was to take the demand for that which was clearly there in the 1950's and the 1960's and say “We can satisfy this demand, but we are gonna do this a certain way, we are gonna do it through the market, and you can only achieve those goals through the market. We are gonna do it in such a way that you have to forget about the issues of social justice.” It seems to me that the movements of the 1960's were about combining individual liberty and social justice. What neo-liberalism did was say “we’ll give you the individual liberty, you forget the social justice.” For that reason it has been very powerful in the United States as an ideology,because it can appeal to this long tradition of individual liberty and freedom.
You can see this in Bush’s rhetoric even before 9/11, although it has escalated since. . How many times did he use the words ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’ in his second inaugural address? It is to that ideological tradition which I think everyone in the US subscribes to some degree, including myself. The only interesting question is, how do we conceptualize individual liberty and freedom in relationship to social obligations? In relationship to social justice? In relationship to real possibilities for everybody to participate in this system? That is a question you cannot ask if you say the only vehicle for which you may realize your dreams of individual liberty and freedom is through the market and through privatization of everything, and through a legal apparatus which is heavily reliant on individual personal rights.
Q: And this rhetoric of individualism is also a crucial key in neoliberalism.
A: Yes, absolutely. I am very impressed with someone like Thomas Friedman, who is a great ideologist and neo-liberalist, yet in the wake of the Katrina hurricane disaster complained bitterly that there were no social solidarities around. You cannot help thinking: well, you spent most of your time destroying all of that, and now you are turning around and saying, here is a situation where we needed this. It is so fascinating to watch the way in which people cannot square these things. Even a conservative columnist like David Brooks says the same sort of thing. He will say we need more social solidarity. Well, you cannot have that and emphasize that everything has to be negotiated through the market.
Q: In terms of what is to be done, the classic question, you have intellectuals, you have activists, you have unions, all different sectors of society that could be mobilized in a critical way against neo-liberal discourse, neo-liberal institutions. How do they all fit together as far as critical opposition movement against neo-liberalism?
A: Here you come back to the geography of it. It depends a lot on where you are, and of course what we are seeing in Latin America is a lot of movement towards the left. It is different in Chile than in Brazil, which is different from Venezuela and different from Argentina or Bolivia, but never the less, there is sort of a movement of some kind or other that is anti neo-liberal. And the interesting question now is can they make their anti-neo-liberalization stick and how are they going to make it stick? I think you are going to get a very different answer in Chile than you are going to get in Bolivia. It seems to me we are moving to a situation of considerable experimentation with how to do this. Locally, inside the U.S. we will find this.
I was part of, or very close to, one of the first living wage movements in Baltimore back in the early 90's. They now have become quite wide spread through many jurisdictions of the United States and I think there is a push going on at the grassroots level that says you cannot have people employed at something that is below a living wage. Therefore we have to pay very close attention to that locally, and I think that local movements are likely to push more and more into the national consciousness. I think what we have to look at are these movements and these possibilities that exist in different places for political action. In something like the living wage movement, you have one set of possibilities, and in Bolivia, you have something else going on. To me, it is a fragmented opposition right now, moving in very different diverse ways. But it is a very exciting movement, because I we do not know, clearly, what the alternative might look like. I do not think we have a blueprint for it, which is probably a good idea, but we are moving towards something through this oppositional kind of structure.
Q: When you mentioned the living wage movement, it reminded me of something that goes back to Marx. That there is probably within these movements a discourse about wages, about inequality, about distribution. Marx’s idea was that there has to be a critical discourse about production process, which even the most radical of us tend to stay away from, maybe because there are no alternatives on the table. Lacking that discussion, how far can we get?
A: Well you have to start somewhere. One of my favorite passages from Marx is “The realm of freedom begins where the realm of necessity is left behind,” and he gives this rather long rhetoric about freedom. Then at the end of it he says, “Therefore, limiting the length of the working day, is a crucial demand.” So you go from a kind of revolutionary rhetoric to an almost reformist, kind of practical demand right now. And I think the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary is not necessarily that you do radical things all the time, but it is that at a given moment, you may all do the same thing, i.e. demand living wage, but you do it with a different objective, and that is as a long-term transition. A transformation, which is what you may have in mind, and I think that Marx was very well aware that if people are working 18-20 hours a day, 7 days a week, they are not going to be very revolutionary in their consciousness. They are going to be so damn tired, that they are not going to have time for anything, and therefore, creating spaces and possibilities for people to think of other possibilities is a precursor to a more general transformation. That is one of things that I certainly found out in the living wage campaign in Baltimore. People working two jobs, working 80 hours a week, and they do not have time to organize, they hardly have time to have a life, let alone be active in community organizations, and active as political organizers. It is very difficult to do that when you are in that situation.