“The restoration of the past versus the transcendence of the past”: An Interview with David Harvey

Para nuestra generación, crecida durante el neoliberalismo, heredero de la decepción de los proyectos socialistas de los sesenta y la violencia de las dictaduras de los setenta en Latinoamérica, hay pocos referentes hacia los cuales nos podemos dirigir hoy en día para construir aquel vocabulario e imaginario que permite pensar en cambios revolucionarios. David Harvey es uno de ellos.

            David Harvey es probablemente uno de los tres teóricos sobre marxismo más renombrados y difundidos de hoy en día. Emblema de la universidad pública más grande de Estados Unidos, CUNY (City University of New York), profesor hace años en el programa de Antropología, formado en Cambridge, su carrera está atravesada por Latinoamérica. Doctor Honoris Causa por la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires), entre otras, todos los años desde hace más de veinticinco viaja hacia allá, habiéndose en este camino comprometido con varios proyectos regionales. Fue Director del Centro Nacional de Estrategias para el Derecho al Territorio en Ecuador (2014-2017), en el Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales de Ecuador, e incorporado constantemente en su obra las diferentes contiendas sociales del continente, como las protestas de El Alto en Bolivia (en Rebel Cities) o la revolución Zapatista (en Global Capitalism: Towards a theory of uneven geographical development). Falta solamente visitar su página web (davidharvey.org) para encontrarse, de fondo, la pancarta promocionando una visita a Universidad Federeal da Bahia, en Brasil.

            Una tarde de Marzo, tras su escritorio amontonado de libros y documentos, a días de que se fuera de viaje a Argentina, nos reunimos para hablar de asuntos contemporáneos vitales para la situación política y urbana de la latinoamericana de hoy. El día anterior a la entrevista habían asesinado a Marielle Franco, una activista de las favelas de Brasil, y a ella le dedicamos este intercambio de preguntas, respuestas e ideas. 



Interview with David Harvey on contemporary Latin-American politics after the pink tide, and the role of urbanism and ideas in the new political struggles

dedicated to Marielle Franco

 with Roberto Elvira Mathez

  • Elvira: You have spoken recently and before on the political situation of Latin-America. To give continuity to this interview to the many you had before, I went back a little to the archive and found that in 2006 you gave an interview to an Argentinean newspaper and you spoke about Kirchnerismo before the crisis and you spoke about the threats of the continuation of some neoliberal policies. In a conference you gave last year on ecosystem and urbanism, and you spoke on the risk, of for example Correa, of transferring the economical conexion between the United States, to China. And also, in Rebel Cities, you speak about Bolivia, and about the problems that sometimes Morales has with the continuation or a more radical class orientated program. My question is, with the recent changes that have been going in Argentina with Macri, in Brazil in Temer, with incidents like the assassination of Mariella Franco, what is your impression? Is it a continuation of what has been going on from before? And what do you believe the future might be?.
  • Harvey: Well I think there is a certain continuity in both directions. I think the pink tide that existed in Latin-American was always pink and it was never red. Never took on the bourgeoisie and never became strongly anticapitalistic. At its best it was a new distributed capitalism. It was neoliberalism with a redistribution device. Like the bolsa familia in Brazil, as the one similar to the ones Kirchners had. Correa did a pretty good job of redistribution but didn’t challenge the centers of power. And I think Morales was going a little towards challenging it but then effectively went back. So, I think the neoliberal project was never totally confronted by the pink On the other hand the current right wing attack on redistributive achievements of the left, shows also a continuity in another sense.

This turn to the right doesn’t mean that the forces that created the pink tide have disappeared. In fact, I would say exactly the opposite. I think the evidence suggests that the speed with which those that have come to power in the right wing have tried to change things shows they don’t think they have much time. They need to move fast. Even in the face of odds, like Temer. In Ecuador, the moving is actually being done in the Allianza which under Correa promoted the redistributions. Lenin Moreno of all people is making it to the right.

But I think the left forces are still very strong. The only big question for me is if they want to come back to power to just do the same thing they were doing before or are they actually recuperating their thinking and their ambitions to do something beyond what has been done in the past. In other words, will we look back on the pink tide as a small wave before the big wave came or would it just simply be followed by a second small wave. That’s the big question, for me. So, I think this is a very important moment for the left forces to recuperate their positions. I certainly see elements of them wanting to be much more radical. And I think the assassination of Marielle in Rio in some way is a sign of fear on the right of that kind of politics. The kind of politics that consolidated in Rio around Frescia and PSOL is more threatening.

All these places, as in this country [USA], are stuck between the restoration of the past versus the transcendence of the past. So, I think that is where the left story is right now.

  • Elvira: In the chapter 24, in the Capital, Marx says that revolutions are not made with laws. How much possibility, after we had the pink wave, you see that a big change can be produced from the State, inside the State, or must it just be from outside the State?
  • Harvey: I think it always must be from outside. The state won’t do anything unless it’s with lots of pressure from the outside. I think that taking state power and then neglecting the base which put you into power, never works. Now we can see that problem emerging with, say, Podemos in Spain. When it started to become a political party, the distance with the masses becomes a problem. This problem we can see also in Syriza in Greece. You need always to have a very strong social movement base. One of the things that the left has to figure out theoretically is that it’s not sufficient to say that the base can be constituted by labor unions and labor in the classic Marxist proletarian sense. It has to be built by alliances of social movements of different kinds. The big problems with social movements is that a lot of them are penetrated by the NGOs. And in fact, the NGOs are non-revolutionary configurations, that are there to help people to cope with the situation, but not revolutionize it. Individually it might not be the case, but in general, structurally, the mediation of politics through NGOs, has been a disaster for real political change.

One of the things that again that we have to look for is a broader alliance, trying to find a space between radicalized movements outside NGOs framework, that conform and configure and conjoin with the labor movement. And let’s face it, a lot of the labor movement has not been revolutionary either.

  • Elvira: Étienne Balibar, in one of his books, spoke of the necessity to translate the class concept from the national border to the transnational plane, in the risk of losing all the potentiality that the concepts have. In this kind if union between agents, do we need to think in transnational scale or can they be also local, sporadic movements, and wait for them to be transnational, or must they be born transnationally?

Harvey: I don’t think you can have any politics that is not at some point kind of rather local politics. If you start with some conceptual apparatus up there in the clouds and read books, then nothing happens at the base. Politics has to begin with local and political activism. The big challenge for the left is always to do what we geographers call jumping scale. You need to go from one scale to another scale.  And politics often looks to be different as you move across scales. But because it looks different, it doesn’t mean you abandon the early scales. In other words, you always have to keep the rootedness in place. And what we see in many political movements, even in revolutionary movements, is a difficulty in maintaining the relationship between, say, someone that comes to power, like the Castros in Cuba, and what is going on in the local neighborhood level. And that is the connectivity that needs to be sustained. And if it is sustained merely bureaucratically, as opposed to politically, you run the danger that the revolutionary movement will be hollowed out because it has lost contact with the bases. There are issues of this kind always there. If I had a magic way of saying how do you do that, I will have it out there, but I don’t have magic and I don’t think there is a magical way. I just think it takes a lot of hard work of maintaining the vitality of your revolutionary impulse to keep the movement going.

  • Elvira: You point in one of your recent talks “Marx for the XXI century” that the function of the academy is to produce questions, interpolate, more than just to formulate solutions. In the Argentinean tradition, there has been skepticism to institutionalized knowledge, being our cultural references normally people that exceed the academy, as Borges, Cortázar or Walsh. So what would be the role of institutionalized knowledge in this conexion? Does it collaborate, or does it create more distance?
  • Harvey: As an academic as myself, I work in an academic institution. And I think that it’s a certain labor process, is a certain of work space. There is a struggle to keep open certain lines of inquiry that exist there. These days everyone is going neoliberal or corporate in the academy and so we have our own struggle within our own work place to keep radical spaces open and I think that people on the outside should appreciate that. And it’s not easy to constantly have to fight for this and we have to do it partly through the rules of the game inside Academia. In which you have to pretend you’re a good academic and you have to sell you’re a good academic, and therefore you have to engage in academic discourse which will impress the administrations in such a way that they can’t turn around and fire you. And I lost many radical colleagues because they didn’t do this. So, if I am to keep a space open in Academia to teach the kind of things that I can teach, then there is a certain kind of struggle that gets fought to do that. Universities teach a lot of people and teaching critical concepts is vital to the future of the left.

Now the difficulty is how then I deal with, say, the people that are struggling with the homelessness question. 100 thousand children in New York City are homeless and what are we going to do about that and what kind of things should an organization which is confronting that do? My approach to that is to say that people on the ground are going to do what they do because they know the situation far better than I do. I’m not going to go over there and tell them what to do. That will be presumptuous in the extreme. But If they want to know a little bit about what is happening in urbanization in general and why it is that we are building cities for investing and not cities for people to live in, and why we are not producing affordable housing, I can help them understand some of that, if that is what they want to know. At the same time if they want some support and they want me to come to do some educational work, I would be happy to that. At the same time, I would like them to come do some educational work inside academia, which some time I get people to do. So that we mutually learn from each other, in a situation of mutual respect that people out there will understand that I’m trying to do something here and if I’m trying to get people from outside is to try to get students to understand something which I have a hard time teaching, but that someone in the ground would be able to persuade in some way. A certain dialogue of that kind can be productive.

And of course, there is also the public realm of communication. If I can write things that go out there that people will read some way or other. Change their mind on how to understand the world. So, there is plenty of ground of collaboration and cooperation. I really object to the idea that we in the academy do theory whereas the practice is out there. I think that everyone is doing theory. The homeless are doing theory in their own way. We are all doing theory. But we are all theorizing in a different place and in a different language. We need to appreciate that that is what is going on. And then we can get to the point, maybe, that in the social movements they will realize that there are some academics that are not arrogant and think they know everything that is going on and what to do. That we are in a supportive relationship to each other. And have mutual respect on what each other does. In the same way that someone in the community would feel very angry if I came along and told them basically that you are not doing it right. You should do it in this way. I don’t take it at all well when they come along, and they say to me you are just an academic and you just do this theory and it’s all a waste of time. But I have to do that in order to maintain my position and my position is very important because if I wouldn’t be in a position to do the teachings of Marx, no one would.

  • Elvira: Something I love of Rebel Cities, is that you are trying to change the idea of industry being the focal point of change, to the cities as the new center of possibilities. As the role of the Villas, Favelas, Pueblos Jovenes, are increasing their influence in Latin-American cities, as in the rest of the world, becoming a bigger and bigger factor in the dynamics of the cities, what do you believe might be their new role or the future projections of them?
  • Harvey: A couple of things. One observation I would have is that the economic basis of rural life has been basically destroyed pretty much all over the world. So, what this has done is dislocated rural population, which all left behind and puts greater and greater emphasis upon the absorption of migrant streams in urban areas. And then the problem is where is the work? There is lots of deindustrialization going on through technological change and geographical mobility of capital. And you’re getting what might be called a vast industrial reserve army assembling. Surplus labor army. Bundled up together in large metropolitan areas, with very great difficulties of actually finding a way of making a living and subsistence. Now the political organization of such an industrial reserve army has always been problematic for the left historically. But there has been recognition that the mobilization of that population is critical until some degree. I have never been in Venezuela, but as I understand it, there is an organization at the local level. And if the movement is going to be sustained in Venezuela, it’s going to depend on them. This is a movement which has not always looked eye to eye with Chavez or Maduro, so it’s kind of tense. But on the question of how to mobilize that population, I think it’s no accident that when I look back at the movement that occurred 2013 in Brazilian cities, in almost every major Brazilian city, people were taking to the streets. What were they asking for? It was a great mix, but transportation was a big thing, mobility was an important thing. The way all that money was being spent on the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and all the rest of it.  There were all sorts of demands of this kind, which in many ways can be collected together around the theme of an unsatisfactory daily life for this vast population which economically has been made disposable by the dynamics of capital accumulation. I think that on the left we have to have a way to begin to talk about it. Both a theory of why its happing in this particular way.  A theory of the discontent. Something I am concentrating more and more is the idea of alienation. That you have alienated populations. And alienated populations are very vulnerable to charismatic leaders, right wing demagogues, and left wing organizing. So there is the big question for how the left wing is going to organize in the face of right wing neo-facist, populist, right wing movements that are emerging, who are increasingly attractive to that base as their political base.

That is why I try to tell my Marxist colleagues that they should be paying more attention to the dynamics of Urbanization. And of course, I have been saying that for 40 years. And some people have begun to listen now.  But it’s still the case that a lot of people on the left don’t want to listen because they read volume one of Marx’s Capital and say this is all like there is. We have to have a working class organization and that means organizing at the point of production….

  • Elvira: Systematically these neighborhoods are alienated, from the urbanistic level, water, electricity, and other resources, to the most personal level. So where do you build the bridges? Since they are systematically alienated, how do you combine this resentments between the discriminated neighbors and a middle class? Is it through academic discourse, urbanistic solutions, or what do you believe?
  • Harvey: I think there are a number of things. This is a very difficult period of struggle. Because basically, the right wing and the neoliberal media, if things go wrong, the last thing they are going to blame is capitalism. They are going to go look for someone else to blame. Migrants are a great way to go. And media tends to fuel this. So, you have Trump that claims that Mexicans are all rapist and that you have shit holes in Africa. This is a diversion. This is a real use of fetichization. If you just sit back and look it academically it makes you sick.

But how do we counteract that? Well one of things is just to kind of say that there are real problems here, that the real troubles is the Wall street bankers. I mean, did the immigrants produce the last crash? You have to give accounts that are very much against that. So there has to be strong analysis and accounts saying that that is not the real nature of where the real problems are coming from.

There has to be a political way of establishing alliances. I think this is a difficult thing because I would not like to deny any immigrant group the right to maintain its cultural habits, and distinctions, and the likes. In fact, I actually like to be in an urban setting where there all these different people that do different things. Where you can say, this is where you’ll find the Greeks, here where you find the Egyptians. I like that. But then there is the question in what sense can they all build alliances between each other over certain kinds of questions?

For instance, in Los Angeles, where the right of the city movement has very strong roots, I went to a meeting of the right to the city. And there was a big manifestation and it included Koreans, Hispanics, African Americans and it was great seeing all these Mariachi Bands and the Koreans that had these puppets shows and we occupied the rail station for a bit and the police did not know what to do with this spontaneous festival that was going on inside. So, I think there are things that make it possible to link together around an idea. In this instance, a lot of the agitation was over the new subway line and what the subway line was trying to do. Was it about real estate speculation or was it about helping people or were they actually going to install chain shops all over the subway station that would kill off the trade of small shops? So there where all these issues.

They have been recently successful in getting the planning organization transformed around what was planned to happen around building the subway system. But that was in the short run, which is not necessarily the long run, because political power sometimes says ok, I will give you this in the short time and then it does its deadly job. So, I think there are ways in which alliances can be constructed.

  • Elvira: Something I love about your production is the union of practice and the theory together. How do you feel the relationship between the necessity of practice and writing?
  • Harvey: I am a writer and I try to communicate things. I don’t believe in patronizing people. I believe people can understand quite complicated thinking. I sometimes get accused by other academics usually of being too theoretical for common people to understand and I kind of say you have a bad knowledge of common people. Common people are much smarter than you think. I have met lots of people in social movements that read my stuff and understood it far better than some students understand it. I think there is a practice of writing which I am concerned about and that’s one of thing that I would try to do and to some degree differentiates my writing from quite a lot of other Marxist because I try to pull people into the argument rather than telling them this is what you have to learn.
  • Elvira: I always found it funny that in the manifesto almost 25 % is written as a literary study. There is even a sentence in the communist manifesto says: when the political struggle was not enough, now was the time of the literary struggle. Wat What is your perception on the relationship between literature and struggle?
  • Harvey: I think that the struggle in the realm of ideas is very crucial. I think that Marx argues that ideas are a material force, but on their own they are nothing without a social movement. And material ideas are influenced by material circumstances. So, I tend to see that Marx has a notion of the totality. Which I always go back to, which says you can’t take any one of this moments and say this is the silver bullet. If you concentrate on this, this transforms everything.

But on the other hand, If everything transforms, but that don’t transform, its not enough.. If our ideas don’t transform, if our social relationships don’t transform, then this is not going to work. And this is part of the problem right now because we have a tremendous amount of pressure on something like urbanization: smart cities. Google is going to reorganize everything. So, everything runs smoothly. Yeah, they will probably will make so the traffic lights will be much better organized and change on a different rhythm according to where the traffic is. Ok, so google is going to do that. But that idea that many administrators have, if you just pay google everything is going to work. When the real issue is about questions of social relations. The mental conceptions that go with those social relations. This is going to take a battle in the realm of ideas. I want to attack the fascination and belief in smart cities. You can’t transform social relations, without transforming daily life, so people don’t keep on living alienated lives.

Mental conceptions of the world are one moment in the whole system, and they need to change. But again, this is not the only form of change required.

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