Dr. Robert Porter on Prof. David Harvey
It really is a rather curious business isn’t it: affections, feelings and emotions. They can come and go in a flash. They can endure, being the product of a continual labour, or even a hard-earned wisdom. They can become less intense, more intense, sometimes both at the same time. That is to say, they can get mixed up in all sorts of ways at various junctures. Perhaps what gives our emotions, feelings and affections real resonance (and what subsequently gives the actions that follow from them their meaning and significance) is their mixed quality, the way they continue to confound, confuse and provoke us to think, and then to think differently, and then…
It might seem odd to speak of affections, feelings and emotions when thinking about engaging with the work of intellectuals. But only if we are determined to lack the (very little) imagination required. When I think of the work of David Harvey, the now very well known cultural and economic geographer, the overwhelmingly feeling I have presently is one of respect and admiration. But this was not always the case. As an undergraduate student in the mid 1990s, I first became aware of Harvey through what is still, in my view, his best or most interesting book: The Condition of Postmodernity. Of course, now I say it is his best book, but then I thought of it rather differently.
To my twenty-something self, Harvey was a Marxist, and being a Marxist was bad, very bad. Why? Marxists were economistic (i.e., they tended to reduce interesting cultural and political questions to economic ones), resentfully doctrinal (i.e., they religiously clung to a philosophical and political meta-language that was outmoded and this made them resent the innovative movements in contemporary theory I was interested in – ‘postmodernism’, ‘poststructuralism’ and the new and important forms of ‘identity politics’ that followed from them). Marxists also tended to be old (i.e., at least 40 or even older) and not the kind of folk you would want to go clubbing with (they wore BHS round-neck jumpers and tweed jackets with patches on them, whereas ‘poststructuralists’, and I wanted to be one of them, wore cool black jeans, black polo-neck jumpers and heavy-rimmed, Woody Allen, glasses).
I guess you get the point, or can no doubt see it coming. The vices associated with being a Marxist like Harvey (and not just Harvey, I would also include Althusser, Adorno, Horkheimer, and even second generation Frankfurt school thinkers like Marcuse and Habermas – not to mention Marx himself), are no longer vices in any clear and distinct sense in my mind. They have a more mixed quality, and can indeed have a virtuous quality. In one sense, Harvey is cool in my book because he has remained unfashionably committed to Marx’s ideas over a very long period, irrespective of Marx’s popularity inside or outside the academy. That is to say, in pretty much every year since 1971 Harvey has taught his now very famous course on Marx’s Capital at least once (check it out for free online). This shows a real intellectual, political and pedagogical fidelity that now inspires me and is worthy of our respect. Alain Badiou (another Marxist, of sorts, though I suppose we are all Marxists, of sorts, now) would refer to this kind of endurance, commitment and fidelity as a particular kind of ‘event’; what he calls, ‘love’. Harvey ‘loves’ Marx because he endures with him, continues to show his commitment and fidelity in re-enacting or bringing to life Marx’s ideas. This is real, deep learning.
If I said that I’m trying to learn to love Harvey, then this obviously entails commitment, endurance and fidelity to his ideas and work. But it also presupposes that the ideas can be brought to life, re-enacted in a particular context and related to a specific political and cultural situation. Well, over the last four years I have been thinking (thankfully not alone, and thankfully with others who have made me smarter) about the specific political and cultural situation of my home town, Belfast. I have been trying to think about how the city (particularly its built environment) has been shaped, reshaped and dramatically changed since the mid 1990s by various economic and political forces, and what may be the lasting political and cultural consequences of those changes. Harvey has proved vital in this regard; vital in understanding what Althusser would have called the current ‘conjuncture’ that is Belfast. One example will suffice for quick illustrative purposes.
In a relatively recent work, Spaces of Global Capitalism, Harvey outlines his ‘theory of uneven geographical development’. Now, during the course of outlining this theory Harvey begins to talk about the ‘production of regionality’. To cut a very long story short, Harvey argues, indeed shows, how regional spaces get defined or produced through their built environment and how the built environment functions to spatialise capital in the region. Put simply, investments in the built environment define regional spaces for the circulation of capital. This, in my view, has been the defining and (until very recently) accelerating tendency in Belfast and across the region since the mid 1990s. Reading Spaces of Global Capitalism about three years ago really made me begin to see this for the first time.
What also struck me forcibly (and what continues to hit home) was the fact that Harvey mentioned Northern Ireland specifically here, pointing to the historical problem of capital accumulation in the region (the fact that it has historically been made difficult in the context of conflict). To overcome such problems, Harvey argues, ‘regional class alliances’ need to emerge and establish a ‘pattern of governance’ that focuses on the general ‘economic health or well-being of the region’, thereby minimising political antagonism (whether class, sectarianism or whatever). Further, this class alliance will be led by what Harvey calls ‘landed capital’ and ‘developer capital’, backed up by ‘finance capital’ (as the redevelopment of land and the built environment is heavily dependent on the credit system, debt financing etc). Key also, here, are ‘local bourgeoisies’ and how they convince not only the political classes, but all classes, that the developing economic well-being of the region will ‘provide spillover benefits for them’.
In an important sense, the work I have been doing on Belfast over the last few years has been defined by a kind of fidelity to the resonances, provocations and the many questions implicit and explicit in Harvey’s remarks here (and in his work more generally). And it has been, and will continue to be, a labour of love.