David Harvey explores the relationships between marxists, anarchists and geographers

David Harvey is a highly influential marxist geographer who made a big impact on me as a geography undergraduate in the early 1980s. He is probably as responsible as anyone for me being the Green Leftie that I am today. He has published a very timely review of marxist and anarchist traditions that inform much of the thinking of the progressive left today, and makes an impassioned plea that proponents of these traditions put aside our differences such that: “this does not preclude collaboration and mutual aid with respect to the many other common anti-capitalist struggles with which we are engaged. Honest disagreements should be no barrier to fertile collaborations.
This a message that I seem to be constantly trying to impress on all who consider themselves to be on the progressive left, especially here in Wales

It is a lengthy, but accessible essay that I would urge all to read in its entirety, but here I select some nuggets that spoke especially poignantly to me:

Selected extracts from: “Listen, Anarchist!” A personal response to Simon Springer’s “Why a radical geography must be anarchist”
David Harvey
City University of New York, USA (published 10/06/2015 http://davidharvey.org/2015/06/listen-anarchist-by-david-harvey/ )

The overlapping interests of marxism, anarchism and geography.
To the degree that anarchists of one sort or another have raised important issues that are all too frequently ignored or dismissed as irrelevant in mainstream Marxism, so too I think dialogue – let us call it mutual aid – rather than confrontation between the two traditions is a far more fruitful way to go. Conversely, Marxism, for all its past faults, has a great deal that is crucial to offer to the anti-capitalist struggle in which many anarchists are also engaged. Geographers have a very special and perhaps privileged niche from which to explore the possibility of collaborations and mutual aid. As Springer points out, some of the major figures in the nineteenth century anarchist tradition – most notably Kropotkin, Metchnikoff and Reclus – were geographers. Through the work of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and later on Murray Bookchin, anarchist sentiments have also been influential in urban planning, while many utopian schemas (such as that of Edward Bellamy) as well as practical plans (such as those of Ebenezer Howard) reflect anarchist influences. I would, incidentally, put my own utopian sketch (“Edilia”) from Spaces of Hope (2000) in that tradition.

How we can serve the cause
In his open letter to his anarchist colleagues Reclus wrote: “Great enthusiasm and dedication to the point of risking one’s life are not the only ways of serving a cause. The conscious revolutionary is not only a person of feeling, but also one of reason, to whom every effort to promote justice and solidarity rests on precise knowledge and on a comprehensive understanding of history, sociology and biology” as well as, it went without saying, the geography to which he had dedicated so much of his life’s work (Clark and Martin, 2004).

Potential for a new left force
There are, of course, many anarchisms and many Marxisms. The identity of anarchism in particular is very hard to pin down. There is frequently as much bad blood between factions within these traditions (if such they are) as there is between them. By the same token, there are as many commonalities between factions across traditions as there are differences. These commonalities prefigure the potentiality for a new left force,

Where value is produced v where value is realised + the politics of refusal
There is a big distinction in Marx’s theory between how, when and where value is produced and how, when and where it is realized. Value produced in China is realized, for example, in Walmart and Apple stores in North America. There are perpetual struggles over the realization of value between consumers and merchant/property-owning capitalists. The battles with landlords, the phone, electricity and credit card companies are just the most obvious examples of struggles within the sphere of realization that pervade daily life. It is in such realms that the politics of refusal often make a lot of sense

Searching for meaning in our lives
What unifies all our perspectives is what I can best call “a search for meaning” in a social world that appears more and more meaningless. This requires a real attempt to live as far as possible an unalienated life in an increasingly alienating world. I admire the social anarchists I have known because of their deep personal and intellectual commitment to do just that.
Social anarchists are not, however, alone in this. I am all for it too. I featured alienation (a taboo concept for many Marxists of a scientistic or Althusserian persuasion) as the seventeenth and in many respects crucial contradiction in my Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (2014). You don’t have to be either an anarchist or a Marxist to attempt to create a personal and social world which has meaning and within which it is possible to live in a relatively unalienated way. Millions of people are perpetually struggling to do just that and in so doing create islands of unalienated activities. This is what many religious groups do all the time. Many young people in the world today, faced with meaningless employment opportunities and mindless consumerism are searching and opting for a different lifestyle. Much of contemporary cultural production in the Western world is building upon exactly this sensibility and the broad left, both anarchist and Marxist, has to learn to respond appropriately.

Why political activism fails
Firstly there is the failure to shape and mobilize political power into a sufficiently effective configuration to press home a revolutionary transformation in society as a whole. If, as seems to be the case, the world cannot be changed without taking power then what is the point of a movement that refuses to build and take that power? Secondly, there is an inability to stretch the vision of political activism from local to far broader geographical scales at which the planning of major infrastructures and the management of environmental conditions and long distance trade relations becomes a collective responsibility for millions of people.

The necessity of taking power
I find Bookchin’s line on all of this interesting, even if incomplete. Resolutely opposed as he was to the state and hierarchies as unreformable instruments of oppression and denial of human freedom, he was not naïve about the necessity of taking power:
Every revolution, indeed, even every attempt to achieve basic change, will always meet with resistance from elites in power. Every effort to defend a revolution will require the amassing of power – physical as well as institutional and administrative – which is to say, the creation of government. Anarchists may call for the abolition of the state, but coercion of some kind will be necessary to prevent the bourgeois state from returning in full force with unbridled terror. For a libertarian organization to eschew, out of misplaced fear of creating a “state”, taking power when it can do so with the support of the revolutionary masses is confusion at best and a total failure of nerve at worst (Bookchin, 2014: 183).

The dangers of decentralisation and localism
As I argued in Rebel Cities (2013a), decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality and centralization of power. Once again, Bookchin sort of agrees: “at the risk of seeming contrary, I feel obliged to emphasize that decentralization, localism, self-sufficiency, and even confederation, each taken singly, do not constitute a guarantee that we will achieve a rational ecological society. In fact all of them have at one time or another supported parochial communities, oligarchies, and even despotic regimes” (2014: 73-74).

How should we see the ‘state’?
My own simplified view is that the state is a ramshackle set of institutions existing at a variety of geographical scales that internalize a lot of contradictions, some of which can potentially be exploited for emancipatory rather than obfuscatory or repressive ends (its role in public health provision has been crucial to increasing life expectancy for example), even as for the most part it is about hierarchical control, the enforcement of class divisions and conformities and the repression (violent when necessary) of non-capitalistic liberatory human aspirations. Monopoly power within the judiciary (and the protection of private property), over money and the means of exchange and over the means of violence, policing and repression, are its only coherent functions essential to the perpetuation of capital while everything else is sort of optional in relation to the powers of different interest groups (with capitalists and nationalists by far the most influential). But the state has and continues to have a critical role to play in the provision of large-scale physical and social infrastructures. Any revolutionary (or insurrectionary) movement has to reckon with the problem of how to provide such infrastructures.


Management of the commons

I make common cause on this with Bookchin who writes: “No organizational model, however, should be fetishized to the point where it flatly contradicts the imperatives of real life” (2014: 183). Springer and many other anarchists and autonomistas consider the only legitimate form of organization to be horizontal, decentered, open, consensual and non-hierarchical. “Just to be clear,” I wrote, “I am not saying horizontality is bad – indeed I think it an excellent objective – but that we should acknowledge its limits as a hegemonic organizational principle, and be prepared to go far beyond it when necessary” (2013a: 70). In the case of the management of the commons, for example, it is difficult if not impossible (as Elinor Ostrom’s work had demonstrated) to take consensual horizontality to much larger scales such as the metropolitan region, the bioregion, and certainly not the globe (as in the case of global warming). At those scales it was impossible to proceed without setting up “confederal” or “nested” (which means inevitably hierarchical in my view but then this too may just be semantics) structures of decision making that entailed serious adjustments in organized thinking as well as forms of institutionalized governance.

The need for collaboration
The mobilization of political power is essential and the state cannot be neglected as a potential site for radicalization. On all these points I beg to differ with many of my autonomist and anarchist colleagues. But this does not preclude collaboration and mutual aid with respect to the many other common anti-capitalist struggles with which we are engaged. Honest disagreements should be no barrier to fertile collaborations.

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