New Imperialism & Social Transformation: From Dispossession to the Recuperation of the Commons
By Claudia Composto and Magalí Rabasa
Transcription by Isabel Harland De Benito
During his October 2011 visit to Buenos Aires, we conducted the following interview with marxist geographer David Harvey to discuss the current crisis of capitalism, geopolitical transformations, and the possibilities for social change in struggles against dispossession.
In your book The New Imperialism you analyze contemporary imperial power. What are some of the key political and economic characteristics, and who do you identify as the main actors?
What’s interesting about things like imperialism and capitalism is that you're talking about something—a process—that is ongoing, but one that keeps on changing its spots. It changes but it’s still the same thing, and I think when you're looking at something like imperialism, you're looking at strategic relations which are changing very much because of the changing geopolitical situation. If you take the broad definition of imperialism as the imposition by some external power upon a territory through practices of exploitation, then you would have to ask: who is imposing those practices right now? on which part of the world? and how is it being done? And what is interesting now is that if you are in a place like Zambia, and you ask who is exploiting the Copperbelt, you see that the main companies there are Indian and Chinese. So this notion that there is only one imperialist power in the world—the United States—is changing. Right now there is this process of what we refer to as a land-grab: the domination of the land either directly by purchasing large areas of land, or indirectly by contracting with people, agribusiness, etc. And so, the imperialist presence here in Latin America is changing. China is much more active now, and of course to some degree that is a benefit because a country like Argentina or Brazil can play off China against the United States, and to some degree against Europe, so imperialism become a very complicated question.
This is where I think this notion of accumulation by dispossession becomes terribly important, because capital accumulation over the last thirty or forty years has relied more and more on dispossession and less and less on the expansion of real production. The real production of expansion has occurred, particularly in Asia, but the rest of the world has been subjected more and more to this process of procuring access to natural resources, energy resources, land resources, and other ways which are either by outright ownership or by leasing resources and becoming the primary exploiter of resources—which always means that an external power is probably in alliance with internal forces in order to do that. So one of the questions that is very important to look at right now is how contemporary imperialism is working with local elites in alliance with external forces, some of which do have the technologies needed to exploit the resource. Then there is the question of how this exploitation happens. It’ss rather different from colonial-type imperialism, but it is still an exploitative relation in which a local population is essentially deprived of access to those resources that are captured by multinational capital or external forces of that kind, in alliance with internal elites. This creates all kind of interesting problems, particularly if internally you need some of that technology to exploit the resource for your own benefit. I think you're seeing some of that conflict in a place like Bolivia right now, where Evo Morales starts out with a revolutionary project, but increasingly finds he has to compromise with international capital. He needs to exploit the resources, but then the base that got him into power protests, insistingthat that is not what they put him in power for. There's increasingly a conflict between Morales' government and the base that brought him into power and it's a difficult situation. It’s an inherently contradictory situation, because he has people who are saying to him: we want to have development, we want Bolivia to grow, we want it to have a lifestyle which is okay, but we don't want you to compromise with external capital—and you can't do that. The difficulty in compromising with external capital is that external capital is a hard master and will extract each ounce of flesh. This is where the conflict lies right now.
What tensions exist between popular struggles that are confronting accumulation by dispossession, and those that are situated more in a context of extended reproduction? Are there possibilities for coordination between them?
This is partly a conceptual problem, and partly a practical problem. The conceptual problem is that in the Marxist tradition and the left generally, the working class is defined very much in terms of a vanguard, which is the factory laborer. There is this mythology built around the role of the factory proletariat in capitalism's history, and you get a neglect of other forms of struggle. One of the things I've been concerned with all my academic life is to say that political struggles are very much located in and around organizations. If you look at the political struggles which are talked about as being factory-based, the ones that really worked were those where they had a great deal of support from the community and actually brought it together. In some instances it produced revolutionary movements like the Paris Commune, or the Cordoba revolutionary movement in Argentina 1969, and we've seen it manifest also, more recently, in a place like Cairo, where you get the coming together of working people, neighbors, disaffected youth, middle-class, all in a particular space. The fact that this is all there in Cairo played a very important role in the way that the movement unfolded. I've always argued that actually we conceptualize revolutionary struggle in the wrong way by focusing on the factory labourers, and that we should be thinking about a broader coalition of forces. I've just written a book about this where I argue that by focusing on the urban as a centre for struggle you get much more of a relationship between accumulation by dispossession and the exploitation of living labour and production. This is because the bourgeoisie can do the following: let’s suppose it gives good wages to the worker at the production point, and so it looks as if exploitation of labour in production is decreased, but it then charges very high rents and very high credit card costs. What is happening is that you are giving people something at the point of production but you take it back in the living space, and I think increasingly—particularly in the 1950s and 1960s in the advanced capitalist world—you saw increasing concessions on wages, but also increasing taking-back from the living space (high rents, high living costs). There's a very interesting moment in 'The Communist Manifesto' where Marx and Engels explain how the worker suffers exploitation and then goes into the living space and has to face the landlord, the usurer, the shopkeeper, etc. So if you think of capital as being constituted not only by production capital but also by merchant capital, finance capital, landed capital, landlord capital, and you can see how profit is being created in production but it's actually being recaptured by these processes of dispossession in the living space—you have to look at the unity of that process. Theoretically this is what Marx does, and in Volume II of Capital you see it very clearly: the point where the surplus produced is not necessarily the same as the point where it is realized, and the economy of dispossession has always been working side by side with the economy of exploitation. What we saw was that the strength of the working class had become such that you had to concede at the point of production, but then you suck it all back with the other circuits of merchant capital and everybody else. I think the two forms of exploitation are very closely interwoven in the history of capital and we haven’t appreciated the relationship between them and what it means for political struggle. For example, a struggle over affordable housing or a rent strike is as significant as a working class struggle, that is, a struggle over wages. The two are very much related to each other.
How are the struggles against the exploitation of natural resources and defense of territory connected to the kinds of struggles you just mentioned?
The exploitation of natural resources has two dimensions to it: one is just simply taking the resource without paying anything to the people who have it; the other being that once you command a natural resource you can speculate on it and you can extract rent. What you see is, for instance, oil prices go up hugely, and everybody thinks it’s because we're running out of oil, but what is really happening is that the speculators are holding oil, and manipulating the prices. So getting command of a resource and monopolizing a resource becomes a way of extracting high rent. Now, what does a high rent mean? If the oil companies extract huge profits out of their monopoly power, who pays? The whole world pays. In other words, they are extracting wealth from us by making us pay much more for the oil than it cost them to get it out of the ground and they can do that because they have monopoly power. There is a struggle first of all over the extraction question and the conditions of extraction. And, of course, a small country with very little power facing a big oil company backed by the power of the United States military apparatus is not in a very good position to demand that they pay them back the money it cost to get it. If a country does try to do that, then immediately there's going to be all kinds of conflict. But there's also a second struggle, which is to prevent the monopolization of that resource and the extraction of monopoly rents from that resource, which then is a way of extracting wealth from everybody who is going to be a user of the resource. So there are two kinds of struggle, and they're rather different from each other.
Given the major obstacles to the construction of anti-systemic alternatives from within cities and urban spaces, could you explain the idea that you propose of 'the right to the city', and what elements of this we can imagine as contributing to the construction of a post-capitalist society?
‘The right to the city', as an idea, was formulated very powerfully by Lefebvre in 1967-68. Therefore, like all ideas, it comes and goes. But Lefebvre came up with the idea very much in response to what was going on in the streets at the time. There were strong elements, for example in Paris, that saw the city being dominated by finance capital and the developers, and they didn't like what was happening to it; people were losing the urban environments that they valued. Now, over the last ten years or so we've seen a kind of revival of 'the right to the city' idea, which intellectually I've been involved in. But what is most important is its relationship to what is going on in the streets. I think that there is a sense in the United States that many cities now are dominated by developers, construction interest and financiers, who are only interested in maximising land rents. They don't care about how much I have to pay for my house and these kinds of issues, and there is a sense that there is a production of homelessness and that there's a production of a city which is not available to the mass of the population. The city is increasingly a gated community for the very rich. So out of the streets comes this notion that this is not our city anymore and we want to take back our city—sometimes this initially starts as a particular movement, like the movement against homelessness, the movement for affordable housing, or the movement against gentrification. The increasing policing and surveillance of the streets and business improvement districts began to take away democracy and turn it into what the business community wanted. We see that happening in many parts of the world, and the strange confluence in Brazil between very active movements—particularly around affordable housing and housing rights along with democratization—produced clauses in the Brazilian constitution which said there is a 'right to the city,' that people have a right to be consulted about what happens. So the idea of 'the right to the city' is something that emerhes from a social situation. I think there has been a growth in the sense of wanting to take back the city from the developers. On the one hand we're creating a world which is full of slums, and on the other hand we're creating a world which is full of these very upscale, empty condominium wealth projects. So there is a sense that something is going wrong with urbanization right now. 'The right to the city' idea comes out of that, but 'the right to the city' as an idea is what I call an 'empty signifier'—it can mean anything to anybody. For example, developers say they have a right to the city, and in a sense they do. So there is an empty signifier, which is very important because it becomes a question then of who gets to fill it with meaning.
There is a struggle over the question of what 'the right to the city' means, and whose right to the city are we talking about. Marx famously said that this is the kind of situation where you have equal rights, and between equal rights, force decides. So 'the right to the city' becomes firstly a struggle over who fills that notion with meaning, and secondly over how the force gets mobilized to say that it's our city, not their city, which then introduces a dimension of a class project. It's not a right which is given abstractly, it is a something that has to be struggled for as part of a class project, and it's a collective right. One of the things that I find very interesting is the way in which different groups working on specific issues in the city start to think of what they're doing in relationship to this more collective kind of questions like: whose city is it? how is it going to work? and so on. Out of that can come the idea of reconstructing a political city, a socialist city, for example, on the ruins of capitalist urbanization, because actually, capitalist urbanization has destroyed the city in terms of it as a political social entity, and we have to rebuild that political social entity on the ruins of capitalist urbanization as part of the political project.
What connections do you see between this reconfiguration of urbanization and the social and environmental crisis on a global scale?
One of the ways in which capitalism has gotten out of crisis in the past is to build houses and fill them with things, and the result of that is a kind of urbanization which consumes a vast amount of land and is sprawling all over the place. It consumes a vast amount of energy. So if you just take those two dimensions—land use and energy consumption—you can see that urbanization is one of the major causes of environmental degradation. As such, if you want to confront global warming or global environmental degradation, you have to do something about urbanization. This demands a different kind of urbanization which must be an anti-capitalist urbanization, because capitalists love to go out there and find a space which is empty, build all sorts of ridiculous thing in it like golf courses, gated communities, and sprawling land where people have to drive everywhere to get things. So this connection, I think, between building cities as a way of getting out of crisis, and then creating an environmental crisis as a result is very strong in this respect.
You argue that there has been a shift of resources from West to East and from North to South. How does this transform the prevailing geopolitical configuration, and what are some of the consequences of this transformation?
For the last twenty or thirty years, one of the paradoxes of neoliberalization was that it opened up the world in such a fashion that a country like China could insert itself into the global economy in ways which had not been possible before that, and one of the things that happened in the United States, for example, was that finance capital actually promoted the deindustrialization of the United States. Everybody complains and says it was China's fault, but it was not China's fault—it was the financiers' fault, because the financiers took the money capital to China because they got higher rates of return in China. Money is what I call the 'butterfly form' of capital: it can flutter around anywhere it likes and can take flight anywhere, which is very different from how commodities move around, and very different from the production form of capital which is very hard to move. So by liberating the financial form of capital, the 'butterfly form' of capital, you actually transform the global economy over the last thirty of forty years so as to put huge amounts of productive capacity in East Asia in particular, in China for instance, and as a result of that China managed to enter into the global economy in a way that would not have been possible under conventional, older forms of imperialist power structures. What we now have is a situation where the clear structure that existed up until 1989 of communist world/ capitalist world (a capitalist world with U.S. hegemony) has been essentially dismantled and was already dissolving before the end of the Cold War. So the United States is not in a position to exercise dominant power anymore, and the question that arises is: where does the dominant power reside now? Well, it doesn't reside anywhere, particularly right now. What we see is regionalism: there's a power block in East Asia; clearly Latin America is now seeing itself more as a regional power block and more concerned about trying to organize itself as such; and then of course Europe has become more integrated to some degree. The world has become regionalized, and those regional power blocks are taking very different political powers. Latin America, for example, is much more expansionist, following the Chinese and the model of Canada and expansionist politics. The world is being divided now between the 'austerity people' and the 'expansionist people', and the 'expansionist people' are winning of course because they're growing and the 'austerity people' are blocked with very low growth. But the expansionist people have a problem which is how to keep the expansion going. There are really serious doubts about that, and one of the threats, of course, is inflation—you have very strong inflation in China, very strong inflation here in Argentina, and throughout much of Latin America. So half the world is expansion and inflation, and the other half is austerity and deflation—a very strange global picture. Neither side is working very well, although it looks like the expansionists are winning. But there are problems with the expansionist moral, and so this is a moment when we should be starting to think about alternative economic forms, but, of course, you can't talk about that, it's essentially ruled out. The powers that be can't see that there's anything wrong with a particular model of development, they've got blinders on.
Claudia Composto has a degree in Sociology from the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires (UBA), and is currently completing a Masters in Political Science at the Instituto de Altos Estudios de la Universidad Nacional de San Martín (IDAES-UNSAM). Her current research examines socio-environmental conflicts in territorial disputes. Her work focuses on the strategies of consensus building and social legitimacy deployed by transnational mining companies and states, in the context of large scale mining in Argentina. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Magalí Rabasa is a doctoral candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. She is currently conducting fieldwork for her dissertation in Argentina, examining the role of the print book in the formation of networks of anticapitalist social movements in Latin America. She is a member of two collectives: Radio Zapatista and jóvenes en resistencia alternativa. Contact: email@example.com
Isabel Harland De Benito currently lives between Glasgow and Madrid. She is an activist, popular educator and translator. She spent five years living and working in various parts of Mexico and has done translations for the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Distrito Federal, Bajo Tierra Ediciones, and others. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org