David Harvey: Their crisis, our challenge

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Protest against home foreclosures, Oakland, March 12, 2009. Photo by David Bacon.

In a far reaching interview with Red Pepper, David Harvey argues that the current financial crisis and bank bail-outs could lead to a massive consolidation of the banking system and a return to capitalist ``business as usual'' -– unless there is sustained revolt and pressure for a dramatic redistribution and socialisation of wealth. David Harvey was interviewed by Marco Berlinguer and Hilary Wainwright. Transcribed by Kate Ferguson. This article first appeared in the April/May 2009 print edition of Red Pepper, and is posted with permission at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. It is posted in the interests of furthering left debate on how best to respond to the crisis. Links encourages readers to express their views in the ``Comments'' box at the conclusion of the article.

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Does this crisis signal the end of neoliberalism? My answer is that it depends what you mean by neoliberalism. My interpretation is that it’s a class project, now masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, privatisation and the free market. That rhetoric was a means towards the restoration and consolidation of class power, and that neoliberal project has been fairly successful.

One of its basic principles that was set up in the 1970s was that state power should protect financial institutions at all costs. This is the principle that was worked out in the New York City crisis in the mid-1970s, and was first defined internationally when Mexico threatened to go bankrupt in 1982. That would have destroyed the New York investment banks, so the US Treasury and the IMF combined to bail Mexico out. But in so doing they mandated austerity for the Mexican population. In other words, they protected the banks and destroyed the people – and this has been the standard practice in the IMF ever since. The current bailout is the same old story, one more time, except bigger.

What happened in the US was that eight men gave us a three-page document, which pointed a gun at everybody and said ``give us US$700 billion or else''. This to me was like a financial coup against the government and the population of the US. Which means you’re not going to come out of this crisis with a crisis of the capitalist class; you’re going to come out of this with a far greater consolidation of the capitalist class than there has been in the past. We’re going to end up with four or five major banking institutions in the United States and nothing else.

Many on Wall Street are thriving right now. Lazard’s, because it specialises in mergers and acquisitions, is making megabucks. Some people are going to be burned, but overall it’s a massive consolidation of financial power. There’s a great line from Andrew Mellon (US banker, US secretary of the treasury 1921-32), who said that in a crisis assets return to their rightful owners. A financial crisis is a way of rationalising what is irrational – for example, the immense crash in Asia in 1997-98 resulted in a new model of capitalist development. Disruptions lead to a reconfiguration, a new form of class power. It could go wrong, politically. The bank bailout was fought over in the US senate, so the political class may not entirely go along – they can put roadblocks in it, but in the end they caved in.

But this can lead to a deeper political struggle: there is a strong sense of questioning why we are empowering all the people who got us into this mess. Questions are being asked about Obama’s choice of economic advisers – for example Larry Summers, who was secretary of the treasury at the key moment when a lot of things started to go really wrong, at the end of the Clinton administration. Why would you now bring in so many of the characters who are pro-Wall Street, pro-finance capital, who did the bidding of finance capital back then? Which is not to say that they aren’t going to redesign the financial architecture because I think they know it’s got to be redesigned, but who are they going to redesign it for? People are really discontented about Obama’s economic team, even in the mainstream press.

A new state financial architecture is required. I don’t think that all existing institutions, like the Bank of International Settlements or even the IMF, should be abolished. I think we will need them, but they have to be revolutionarily transformed. The big question is who will control them and what their architecture will be. We will need people, experts with some sort of understanding of how those institutions do work and can work. And this is very dangerous because, as we can see right now, when the state looks to see who can help it understand what is going on in Wall Street, they think the only people who can understand it are those on the inside of Wall Street.

Disempowerment of labour: enough is enough

Whether we can get out of this crisis in a different way depends very much upon the balance of class forces. It depends upon the degree to which the entire population says ``enough is enough, let’s change this system''. Right now, when you look at what’s been happening to workers over the last 50 years, they have got almost nothing out of this system. But they haven’t risen up in revolt. In the US over the last seven or eight years, the condition of the working classes in general has deteriorated, but there has been no mass movement against this. Finance capitalism could survive the crisis, but whether it does depends entirely upon the degree to which there is going to be popular revolt against what is happening, and a real push to try to reconfigure how the economy works.

One of the major barriers to continuous capital accumulation back in the 1960s and early 1970s was the labour question. There were scarcities of labour both in Europe and the US, and labour was well organised, with political clout. So one of the big barriers to capital accumulation during that period was: how can capital get access to cheaper and more docile labour supplies? There were a number of answers.

One was to encourage more immigration. In the United States there was a major revision of the immigration laws in 1965 that in effect allowed the US access to the global surplus population (before that only Europeans and Caucasians were privileged). In the late 1960s the French government was subsidising the import of Maghrebian labour, the Germans were bringing in the Turks, the Swedes were bringing in the Yugoslavs, the British were drawing upon their empire. So a pro-immigrant policy emerged, which was one attempt to deal with the labour problem.

The second thing you go for is rapid technological change, which throws people out of work. Third, you had people like Reagan and Thatcher and Pinochet to crush organised labour. And finally capital goes to where the surplus labour is by off-shoring. This was facilitated by technical reorganisation of the transport systems: one of the biggest revolutions that happened during this period is containerisation, which allowed you to make auto parts in Brazil and ship them for very low cost to Detroit or wherever. And the new communications systems allowed the tight organisation of commodity chain production.

All of these solved the labour problem for capital, so by 1985 capital has no labour problem any more. It may have specific problems in particular areas but globally it has plenty of labour available to it. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of much of China added something like 2 billion people to the global proletariat in 20 years. So labour availability is no problem now and the result of that is that labour has been disempowered for the last 30 years. But when labour is disempowered it gets low wages, and if you engage in wage repression this limits markets. So capital was beginning to face problems with its market, and there were two things that happened then.

The first was the gap between what labour was earning and what it was spending was covered by the rise of the credit card industry and increasing indebtedness of households. In the US in 1980 the average household owed around $40,000; now it’s about $130,000 for every household, including mortgages.

So household debt skyrockets and that brings you to financialisation, and that was about getting the financial institutions to support the household debts of working-class people whose earnings are not increasing. You start with the respectable working class, but by the time you get to the year 2000 you begin to find these sub-prime mortgages circulating. You are looking to create a market. And so finance starts to support the debt financing of people who have almost no income. But if you hadn’t done that what would have happened to the property developers who are building the houses? So you try to stabilise the market by funding that indebtedness.

Crises of asset values

The second thing that happened was that from the 1980s onwards the rich are getting far richer because of that wage repression. The story we are told is that they will invest in new activity, but they don’t; most of them start to invest in assets i.e. they put money in the stock market, the stock market goes up, so they think it is a good investment, so they put more money in the stock market, and you get these stock market bubbles. They bid up asset values, including stocks, property, and leisure property. So the investment is in the process of financialisation. But as you bid up asset values this carries over to the whole economy. To live in Manhattan, for example, became all but impossible unless you went incredibly into debt. Everyone was caught in this inflation of asset values. And now we’ve got a collapse of asset values; the housing market is down, the stock market is down.

There has always been the problem of the relationship between representation and reality. Debt is about the assumed future value of goods and services, so it assumes the economy is going to continue to grow over the next 20 or 30 years. It always involves a guess, which is then set by the interest rate, discounting into the future. This growth of the financial area after the 1970s has a lot to do with what I think is another key problem: what I would call the capitalist surplus absorption problem.

As surplus theory tells us, capitalists produce a surplus, which they then have to take a part of, recapitalise it, and reinvest it in expansion. Which means they always have to find somewhere else to expand into. In an article I wrote for the New Left Review (September-October 2008) called ``The right to the City'', I pointed out that in the last 30 years an immense amount of the capital surplus has been absorbed into urbanisation: urban restructuring, expansion and speculation. Every city I go to is a huge building site for capitalist surplus absorption. This way of absorbing capital surpluses has got more and more problematic over time. In 1750 the global value of the total output of goods and services was around $135 billion, in constant values. By 1950, it’s $4 trillion. By 2000, it’s $40 trillion. It’s now around $50 trillion. And if British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right it’s going to double over the next 20 years, to $100 trillion by 2030.

Throughout the history of capitalism, the general rate of growth has been close to 2.5 per cent per annum, compound basis. That would mean that in 2030 you’d need to find profitable outlets for $3 trillion dollars. That’s a very tall order. I think there has been a serious problem, particularly since 1970, about how to absorb greater and greater amounts of surplus into real production. Less and less of it is going into real production, and more and more into speculation on asset values, which accounts for the increasing frequency and depth of the financial crises we’ve been having; they are all crises of asset value.

My argument would be that even if we came out of this crisis right now, and there’s going to be capital accumulation at a 3 per cent rate of growth, we’ve got a hell of a lot of problems on our hands. Capitalism is running into serious environmental constraints, as well as market constraints, profitability constraints. The recent turn to financialisation is a turn of necessity, as a way of dealing with the surplus absorption problem; but one that cannot possibly work without periodic devaluations. That’s what’s happening now, with the losses of several trillion dollars of asset value.

The term ``national bail-out'' is therefore inaccurate, because they’re not bailing out the whole of the existing financial system – they’re bailing out the banks, the capitalist class, forgiving them their debts, their transgressions, and only theirs.

The money goes to the banks, but not to the homeowners who’ve been foreclosed on, which is beginning to create anger. And the banks are using the money not to lend to anybody but to buy other banks. They are consolidating their power.

The collapse of credit

The collapse of credit for the working class spells the end of financialisation as the solution for the crisis of the market. As a consequence of this we will see a major crisis of unemployment and the collapse of many industries unless there is effective action to change that. Now this is where you get the current discussion about returning to a Keynesian economic model, and Obama’s plan to invest in a vast public works programme and in green technologies, in a sense going back to a New Deal type of solution.

To understand the current situation we need to go beyond what goes on in the labour process and production to the complex of relationships around the state and finance. We need to understand how the national debt and credit system have from the beginning been major vehicles for primitive accumulation, or what I now call accumulation by dispossession – as you can see from the building industry.

In my ``Right to the City'' article I looked at how capitalism was revived in second-empire Paris because the state along with the bankers put together a new nexus of state-finance capital to rebuild Paris. That provided full employment – and the boulevards, the water systems and sewage systems, new transport systems. It was through those types of mechanisms that people built the Suez Canal. A lot of this was debt financed. Now that nexus has undergone a massive transformation since the 1970s. It’s become far more international, it’s opened itself to all types of financial innovations. including derivative markets and speculative markets and so on. A new financial architecture has been designed.

What I think is happening at the moment is that they are looking for a new financial set-up that can solve the problem not for working people but for the capitalist class. I think they are going to find a solution for the capitalist class and if the rest of us get screwed, too bad. The only thing they would care about is if we rose up in revolt. And until we rise up in revolt they are going to redesign the system according to their own class interests.

I don’t know what this new financial architecture will look like. If we look closely at what happened during the New York fiscal crisis I don’t think the bankers or the financiers knew what to do at all. What they did was bit by bit arrive at a ``bricolage''; they pieced it together in a new way and eventually they came up with a new construction. But whatever solution they may arrive at, it will suit them unless we get in there and start saying that we want something that is suitable for us. There’s a crucial role for people like us to raise the questions and challenge the legitimacy of the decisions being made at present, and to have very clear analyses of what the nature of the problem has been, and what the possible exits are.

We need, in fact, to begin to exercise our right to the city. We have to ask the question: which is more important, the value of the banks or the value of humanity? The banking system should serve the people, not live off the people. And the only way in which we are really going to be able to exert the right to the city is to take command of the capitalist surplus absorption problem. We have to socialise the capital surplus, and to get out of the problem of 3 per cent accumulation forever. We are now at a point where a 3 per cent growth rate forever is going to exert such tremendous environmental costs and such tremendous pressure on social situations that we are going to go from one crisis to another.


The core problem is how you are going to absorb capitalist surpluses in a productive and profitable way. My view is that social movements must coalesce around the idea that they want more control over the surplus product. And while I don’t support a return to the Keynesian model of the sort we had in the 1960s, I do think there was much greater social and political control over the production, utilisation and distribution of the surplus then.

The circulating surplus was put into building schools, hospitals and infrastructure. This was what upset the capitalist class and caused a counter movement towards the end of the 1960s – that they were not getting enough control over the surplus. However, if you look at the data the proportion of the surplus being absorbed by the state has not shifted very much since 1970. What the capitalist class did was to stop the further socialisation of the surplus. They also managed to transform the word government into the word ``governance'', making governmental and corporate activities porous, which enables the situation we have in Iraq.

I think we are headed into a legitimation crisis. Over the past 30 years we have been told, to quote Margaret Thatcher, that ``there is no alternative'' to a neoliberal free market, privatised world, and that if we didn’t succeed in that world it’s our own fault. I think it’s very difficult to say that when faced with a foreclosure crisis you support the banks but not the people who are being foreclosed upon.

You can accuse the people being foreclosed upon of irresponsibility, and in the US there is a strong racist element in this argument. When the first wave of foreclosures hit places like Cleveland and Ohio they were devastating to the black communities there, but some people’s response was basically, ``Well, what do you expect, black people are irresponsible''. We are seeing right-wing explanations of the crisis that explain it in terms of the personal greed of those who borrowed money to buy houses. So they attempt to blame the crisis on the victims. One of our tasks must be to say ``no, you absolutely cannot do that'' and to try to create a consolidated explanation of this crisis as a class event in which a certain structure of exploitation broke down and is about to be displaced by an even deeper structure of exploitation. It’s very important this alternative explanation of the crisis is discussed and conveyed publicly.

One of the big ideological configurations we are going to have is what is going to be the role of home ownership in the future once we start saying things like you’ve got to socialise much more of the housing stock, as since the 1930s we have had huge pressures towards individualised home ownership as a way of securing people’s rights and position. We’ve got to socialise and recapitalise public education and medicine.

Radical politics beyond class divides

There is another point we have to consider, which is that labour, and particularly organised labour, is only one small piece of this whole problem, and it’s only going to have a partial role in what is going on. And this is for a very simple reason, which goes back to the failure of Marx and how he set up the problem. If you say to yourself the formation of the state-finance complex is absolutely crucial to the dynamics of capitalism, and you ask yourself what social forces are at work in contesting that or setting it up, labour has never been at the forefront. Labour has been at the forefront of the labour market and the labour process, which are important moments in the circulation process, but most of the struggles that have gone on over the state-finance nexus are populist struggles.

For example, many of the struggles going on in Latin America are more populist than labour led. Labour always has a very important role to play but I don’t think we are in a position right now where the conventional view of the proletariat being the vanguard of the struggle is very helpful. There may be times where proletarian movements may be highly significant – for example, in China, where I envisage it playing a critical part that I do not see it having in the US (although it still has an important role there). What is interesting in the US is that the car workers and automobile companies are in alliance right now in relation to the state-finance nexus, so in a way the grand dividing line of class struggle that has always been there in Detroit isn’t there anymore. We have a completely different kind of class politics going on. So I think some of the conventional Marxist ways of viewing these things get in the way of a real radical politics.

There is also the big problem on the left that many think the capturing of state power has no role to play in political transformations. I think they’re crazy. Incredible power is located there and you can’t walk away from it as though it doesn’t matter. I am profoundly sceptical of the belief that NGOs and civil society organisations are going to change the world – not because NGOs can’t do anything at all, but it takes a different kind of political movement and conception if we are going to do anything about the main crisis. In the United States the political instinct is very anarchist, and I am very sympathetic to a lot of anarchist views but not all of them – for example, their perpetual complaints about the state.

I don’t think we are in a position to define who the agents of change will be. In the United States right now there are signs that elements of the managerial class, which has lived off the earnings of finance capital all these years, are getting annoyed and may turn a bit radical. A lot of people have been laid off in the financial services, in some instances they have even had their mortgages foreclosed. In the 1960s art schools were the centre of political radicalism in this country. You might find something like that re-emerging. Or cross-border organisation with groups affected in Mexico by reductions in the amounts migrants can send home to them.

Social movements have to define what strategies and policies they want to adopt. We academics should never view ourselves as having some missionary role in relation to social movements; what we should do is get into conversation. Having said that, I would want us to propose ideas. An interesting idea in the US right now is to get municipal governments to pass anti-eviction ordinances. I think there are a couple of places in France which have done that. Then we could set up a municipal housing corporation which would assume the mortgage and pay off the bank at a partial rate – the banks have been given a lot of money to supposedly deal with this, but they’re not.

Another key question is that of citizenship and rights. I think the rights of the city should be guaranteed by the rights of residency no matter what your citizenship is. Currently people are denied any political rights to the city unless they happen to be citizens. So if you’re an immigrant you don’t have any rights. I think there are struggles to be launched around the rights to the city. In the Brazilian constitution they have a ``rights to the city'' clause which is about the right to consultation, participation and budgetary procedures. Again I think there is a politics which can come out of that.

A reconfiguration of urbanisation

In the US there is the capacity to act at a local level, with a lot going on about environmental questions, and over the past 15 to 20 years municipal governments have often been more progressive than federal government. There’s a crisis in municipal finance right now and there is likely to be significant agitation and pressure on Obama to recapitalise a lot of municipal government. He has said this is one of the things he is concerned about, especially since a lot of the issues are local ones – for instance, the sub-prime mortgage crisis. As I have been arguing, the foreclosure stuff must be understood as an urban crisis, not just a financial crisis; it is a financial crisis of urbanisation.

Another important question is to think strategically about how the social economy in some alliance with labour and the municipal-based movements could also be a component in a strategy. This relates to the question of technological development – for example, I see no reason why you couldn’t have a municipal-based support system for the development of productive systems such as solar power, to create more decentralised employment apparatuses and possibilities.

If I could develop an idealised system now, I would say in the US we should create a national redevelopment bank and take $500 billion out of that $700 billion they voted for. The bank should work with municipalities to deal with neighbourhoods which have been hit by the foreclosure wave, because it has been like a financial Katrina in many ways; it has wiped out whole communities, usually poor black or Hispanic communities.

You could go into those neighbourhoods and bring back the people who used to live in those communities and rehouse them on a different basis of tenure, residency rights and with a different kind of financing. And green those neighbourhoods, creating local employment opportunities in those fields. So I could imagine a reconfiguration of urbanisation. To do anything on global warming we need to totally reconfigure how American cities work; to think about a completely new pattern of urbanisation, with new patterns of living and working. There are a lot of possibilities the left should be paying attention to – this is a real opportunity.

But I also have a problem with some Marxists, who seem to think, ``Yes! It’s a crisis; the contradictions of capitalism will now be solved somehow!'' This is not a moment for triumphalism, this is a moment for problematising. First of all, I think there are problems with the way Marx set up those problems. Marxists are not very good at understanding the state-financial complex or urbanisation, although they are terrific at understanding some other things. We have to rethink our theoretical posture and political possibilities.

[David Harvey is a distinguished professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of various books, articles and lectures. See his website for more information. Visit the Red Pepper website at http://www.redpepper.org.uk.]