Dissolving Empire: David Harvey, John Smith, and the Migrant

By Adam Meyer September 1
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Review Of African Political Economy — In January and early February 2018 on roape.net, we witnessed a debate between David Harvey (Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, History and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, father of a range of disciplines around radical geography, and perhaps the single most recognizable Marxist name globally, beside Slavoj Zizek) and John Smith (formerly Kingston University, London, winner of the first Paul A. Baran–Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Award for an original monograph, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, and a working class activist).

This was not Harvey’s first grand debate on the subject of imperialism. Recently, the Patnaiks included Harvey’s response to their own work on imperialism  in their very own volume: a fruitful and polite exchange that revolves around the question whether commodities that come mainly from tropical countries, are producible only at an increasing supply price, threatening the value of money, and causing income deflation in the global South. The geographical and climatic core of capitalism is a given for the Patnaiks and Harvey challenges their idea with restrained delight.

Unfortunately, it is hard to describe the subject of my blogpost, the debate between Harvey and Smith, as restrained, polite delight. Harvey talks of Smith’s ‘rank idealism,’ his ‘crude and rigid theory of imperialism,’ and a ‘polemic instead of a reasoned critique.’ Smith had irked Harvey by shedding light on one of the least defensible aspects of Harvey’s concept of ‘deterritorialised, deracinated, depersonalized global capital,’ commanding a world where the imperialist super-exploitation of the East and of the South had already ceased and where the role of the imperialist super-exploiter had been reassigned to China’s and other East Asian countries’ bourgeoisies. Where ‘roles have already been reversed’ between East and West, as Harvey put it.

“Where are the millions of foreign students that pay the equivalent of hundreds of years of local wages, for a semester at a university in the People’s Republic of China”

John Smith battles Harvey’s problematic assertions with a political economy toolkit from his magnificent volume, and then again in his roape.net entry, and I shall not repeat here his arguments on outsourcing, global labour arbitrage, or how the last global financial crisis appeared. Instead, I shall concentrate on what I understand to be Harvey’s fundamental flow of method in their debate: the disappearance of time, and thus, historicity, from Harvey’s thought. This is no small matter when we consider that Lenin considered imperialism a stage of capitalism. 

This hiatus did not appear just with Harvey’s take on Smith’s theory of imperialism. He recently critiqued the Patnaiks by saying that their ‘concepts of space, place, geography, environment are all wrong.’ To Smith in a similar vein: ‘there I found the traditional conception of imperialism derived from Lenin (and subsequently set in stone by the likes of John Smith) inadequate to describe the complex spatial interterritorial and space-specific forms of production, realization and distribution,’ in both cases entirely omitting the factor of time, history, and historical materialism from his summary.

This is not by chance. Harvey’s omission is structural, conscious, and dangerous. In his early career and again in the case of his tome on the Paris Commune, employed a historical method, and the problem is not his lack of mastery of the subject, of which he is a global expert. Smith also notices how for Harvey, ‘developing countries are now draining wealth from the imperialist centres. This assertion (is) made without any supporting evidence or estimate of magnitude’ (emphasis by Adam Mayer). In other words, even if China super-exploits workers domestically and to some extent internationally (in exceptional cases), does this mean that China in economic, cultural, social, or military terms has reached the status of an imperialist power, and that ‘relations are now reversed’ between East and West, as Harvey claims?

“When the wretched of the earth die to reach the shores of the People’s Republic of China at sea, and not the shores of Australia as they currently do, that is precisely when I will be ready to follow Harvey’s take on imperialism”

When Harvey analyses the changing landscapes of global capital, he concentrates on production, finance, town planning, wages and interest rates but ignores in its entirety the role of cultural capital and a host of other forms of capital, such as social capital, and something else that materializes when they are absent: desire. Social capital is of course very often associated with amelioration of working people’s living conditions, and is usually used in a reformist context. The concept of cultural capital, due to its provenance in Bourdieu, is usually seen as less applicable to non-European economies (as Bourdieu includes patterns of speech and habits such as enjoying opera performances, as part of the bourgeoisie’s and its individual members’ cultural capital). I propose here to focus rather on the flipside of social and cultural capital: the very monetary convertibility of social and cultural capital, the fate of the subaltern and the excluded, the figure of the migrant who desires legal, social and cultural capital, in order to demonstrate how absurd Harvey’s notion of the changing cores of global imperialism really is. The figure of the African migrant (from the refugee who loses his life on a boat on the way to Italy, to the absentee bourgeois who purchased his first world citizenship after bleeding his tropical home of resources in order to be able to do so), is central to our investigation of where imperialism resides, and where empires are really located.

If we think even for a moment about where research, patents, fashions, new ideas and ideologies are born and nurtured, we see immediately how offensively improbable Harvey’s argument is. Where are the millions of foreign students that pay the equivalent of hundreds of years of local wages, for a semester at a university in the People’s Republic of China, or even in Japan? Even Japan and South Korea woo talented students with scholarships from less fortunate countries, not to mention China or the others (China just started employing foreign professors and is in a frenzy to get foreign students by offering scholarships). Are Chinese degrees capital investments in ways that US, or even New Zealand degrees are? The PRC is an absolute newcomer to the game of how cultural capital works in the modern world – on work innovation, R&D, global fashion function and how to create desire on a global scale.

Harvey claims that due partly to super-exploitation originating in the East, the Western worker’s plight is now on a convergence course with the Eastern and Southern worker. The Western worker or unemployed person does not live on the lap of luxury as Harvey reminds us in his rebuttal of Smith’s work. However, many Western unemployed workers have access to food (in the form of food stamps or unemployment benefits), and many have health coverage. Compare this with Hungary (a semi-peripheral economy) where there is no unemployment benefit, and the peripheral economies of Asia and Africa, where the poor live in constant fear of hunger. When it comes to Harvey’s ‘new imperialists’: Singapore for one has no unemployment benefits at all (and treats this problem as part and parcel of its promotion of family values and ‘responsibility’). I am discussing an individual’s very food security here: people are fed even in exploitative and privately owned US prisons, while they are not fed even in state prisons in many countries of the South and East where relatives are expected to bring in food for inmates or else the convict dies of hunger. (US prison populations, and especially Black prison inmates, are obviously, a super-exploited group in US capitalism and this is not to deny their super-exploitation but to illustrate how in the West, relative deprivation means different things from what it means outside the West).

“By 2018, significant segments of both the comprador bourgeoisie and of the professional class have emigrated from countries such as Nigeria, effectively constituting a new, emergent global class of Southern absentee bourgeoisie in the North”

It is beyond absurd to compare the status of the Western proletariat (and precariat, and lumpenproletariat, and peasantry, and single working mothers, and the elderly) in core Western countries and those outside those countries. Even if a Western unemployed person is materially poorer than a Southern or Eastern unemployed person, the former owns (in a very immediate sense) a passport that is worth literally dying for (as African migrants, and Asian migrants, demonstrate day to day, tragically). Thus, it is not Smith but David Harvey, who is thinking in an idealist way, when mistaking money flows and production flows for imperial standing. It is true that the crumbs that fall to the subaltern classes within Western economies are made possible by imperial super-exploitation in late capitalism: to deny this is to deny the obvious. When the wretched of the Earth die to reach the shores of the People’s Republic of China at sea, and not the shores of Australia as they currently do, that is precisely when I will be ready to follow Harvey’s take on imperialism to the extent that ‘reversing the roles has perhaps just advanced beyond its very inception.’ But when legal protections, simple food security, as well as access to knowledge and innovation are as unequally distributed as they are today – and the inequality is growing –  it may well take decades or a century to talk of roles ‘already reversed’ (and what if China chooses to coexist in a secondary role to the corporate West as Japan does?). This is what I mean when I say that Harvey ignores the factor of time and that his focus on space is rigid. Importantly, at the point, when ‘roles have reversed,’ this very debate would take place in Mandarin, and not English (the author of this blogpost is Hungarian).

I would go further. Beyond cultural, social and legal capital, there is the lack of access, the lack of rights, the lack of opportunities, the lack of dreams. From Africa, since structural adjustment programmes and the even more hypocritically named poverty reduction programmes have disenfranchised the post-colonial state and deindustrialized the continent, the African proletariat and the unemployed started to seek Western passports just to ensure survival. As a parallel development, the bourgeoisie has become similarly mobile, just to secure their possessions and their families’ survival amidst a rapidly deteriorating security situation in their home countries. By 2018, significant segments of both the comprador bourgeoisie and of the professional class have emigrated from countries such as Nigeria, effectively constituting a new, emergent global class of Southern absentee bourgeoisie in the North. This very class, one leg in the old country, and another in the US or the UK, is represented by the émigré writers who represent global peaks in high literature, such as Chimamanda Adichie and others.

The poor however, cross the Mediterranean risking their lives just to reach the refugee camps of Italy (a journey that although it usually costs several thousand dollars, is also extremely risky). The better off try to arrange faux marriages with European partners. The really rich may of course, purchase citizenships in the imperialist nations, such as Spain, for around €500,000 per family (entirely risk free, realized in real estate investment). Such is the meaning of – the lack of – social and legal capital: in order to link yourself to a functional society and its benefits (to imperialism, if you will), you may invest as much as your life, your emotional wellbeing, or a very serious amount of money, just to ensure your access to the ameliorative effects and affects, of living in a core imperialist country.

Now to the flipside of the concept of cultural capital. For elite ranks of the global bourgeoisie, the education component of their cultural capital is almost entirely covered by money: they can pay their way through the best schools in the best countries. The global middle class may need scholarships, tricks such as eyeing spousal employment patterns in say, Cambridge. The poor are shut out from most of knowledge production and even access in most countries.

“David Harvey’s ahistorical studies of unstable flows and dissolving empire and centre-less capitalism lull us into feeling better about ourselves and our role in the machine (wherever we are), and thus they help kill our revolutionary instincts”
Modern empires are rooted in market exchange and they are to be uncovered primarily as mechanisms of global political economy, but empires are also rooted in brute force – manifest in the number of nuclear warheads, military bases abroad, countries attacked, life-worlds destroyed. This is the very connection that Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg had noticed. Do China, Singapore or South Korea exhibit capabilities in these regards that make them equals of the US or even of the UK or Germany, beyond sensationalist, journalistic exaggeration and warmongering in the mainstream Western press? A simple count of foreign countries attacked by East Asian countries and the United States and its allies in the last fifty years eliminates any sense of bias and makes the concept of ‘roles already reversed’ look positively ridiculous.

Empires are also rooted in desire and in voluntary and mass submission – a sickness really as far as the individual colonial subject is concerned as Fanon teaches us, and as Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate. Do Chinese lifestyles compete with US suburban lifestyles as truly global aspirational dreams? Do people the world over usually watch documentaries on Zhou Enlai’s theoretical thought or do they watch Billy Graham and his ilk on cable and on the net? Do daughters of the Zambian political class get into trouble for expressing their sexualities in ways that copy US celebrities (I am referring to Iris Kaingu, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian), or do they emulate Chinese culture in their aesthetic and sexual aspirations in any discernible way? The self-conscious absurdity of my juxtapositions is obvious. US urban sprawl norms, the norms of empire, are encroaching on China itself.

Now back to the issue of time. Becoming an imperial centre took two centuries for the UK, and for the US, it took one and a half. For Britain, there was a century and half between destroying the textile industry of Bengal and becoming a global center for R&D (the first industrial revolution was less rooted in hard science than in artisanal inventions in the UK). The destruction of Northern Nigeria’s textile industry cut the chronology roughly in half. For the US, only WWII created the pre-conditions for bringing its higher education into real competition with European universities: something that occurred more than two centuries later than the start of their genocidal ethnic cleansing of North American natives (the deep history of their domestic empire). Even if we assert that money flows and changes in technology today are incomparably faster than they were seventy years ago, it is not reasonable to imagine that significant proportions of even the world’s elite would come to speak Mandarin within the coming decades (given the investment in time that such an effort requires, relative to the benefits), not to talk about aspiring to Chinese lifestyles, emulating Chinese norms, and choosing to mass convert to Chinese or other East Asian religions, world views or philosophies, or follow their fashions. Displaying Maoist porcelain statuettes on mantelpieces is very much a subcultural phenomenon for New York that barely reaches even the Western European artistic avant-garde. China even makes great pains to demonstrate to the West that it is not competing with others in terms of ideology. Is this the stance of a world empire, fountain of super-exploitation as in Harvey’s depiction?

Now to the issue of Leninism, Harvey’s ideological attack on Smith, and its relation to concepts of imperial cores and peripheries. It is not a coincidence that post-colonial writers and thinkers, along with representatives of the non-Marxist World Systems Theory, including Wallerstein and Grosfoguel, stick to classical concepts of who the imperialist powers are (Western military historians do this too, simply following historical precedent). Ramon Grosfoguel of the dependency school, who deals with philosophical links between the concept of the universal, and the dark history of extermination and epistemicide in the South, enlightens us about the colonialist origins of the Cartesian “God-s eye’s view” which, although it claims to have universal validity, is in fact restricted to male thinkers from just five countries: the USA, UK, France, Germany, and Italy. Philosophy, a discipline that is notorious for being the most exclusive and most racialist in terms of its classical canon, is a test for the Westernized university the world over, but also of how closely the history of thought has followed the history of economic might and plunder. Grosfoguel himself is no Marxist, indeed he calls universalist enlightenment philosophy (the historical antecedent to secular Marxism and Leninism) “idolatry,” but still he recognizes the basic materialistic forces behind the history of ideas, and the unevenly stable global constellation of imperialism.

What seems to annoy Harvey is also Smith’s political radicalism. Smith extolls the experience of Cuba’s trade with the USSR in his book as the best example of fair trade in history, calls the Sino-Soviet split “a tragedy”, attacks both dependency theory and euro-Marxism on account their lack of true engagement with radicalism in the South, along with Ellen M. Wood for her famous assertion of the European (domestic) origins of capitalism as opposed to one rooted in the colonial enterprise. Smith is no Keynesian. Remembering that Greece is a place where the colonels had won and where Syriza could not carry out its valiant programme, he calls the country, tragically but correctly, a minor imperialist power within an imperialist club (the EU). Smith is an uncompromising revolutionary radical. This is what annoys Harvey, who seeks to please.

I will not enter the argument whether Harvey is a closet Keynesian or not: he of course claims otherwise and it is usually well advised to take a thinker’s self-definition seriously. However, when he muses on the tactical desirability of Keynesian solutions, he forgets a crucial component to any Keynesian story: the menacing, state socialist Other, lurking behind the social democratic, capitalist borders. There has not been a successful major Keynesian experiment in the capitalist core since the collapse of state socialism outside it. To demand for Keynesian solutions without advocating for revolutions that provide space for any Keynesianism to appear, is true, unabashed idealism peppered with a pinch of nostalgia: again pointing to Harvey’s disappearing theoretical sense of time and of history.  

Today’s protagonist, the migrant, knows exactly the truth about wherein lie empire. Be she a member of the global elite who purchases a legal stake in empire, or a poor refugee who hangs off a boat next to Queensland, Australia, she knows perfectly well that her destination is part of the corporate imperial Western core, and that is why her chances of physical survival, security and self-actualization are so much higher there than in her home. This also tells us that with the partial exception of China and a small number of other countries (much of the planet’s non-Western landmass is becoming more unlivable as well as more unjust, for the subaltern and even for the bourgeoisie.

Instead of meaningful convergence, we see imperialism roaming the earth, looking for new prey, as in Africa and its new “security hotspots.” David Harvey’s ahistorical studies of unstable flows and dissolving empire and centre-less capitalism lull us into feeling better about ourselves and our role in the machine (wherever we are), and thus they help kill our revolutionary instincts. Herein lies the very real danger of today’s huggable David Harvey, and this is also the reason why the sage’s habitual politeness disappears as he derides John Smith, the uncompromising radical.

Adam Mayer is the author of Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria published by Pluto Press, released in 2016. He teaches at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr.