Here is my final translation from Spanish; comments are, of course, appreciated.
David Harvey, Marxist geographer and intellectual: “I’m skeptical about the idea of reforming neoliberalism”
An authoritative voice in the intellectual discussions of the left, and passing through Chile for the last “Puerto Ideas” in November, the professor from CUNY and author of “17 Contradictions of Capitalism” spoke with La Chispa about Marxism today, the crisis of neoliberalism, Latin America and Chile.
LC: In the context of revolutionary theory, in your opinion, what is the validity of Marxism nowadays?
DH: Marx offers a very good form of thinking social change and, at the same time, offers a way of critically understanding how capital functions. I believe that it is particularly important because capital moves in a mysterious way and at times veils what is really happening. Marx does a good job of demystifying these appearances and develops a method for investigating what is really happening and, therefore, understands what must be changed to have a revolutionary movement outside of capitalist domination, and that permits the construction of a world based on distinct social relations and with different notions of value.
LC: A characteristic of the left in the world has been the gradual abandonment of Marxism since the fall of the Berlin Wall. What is your analysis of that process? What are its consequences today?
DH: Well, there have always been two visions of the Marxist movement. One is the critique of capitalism and the other has been a type of theoretical tendency about how an alternative to capitalism should be organized. Marx did not say much about how an alternative society to capitalism should be organized, and I believe that it was for the single reason that he did not really believe in a utopian project that simply arrives and is implemented. He understood, rather, that revolution is a process in which you must describe what will work or not across various practices. Of course Marx had ideas about some types of practices in his time, but I believe that he never had position in which the practices in which he was involved should have been replicated in other places. The question of what the practices today should be remains and, of course, the emergence of some of these practices in the Soviet Bloc or in China clearly had various problems. I do not accept the general history of total failure. In fact, in some respects, these countries had extraordinary victories in this story that were forgotten, but I believe that, obviously, the path of those experiences was not sustainable and those particular practices collapsed.
But on the other hand Marx always had a critique of capital, and I believe that when unchecked capital triumphantly emerged they way it did in the 1990s, we quickly see that it was not a stable form of economic organization and this means that the necessity of a critique of capital was even more urgent. Then you encounter a situation in which economists were predicting the importance of the hypothesis of efficient markets and those types of things, and later everything fell apart, and when they were asked why, they had no idea, and the person that I believe had a good idea why everything fell apart is Marx. I think that after the collapse at the end of the 90s, Marx became much more relevant – for example after the great crisis in Southeast Asia in 1997-1998 and later in the Argentinean crisis in 2001. And we have been in a permanent state of crisis since then, overcoming it through the property boom in the United States and falling back in its collapse. We see, then, an excessively unstable and insane capitalist system, and the necessity of a critique becomes increasingly strong since people see that it is very difficult to understand why everything is happening. And now we have this irony in which revolution and transformation have been discredited, and the possibilities to build a critique against the contradictions of capital have become even more significant.
LC: In one of his last books, Eric Hobsbawm, said that with the fall of the Berlin Wall Marxism “liberated” itself from the Soviet tradition. Today, a boom of social movements around the world exist. What happened with the concept of the Party and its Leninist approach?
DH: The Leninist concept of the Party is largely becoming abandoned because of its relationship to what happened in communist countries like the USSR and China. Their was an attempt, as John Holloway called it, to change the world without taking power or without forming political parties, and without necessarily taking on the project of seizing the State’s power. So there has been a period in which social movements have tried to find a different foundation for political action and to make democratic decisions. I believe it is a phase, I suspect that it is going to end later and we will see the emergence of new political forms like, for example, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain that definitely could gain a parliamentary majority in the near future. And I believe that people are accepting that the experiments that have occurred in recent years with democratic and horizontal assemblies have reached a limit and that they cannot change the world without seizing power, and that somehow they rebuild democratic forms for decision-making inside a type of party structure and, at some point, they are going to have to deal with a specific relationship to the nature of the State. This is a very problematic area because, undoubtedly, the State has become, in effect, an exclusive agent of capital, even more in the past 10 or 15 years, so there is a battle that seems to emerge regarding this question, but I do not believe that the majority of the left is prepared to fight it or think it. I believe there is a reevaluation of how we would govern ourselves, like established democratic structures that have not been corrupted by the power of money or destroyed by a structure of hierarchical leadership that cannot be accountable to its political and social base. Therefore, we are in a moment of transformation and I believe that it is going to last for 2 or 3 years, with great experiments regarding what Syriza and Podemos will do if they seize power. What would these alternative forms of government do, for example, if they won Scottish independence? What would have happened in Scotland? There are various types of interesting possibilities that are not feasible now, and they will be looking at a very different political scene in a period of 2 or 3 years.
LC: Follow the idea of abandoning Marxism, the hegemony of the World Bank and concepts like the “war on poverty” have had a profound influence on Latin American governments, generating a concept of “Progressivism,” understanding this strategy as an efficient form of taming social conflicts across redistributive politics and in a western democratic frame (such as the Worker’s Party and the program Bolsa Familia in Brazil). In your perspective, what is the role and the limits of these types of governments? Where is class warfare situated when governments focus on poverty and not on wealth?
DH: I believe that any government of the left that takes power encounters two problems: the first is – in a profound sense – that we have all become neoliberals without recognizing it. I am amazed that here in Latin America for all that rhetoric that “we are not neoliberals,” in fact, neoliberal ways of thinking that are profoundly rooted, although in a different forms, in each country. For example, here in Chile they are very deep. Therefore, the mental conception of the world flows from what one would call “rooting of neoliberal thought in people,” is a serious problem itself, both on popular and governmental level, and that points again to the significance of Marxist critique. And when I say there should be a Marxist critique, I do not want to say a type of “ultra-leftism” that simply says “The Worker’s Party is coopted” or something like that. I am referring to a deep understanding of how political subjectivity has been formed by a certain story and that this is what is required to transform those political subjectivities so that we can go beyond the politics of redistribution that is currently dominant.
The second problem is that each economy is not an island and I believe that the idea of a national economy that can remove itself from a global economy that functions in another way is a fantasy. Therefore, there are perpetual contradictions that have to be confronted. For example, if your economy is based in some type of extraction, then it was very difficult to come and say “we are ending extraction” because you don’t have any division of labor and you can’t get basic goods that you need like computers or this microphone that I am holding. So there are tensions that have to be managed because I believe that here is where there are serious politics that could be put into motion. I believe that strategies for the reindustrialization of economies that are in various aspects of deindustrialization are limited, but that what I’m talking about here is the exploration of new ways of producing thing that are not seen wrapped in the difficulty of competing with the extremely low costs of production in China. And I believe that now there are technological developments like 3d printers or others for the production of many goods and services that are localized and are much less stressful on the environment, and that can also generate goods for people based on local sources instead of getting them through international trade. Now I am not saying that this can create total independence, but there are many areas for the recolonization of the internal markets and for the reconfiguration of industry and agriculture. This occurs in many countries in Latin America that are driven toward the development of exports and ending importing food when they really would be able to easily have self-sufficient food when they are not selling soy to China or fruit to New York.
I believe that attempts to explore possibilities of new forms of social relations, new forms of organization, that would permit a strategy of modest reindustrialization in Latin America and that brings me to another point: all of this could be carried out if there were more and better collaboration between the countries of Latin America. Today a discourse of solidarity exists, but there are many nations that say, “you have that, and we have this.” This signifies many things: for example, the connectivity of transportation that exists in Latin America is terrible, to get a ticket from capital to capital is incredibly difficult (laughs) and is also incredibly expensive, and is something that could be corrected easily. But this requires collective action and I believe that for Latin American countries to unite should be understood as developing a regional economy in place of “our economy versus your economy. This is one of the things that is slowing what could be called a modest strategy of reindustrialization for Latin America as a whole.
LC: In Chile, the guinea pigs of neoliberalism, there is a growing discussion on the social rights like free higher education and the reform of the health care and pension systems. In Europe the majority of these social rights are guaranteed by the State. What relationship exists between neoliberalism and social rights? How can neoliberalism absorb these demands?
DH: Neoliberalism cannot absorb them, and that is one of the critiques of neoliberalism. However, the neoliberal project is not finished. For example, in Europe there is a lot of pressure to dismantle social rights. We can even see this in the Scandinavian countries, which have resisted against the purest neoliberalism for some time. In the case of Latin America there is a much more dramatic case. In Argentina, for example, higher education is free but not in Chile, and a consequence of this is that you can see many more Chilean students in Argentina: that does not seem very fair for the Argentineans and does not seem to be a reasonable way to think about a continent as a whole. But also, I believe that this idea is profoundly rooted in personal responsibility, that only you are responsible to develop your human capital through your studies, without knowing that your own capacity to develop human capital depends greatly on your income and that of your family. If you are in a situation of poverty, you simply do not have the means to accumulate human capital. In fact, that there is exists a theory of human capital that circulates here in Chile that is a complete fallacy. Marx had a humorous way of seeing this when he was criticizing Adam Smith. Marx said, he [Smith] thinks you are a capitalist with the power to make decisions, then if you have money and power, your can invest it and live off its interest. Now, if you have human capital, eventually it would not be necessary for you to work, since you would decided to invest said capital and live off its interest. Obviously, one does not have to do this, because in reality, what you have is no human capital strictly speaking, but rather you have an ability that is valuable in the employment market which is segmented. This means that if you are in the correct segment, you can reproduce the labor force in that segment for your children, but if you are in another segment then you cannot. At base, this theory of human capital concerns the perpetuation of social inequality, but surrounded by a notion of moral virtue that tries to make it seem like virtuous practice, when in reality it is a practice that has always been over the reproduction of social inequality in a base that continuously becomes more segregated.
LC: In your lectures available on the internet, you explain the difference between understanding universities as exchange values instead of use values. What role do you believe a public university has to have in the 21st century? What do you think about the participation of private interests in education?
DH: Well, in reality I hope that in the coming years public universities have an increasingly important and significant role. However, the tendency is in the other direction, and this has been so since even before the emergence of hardest neoliberal rhetoric. For example, my own university in New York (City University of New York, CUNY) is a very large public university. Today it has about 400,000 students and since 1970 it has been free. Its mission consisted of educating the children of immigrants and I can say it still does. However, with the neoliberal reforms of the ‘70s, we were forced to charge fees, even if these continue to be relatively low. In fact, it has been called to my attention that our fees are less than the University of Valparaíso or the University of Chile. Now, we are continuing educating an immense immigrant population that is very diverse. There is a tremendous range of students, that is to say, you have excellent students and others that are difficult to educate, which makes the democratization of these universities extremely important. Currently, one of the greatest problems that we have is that these public universities have been systematically underfunded since the ‘30s and have had to face the increasing emergence of superior private universities. In New York, for example, you have an interesting situation: everyone knows Columbia University (CU) and New York University (NYU) but nobody knows of CUNY in spite of it having 400,000 students. In fact, the problems of finance have made many of the members not able to be regular members of their faculties because there is not money to be able to pay them decent salaries. Then, this is the type of situation that is characteristic around the world and that is necessary to be reversed by the development of public compromises such as free education for all. Surely it is already known but today in the United States the student debt for higher education is estimated at 1 billion dollars (1 trillion [?]). Many students leave their careers owing a quarter or half a million dollars that have to be paid during their life. This is an incredible personal load, given that the debts last for life. Therefore, I believe that we need to guarantee as much higher education as there can be in the world, which is already free or at a very low cost, and with open access for whoever can get a university degree.
Regarding private education, it is not as clear that this can contribute to all the objectives mentioned. What we have seen, rather, is that the private interests of these universities, that in theory do not have to have profit as an objective, have worried more about accumulating more wealth and power. Even many private universities are now some of the most wealthy consortia in the world. For example, Harvard, Yale, or universities like these. Also there are increasingly more universities with the business structures, like those that deliver degrees online and whose quality is not decent at all.
Interestingly, a great many resources in the form of subsidies flow directly from the government toward these universities-businesses of poor quality, making their actions tilt toward monetary ends, even when these institutions serve no public purpose or criteria. There exists, for example, a great necessity to ensure that this type of institution does not take control. In Ecuador, for example, the government closed many of these institutions that were fragile and did not offer anything beneficial. I believe that this a very important step to be taken and that Ecuadorian university reform is essential for a continent like Latin America, in which the constant deterioration of the university educational system through the privatization and “corporatization” that extracts wealth without creating any use value at all can be seen.
LC: As you have said in some lectures and interviews, democracies today are “Democracies of Money,” in which local and international capital can directly influence politics. In Chile, for example, we have a political system increasingly resembling the American one: two large coalitions with diverse economic interests and “technocraticization” of the governments that empty the political content from the debate. If the political system is co-opted, what are the alternatives? What should be the battle flags of the new social and political movements?
DH: I believe this is going to take a lot of time and political agitation. The possibilities are unique in each country. For example, in the United States, the Supreme Court’s decisions have increasingly guaranteed the spending of money in politics as a form of endorsement, beyond the Constitution and the freedom of thought. Now, I didn’t know that money could think, but apparently the freedom of expression and the freedom of thought could do such a thing, an idea so low, that the finance of politics would be a form of expression. Now, those decisions that began in the 1970s even continue, and are increasingly permissive of the spending of money in politics. The countries that have put limitations on the influence of money in their political processes have been demolished one by one.
I believe that it is necessary to recover these limits and remove money from political action. Therefore, I believe that citizens should be protected from the assault of electoral campaigns and the power of money in the media. In fact, what is required is a strong law against money in politics, but the same politicians that should pass one, that is to say, check their own power – obviously they will not do so unless you have a movement that could change these politicians and install a political process that is significantly different. Eliminating the power of money in the electoral process will require hard work on the legal front, in politics and popular life, at least until clear examples in which popular movements defeat the centralization of the power of money are seen.
I believe that we essentially feel unmotivated trying to rebuild the political movement, but I believe that it is one of those things that the power of money fears: that one day, a charismatic person comes along and says that, along with the town, he or she is recovering politics from the power of money. This has not been seen yet, and if it happens, I would fear for the life of this leader, because the power of money will do what is necessary to maintain control over political processes.
LC: To conclude, many critiques of the excesses of neoliberalism exist: for example, the bestseller Capital in the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas Piketty, but the majority of these critiques do not confront the capitalist mode of production. Relating to your recent work, what are the main contradictions of capitalist society today? Why should we speak of the end of capitalism instead of the end of neoliberalism?
DH: I like to think that if we end neoliberalism we can stop the pretensions of some people that believe we can have an ethical capitalism that provides jobs and the opportunities of life and that benefits the majority of the population, since I am already deeply skeptical of that. I have lived enough, and I am old enough to remember many promises of the 1950s and 1960s that said development would end global poverty when in effect, it increased it. I saw the same in the 1970s. For example, Henry Kissinger said that world hunger would end in 5 or 10 years, or the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that said that global poverty would be eradicated in 2015, or very soon. But when you look at the inequality, you are simply certain that this is not really happening. Therefore, I am skeptical of the idea of reforming neoliberalism and of the construction of a type social democratic redistribution that could provide an adequate response to our problems. Moreover, I believe that there are other pressing problems that actually need to considered seriously. Of course inequality is one, the requirement of growth is another, or a minimal rate of sustainable growth, for example. That is to say, problems that are increasingly impossible to physically, socially, and environmentally resolve. So there are many reason to stop thinking of capital as a dominant form of production of goods and services that we make today and to begin to think of alternative structures that develop use values for the worldwide population, outside of capitalist accumulation to produce everything in order to make profits and accumulate wealth and power. I believe that is what we should think about. Now, if you ask me if I am 100% certain that this is the only option, my response is no. I would like it if someone would show me another path, but in the meantime, we should seriously think about this.
One of the things that I object to is people who say they do not have to think about this because capitalism is what there is and nothing more. I believe that we have to rid ourselves of Margaret Thatcher’s phrase (“there is no alternative”) because yes there is an alternative; there are alternatives. There are structures of value was we could begin to implement, there are alternative forms of economic organization that we can build. Today we have the technological capacity for massive coordination and decision-making that we didn’t have 30 years ago, and there are also possibilities that we have not explored because we are still not prepared. Okay, we see that there seems to be an alternative, we see if any exists, and if it exists, we think about how to make it. In fact, it is one of the things I am critical about in the universities. The universities should be places where this type of debate has a place, but when I have tried to do it, the people simply flipped and told me they didn’t want to think about it, when to me it seems that this a very serious problem that can be analyzed, rationalized, and understood.