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From the sublime to the ranunculus

By Owen Paine on Thursday March 19, 2009 04:03 PM

God, are we lefty types ever the long-winded bagpipers.

Take this slow skirling sigh -- it's by a true veteran:

"To understand the current situation we need to go beyond what goes on in the labor 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."
Christ, dry rot at least crackles and powders away, but this limitless Left gas, on and on it carries.

"Aye mate -- ya know -- I'm a wee piper for Marx."

And to think he's only one of ever so many such red Zeppelins out there, sliding independently through Clio's night skies.

When Comrade Harvey descends from the world-historical stratosphere where he grapples with concepts like "primitive accumulation," methinks we see a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae:

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.
Questions? What questions can be asked about Obama's staff picks, to which the answers are not obvious to the meanest intellect? And things "started" to go wrong -- at the "end" of the Clinton administration? When was the last time "things" went right, Comrade?
A new state financial architecture is required. I don’t think that all existing institutions like the Bank of International Settlements and 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.
Is Comrade Harvey perhaps a cell-mate of Pere Smiff's friend Bruno?

Comments (12)


What, and you are the sole possessor of brevity, OP? The dude had a bravura performance with your militia-swooning hero Alex Cockburn on Grit TV last week, pissed off some Clintonite nincompoop Berkely econ for the same reasons that chapped your hide, and is right on the damn money about this epochal gadzillion dollar shiftings to and up. Of all the shithead bozos in the world to go after, all the Harvard and Yale and other Ivy League M.B.A. derivative credit-swapping soccer dad colossal fuckups who still man the Empire, you go after a quasi-Marxist who has the nerve, even if in a gaseous style, to be right? What the hell was the matter with the first paragraph you quoted? Dry, wet, it was not offensive to me in the least. You can red-bait the old-timers all you want, but damn, this was the revival of the century - Marxism was dead and gone, and now look.


Thanks, MJ! The usually sharp OP is off on this one. Harvey is one of the heros of the present, and "accumulation by dispossession" as good or better a concept as "disaster capitalism".

OP here vents some kind of anti-intellectualism, well-deserved by the hacks of liberalism, but not someone like Harvey who is trying to enlighten.

I rise to defend op-san, on several fronts:

1. The passive voice. That's always been both a Freshman Comp hurdle and a rotten trick. Yet, we get "A new state financial architecture is required."

2. "State financial architecture." WTF is that?

3. This is terrible Marxism. Primitive accumulation is a major Marxian concept, and it means the source of the original capital from which the system started. To use it to lasso the 21st-century financial and credit flows is to utterly discombobulate both Marx and his -ism. Is Marxism merely a set of verbiages set out for our playful, pompous experimentation?

4. Orwell was right. Never use a long or technical word when a choice exists.

5. That a "Marxist" could miss this point, in today's sound-bite, reading-in-decline epoch, is perhaps the greatest problem with Gasbag Karlism. Speak common English, for Chrissakes!

6. C. Wright Mills: Surely, Prof Harvey knows the famous chapter of Mills' TSI in which CWM translates folks like Talcott Parsons into plain talk. OP is quite right about that first paragraph. When it's fed through the Mills translator, it not only reduces to a single sentence -- We should think about the financial crisis as a problem of primitive accumulation, not as something that arises from the "real' economy -- but the sentence is both howlingly wrongheaded and wildly non-Marxist.


Well done, Michael, but the howls you let out at the sentence might bring the authorities. You brought out the heavy artillery with a Talcott Parsons reference, and your command to "speak common English, for Chrissakes" would fit in nicely with a Joe the Plumber tirade about snobs who use long words in his bar, but that is not you. Whatever "Marxism" is or should be, you and the long-tenur'd one can have it to see whose primitive accumulation is whose.
Every one of our bullhorn-hoggers have their self-induced, irredeemable problems. Every single one of the handful. Listen to them long enough, and out will come a whopper - a softness for Jesusing, or a hatred of pornography, or an adoration of Ralph, or a streak of professorial autism, or a defense of Barry Bonds. Yet they all have performed great work.


I'm with mjosef on this one. In fact, I'd simply write, "what he said," were it not the case that I too wanna mount the dais a bit. Which is the whole goddamn point, really. We're all egocentric pontificators in our own distinctive ways. Sure, Harvey leans a little too heavily on his theoretical "innovations" (as MD points out -- not!), to the point where they stand in for careful explanation. He's also not used to writing for a lay audience. It's about the detailed division of labor, folks. In his sphere, Harvey is one of the good guys... unlike some other more unctuous and opportunistic academic Marxists I could name.

Lets consult the master here...

'...It is possible that I could disgrace myself. But there's always a bit of Dialectic to help out. I have naturally expressed my statements so that I am also right if the opposite thing happens....' - Marx to Engels. 1857

Snide question perhaps, but what is David Harvey's claim to fame even within his own sphere? I've made a few brief attempts to find out, but never with any fruit for the effort.

Is it the insight that capitalism drives decisions that reshape spaces and places in the real world?

In similar news, practitioners of "conversation analysis" (a real sub-discipline of "ethnomethodology") have also discovered that answers usually (but not always) follow questions...


Well, yeah, Harvey's signature work IMO is his analyses of the spatial dimensions of the accumulation process. It's a bit more complex than your dismissive remark suggests but I suppose you're well within your rights to question its political utility... in interviews I've seen with Harvey I think he tends to overstate the extent to which popular movements would benefit from more theoretical guidance (most academic Marxists are hung up with this conceit, of course).

When Harvey grapples with topics that are a little outside his area of expertise -- US imperialism, neo-liberalism, and such -- I find his insights to be solid but certainly not pathbreaking. But actually, that is the penalty he and we have to pay for his efforts to reach a more lay left activist-intellectual audience. Suffice it to say that I'm not on the verge of lionizing the guy, but jeez, it seems he can't win. Is this just free-floating left academic celebrity hate? Tell me who you hold up as a model and then we'll talk.


PS. About "ethnometho" you need not convince me. 95% of all published sociology is just methodological navel-gazing to "prove" some banality (despite sociologists' trumped-up critique of "common sense," to which they appear to be woefully captive).

GL, I like lots of social science, including many left intellectuals. I almost worship a few.

I just don't know what Harvey has ever shown that's new and non-trivial. Seriously, I don't know, and would like to, but have never been able to stand Harvey's concept juggling and prolixity for long enough to find the nugget, if there is one. (I have to admit I'm suspicious that the verbosity serves the role for him that Mills found it did for Parsons.)

What's his thesis about capitalism and geography, for example?


Hey MD, if you're still with the thread... given the chance that you're not, I'll keep this brief.

Well, I don't know if Harvey has one stock-in- trade concept like "the ecological rift" or "the second contradiction of capitalism" or what have you. (I know from pecking around the internets that you're well-acquainted with those.) I guess besides "accumulation by dispossession" (which you properly indicate is
more of a rehash than an innovation) the "spatial fix" is his trademark.

The basic premise is this. When the circulation of capital runs into inevitable overproduction/consumption stumbling blocks and devaluation stalks the land, there are temporal and spatial solutions. The temporal solution is the credit system (often state-instituted and backed), which allows fixed investment or consumer spending today predicated on value yet to be realized in the market. (That's obviously not Harvey's invention but I've seen him render it pretty keenly.) The other way out is the "spatial fix." In the old colonial days up until the end of the scramble for Africa, the spatial fix was about geographical expansion. (Yeah, this is not terribly groundbreaking either, it's more or less reconstructed Third International Marxism, eh?) Since the fin de siecle, the spatial fix has been about abandoning low profit built environments and developing new high profit built environments, kind of an ongoing drama in capitalist restructuring and uneven development.

Maybe this is not such a huge revelation either, but IMO Harvey is pretty impressive when he gets into the nuances, and he puts a uniquely geographical spin on Marxist political economy that had not been consciously worked out previously. I think a lot of the quasi-Marxist-but-not-really-acknowledging-it scholarship on global accumulation and the rise and fall of regions (this was a big cottage industry in the 1980's, and to a lesser extent, the 1990's) owes a debt, if only indirectly, to Harvey. But hey, I'm a geo-economics freak, so I'm biased.

Obviously I'm drawing this schematically. For more depth, google is yer sidekick, as they say. You still may find the depth you're seeking lacking, though.

And by the way, sorry if I came off as a litle too ornery. I've been a sawed-off runt online lately. Keeps the blood coursing but it can get unnecessarily combative. And yeah, of course I recognize that you're a well-schooled dude, for whatever that's worth.

Thanks, GL. That helps. No offense ever taken, btw.

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