The new Marxist geography

Review of Noel Castree and others, The point is to change it: geographies of hope and survival in an age of crisis (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell).

Marxist geography – what its chief exponent David Harvey has called “geographical historical materialism” – has enjoyed an impressive renaissance in recent years. This book, celebrating 40 years of the radical geography journal Antipode, illustrates some tremendous contributions made as well as some weaknesses.

First, Marxist geography has used Marx’s political economy to characterise important tendencies in the modern world. What Marx regarded as the primitive (or original) accumulation of capital, is a process of expansion and enclosure not only at the beginning of capitalism, but throughout its history. This idea – suggested by Rosa Luxemburg and recent restated by Harvey as “accumulation by dispossession” helps explain the continued drive to wars and the push to privatise sectors such as energy, water, transport, education and health. The restless drive towards commodifying new areas also explains the development of capitalism in previously underdeveloped countries and regions, such as China and India.

Furthermore, neoliberalism captures vital processes that have taken place since the 1970s which define the terrain of modern politics. Although neoliberalism is often superficially associated with the worship of the ‘self-regulating market’, it is better understood as a process of neoliberalisation (Peck, Brenner and Theodore).

Swyngedouw argues in the book (following Harvey) that neoliberalism is a class project, masked by a lot of rhetoric but aimed at the restoration and consolidation of class power. This class victory is now plain to see in the present conjuncture marked by intensifying sequences of financial economic crises. So neoliberalism is not simply a project for rolling back the state, deregulating the economy, privatising enterprising, or even implementing private property regimes (though it is all these things). Rather it is a class practice of the most powerful, geographically mobile capitalists, who use both state roll back and state “roll out”, deregulation and re-regulation, privatisation and nationalisation... and varied property regimes quite opportunistically. Glassman (2007) states the neoliberal accumulation by dispossession is a sort of guerrilla war of the most powerful investors against all the rest – including even many other less powerful capitalists and business.

Second, Marxist geography has added greatly to an appreciation of the relationship between society and nature, and thus suggested important underpinnings to the new Marxist ecology. This conception recognises that all impending history will be the history of the Anthropocene. A new epoch has commenced, in which humankind is foregrounded as an environmental agent. Carbon emissions from two centuries have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Holocene, the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilisation. For Gibson-Graham and Roelvink, it is as if evolution itself has been forced into a new trajectory.

Marxists have attempted to capture the current relationships between nature and society with some colourful metaphors, such as “articulation” (Benton) and “metabolism” (Burkett, Foster). Valuable as these have been, the most fertile attempt to overcome the dualism between nature and society is the production of nature thesis.

For Smith, the production of nature approach draws into sharp relief the impact of modern global capitalism in reshaping, remaking and reworking nature all the way down. Writing before climate change became widely known or indeed widely discussed in the social sciences, he argued that, “No part of the earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum or the biological superstratum are immune from transformation by capital” and that “the alteration of climate by human activity” was an expression of this relatively new phenomenon of the social production of nature. (Uneven Development, 1984)

Some Marxists have extended these insights about exploitation to ecological degradation, and introduced the concepts of the formal and real subsumption of nature into capital. Under the real subsumption of nature, firms are able to take hold of and transform natural production, and use this as a source of productivity increase”. (Boyd, Prudham and Schurman 2001)

The parallels between the real subsumption of labour and the real subsumption of nature should be clear, at least from the drives of capital. It is precisely the same mechanisms that give rise to worker exploitation (longer working day, the reorganisation and mechanisation of the labour process, etc.) that also give rise to ecological damage. These analogous, simultaneous processes have a common root. Therefore workers, who have the historical incentive to mitigate and ultimately abolish their own exploitation, also have a significant and privileged stake in abolishing the processes that give rise to the degradation of the natural environment. Working class agency is therefore the force capable of embracing the general, universal interest of ecology as its own special interest.

A third area of development by Marxist geography concerns the issue of agency. The most obvious omission from the book is a chapter on labour geography, which has “brought workers back in”. Herod (1997) has argued that the literature on globalisation neglects the international activities of workers and labour organisations. First, it ignores the role that workers themselves have played in the actual genesis and subsequent integration of the global economy. Second, workers are portrayed as structurally defenceless, the passive victim of globalisation. Rather workers have played an active role in shaping the new international division of labour.

Herod and others have argued that geography matters to theories of class because social life is fundamentally spatial, so social relations and identities are constituted geographically. Where workers have been formed and represented makes a difference to how they constitute themselves as social, political and geographical actors. Geography matters because industrial relations practices are spatially embedded and because the economic landscape is highly spatially differentiated. (Rainnie, Herod and McGrath-Champ 2007)

Many writing on labour movement renewal agree on the need for a ‘new labour internationalism’ to meet the challenges thrown up by neoliberal globalisation. Herod has argued that in challenging globally organised employers, “workers may on some occasions best achieve their goals by engaging in transnational solidarity aimed at matching the global organisation of their employer, while on others they may be able to do so through highly focused local actions against strategic parts of the corporation”. But this means class-conscious “transformatory” solidarity, not accommodationist local boosterism, where local spatial fixes between labour and capital engage in politically regressive alliances against other workers.

The revival of genuine, unfalsified Marxism is long overdue and absolutely vital in the period ahead as we face up to another onslaught over cuts. Marxist geography has helped prepare some of that groundwork for that revitalisation.