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[VIDEO] RSA ANIMATE: radical sociologist David Harvey asks if it is time to look beyond capitalism towards a new social order that would allow us to live within a system that really could be responsible, just, and humane

This lecture was given at the Royal Society of Arts in London (The RSA) and was commissioned by them as part of their “RSAnimation” series of videos.

David Harvey (born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors in the humanities.[1] In addition, he is the world’s most cited academic geographer (according to Andrew Bodman, seeTransactions of the IBG, 1991, 1992), and the author of many books and essays that have been prominent in the development of modern geography as adiscipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate, most recently he has been credited with helping to bring back social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form.

Harvey attended Gillingham Grammar School for Boys and St John’s College, Cambridge, for both his undergraduate and post-graduate studies. Harvey’s early work, beginning with his PhD (on hop production in 19th century Kent), was historical in nature, emerging from a regional-historical tradition of inquiry widely used at Cambridge and in Britain at that time. Historical inquiry runs through his later works (for example on Paris).

By the mid-1960s, he followed trends in the social sciences to employ quantitative methods, contributing to spatial science and positivist theory. Roots of this work were visible while he was at Cambridge, a Department that also housed Richard Chorley, and Peter Haggett. His Explanation in Geography (1969) was a landmark text in the methodology and philosophy of geography, applying principles drawn from the philosophy of science in general to the field of geographical knowledge. But after its publication Harvey moved on again, to become concerned with issues of social injustice and the nature of the capitalist system itself. He has never returned to embrace the arguments made in Explanation, but still he conforms to the critique of absolute space and exceptionalism in geography of the regional-historical tradition that he saw as an outcome of Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge.

Moving from Bristol University to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the USA, he positioned himself centrally in the newly-emerging field of radical and Marxist geography. Injustice, racism, and exploitation were visible in Baltimore, and activism around these issues was tangible in early 1970s East Coast, perhaps more so than in Britain. The journal Antipode was formed at Clark University; Harvey was one of the first contributors. The Boston Association of American Geographers meetings in 1971 were a landmark, with Harvey and others disrupting the traditional approach of their peers. In 1972, in a famous essay on ghetto formation, he argued for the creation of “revolutionary theory”, theory “validated through revolutionary practice”.

Social Justice and the City (1973) expressed Harvey’s position that geography could not remain ‘objective’ in the face of urban poverty and associated ills. It has been cited widely (over 1000 times, by 2005, in a discipline where 50 citations are rare), and it makes a significant contribution to Marxian theory by arguing that capitalism annihilates space to ensure its own reproduction. Dialectical materialism has guided his subsequent work, notably the theoretically sophisticated Limits to Capital (1982). LTC furthers the radical geographical analysis of capitalism, and several books on urban processes and urban life have followed it.The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), written while a Professor at Oxford, was a bestseller (the London The Independent named it as one of the fifty most important works of non-fiction to be published since 1945). It is a materialist assault on postmodern ideas and arguments, suggesting these actually emerge from contradictions within capitalism itself. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (1996) focusses on social and environmental justice (although its dialectical perspective has attracted the ire of some Greens). Spaces of Hope (2000) has a utopian theme and indulges in speculative thinking about how an alternative world might look. His study of Second Empire Paris and the events surrounding the Paris Commune in Paris, Capital of Modernity, is undoubtedly his most elaborated historical-geographical work. The onset of US military action since 2001 has provoked a blistering critique – in The New Imperialism (2003) he argues that the war in Iraq allows US neo-conservatives to divert attention from the failures of capitalism ‘at home’. His most recent work, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), provides an historical examination of the theory and divergent practices of neoliberalism since the mid-1970s. This work conceptualizes the neoliberalized global political economy as a system that benefits few at the expense of many, and which has resulted in the (re)creation of class distinction through what Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”.

After the birth of his daughter Delfina in January 1990, Harvey returned to Johns Hopkins from Oxford in 1993, but spent increasing time elsewhere as a speaker and visitor, notably as a salaried Miliband Fellow at the London School of Economics in the late 1990s. He moved to the City University of New York in 2001 as a Distinguished Professor, now residing in its Department of Anthropology. He has spent most of his academic career in Anglo-America, with brief sojourns in France and a range of foreign visiting appointments (currently as acting Advisory Professor at Tonji University in Shanghai). He has supervised many PhD students. Several of these, such as Neil Smith, Richard Walker, Erik Swyngedouw, Michael Johns, Maarten Hajer, Patrick Bond, Melissa Wright, and Greg Ruiters now hold important academic positions themselves. Two constants in Harvey’s life and work have been teaching a course on Marx’s Capital,[2] and his support for student activism and community and labour movements (notably in Baltimore).

Critical response to Harvey’s work has been sustained. In the early years, there was little love lost between Harvey and proponents of quantitative and non-politicized geography, notably Brian Berry of theUniversity of Texas at Dallas. Harvey’s continued commitment to Marx has led to reappraisals and in some cases rejection by younger Leftist scholars. A recent critical appraisal (Castree & Gregory, 2006) explores these critiques in detail. Despite this his online lectures on Capital have proved very popular, receiving 700,000 page views between June 2008 and March 2010.[3]

Harvey’s books have been widely translated, particularly into Korean, Spanish, Japanese and Italian as well some into Arabic, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, German, Chinese, Polish, and Romanian. He holds honorary doctorates from Roskilde (Denmark), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Uppsala (Sweden), Ohio State University (USA), Lund University (Sweden) and the University of Kent (UK). Among other awards he has received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal of the Swedish Anthropological and Geographical Societies, The Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Vautrin Lud International Prize in Geography (France). In 2007 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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