David Harvey: at times also awesome


As luck would have it, we are reading an old piece of Harvey’s in my planning theory class, the 1978 piece from Planning Theory in the 1980s. Rereading that piece (and, yes, perhaps some lingering guilt at having called him “lazy and slow-moving” in a post yesterday) has prompted me to praise Harvey, to say what an incredibly concise and dead-on critique of planning he offers. The gist is that the instinct of planning, its deepest hope, is to soothe, to salve, to solve, to create agreement, to calm the waters. To preserve order. This instinct is essential to the preservation of capitalist economic relations, and so to the domination of the bourgeoisie over everyone else. Harvey’s words:

In striving to affect reconciliation, the planner must perforce resort to the idea of the potentiality for harmonious balance in society. And it is on this fundamental notion of social harmony that the ideology of planning is built. The planner seeks to intervene to restore “balance” but the “balance” implied is that which is necessary to reduce civil strife and to maintain the requisite conditions for the steady accumulation of capital (p. 224).


…definitions of the public interest…are set according to the requirements for the reproduction of the social order which is, whether we like the term or not, a distinctively capitalistic social order (p. 224).

Despite the many flavors of planning theory that exist, he argues,

the commitment to the ideology of harmony within the capitalist social order remains the still point upon which the gyrations of planning ideology turn….Perhaps there lies at the fulcrum of capitalist history not harmony but a social relation of domination of capital over labor (p. 231).

[I can’t resist saying, though, and q.v. my post yesterday: he does reduce everything to capitalism, and so he misses the fact that planning is also a state activity, and the state also very much wants to preserve the social order in which it wields sovereign power. Its policies also seek to preserve the domination of the state over its subjects.]


8 thoughts on “David Harvey: at times also awesome

  1. Thanks for this. What has always confused me about Harvey is the apparent lack of proletarian agency in his work . . . I just don’t understand this variant of Marxism. In his writing, the capitalist class is super dynamic and powerful, but the proletariat is simply absent . . . or so it seems. Do you know if he defends this interpretation of Marx anywhere? Is there a justification of this reading of capitalism? I don’t get it.

    • cw–I think that is right. I think the same lack of agency is in Lefebvre as well, or at least a lack of ability to see, or perceive the activity that is already taking place. Limits to Capital might have something about Marx’s thoughts on all this. Certainly the older Marx was obsessed with he intricacies of capitalist domination, but the younger Marx, in discussing alienation in EPM for example, seems to understand fully the life inside the worker, his/her power, and he hopes it can be liberated. That is what vitalists like D&G (and their heirs, H&N) do so well: they focus their attention more on the potential that is already inside us, and they are less consumed by the apparatuses that capture us.

      • Thanks for the reply, Mark. Yeah, I am confused by Harvey’s claim to perform a Marxist analysis of society given that the proletariat is, apparently, invisible in his work. Can there really be a Marxism, or even a theory of class struggle, without the proletariat? . . .

  2. Dear Mark, I like your critique but if you allow me, I’d like to send a couple of brief thoughts from far away, in the middle of the Brazilian metropolitan landscape, where planning has been going through some interesting processes with lots of ups and downs but also with possibilities for deeper democracy since the late 80s (participative budgets, right to the city movements etc.). Concerning yesterday’s post: the transformation of the state towards the “democratization of democracy” (Boaventura Santos’ terms) has been in the urban social movements’ agenda since before we had a military coup in 1964, when activists first started mentioning “urban reform”. Right now, in the urban scale, there’s a very strong backlash of the progressive stuff that was happening with (authoritarian, needless to say) urban neoliberalism and pro-gentrification policies related to the olympic games and the world cup, and this discourse is now back on the agenda, also bringing along the idea of strengthening the commons outside the state, and from this, we could talk about planning outside the state, “in spite of the state, against the state” – in favelas and organized squats (new favelas, built from scratch by squatters who are people in organized movements that oppose the state’s “planning” towards social housing) and many other fronts. Maybe we can save planning from the state, and practice it outside while turning it towards this project of real democracy (what a radical transformation of the state apparatus that would be…).
    Best regards,
    Felipe Magalhães

    • Felipe–thanks so much for this. The Brazilian case is so important for working through these issues. It seems to me the movements there have a rich store of wisdom for how to engage the state without becoming it, although in some respects they did become it (PT) and in others they remain outside it. Normative theoretical stances are crucial for not forgetting the purpose of our politics, and yet at the same time they must be worked through concrete struggles that are trying to achieve what they can in a particular context. I also think we should continue to work with this idea of a radical transformation of the state apparatus, as a critical partner-idea to the idea of flight/exodus, since all options should remain avaiable to us, even if I would want us to move toward the exodus model…

      • totally agree – i especially like the idea of evaluating each particular context for struggle and also keeping a multifaceted strategy of working on several fronts. but speaking about exodus, Toni Negri came here recently and he’s been saying, about PT, that in his perspective it’s an interesting strategy of being “inside and against”, that is, playing by the rules, avoiding direct conflict with the big media and with the neoliberal establishment but also doing some important stuff. I’m not sure if I agree, I think they have this way of doing things that’s a 21st century version of old latin american populism (in the bad sense of the word) – distributes income to the bottom of the pyramid but keeps public services in complete precariousness (except for the public universities which the 1% attend) so that they have to consume education, health, housing, transport etc. as merchandises, buying these services (extremely profitable markets) from the guys at the very top…

  3. Have you seen Holston’s arguments in the Insurgent Citizenship book? We just read that in a reading group. It seemed really thoughtful but also somehow a bit off–I am not sure how…

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