The Ways of the World by David Harvey

The United States Geological Survey reports that China consumed 6,651 million tonnes of cement in the years 2011–13 compared with the 4,405 million tonnes the United States used over the period 1900–1999.

How and why could this be?

The crisis of 2008, manufactured mainly in the housing markets of the American South-West, produced millions of unemployed workers in the industrial regions of China by early 2009.

So what did the Chinese do and how did they do it? They engineered a massive wave of investment in physical infrastructures.

After 2008 at least a quarter of China’s GDP was derived from housing construction alone and roughly half of China’s GDP and almost all of its growth were attributable to investment in the built environment. This was how China got out of the recession. Hence the pouring of all that concrete.

There is no question that China took a leading role in saving global capitalism from disaster after 2008 with its massive urbanisation and investments in the built environment. How did the Chinese do it? The basic answer is simple. They debt-financed. The Central Committee of the Communist Party told the banks to lend no matter what the risk.

The growth of the Chinese debt has been spectacular. It has nearly doubled since 2008.

Unlike Greece, the debt is owed in renminbis and not dollars or euros. The Chinese central bank has plenty of foreign reserves to cover the debt if need be and could print its own money at will.

Investing half of GDP growth in fixed capital that produces declining growth rates is not a good proposition.

So how do the Chinese propose to deal with their current problems of disposing of their surplus capital?

To start with, the Chinese are planning to build a single city to house 130 million people pinned together by high-speed transport and communications networks.

This debt-financed project is designed to absorb surpluses of capital and of labour well into the future.

China is not the only place contemplating projects of this sort.

Turkey plans to convert Istanbul into a city of some 45 million.

Building booms, with rising property prices and rents, are in evidence in almost every major city in the world.

The Chinese are also looking beyond their borders for ways to absorb their surplus capital and labour.

There is a project to rebuild the so-called ‘Silk Road’.

The rail network would run from the East Coast of China through Inner and Outer Mongolia and the central Asian states to Tehran and Istanbul, from where it will fan out across Europe as well as branching off to Moscow.

Lower costs and faster times on the Silk Road in the future will convert a largely empty area in central Asia into a string of thriving metropolises.

The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) was launched in 2000 as an ambitious programme to create transport infrastructures for the circulation of capital and commodities over twelve South American states.

In Africa the Chinese are already hard at work integrating the transport systems of East Africa and are interested in constructing transcontinental railways from one coast to the other.

I recount these stories to illustrate how the world’s geography has been and is being constantly made, remade and sometimes even destroyed in order to absorb rapidly accumulating surpluses of capital. The simple answer to the question of why this is happening is: because the reproduction of capital accumulation requires it.

This raises questions about what the ways of our future world might look like. Do we want to live in a city of 130 million people? Is pouring concrete everywhere in order to keep capital from falling into crisis a reasonable thing to do?

If sustaining and reproducing capital as a dominant form of political economy requires, as seems to be the case, pouring concrete everywhere at an ever-increasing rate, then surely it is time to at least question if not reject the system that produces such excesses.

The ghetto has attracted a good deal of attention as one of the major social problems of the American city.

In British cities, fears of ‘polarisation’ and ‘ghettoisation’ have also been rising. It is generally held that ghettos are bad things and that it would be socially desirable to eliminate them, preferably without eliminating the populations they contain.

The theory predicts that poor groups must, of necessity, live where they can least afford to live.

Our objective is to eliminate ghettos. Therefore, the only valid policy with respect to this objective is to eliminate the conditions which give rise to the truth of the theory.

The simplest approach here is to eliminate those mechanisms which serve to generate the theory. The mechanism in this case is very simple – competitive bidding for the use of the land. If we eliminate this mechanism, we will presumably eliminate the result.

This is immediately suggestive of a policy for eliminating ghettos, which would presumably supplant competitive bidding with a socially controlled urban land market and socialised control of the housing sector.

If we regard the total housing stock of an urban area as a social (as opposed to a private) good, then obviously the community has already paid for the old housing.

We have an enormous quantity of social capital locked up in the housing stock, but in a private market system for land and housing, the value of the housing is not always measured in terms of its use as shelter and residence, but in terms of the amount received in market exchange, which may be affected by external factors such as speculation.

Uranium became a resource with technological advances in nuclear physics, and people become resources when they are forced to sell their labour on the market in order to survive.

If we ‘urban renew’, we merely move the poverty around; if we don’t, we merely sit by and watch decay.

Although all serious analysts concede the seriousness of the ghetto problem, few call into question the forces which rule the very heart of our economic system.

Thus we discuss everything except the basic characteristics of a capitalist market economy.

They eventually lead us to discover that capitalist solutions provide no foundation for dealing with deteriorated social conditions.

In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is counter-revolutionary in the sense that it allows the bleeding-heart liberal in us to pretend we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not.

China compensated for a substantial decline in its export trade after 2008, following the collapse of consumer demand in the USA, by a state-led strategy of forcing surplus capital and labour into huge urbanisation and physical infrastructure projects. These allowed China to maintain relatively high rates of growth after 2009 while the rest of the world floundered.

As I write this in 2015, there is growing evidence of overinvestment in the built environment in China: it will be interesting to see what transpires as the authorities struggle to prevent overaccumulation in the secondary circuit threatening the health of not only China’s economy but that of the whole world.

Understanding urbanisation requires more than an analysis of capital flows or migratory streams. Citizenship, belonging, alienation, solidarities, class and other forms of collective politics have crucial roles in the production of spaces of intimacy and social relations as well as the spaces occupied by public functions.

In all of these respects, the claims generally made that neoliberalism is about open competition rather than monopoly control or limited competition within oligopolistic structures turn out to be fraudulent, masked as usual by the fetish worship of market freedoms. Free trade does not mean fair trade.

The continuing politics of accumulation by dispossession has been masked in recent years by the ‘necessity’ for the politics of austerity, which is nothing more than organised dispossession, as has been dramatically and sadly illustrated by Greece. In a civilised world nothing so barbaric should have ever been contemplated. But from the Mexican debt crisis of 1982 onwards, accumulation by dispossession has become standard politics within global capitalism under the name of ‘structural adjustment and austerity’ for the masses, while bailing out the bankers and handsomely rewarding them for their egregious errors.

On top of all this comes a class politics of austerity that is being pursued for political and not for economic reasons.

The assault on the environment and the well-being of the people is palpable and it is taking place for political and class, not economic, reasons.

Anti-capitalist struggle is about the abolition of that class relation between capital and labour in production that permits the production and appropriation of surplus value by capital. The ultimate aim of anti-capitalist struggle is, quite simply, the abolition of that class relation.

The problem with worker control has been that the focus of struggle has been the factory as a privileged site of production of surplus value and the privileging of the industrial working class as the vanguard of the proletariat, the main revolutionary agent.

So we have a choice: mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution or change our conception of the proletariat to that of the hordes of unorganised urbanisation producers and explore their distinctive revolutionary capacities and powers.

How then does one organise a city? This, it seems to me, is one of the key quetions that the left will have to answer if anti-capitalist struggle is to be revitalised in the years to come.

All those whose labours are engaged in producing and reproducing the city have a collective right not only to that which they produce but also to decide on what is to be produced where and how.

The forces unleashed by the rise of capitalism have re-engineered the world many times over since 1750.

If, as Marx once averred, our task is not so much to understand the world as to change it, then, it has to be said, capitalism has done a pretty good job of following his advice.

Most of these dramatic changes have occurred without bothering first to understand how the world worked or what the consequences might be.

If we are to collectively change this world into a more rational and humane configuration through conscious interventions, then we must first learn to understand far better than is now the case the ways of this world, what we do in it and with what consequences.

So where shall we start our revolutionary anti-capitalist movement? Mental conceptions? The relation to nature? Daily life and reproductive practices? Social relations? Technologies and organisational forms? Labour processes? The capture of institutions and their revolutionary transformation?

The revolution has to be a movement in every sense of that word. If it cannot move within, across and through the different spheres then it will ultimately go nowhere at all.

Those with a deep knowledge of how the relation to nature works need to ally with those deeply familiar with how institutional and administrative arrangements function, how science and technology can be mobilised, how daily life and social relations can most easily be reorganised, how mental conceptions can be changed, and how production and the labour process can be reconfigured.

A study of the multiple interlocking contradictions of capital allows us to see more clearly the impossibilities, the insanity and irrational consequences of the endless accumulation that capital demands. It is imperative that we begin to think through the political strategies required to confront the excesses of capital in the here and now and find openings for the construction of viable political-economic alternatives.

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