Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Revolutionary Transformation Requires a Collective Response

[S2 E09]

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In this episode, Prof. Harvey argues that we cannot survive this viral crisis without a radical reconfiguration of the social and institutional arrangements. Any revolutionary transformation of society has to operate across all dimensions: technology, relation to nature, social relations, production apparatuses, social reproduction, institutional arrangements, State apparatuses and mental conceptions.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is David Harvey, and you're listening to the
Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

I would think it's important, when we start to think about alternatives – and being locked away in my little apartment here, I have nothing better to do than to imagine alternatives – but I think that it's useful to sort of revisit exactly how Marx thought about the transformation of social formation, such as the United States, or Europe, or wherever, and what would be involved in that transformation. 

And there are a number of features of the Marxist thinking which I'm not particularly enamored of. For instance, there is often the view that everything in society is determined by the transformation of the productive forces – that is, the technologies. Turns out that that is inconsistent with how Marx represented everything, but nevertheless it's a familiar kind of interpretation of Marx and those ways that he was a technological determinist. He's not. Actually, if you look at the structure of the argument in Capital, Marx talks about the rise of capitalism, and it's only in the last sort of phase of capitalism that the technology actually shifts into something that is quote "adequate" to capital. 

So, but my own way of looking at it is something which Marx later does lay out very briefly, but which is consistent with much of his writing about everything from, you know, the 18th Brumaire, and Paris Commune, and all the rest of it. And it looks something like this: He has this little passage where he says that technology, he says, discloses capital's relation to nature. Now, in putting it that way, Marx doesn't say "determines;" he says "discloses." And elsewhere he says "reveals." So the way in which we understand nature is very much dependent upon the technologies which are available to us. Obviously, that is the case. On the other hand, this doesn't mean that nature is determined by the technologies. It just simply says that the natural world – which is, in itself, undergoing a process of transformation through all kinds of particular forces – that that natural world is something which is related and seeable through the kinds of technologies which we have available.  If we have microscopes, and telescopes, and so on, we start to see that natural world in a different kind of way. 

But the rise of science and technology is very significant to the formation of the technologies, but then the technologies in turn actually redefine our relation to nature. So then Marx talks about technology discloses our relation to nature, but then he kind of says it's even further than that. Technology discloses the relation to nature, but that relation then becomes foundational for how production operates, and furthermore, that becomes foundational also for the nature of the social relations which exist, in terms of divisions of labor, command-and-control functions, and so on. 

So that there is a way in which you could start to say that the totality of a capitalist social formation is made up of the technological kind of structures, and organizational structures, the relation to nature, social relations, the production apparatuses. And then, of course, you can go one step further and say, well it's also about daily life, and the reproduction of daily life, and the reproduction of social labor. And then we can kind of say, well, but it's also about institutional structures, and the state apparatuses, and finally it's also about mental conceptions. 

Now, what I've done here is to suggest that the idea of a capitalist social formation can be decomposed into these different moments – that Marx uses the term "moments" – and these moments are technology, relation to nature, social relations, production apparatuses, social reproduction, institutional arrangements, state apparatuses, and mental conceptions. And any revolutionary transformation of society has to operate across all of those dimensions – not necessarily simultaneously, because it's not as if any one of them actually tells you, or gives you, the revolutionary transformation. A revolution is going to be a transformation of all of those elements – so, step by step, bit by bit.

So that revolution, then, for Marx, is a process. And in that passage I took from his discussion on The Civil War in France, he begins to hint at that, and kind of says, look, there are lots of different struggles which we have to go through, and we have to struggle to change our mental conceptions. For example, if we wish to restructure our relation to nature – just take this as one example. We realize that there is something radically wrong in terms of our metabolic relation to nature, and that radically wrong is called climate change. Let's take that for the moment. 

We say, okay, we have to do something about climate change. That is, we need to impact the world in such a way that we roll back all of those greenhouse-gas emissions, and we do something or other to actually restore climatic conditions to those which prevailed, say, before 1960. And if we want to do that, how do we do that, and how do we go about it? And the answer here, to what degree will that require new technological innovations? Now, there are many people who kind of say, well, that's the answer: Get the new technologies. Get, you know, get out of fossil-fuel dependency. Go to, you know, the new energy forms of wind power, solar power, or all the rest of it. We don't need – in other words, there's going to be a technological revolution, and the technological revolution is necessary to transform that relation to nature. 

But, then, it also becomes pretty clear that this technological capacity is not going to be mobilized unless people have mental conceptions which say that  a) that this is a critical issue to address,  b) that actually one of the things that needs to be changed is our technological mix, and that we have to give up certain technologies – for instance, the automobile, and things of that kind. In other words, mental conceptions require that we actually have a population that is convinced that this is a necessary thing to do. And, of course, one of the things we've seen is that climate deniers, and Donald Trump, and all the rest of it, actually can say that mental conception is fake, that's fake science, it's fake everything. And if you can't get people to change their mental conceptions, then all this argument about having to change the technologies, and having to do whatever has to be done to get the greenhouse gases down, isn't going to work because the mental conceptions are not there. 

So you've got to change the mental conceptions and the technologies. In order to do that, obviously it's going to mean something about changing production structures. That is, you cannot go around producing large, say, urban investments which take a lot of cement, and cement is a greenhouse-gas producer like crazy. You know, in other words, we need to change the whole kind of makeup for formation of production, and how we produce things. And, in particular with the respect to climate change, we probably need to change the production structures of agriculture in radical kinds of ways. 

But not only do we have to change that, but we also have to change consumer habits. For instance, one of the arguments that's being made about climate change is that we need a completely different approach to our diets, and that our diets should not be so meat dependent, because raising meat is going to produce climate change. In other words, daily life is going to have to change, in terms of the diets, the kinds of things we eat, kinds of culture we have, and the like.

So my point here is that if you take a simple issue like climate change, you find that in order to do something about it, you have to intervene at the level of technology. You have to intervene at the level of social relations, and in particular power structures, because if the power structures are heavily located in the fossil-fuel industries, you're not going to get anywhere at all. So you've got to undermine the fossil-power industries in order to get anywhere on this. So you've got to deal with the social relations, and the class relations, and the power structures. You've got to deal with the state apparatus, and you've got to deal with mental conceptions. 

In other words, just taking a particular issue like climate change, you have to operate across all of those dimensions that I talked about. And any one of them, if any one of them doesn't work, then the whole thing's likely to be blocked. I mentioned, for example, one of the big blockages about ending climate change is disagreement on mental conceptions. And if you have a large segment of the population where the mentality, and the culture, and all the rest of it, kind of says, basically, all of this stuff about climate change is hoax, and, you know, it's a scientific hoax, and I don't believe the science, and all the rest of it – so we've got to do something.

Now, we've seen small examples of that, of course – well, not small examples; big examples of that, actually – in the last few months. We had the kind of question of, you know, do we, are we going to take this new virus seriously? And the fact that nobody followed the science, and nobody took any notice of the science for a while, and certain people in power had mental conceptions that basically said, nyeah, it's nothing. And, you know, Boris Johnson basically can say nyeah, it's nothing. And now he's there, kind of struck down by the virus.

So these are the sorts of things that go on in society. But I think it is very useful to say, let's look at a capitalist social formation across all of those different dimensions. And I've mentioned sort of eight dimensions, and I know it gets very complicated, but nevertheless, I think we have to deal with the fact that we live in a complicated kind of world. But we can disaggregate it. And we can, I think, take these particular features and say, all right, if we're going to have a revolutionary transformation in society, if we're going to come out of this virus crisis – if you want to call it that – in a different kind of way, then we're going to have to change all kinds of ways of thinking and start to kind of really reconfigure how we're going to exist in this world.

We're going to have to think about the nature of our social relations. And, actually, what is so interesting about this is that here you have a situation where it is a transformation in the natural world and in the metabolic relations in nature that is forcing us to rethink all sorts of things about our institutional structures and all the rest of it. Because we can then answer, well, when this viral crisis came along, what kinds of institutional structures really worked? 

And there was a wonderful moment, by the way, with the governor of the state of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who was looking at the situation, saying, we've got this virus crisis, we have to respond to it, we've got a health-care system that is disaggregated into many private institutions which are in competition with each other plus some public institutions. None of this coheres. All of them have their own different interests, and somehow or other they've all got to be brought together. And he kind of says, he had a wonderful phrase, too, when talking about this disaggregation of this system – which is consistent, of course, with neoliberal philosophy and neoliberal thinking. And he kind of says, you know, this is total garbage, what we've got. We cannot survive this viral crisis without actually a radical reconfiguration of the social, of the institutional, arrangements which actually regulate public health. And that's what we've got to do. And he has to, like a bricklayer, sort of put all the bits and pieces together in a different kind of way, get all of the bosses together, and say, look, forget all of your competition, and forget all of this, and we've got to collaborate. So suddenly we have a health system that has to work because this is the only way it can work in relationship to a particular crisis.

Now, interestingly, you kind of go, well, how hard it was in the United States to get some sort of reaction – first off, because the mental conceptions were not really there for a significant part of the population, and secondly, because you have an institutional structure which is kind of almost incapable of responding at the level you need it to respond. 

So, you know, so how do we think about this? And I think here there's a very interesting kind of contrast with China. China didn't have this problem of coordination. It already had a structure which could immediately respond, and the fact that, you know, China went through the Wuhan crisis and came out the other side. First, there was very, very little contagion within China itself. I mean, China had the virus, and the virus was contained to Hubei Province and Wuhan. And if you look at the data, you find there's very little spread of the virus to Beijing, or further south, or west, or something like that. So it was confined within a geographical province. 

In the United States, how do you do that? In other words, you have a social system, an institutional structure, which is incapable because it's founded on certain principles of individualism and all the rest of it. Now this comes back to one of my favorite themes, which is to kind of say that, you know, individualism is the result of collective action. Individualism gets in the way of collective action. And so, in effect, what you have to do in this crisis is to overcome this ideological presupposition of individualism, institutional structures that are predicated on individualism, social reproduction processes which are predicated on individual liberty and freedom, and all of these kinds of things. You'd have to actually battle with all of those in order to create a solid, sociological basis which would actually deal with the virus, and create it into a new structure, would create a new kind of administrative structure, which will allow us as individuals, at some point or other, to get out of being locked in my small apartment, so I can freely walk around the place and freely socialize with people.

This is kind of the paradox of the situation now. Of course, the person who loves this kind of thing is, of course, Marx. And that's why he loves to talk about contradictions, and says, well, you know, this is the contradictions of capitalism. That, on the one hand, it has this theory of individual liberty and freedom, and all the rest of it, and that actually gets in the way of individual liberty and freedom of the mass of the population because what it does, is it prevents those forms of collective action which are necessary to secure the base within a particular social formation for individual liberty and freedom to flourish. 

So this is, if you like, I think one of the fascinating aspects of the current conjuncture:  that when you look at it – and this is, in a sense, kind of the mini tragedy, in a way – is that if the United States had listened to Bernie Sanders and actually adopted the kind of world that Bernie Sanders was advocating, if we had that kind of situation, we would not be having all of the struggles we're having right now. We would have a public health system that would function very quickly and very fast in relationship to the problem. We wouldn't have this kind of difficulty about what on earth is going to happen to somebody who gets sick with the virus, turns up in hospital, and doesn't have insurance. You know, we've got to find all kinds of ways to cover all of that. And actually, right now, in a patchwork kind of way, we are creating a social welfare structure as a temporary kind of basis. And everybody is fearful that – well, not everybody, but the powers that be, put it this way, seems to me are fearful of the fact that – what we'll look at is to say, well, you know, why is this temporary? Why don't we make this permanent? 

And, in fact, you know, had we listened to Bernie Sanders, you know, 10 years ago, or something like that, we wouldn't be in this mess. And the sad thing is that, of course, Bernie Sanders has had to drop out of the race. I'm not sort of totally advocating Bernie Sanders' politics, but what I'm sort of saying to you is this:  that actually, some of the things which appear to be outrageous, and are depicted in the press and the right wing and all the rest of it as being outrageous, turn out you have to do it anyway. Except you have to do it in this sort of pretending you're not doing them, when you are doing them, because you have to do them, because of the necessity of the situation. 

The necessity of the situation right now is that we need a social government. We need a strong governmental structure. We need institutional arrangements which are going to be adequate to a situation in which we need to control the spread and range of this virus. And the struggle to do it is a struggle against what are the dominant institutions of a contemporary capitalist society. And it's so fascinating just to take this kind of issue and start to run with it, because then we look at the different dimensions of how a capitalist social formation is constructed and argue that we need to think about the transformation of all of it. 

Now, at this point people say, oh, but that's far too big, it's far too difficult to do, etc., etc., etc. But let me suggest something to you. I wrote a little book called A Brief History of Neoliberalism. It was quite a successful book; it's traveled around a lot. And in that book I talked about this transition in the nature of capitalism that occurred from the 1970s onwards – moving away from what might be called a more social democratic, Fordist kind of structure into this neoliberal, free-market kind of system. 

Now, this was a transition which actually worked across all of those dimensions that I've talked about – for example, mental conceptions of the world. I mean, Margaret Thatcher wonderfully said once, look I'm not only interested in transforming the economy; I am interested in transforming people's souls – that is, people's inner selves. And, of course, what neoliberalism was about was, in many respects, trying to get people to accept the idea of personal responsibility, individual entrepreneurialism of the self, all of those kinds of things. And that therefore over a 30- or 40-year period you see a radical transformation in individualism ethics, and their individualism and ethical behaviors, and ethical presuppositions, and all the rest of it. 

All of that was about mental conceptions of the world. And therefore the neoliberal project is not simply about accumulation of more wealth on the part of the upper classes. Yeah, okay, we know that's what it was about, but on the other hand, it was also about securing that transformation of wealth as somehow or other being right and correct from the standpoint of individual liberty, and freedom, and all the rest of it. 

You then look at the institutional structures. There's a wonderful little book by Melinda Cooper called Family Values, which I draw your attention to.  And what Cooper does is to kind of say, how has the family been represented through this period of neoliberalization? Well, it began as a kind of a Fordist family with the male who works, and the woman at home in the kitchen, and two kids, a car in the garage, and all the rest of it. It began in that kind of world, but then it moved towards a much more neoliberal kind of structure in which, because women are working, there's a much different set of gender relations going on in the family. So, what the family meant in 1970 is something very, very different from what the family means now.  So there was a radical reconfiguration. And that is about the transformation of the tactics of social reproduction and how social reproduction could work.

At the same time, we see radical transformations in technologies. I mean, the kind of technology that existed in the sort of Fordist production system, with the big kind of factories, and all the rest of it, gets displaced. Instead we get, you know, the kind of decentralized kind of corporatist world, with a great deal of horizontal forms of organization. And we get a radical reconfiguration of politics, away from hierarchical political formations to horizontal. And that actually is, of course, characteristic of capitalism in general – the move away from vertical structures to much more horizontal structures. 

So if you look at the history of neoliberalism, you would say, all right, look, there's been a transformation over the last 30 or 40 years in the way in which these different moments of technology in relation to nature, social relations, production apparatuses, social reproduction, institutions, mentalities, and the state – all of them have undergone a transformation – not necessarily mutually supportive. A great deal of conflict is frequent of various kinds at various times, and a great deal of conflict within society in general. But nevertheless there has been a movement in the whole of society, but it's a movement who's embraced all of these dimensions.

Now, if a movement of that kind can put us away from the world as it was constructed in 1970 to the way it's constructed now, then why are we not sitting here and saying, all right, the socialist future is something that's going to be constructed over the next 30, 40 years? And this is, I think, Marx's point in that quote I gave from The Civil War, saying it's going to take a long time, long march, through all of these aspects of different society to change things. And all of those things have to change. 

But this is a moment when we can actually think about all of those things and see very clearly that we're not going to be able to get out of this viral kind of problem without some sort of transformation. The hope, I think, of political power and, you know, Trump and all the rest of it, is that we're going to go through this very fast, come out the other side, and then say, whew, that's all over; we can go back to doing exactly what we were doing before, because that's what Trump wants. But I don't think it's going to be so simple. I think actually there are going to be some long-term consequences of that which we're going through. 

And one of the long-term consequences is likely to be mental conceptions of the world. And one of the things that I would be very, very concerned that we do right now is to kind of say, look the mental conceptions of the world which led us into this mess have to be overthrown. And we need, therefore, to reconstruct the way in which we understand the world, the way in which we approach the world, the way in which we represent the world to ourselves and to others, and the way in which we relate to others. Because it's only through the revolution of that starting there that we're going to actually then start to think about the revolution which can occur throughout everything else.

So this is a moment when we can think through these possibilities. This is a moment when I think it's potentially a great moment for transformation and transformative politics. The problem is, the very definition of the moment is, that I'm stuck in my place, and I can't get out. I'm locked down; everybody's locked down. But we can use media this way and maybe, through this, create some alternative structures of thinking and imagination. I would say that this is the moment of possibility for the construction of something radically different – which is more emancipatory for labor, more emancipatory from the mass of the population. And we're not going to go back to this world in which the emancipation is confined for a few large corporations and a few oligarchic families, plus all of their hangers-on and handlers, which is the current social structure.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank-you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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