This juxtaposition of readings turned out to be very apt.  The slow-motion general strike is one version of what Harvey dismisses as a “termite theory” of revolution [124].  He claims that the term is not dismissive, but the terms of his argument [all of one paragraph, spanning 124-25] are revealing.  If the termite damage becomes too great, capital calls in the “exterminators (state power)” – and anyway, what guarantee is there that termite revolution will produce a “better form of society”?  But these are plausible objections to ANY and ALL anti-capitalist struggle, and therefore don’t constitute an argument against “termite revolution” in particular.  And by comparison, it SEEMS more likely (though without any guarantees) that the slow-motion general strike’s small-scale enclaves that ALREADY instantiate the direct-democratic and ecological values we strive for will more likely produce a form of society we’re happy with than a military or militaristic hierarchy designed to confront the power of capital head on and expropriate the expropriators by force.  Not that I’m against armed revolution per se, but it always begs the question of what to do with the revolutionary power-structure afterwards if it does win the day.  Harvey is certainly right about one thing, though – the structural dilemma of how the left can

fuse the need to actively engage with, but also create an alternative to, the capitalist laws of value determination on the world market, while facilitating the associated laborers’ ability democratically and collectively to manage and decide on what they will produce and how? [126]. 

But he is not open to as many possibilities as he might/should be.

What is remarkable about Harvey’s position as a Marxist (but less surprising as a geographer) is that he is willing to re-locate the site of struggle from the factory to the city – although he doesn’t have an easy time doing so, rhetorically speaking.  For how can “the exploitation of living labor in production… remain central” if we really DO give “equal status” to struggles against “secondary [sic] forms of exploitation” [129], i.e. “struggles against the recuperation and realization of surplus value from workers in their living spaces” in cities?

while the exploitation of living labor in production (in the broader sense already defined) must remain central to the conception of any anti-capitalist movement, struggles against the recuperation and realization of surplus value from workers in their living spaces have to be given equal status to struggles at the various points of production of the city.  [140]

It’s not clear to me that “equal status” and “remain[ing] central” are compatible.

The discussion of the slow-motion general strike may have clarified the argument in one important respect, regarding the difference between mere reformism and contributions to a proto-revolutionary general strike.  The transformation of a given institution should be both desirable in its own right AND seem likely to connect with other reforms to produce more wide-spread change.  They are both judgment calls (no guarantees) – but immediate desirability and prospective connectability are twin criteria that can’t be separated.


One thought on “Harvey/Holland

  1. I was also struck by the termite image: I thought it was revealing that the small creatures he chose were ones that destroy, rather than ones that build/create (in the image, of course termites do build as well). Of course anyone who is actually advocating termite politics is really advocating a destroy-and-build (or maybe better build-and-so-destroy) practice. So Harvey’s question of what would come in the wake of the termites destruction misses the point that the destruction must proceed by building the alternative at the same time. It won’t destroy if it does not simultaneously build a better option.

    On the urban question, I can help a bit, I think. Harvey has always placed Marxism/class first and the city/space second (Ed Soja has railed against him for it for years). But at the same time, Harvey does take space seriously, moreso than almost any other Marxist (q.v. Castells). What he is doing here in RC is rehashing the challenge that Lefebvre posed way back in 1970 (The Urban Revolution), when he relocated, brilliantly and convincingly, the struggle out of the factories and into the city. It was HL’s way, I think, of fleeing class reductionism, of shifting the struggle to a site where very clearly multiple subjectivities, oppressions, and potentials are jumbled up together, tangled inextricably in everyday urban life. In the urban context, reducing oneself to a class position (as seems viable on the shop floor) makes no sense. In the city, I think Lefebvre was suggesting, we have to struggle, connect, resist, create across subjectivities, since they are all directly relevant to any kind of urban life and urban struggle.

    Moreover, HL’s focus on the city was hopeful: he thought the city was a machine for bringing people together into encounters, for creating solidarities, intensifying creativities, helping us realize, as we find ourselves jumbled up together, that we are the ones we have to rely on. The city as strategic site, or belly, in which to attack capital head-on is Harvey’s mind at work. Lefebvre thought of it much more as a potential (and actual) concentration of free action, of autogestion among inhabitants. (There is more to say here, but I’m getting tired….)

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