Volume one, issue two of the Irish Left Review is now in stores – you can pick it up online or get it from one of the bookshops listed here.
The latest issue features an extended interview with Marxist geographer and social theorist David Harvey. Professor Harvey is one of the best-known radical thinkers of the twenty-first century and has published popular books on topics ranging from urban rebellion to postmodernism and from Marx’s Capital to the history of neoliberalism.
In the printed interview he discusses his forthcoming book, ‘The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism’, illustrating how the emphasis on exchange value creates a crisis in housing and using contradiction as a basis to tease out a basis for postcapitalist imagination for the Left. Segments of that discussion have appeared previously in Red Pepper.
Below we print unpublished segments of the interview, conducted by journalists Ronan Burtenshaw and Aubrey Robinson, in which Professor Harvey discusses a variety of topics related to his own work and the politics of austerity Ireland.
Q. One of the reasons why this year is important to the Irish Left is that it is the centenary of the Dublin Lockout. That struggle was built upon a very clear class consciousness, which those engaged in left-wing politics today don’t enjoy. Is there a crisis of class consciousness at the moment? How might we address talking about or organising around class to revitalise it?
DH. The traditional way of thinking about class has always been to think about factory labour. During the industrial era factory labour was critical in terms of the creation of class consciousness and organisation. The Left has celebrated, in a way, the factory labourer as the centre of its critical consciousness and politics. We now face the problem that factory labour has largely disappeared in many parts of the world. It is still there in Bangladesh – what has been happening in factories there is similar to the Triangle Fire in New York in 1911 – the suicides in the factories in China and so on. You could take all of those things and put them in Marx’s chapter on the working day in volume one of Capital. You wouldn’t know the difference.
Nineteenth century capitalism is still a very strong presence in the world – it is just not here in the UK, Ireland, the United States in the same way it was thirty or forty years ago. As a result of that I think the concept of the working-class has to be revised. I was never happy with this concentration on factory labour, partly because of my urban interests. I ask questions like, ‘where did the Paris Commune come from?’ It was an urban event. People wanted to get their city back. You look historically and 1848 was about people wanting to get their city back as much as it was about the factories. The same in 1919 in Seattle. Then there’s 1968 – which was to do with Paris, Bangkok, Mexico City. If you look historically the city has always been the site of political activism.
My argument all along has been that we have got to pay attention to that dimension of class struggle. It is not class struggle which is as clearly defined as the factory – between bosses and workers. It is a struggle over who owns and has the right to the city. There has always been a dimension of class struggle which has been urban-based. Because of the transformations that have occurred over the last fifty years it seems to me that dimension of struggle has become even more significant. The Left has not caught up in its ideology with what is going on because it is still fixated with the notion of the factory labourer.
Why don’t we think about the city instead of the factory as the centre of what class action is all about? There is a very interesting moment in Gramsci. Around 1916 he wrote a piece saying, ‘I’m very much in favour of the factory councils, they are critical political organisations. But they need to be supplemented by the ward committees.’ These committees were organising all of those people who couldn’t be organised through the factory – the street cleaners, the cab drivers, and so on. Then he noticed something. He said, ‘the ward committees have a better idea about the condition of the whole working-class because the factory council is good at the sector but they don’t have a vision of the whole.’ So I think that labour should be organising around the whole working-class which includes all of those precarious and temporary workers right now that are servicing the city.
Take the immigrants rights’ movement in the United States in 2006. Without being conscious of this immigrants decided not to go to work on a day because they were protesting some of the legislation that was being proposed. Because of that Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles shut down. New York partially shut down. The immigrant population, including the undocumented, refused to go to work for a day and the whole city stopped. This is a tremendous power. I think that the Left has to have imagination and ask, ‘how do we organise a whole city?’
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