David Harvey and the Enigma of Capital – part 2

Since returning from Washington I have been reading David Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital (and the crises of capitalism). The book has been reviewed in the Independent by Andrew Gamble, whose book The Spectre at the Feast also provides an account of the origins and consequences of the financial crisis. Whilst Gamble thinks Harvey provides a thorough historical account of the crises that capitalism routinely manufactures, he is less impressed by Harvey’s call for a genuinely revolutionary force to replace capitalism. My own interest in this post is the possible implications of a text such as this for geography teachers. 

A useful cue is found in Bill Marsden’s 1976 book, Evaluating the Geography Curriculum. Marsden reviews the purposes of geography education and includes a section which stresses that the subject should aspire to ‘relevance’. He makes reference to Harvey’s Social Justice in the City and notes that Harvey introduces a new concept ‘created space’ which is of interest to geography teachers. Marsden here is hinting at the fact that geography teachers had always tended to assume that space was a neutral backdrop to human activity. Taking seriously the idea of ‘created space’ would entail understanding the social systems that shape and re-create space in the image of their own values and priorities. In chapter 5 of our book Teaching Geography 11-18 we examine how ideas of space have developed within the discipline and their relation to school geography. By and large, geography teachers have not theorised the idea of ‘created space’.

This is what Harvey does in The Enigma of Capital. He argues that the historical geography of capitalism (and this means the world) since around 1750 is shaped by the flow of capital. Capital is mobilised in order to yield profits or surplus value, and part of this is re-invested to produce further value. In the first part of the book he demonstrates how capital faces a series of barriers or limits which need to be circumvented. If this cannot occur, there is a crisis of capital. Having explained these limits to capital, Harvey then turns to the analysis of how capital evolves as a dynamic system. This system involves a series of ‘activity spheres’ such as technologies and organisational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangments; production and labour processes; relations to nature;  the reproduction of daily life; and ‘mental conceptions of the world’. None of these on their own can determine the evolution of capital, and together they make up the mode of production. These analyses set the scene for two chapters entitled ‘The geography of it all’ and ‘Creative destruction on the land’. These are effectively concerned with the production of space and the the production of nature, and come close to the analysis provided in Neil Smith’s (1984) Uneven Development. Geography teachers will find that much of what they teach about in schools is touched upon in these chapters – urban development, migration, economic change, environmental disasters, resource depletion – all set within a materialist framework that stresses the role of mobile capital in shaping the world.

The criticisms of Harvey’s work have been well-rehearsed, and no doubt will be repeated in relation to this book. He offers too sweeping a ‘grand narrative’, he is too respectful (almost adulatory) of capitalism, and too dismissive of forms of politics (e.g. feminism, environmentalism) that do not place capital at the centre of their critique. My own view is that this largely a matter of style – Harvey wants to give us the ‘total analysis’.

The Enigma of Capital is a book that focuses on the notion of ‘created space’. For geography educators it is a book that, if it is read and re-read, yields a framework to develop curricula and to re-shape our view of our role as teachers.

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1 Response to “David Harvey and the Enigma of Capital – part 2”


  1. 1 Indra Persaud May 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    The idea of ‘created space’ means understanding the social systems that shape and re-create space in the image of their own values and priorities.

    Seems we now have ‘coalitional spaces’! Negotiated spaces, betrayed spaces, traitored spaces even? Most created spaces, unfortunately, remain male, white and elitist, created by unfair power geometries. Values, as we have seen recently, are often sacrificed for more urgent priorities, such as the ‘market’ and ‘governance’. Stability has become more prized than democracy. Yet the illusion of stability, parliamentary or otherwise, tampers our deeper desire for more creative and more passionate spaces.


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