Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2002
David Harvey Spaces of Hope Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 293 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (0520225783)

“Until we insurgent architects know the courage of our minds and are prepared to take an equally speculative plunge into some unknown,” David Harvey writes in conclusion to his stunning new work, Spaces of Hope, “we too will continue to be the objects of historical geography (like worker bees) rather than active subjects, consciously pushing human possibilities to their limits” (255). Spaces of Hope serves as a fitting capstone to the Marxist geographer’s oeuvre of the past two decades. From his The Limits to Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), in which Harvey first began to explore what he came to call historical-geographical materialism, through his Marxist critique of postmodernism, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), and beyond, he has patiently been working toward a radical theory of spatiotemporal reconstruction of the world wrought by global capitalism. His overall project in Spaces of Hope is to connect, theoretically and politically, the “globalization talk” at the center of contemporary political activism with the “body talk” of postmodern theory. For Harvey, radical political praxis must take into account not only these polar ends of “the spectrum in the scalar we might use to understand social and political life,” but also multiple sites in between as well (15). This book mostly delivers on its promise to provide “conversation points” intended to move the left toward a “dynamic utopian vision” of multilevel social transformation that allows for both order and freedom (242).

Spaces of Hope attempts to rehabilitate utopian thinking in the service of radically reimagining and reconstructing the mess produced on a global scale by what Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism’s “creative destruction.” The massive time and space compression wrought by capital in the past fifty years or so has largely kept the working class (and its intellectual allies) off-kilter, moving too quickly and expanding too rapidly for any sort of coordinated, effective response. But as recent developments loosely definable under the rubric of “anti-globalization” attest, the humans have begun to fight back, devising strategies of resistance that are as flexible and creative as capital’s onslaught. Harvey aims to integrate the various movements and tendencies together via “dialectical utopianism,” a method of radical analysis and praxis that cuts across levels of space and time (182).

Perhaps Harvey’s greatest contribution to radical thought has been his ongoing attempt to infuse Marxist historical materialism with a geographical perspective. Marxism, Harvey asserts, has tended to undervalue the ways in which “geographical dimensions” to capital accumulation and class struggle work toward perpetuating “bourgeois power and the suppression of worker rights and aspirations” (31). Elaborating on Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that capitalism has survived only by occupying and producing space, Harvey elaborates a theory of “uneven geographical development”—an analysis of the ways in which capitalism has occupied and produced space, enabling it to weather systemic crises and circumvent place-bound oppositional movements. Spatial organization is “not neutral with respect to class struggle” (36). Workers’ movements have been better at “commanding power in places” rather than in “controlling spatialities,” a forte of the ever-globalizing capitalist class. Thus, in the long run, capital has generally succeeded in thwarting socialism and other radical challenges by dispersal and fragmentation, absorption and differentiation. Labor’s occasional successes over time have tended to deteriorate precisely because of capital’s geographic advantages. Those attempts to forestall or ameliorate the onslaught of capital have foundered, Harvey argues, primarily because they have been unable to match capital’s flexibility in space. Throughout Spaces of Hope, Harvey calls for a “radical alternative” that emulates capital’s dynamism “if it is to succeed as it materializes” (243).

In a section entitled “Spaces of Utopia,” Harvey makes an important analytical distinction between “utopianism of temporal process” and “utopianism of spatial form.” The latter, including such well-known ‘no places’ as Thomas More’s Utopia, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, aims to control time through space, to assure social stability by fixing spatial form. Contemporary suspicion of utopian schemes often rests upon recognition of the authoritarian tendencies inherent in such designs, especially as they have been realized in material form. Worst of all are modern-day “degenerate utopias” such as Disneyland and gated suburban communities, designed to shield inhabitants from the real world outside in order to “soothe and mollify, to entertain, to invent history and to cultivate nostalgia for some mythical past” (164). There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of this form of utopian thinking: these schemes “are typically meant to stabilize and control the processes that must be mobilized to build them” (173).

On the other hand are the utopias of temporal process. These, found in the work of such thinkers as Hegel and Marx, tend to get lost “in the romanticism of endlessly open projects that never come to a point of closure” in terms of space and place (174). Harvey makes a strong case for Thatcherite and Reaganite neoliberalism as extreme examples of utopias of temporal process, replete with Hegelian claims to having reached the “end of history” in the form of capitalist democracy. But any utopianism of process inevitably confronts the problem of realization in space. In the same way that actually existing spatial utopias must confront the temporal processes mobilized to produce them, “so the utopianism of process runs afoul of the spatial framings and the particularities of place construction necessary to its materialization” (179). Institutionalization tends toward sclerosis.

Harvey’s theory of uneven geographical development helps to explain capital’s tendency to use a “spatial fix”—shifting geographical bases of operation, for example—to outmaneuver continually resistance and opposition, in the process creating wildly disparate patterns of spatial development. Spatial differentiation is not necessarily a bad thing, but under capitalism it has been a forced choice rather than a product of collective, democratic decision-making. At the same time, many utopian schemes have reproduced the authoritarian tendencies of capitalism in seeking to impose spatial homogeneity on diverse populations. Drawing inspiration from Marx’s famous dictum that the “worst architect” is distinguished from the “best of bees” in that the former “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality,” Harvey calls upon radicals to act as “insurgent architects” (200). A “dialectical utopianism,” devised by such insurgent architects, will remain open to diverse spatial forms and modes of democratic political practice.

Perhaps Harvey’s most significant task in this book is his attempt to integrate the various levels of social analysis and political praxis necessary for radicalism to present a formidably multivariate and effective challenge to capitalism. The final section of the book, “Conversations on the Plurality of Alternatives,” attempts to “provide the grist”—a more robust utopianism, a “utopian dialectics” grounded in real historical and geographical tendencies—for “shaping powerful political forces for change” (195). Such a project demands facing up to postmodernism’s central dilemma: the “materialist problems” of “authority and closure,”-or how to actually begin realizing any ideal without ossification, bureaucratization, and, ultimately, authoritarianism. In short, is it possible to envision and build a new social world without foreclosing democracy, difference, or the possibility for change in space or time? Many radicals have attempted to imagine a new world. Most utopias have erred either on the side of stasis, unable to deal with temporal change, or, more recently, a la postmodernism, on the side of fluidity. Dialectical utopianism remains cognizant of the need for provisional order and stability, as well as the imperative to remain open to change. It allows for “uneven geographical development” to exist by choice, as opposed to capitalism’s market-enforced and antidemocratic unevenness.

To put his theoretical apparatus to work, Harvey chooses to analyze his erstwhile hometown, Baltimore—an exemplar of all that has gone wrong within even the core, self-styled ‘richest country on earth.’ He contextualizes that troubled city’s structural problems, like deindustrialization, the abandonment of the inner city, and the concomitant investment in privatopic development for the privileged, in larger regional, national, and global frameworks of uneven economic and geographical development. Baltimore epitomizes the contradictions of the neoliberal project. For example, developer James Rouse extracted massive public subsidies to create the famed Baltimore Inner Harbor, a fantasy zone built from a decrepit industrial wasteland. The Inner Harbor is a highly regulated and opulent “pavilion” of consumption whose charms are unaffordable to the majority of the citizens who live and work in the city. There is a direct link between the resources drained from city coffers in the name of competitiveness—used to attract development like the Harbor and two huge sport stadiums in the 1980s and 1990s—and the collapse of the city’s infrastructure and the decimation of many of its neighborhoods. In a sad Baltimore irony, upon his retirement Rouse established a nonprofit foundation to help ameliorate the devastation his previous practices as a developer wrought upon communities like Sandtown-Winchester. But the tens of thousands of abandoned buildings that scar Baltimore’s once-thriving landscape bespeak massive structural maladies beyond the pale of ad hoc remedies. This local uneven development is, in turn, embedded in larger processes of the rollback of the welfare state, deindustrialization and the development of tourism as a central means of urban capital accumulation, and the fragmentation of governmental authority.

The shortcomings in Spaces of Hope reside largely in Harvey’s apparent underestimation of capital’s advantages in time. Corporations have forged for themselves the status of a legal entity akin to personhood, despite the fact that they are inorganic and therefore able to resist temporal change. Labor, in contrast, being bound to bodies, is both more fluid and time-bound. One wonders where Harvey stands on the possibilities of reining in capital in both time and space via revised incorporation laws. Of course legal institutions are but moments in the social and political process. However, it seems that much democratic potential has been undone, ironically, by liberal incorporation laws intended, in the mid-nineteenth century, to forestall the rampant corruption attending the award of special charters of incorporation by legislatures and monarchs. Some community organizers are focused on accountability for corporations that receive public subsidies; legal changes that forced the democratization of corporations would be another facet of this struggle.

Harvey closes Spaces of Hope with a move echoing Marx’s own admiration for capitalism’s achievements—voiced most notably and eloquently in the Communist Manifesto—by invoking the “speculative spirit” of sixteenth-century architecture as a “supremely speculative and heroic profession” (243). Just as classical architecture emerged as a servant of merchant capital in Renaissance Italy, Harvey somewhat wistfully yearns for a new, postcapitalist architecture to open “new spaces for human thought and action.” But after the sad story he tells of the decline and fall of Baltimore, it is hard to imagine.

Jeffrey M. Hornstein
Independent Scholar