On Stoddart

CCCCI was saddened to hear of the death of the geographer David Stoddart. The Guardian has an obituary, written by Peter Haggett, and The Independent has one by Tam Dalyell, with whom Stoddart campaigned to save Aldabra from being used as a military base; and there is an appreciation on the Berkeley Geography Department website.

Stoddart is the main influence on me becoming a Geographer, or at least on remaining in Geography long enough to become one. I am the last-but-one Geography undergraduate he admitted before leaving Cambridge, and no-one had applied to his College for a couple of years before me. Later on, it occurred to me that this might have been why I got in – I assume he wasn’t going to look too hard at the stray application that did turn up (I only applied to that College because they offered the best accommodation deal). As my Director of Studies, I was taught by Stoddart for a year, in his office in the Department of Geography (he had effectively ceased to actually visit the College some time ago). He wasn’t actually around when my first term started, he arrived a couple of weeks later, having been away in California, securing the Chair to which he moved at the end of 1987.

For a year, I had one-on-one supervisions with Stoddart, because there weren’t any other Geographers for whom he was responsible (This wasn’t, in my experience otherwise, a normal situation at all; supervisions normally had two or three people in them). In these meetings, I learnt various things. I learnt how to nurse a large glass beaker full of sherry through an hour-long meeting in which someone else was ding a lot of the talking without ending up totally trashed (not a skill that has been called on much since then). Above all, I learnt that Geography was an intellectual vocation. Stoddart’s outward demeanour was, as I recall, rather hearty, but his teaching was focussed on ideas, ideas, and ideas. His supervisions were interrupted by phone calls from Joseph Needham, and full of discussions, by Stoddart, of Darwin. His model of teaching was to send you off to read something for next time, and then when next time came round, you would find yourself talking about something else entirely. As a matter of principle, he didn’t set essays; so I didn’t write any in my first year as an undergraduate, until exams in the summer. This was a model of Geography as reading, like a personalised version of Geography as ‘Greats’ (I tended not to invest so heavily in Stoddart’s predilection for romping around salt marshes in the cold of November).

UntitledStoddart had me read Paul Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters in my first term, and Clarence Glacken’s Traces of the Rhodian Shore over the Christmas break (let’s not dwell on whether I understood anything going on in these kinds of books). Perhaps most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of David Harvey’s work. Getting me to read Harvey was his strategy to keep me from switching from Geography at the end of my first year. I went to University with the intention of studying Economics, and only started with Geography because if you already had an A-Level in Economics, you did not need to do the first-year Economics course. I thought doing Geography would be a good way of learning a few more facts about desertification and drought before focussing on proper, complex ideas about how the world really worked (which is what doing Economics at school had seemed to have been about). When I first met him, at a meet-and-greet event in the Spring before going to University, I had told Stoddart that I liked Keynes (he had asked me who my intellectual hero was, and I didn’t think it wise to say ‘Charles M. Schulz’), and that I had an interest in knowing more about Marxism (probably because of reading too much of the NME). So when I started, when he did arrive back, he told me to read Harvey, specifically, ‘Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science‘. This essay was almost designed to convert callow just-out-of-school Geographers into critical social scientists. It worked on me. When I later ordered Harvey’s Limits to Capital for the College library, the request was forwarded to the Economics fellow for approval, who declined it on the grounds that this book was already held at the University’s Economics library. Stoddart was furious at this, and insisted on it being ordered as core Geography reading.

By the end of my first year, actually much earlier, I had settled on staying with Geography (helped by the realisation that Economics was really just abstracted applied algebra). This was because I had discovered a whole world of social theory, a world full of Marxism and feminism and Giddens, a world in which it turned out that everyone was talking about politics and power. And I had discovered this world in no small part because Stoddart encouraged me in that direction, and also because he demonstrated to me through his own work and teaching style that Geography was the place to stay if you were really interested in pursuing ideas.

Bite Size Theory: A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2

“It has also been a mainstay of my own argument that the absorption of surplus-value and of surplus product through the production of space in general and urbanization in particular has been crucial to sustaining capital accumulation.”

David Harvey, 2013, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2, Verso.

New book by David Harvey: Rebel Cities

Between trying to take a day off and teaching overload (at the same time), I have been speed-reading David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, bought on a day out in Bath. I know, this is the sort of book you are meant to buy at Booksmarks or somewhere like that, but Bath is the closest place to where I live with decent book shops (Oxford doesn’t count, because it doesn’t actually have great bookshops, apart from Blackwell’s, and the OUP bookshop, both of which are more like academic libraries where you can buy the books, if you see what I mean).

The book is a collection of mainly recent pieces on urban politics, including a long essay on The Right to the City from New Left Review; the long, written-out-in-neat story of the ongoing urbanization of capital that underwrites the financial meltdown of 2007/8 which Harvey’s viral RSA animation lecture covered; and a set of pieces at the end reflecting on recent events such as the Occupy movement, London riots in 2011, and more interestingly, urban politics in Latin America.

It has some familiar limits, shall we say – an aversion to rights-talk when thought of as anything more than a convenient strategic fiction, and a simplistic contrast between ‘individual rights’ (not to be trusted), and ‘collective’ rights (more of these, please). And a tendency to defer the most pressing problems of political analysis to the field of concrete struggle (the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t feature in the index of this new book, which I thought was telling, until I noticed that the index only lists proper names of people and places and movements, which is a shame).

The two most interesting pieces in this new book are in the middle. A neglected essay, from more than a decade ago, analyses cultural commodities from the perspective of the Marxist conceptualization of monopoly rent. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this sort of approach, or at least I used to, when I thought more about these things (I think Nicholas Garnham had a similar line once), though it inevitably runs aground on the limits of an account of commodities that still invests heavily in the manly notion of value being derived from living labour in the production process (come in, Carolyn Steedman).

The other piece, perhaps the most interesting in fact, is on the concept of the urban commons. It’s a critical engagement with a notion that has become quite central to certain strands of contemporary left theory and politics, as both a ‘slogan’ and ‘ideal’ we might say. Philosophically, the commons has emerged as a kind of ontological security blanket for the revival of discussions of communism, a sort of immanent presence that just needs to be recognised and embraced – it is a weirdly post-political idea. Harvey suggests that the commons is always likely to be a construct of struggle and conflict, an effect of one form or another of exclusion or enclosure – he proposes the notion of ‘commoning’ as a practice to be analysed and encouraged. He also points out the degree to which the anarcho-inflection of this concept in contemporary thought systematically evades problems related to variations of ‘scale’ (a criticism which could be read, if one wished, as a surrogate for a much broader evasion of the problem of democracy in this style of leftist political romanticism). Harvey is rather sheepish in his suggestion that a little bit of hierarchy might be OK, although this is really just another way of saying that democracy is an art of governing, amongst other things.

Harvey makes use of the ‘conventional’ thinking of Elinor Ostrom in his discussion of the contradictions surrounding issues of commons, which is also refreshing, and another departure from the constrictions of the hegemonic account of this idea that draw on Hardt and Negri and others (he does not, however, go very far down the line of thinking about institutional analysis and institutional design that this reference point might open up). And there remains something rigid about Harvey’s understanding of ‘public’ attributes – public goods and public space are understood as gifts dragged out of ‘the state’ by class and other struggles, a sort of grudging background that might be actively, creatively appropriated by practices of genuine commoning (what Harvey describes as commoning in this respect looks a lot like authentic public action as described by Arendt, which is only to suggest that it might also suffer from some of the same problems as that description, not least a hint of an image of pure action freed of instrumental concerns).

[The baby’s just been sick, I have to pause].

In this account of commoning as the appropriation of already constructed background environments, Harvey’s critical reconstruction of the notion of the commons ends up, then, looking quite ‘conventional’ itself, although not necessarily in a bad way – whisper it, but there is a minor theme in Harvey’s work I think, behind the rhetoric of revolution, that sees left politics primarily in terms of seeking after more just, more equitable distribution of surplus in the here and now (and there’s no reason that this need not encompass more just relations of surplus production). The rhetoric of unified revolutionary transformation is in abundance in this book, certainly, but it is not really supported by an analysis of politics, culture and economics that has so relentlessly, over many years now, demonstrated the dynamics of fracturing, differentiation and contradiction that inhabit any and all forms of human action (the idea of revolutionary transformation might, it seems to me, if you’ve read enough of David Harvey as a geographer, be deeply antithetical to a geographical imagination). The ambivalent nostalgia for social democratic settlements, for failed Swedish promises of surplus transfer from capital to labour and the like, are testament to a radical politics of redistribution that seems unable to speak its own name – it’s present in Harvey’s book about the New Imperialism, and goes all the way back to Social Justice and the City. This minor key is that of a Polanyian radicalism, not a Marxist one.

Keep Mrs. Honeyman right out of sight

A week of protest, demonstrations, rioting, flash looting, vandalism and violence across towns and cities in England has been another occasion for the expression of instant opinion and analysis by academics and intellectuals.

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association (BSA) made a public claim for the relevance of sociology in the wake of the riots, primarily on the grounds that sociologists know that ‘crowds are not rational’. Really? Since when? A peculiar claim indeed, one which seemed to conflate ‘emotions’ with ‘lack of reason’, and invited us to regress a hundred years or so back to Gustave Le Bon, and running counter to a wide range of social science that has spent decades demonstrating  precisely the opposite.

The Mandy Rice-Davies Award for this week goes to Zygmunt Bauman, for whom these events were all a symptom of rampant consumerism – actually a widely shared view amongst much of the commentariat, from left to right. David Harvey developed the extended analogy between the ‘feral rats’ doing the looting and ‘feral’ bankers and capitalists going unpunished for their crimes in bringing about global financial chaos. An analogy which, one might suppose, did not really throw much explanatory light upon last weeks’ events at all. Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett discerned a general sense of cynicism born of inequality as laying behind the riots.

Some commentators were keen to insist on a link between these events and the Coalitions’ agenda of austerity and cuts – but the link was only presented as a ‘context’, which rather begged the important question about how the relationship between contexts and conditions on the one hand, and actions and events on the other, is actually meant to be mediated. A number of people alighted upon an academic paper which finds a correlation between fiscal austerity and social ‘unrest’, in order to shore up the argument that there was a link between rioting and cuts.

Much of the commentary I have seen has suggested that ‘the right’ is keen to deny any and all causal analysis of these events, invoking pure criminality and mindless irresponsibility. This seems to be wrong-headed, and probably continues a long-standing failure to credit the post-Thatcherite right in the UK with having a quite well-developed social theory of our contemporary malaise. There are various sorts of causal accounts on the right – from Peter Oborne, whose account alights upon inequality and unaccountable elites in a way that easily resonates in fact with various left narratives, to the lunacy of David Starkey’s claim that the riots happened because ‘whites have become black’, and not in a good way. In between these positions, there is of course the prevalent Tory position, which invests heavily in ‘culture of poverty’ style arguments, focussing on family structures, moral failures, cultures of entitlement, and the like. There is a whole strand of social thought and research informing this style of analysis of course, and it is on this terrain, like or not, that the politics of academic analysis on these issues is likely to be fought. What these classically conservative narratives have going for them, of course, is that they specify and identify mechanisms, and potential objects of intervention, which mediate between broad structural processes and observable patterns of group behaviour and individual action. It is this ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that is missing in the grander narratives of consumerism, neoliberalism, feral capitalism and the like which emanate from the left, and which makes those critical narratives politically weak – consoling in their own way, for sure, but not really identifying practical paths of action, beyond general calls either for revolution, solidarity, or to rally round and ‘take responsibility’.

Somewhere amongst all this, I did happen upon some more informative contributions, although these tended to reinforce the sense that academics are better placed to think slowly through events rather than squeeze them into their pre-existing frames. The ESRC did a better job than the BSA by publicising the work of David Waddington and Clifford Stott on the complex dynamics of policing and public (dis-)order – work that explicitly counters the sense that rioting is ‘irrational’. Society and Space re-posted a series of academic analyses of policing and urban unrest from different historical and geographical contexts. And Paul Rogers drew attention to a recently published analysis of the dynamics of urban rioting and community reconstruction in Bradford from 2001 to 2010 which also seems pertinent going forward.

None of these examples reflected directly on events of last week, but each seems to promise more by way of understanding the causes and conditions and possible consequences of those events than much of the more instant reaction. Above all, each of these examples draws into focus the intricate roles of policing in contemporary democratic politics – another issue which, it seems to me, much of the theory-left has consistently failed to think through, happy to think of policing as merely an instrument of state control and oppression, a version of ‘the repressive state apparatuses’. This week has crystallised the issue of ‘cuts’ to the public services more acutely than ever before, certainly, but not because the cuts stand as a background condition or cause. Rather, it is because the consequences for the public order, in the broadest possible sense, of shrinking the resources and recalibrating the organisational structures of agencies charged with protecting and sustaining public life have been so starkly dramatised. In terms of both funding issues but also of principles of accountability and independence, policing has suddenly become the central terrain of debate and contestation around which the shape of public life is likely to be shaped in the next few years. And it’s good to remember that it’s when the call is to “start assembling the boys from the fort” that things start to get really worrying.

Theory Talks

This might not be new to anyone else, but I only just came across Theory Talks, a forum for discussion of theoretical issues in IR, broadly conceived – basically, interviews with academics, talking about big current global issues, and theory. The latest ‘talk’ is with Mark Duffield, previous participants include geographers John Agnew, Klaus Dodds, and David Harvey, and stretches beyond IR to include James Scott and Peter Singer.

Marx and other Zombies

Via Crooked Timber, I came across a newish journal, Jacobin, which contains an interesting piece on Zombie Marx – picking up on a ‘debate’ a couple of years ago involving David Harvey and Brad DeLong onthe merits or otherwise of Marxist and neoclassical economics. In the piece, Mike Beggs raises some interesting questions about the argument often made that back in the 1860s Marx effectively debunked neoclassical economics, and by extension ‘neoliberal’ ideology, before it even appeared on the scene. The broader point, beyond questions of the status of the labour theory of value, of concepts of supply and demand, and the like, is the issue of whether/when certain strains of radical thought will be able to treat Marx’s writing historically, rather than canonically. Beggs has a follow-up post on Joan Robinson’s remarks about having Marx in the bones rather than in one’s mouth, and the discussion of these issues continues on the Jacobin blogsite.

All of this reminded me of something I read a month or so ago when I was reading Erik Olin Wright’s book on real utopias. Wright’s book is presented as a reconstruction of a Marxist critical social theory, but it contains barely any referencing or quotation of Marx himself. In an interview from 2001 Wright elaborates on this feature of his own scholarship:

“I generally do not believe that the best way to develop arguments and push theory forward is to engage in fine-grained debates about the interpretation of texts, however brilliant they may be, particularly texts written a century or more ago. Thus, almost none of my writing centers on Marx’s own writings. If the Marxist tradition is genuinely committed to a scientific understanding of the social conditions for radical, egalitarian social change, then it would indeed be extraordinary if the most useful things on most contemporary topics in the 21st century were written in the middle decades of the 19th century. Just as evolutionary biologists don’t bother reading Darwin’s work, except out of historical interest, eventually there will — hopefully — come a time when Marx’s writings will mainly be of interest for the history of ideas, but not for the exposition of scientific arguments.”

I can well imagine how this position would rankle many avowed Marxists, but it seems to me to contain the same sort of ‘methodological’ challenge that Beggs’ post lays out. It also raises some interesting questions about the degree to which social science and humanities approaches to critical theory might well be divided by different degrees of dependence on and reverence for textual canons – a matter that stretches beyond debates in and around Marxism.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.