Blog post

David Harvey at #OccupyLSX—"This is going to change politics in a very fundamental way"

Leo Goretti17 November 2011

Last Saturday, November the 12th,  David Harvey visited Occupy London Stock Exchange. The author—amongst others—of A Companion to Marx's Capital and Spaces of Global Capitalism described Occupy LSX as "a marvelous kind of site" and invited the protesters to "keep at it, keep at it, keep at it." We publish below the full speech, transcribed by Elaine Castillo.

"This is, this is absolutely fabulous, this is fantastic. I mean, you know, this is great—I couldn’t imagine that London could get like this! And you’re doing a really, really great job. And this is really, I think, going to change things.

Because one of the things that I think we’re learning over the last few years actually and particularly over the last few months, is that it’s people—on the street, in the squares—that really matters, in the end. Because that’s the only political force we’ve got. They’ve got the money, they can buy politics, the can buy the media, they can buy anything they want. We don’t have that. The only thing we have is people. And a mass of people. And the more people mass on the street, the harder and harder it becomes for them to say, ‘Oh, no, your interests are not our interests.’

And the other thing that needs to be established here is that, you know, we live in a world where people talk about the importance of public space. But most of the time the public is not allowed to be in that public space. What you’re showing is: people belong in this public space. And when we get in this public space, we can turn it from a public space into a commons. Into a political space. Where we can start to discuss and understand, and start to militate against the incredible, incredible concentrations of wealth and power.

And we’ve been through something called a crisis, a crisis for whom? Actually, you look at the number of billionaires around the world, there are about 30% more billionaires now than there were three years ago. The crisis has been a way of assembling even more wealth in fewer and fewer hands. And the way in which it is done is to go after people who are the most vulnerable. That is, you extract wealth from those who can least afford to have that extraction visited on them.

And at the same time, this crisis is one where the real questions are never being addressed. And the three big questions indeed I think to be addressed are these: firstly, there’s the question of global poverty. And it’s not only global poverty but it’s global inequality. And it’s not only inequality of wealth and inequality of income, but it’s the inequality of political power. That in fact, that wealth, that income, is being used to buy politics. And this of course this is a bit of an old tradition, I mean, in the United States, Mark Twain said of the US Congress, he said: ‘The United States always has the best Congress that money can buy.’

And this is actually how politics has been evolving, over the last 30 years in particular. More and more money buys influence and buys political power. It also structures the media. Increasingly we find it dominates what’s going on inside of universities. It dominates our educational system, so that universities increasingly become places where all you learn is neoliberal ideology. Where all you learn is corporatist managerial techniques. And those corporatist managerial techniques are about actually how to squeeze more and more money out of those who can least afford it.

Now, one of the ways in which people like to take on the question of global poverty is this. They say, Well, okay, we should have more and more NGOs, we should set up, you know, things and try to help people in poverty by doing this and doing that, you know, dividing blankets here and a bit of medical care there. Which is not all bad. But the problem, I try to say to people who are into that, the one thing you don’t seem to understand, is that you cannot solve the problem of global poverty without going after the accumulation of global wealth. And until you all leave your anti-poverty campaigns and you actually join the anti-wealth campaigns, nothing’s going to happen.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember the anti-poverty rhetoric of the 1950s and I remember it in the 1960s, I remember it in the 1970s, and the 1980s—-and then we had the millenium goals, ‘We’re going to eliminate global poverty by 2015,’ and here we are, four years to go, and it’s much worse than it was. We hear it again and again and again. And the reason that happens is that the solution we are told that must be applied to solve global poverty is the very set of mechanisms that produce it. That is, free markets, free trade, free right on the part of capitalist class to exploit, to the hilt, everybody that they can get their hands on.

Furthermore, it’s not only about exploiting labor. What is now going on is that we are finding more and more that accumulation of wealth is through the dispossesion of others’ wealth. I mean, the capitalist class doesn’t even know how to produce wealth anymore. What they are very good at is stealing. They’re good at robbery. they’re good at actually legalizing the extraction of wealth by all sorts of means. ‘Eminent domain’, ‘move populations out of here…’ And right now, worldwide, there is what we call a ‘land grab’ going on. That is, an attempt to color all of the resources of planet earth so that, actually, a small group of people effectively control all of the resources which allow social life to flourish. We cannot let that concentration of wealth continue. It has to be stopped. It has to be reversed.

And how can it be reversed when we don’t have the money to buy politics, when we don’t have the money to buy the media, when we don’t have the money to dominate the television, when don’t have all the… how do we do it? Well, you’re showing ow you do it. You assemble in places like this. And you stay in places like this. You don’t say, We’re going to have a demonstration and then go home. No. You stay. You stay.

And the fact that you’re staying is, I think, the most, one of the most significant political events that’s actually happened, over the last ten, fifteen, even fifty years. And I think that is absolutely why this is such a fabulous situation that you’ve created. You’re taking a public space, you’re turning it into a commons, and you’re saying, ‘Our intersts have to be heard, our voices have to be heard.’ And at this particular point, it doesn’t really matter exactly what you’re saying, the most important thing is that you are here, and you’re goddamn staying here.

Now I suggested that one of the big problems in the world is global poverty, now that’s associated with something which I think is another aspect of our political situation. Capital works in such a way that it incurs certain costs in what it does. But what it also does is to try to shed those costs and make somebody else liable for them. And there are a whole bundle of costs which are associated with the reproduction of society. We talk about education, we talk about health care, we talk about basic human services, we talk about caring for the elderly, we talk about dealing with the problems that are created through alienation in terrible work environments, we talk about all of those issues. Well, the economists have a little word for this. They call it ‘externalities.’ And what’s meant by that is actually you take a cost which you should bear, but you get rid of it. You turn the cost into an externality that somebody has to pay for.

Well, since Thatcher, there’s been a systematic assault, to try to turn more of the costs of social reproduction into externalities. Costs that capital will not bear. ‘You bear the cost of your own education, you bear the cost of your own health care. and if you get sick and you die, that’s your own fault. It’s not capital’s fault.’

Now in the 1950s and 1960s, the state was forced by political circumstances to bear some of those costs and to tax capital, to bear some of those costs. But what Margaret Thatcher started to do was to say, ‘Look, we are actually not going to pay those costs anymore, they’re up to your wn personal responsibilties, it’s up to your own personal savings, it’s your own personal life and you have to take care of it, and if you don’t take care of it and get into trouble, that’s your problem.’

Now that was what Thatcher launched, and actually there’s a pattern that goes on here. Everybody thought when Thatcher was gone—-got rid of Major as well—-that things would change. No! We got Tony Blair. And what did Blair do, he deepened what was going on. Blair started to introduce the top-up fees at universities, Blair is the one who started to push this Thatcherite agenda even further. And right now what we’ve got is a situation where the Thatcherite agenda is with us even though she is long gone.

And this is a global problem. I mean, I was in Chile recently, fabulous situation in Chile, I hope you can establish links with then. The students there have occupied all of the public universities. And mind you, they’re not moving! They’re not going anywhere and they’ve been doing it for four or five months. Quite a few of the high schools ae actually occupied. And what they’re saying is this: ‘Pinochet privatized all of the educational system; when Pinochet went and we got social democracy, we got rid of the dictatorship, we imagined that things would change. They didn’t change; in fact, they’ve got worse. So what we have to do is to end that process that Pinochet started.’ This is what they’re saying.

And we have to end what Thatcher started, and reverse it entirely. In other words, what we have to have is a political program to end the whole Thatcher era because it has not ended at all, and what we see with the current conservatives right now is that they want to make it even more Thatcherite than Thatcher.

That this, if you like, what the political task is. To force capital to bear all of those costs that it doesn’t want to bear. It should take care of education. We should have a free decent education for everybody. And it should be an equal quality education; none of this nonsense about, If you go live in this suburb, you get decent education and if you live in the inner city, you get crap. No. We should actually equalize educational opportunity everywhere. And the same occurs with questions of health care. The same thing happens with all of the forms of social services; they have to be revolutionized. They have to be actually transformed in such a way that they’re not run through some abstract bureaucracy but they’re run on a popular kind of basis. In other words, what we want is not simply the restablishment of some bureaucratic welfare state, what we want is the restoration of the right to decent health care, decent caring, and for that to actually be then rendered on a popular basis. It is, if you like, popular assemblies that should decide about hospital populations, it’s things of that sort that need to be dealt with in a much more democratic kind of way.

The other huge problem there is globally is the problem of environmental degradation. Again, capital does not want to bear those costs. It says basically, well, if islands go underwater because of global warming and sea levels rise, let other people bother with the costs. Not us. So again, it’s a matter of real costs which are visited upon people, all around the world—-indigenous populations in particualr are being very hard hurt by all of this. These costs have to be brought back and capital has to be forced to pay those costs. But they’re not going to do it voluntarily; they’re only going to do it if they’re forced to. And they’re going to be forced by political process, and they’re going to be forced by political oposition.

So those it seems to me are the two big global issues that we face, and it’s going to take a global movement to deal with them. And what we see is a global movement emerging. I mean, there have been elements of it that have been working for a long tme, you have things like, groups like the landless peasant group in Brazil; fantastic movement. You have the Chilean students who have been militating along these lines now for some for or five years. Let’s give a shout for the Chilean students…

We have a Maoist insurrection in Central India, which is portrayed as a very cruel and horrible kind of thing, but it turns out if you read Arundhati Roy, or something like that, these are people who are really struggling, just to say alive, in the circumstance where they’re constantly being attacked by the political power and the police power of the state apparatus. And the same would be true in countries like Bolivia, where you see indigenous populations mobilizing, and they’ve mobilized in very very strong kinds of ways. So all around the world there is a growing sense that the system which has been constructed does not and cannot work, and furthermore it must not be allowed to work any further.

And there is, to me anyway, one of the big final problems, which is that capital is always about growth. You see the newspapers, and what are they saying, they say, ‘Oh, there’s a crisis, we have no growth.’ And people only stop talking about criss when we get three percent growth minimum. Which means that this form of society we live in is actually given over to compound growth forever. Three percent compound growth forever. Now think of that for a moment. Three percent compound growth on all the resources that we consume. Three percent compound growth on all the money which we accumulate. When capital was about what was happening in Manchester and Birmingham, and that kind of thing in say 1820, three percent compound growth for a long time looked okay. I mean, there were all these areas of the world that hadn’t been conquered by capital yet, you know, Asia, China in particular, there were plenty of places to go.

So where does the three percent growth come from now? The whole world is saturated, saturated with consumer goods, saturated with that growth. And what has to happen is we have to start to think about the move towards about a zero growth economy. and as we think about that, we have to understand very clearly that that is a non-capitalist economy. That is a non-capitalist economy for a very simple reason that capital is about accumulation, it’s about growth.

And what we’re moving to right now is a situation of low growth, but continuous capital accumulation by that small group that controls most of the resources. And so three percent growth is going on for them, and their rates of remuneration continue to rise. I mean, I thought it was obscene and wrote violently about it back in 2003, when the leading hedge fund managers around New York City in one year received 250 million dollars of personal compensation just for themsemlves, I thought that was grossly and absolutely unethical. And then in the middle of the crisis just two years ago, the top five hedge fund owners in New York received, in personal remuneration, three billion dollars each in one year.

Now what my students say to me is, ‘How do you become one of those?’

And I say, ‘Well, you know, you can go try, but they’ve got it all locked up, there’s no way you’re gonna get it; the only way you can get a piece of that action is to make sure you reclaim it back.’

Now when you look at the structure, when you say, look at the bonuses, the billions of bonuses—

(microphone shorts out briefly)

…yeah, bonuses, you know, the thing that struck me about that, the very year they were receiving something like, in Wall Street they were getting something like, 40 billion dollars in bonuses in one year. In that very same year about 2 million people lost their houses to foreclosure. And what that meant was, there was actually a transfer of wealth going on. Because all of those houses, may of which were illegally foreclosed, were actually, then, that wealth was flowing up to the coffers of the bankers. This is what I mean by predatory practices, this is what I mean by stealing. The capitalist class doesn’t actually work anymore; it uses the financial system to steal.

Now one of the things that occurs to me, and I think this is significant, is to start thinking about how to organize political movements that actually have a big impact. And I want to give you just a couple of examples in recent years of political movements that have had a big impact in the short term and have some long term lessons to teach us.

One movement I’ll mention first is the immigrant rights movement of 2006 in the United States. There was at that time a proposal to criminalize all illegal aliens. Now this is a very terrible thing to propose. And what happened was, the response was, immigrant workers, many of them illegal, decided they were not going to go to work. And when they decided that, collectively, suddenly what we saw was: cities stopped. Los Angeles closed down. Chicago closed down. New York almost closed down, San Francisco almost closed own. And many other places, companies seeing what was happening, particularly those employing illegal workers, just decided they weren’t going to open their doors anyway, there was no point.

Now what this showed was a tremendous show of force. A tremendous show of force. We can close whole cities down. And actually when you start to look at it, you see that in closing the city down, you can actually stop capital accumulation.

We saw an unfortunate example of that in the wake of 9/11 in New York City. The city was shut down, you couldn’t pass through the bridges, you couldn’t use the tunnels, you couldn’t move, and that went on for about two or three days. And then all of a sudden people realized if this went on for much longer, this was the end of capitalism. So the mayor came on and said, For god’s sakes, get out your credit cards and start shopping. For god’s sake, get in to the restaurants and go to the Broadway shows and just go back, you know, and… enjoy the… the… the ‘situation.’

So what you need, what is clear, is that if you stop the movement of capital, and it’s very easy to do—-cities are very vulnerable, the food chain into New York City, if you disrupt that, this is a major catastrophe. And there’s a tremendous amount of political power. So one of the thing that we have to think about is how to organize political actions in the city that actually have an impact upon how the city works. And as you do that, start to use that as a threat because we need to mobilize in such a way that we can genuinely threaten major commercial and financial interests.

And one of the other examples I would mention would be a city like Cochabamba in Bolivia or El Alto in Bolivia. I mean, El Alto, essentially, the whole city went on strike. And it brought down two presidents. And because it brought down two presidents, it meant that Evo Morales could get elected.

So yes, indeed, bring down David Cameron, how are you going to do that? But there’s a problem with that, which is you would like to think if you bring down David Cameron, there would be someone on the other side who would do what you want to see done, but there’s not. So what we need to do is to start to build a political force that forces someone on the other side to do what you are asking for. Which is: move away from this gross inequality of wealth, take care of the environmental dilemmas, and do something radically different to end Thatcherism. That is what we have to do. Clean it out, clean it out, start all over again. Start all over again, how do we do that? Well, you have to start from the bottom up. And this is again something that’s very significant here, that this movement is not guided by some ideology from the top down, it’s guided from the bottom up and that is crucial.

Because until we know how to create democracy at the local level and then build that democracy into configurations that remain democratic right to the top, then we will not be able to implement a program. We will see good ideas co-opted by capital. And that is one of the most serious difficulties of any political movenent; you come up with good ideas, and then they co-opt them for their own purposes. No.

Just going back to the immigrant rights movment, the interesting thing about it was the way it got demobilized was actually dividing immigrants from other low-paid workers. And in particular it pointed to the immigrants, who were mainly Hispanics, and the right wing had this enormous propaganda campaign in which it said that basically: ‘Unemployment in the African American community is due to Latin American immigration.’ It divided. It divided. And because it divided, it ruled.

So one of the things that it seems to me that’s terrific about these assemblies, is that it seems to me there is a spirit that says, ‘Even though we are very different and have different ideas, we will not be divided. Furthermore, not only will we not be divided, but we will not be diverted.’

Because the way in which they operate is generally to create some sort of argument that kind of says, ‘Well, you’re really talking about the wrong thing, why don’t you worry about this over here, rather than worry about that over there.’ In other words, there are tremendous attemps in the media and elsewhere to divert you from what it is you want to do. Tremendous attempts will be fostered to divide you.

And it will be hard sometimes. I mean, I’ve been in political movements where it’s hard not to be divided. It’s hard to stick with your own position and at the same time compromise with others who have very different positions. These are not easy things to do. But if you set yourself the rule: I will not be diverted, I will not, we will not be divided. Then it seems to me, you have a long way to go and in fact you’re gonna have a terrific impact upon the political climate of this country.

So these, it seems to me, are some of the issues that I would want to bring to the table. I left New York about four days before they occupied wall street so I haven’t actually been to Wall Street yet, this is my first time to one of these meetings. And I think this is absolutely great, and I think when I get back I’m gonna get to try to get together with the Wall Street folk as well. And what I’m sure they would want me to say to you is: Keep the struggle going. Keep going. The struggle continues, as they say. Keep it going. And that is the crucial question: that we have to be persistent, as well as undiverted and undivided.

So I’m going to stop here because I want to have more of a conversation and get kind of responses from what you think, and how you think, because I want to take some ideas back with me to the United States when I get there and perhaps also when I return to Argentina, try to have some conversations there. Because this movement is not just about London. You’re in the heart of the beast, the belly of the beast. And your job is to give the beast stomachache.

But the more stomachache they get, the more grouchy they’re likely to get. So you have to understand that that is likely to happen. And then you have to stiffen your resolve. This is going to be a long haul for all of this, I think, and so I congratulate you on what you’ve done. This is a marvelous kind of site, I think it’s a marvelous initiative that you’ve taken, and I think that, like I say, this is going to change politics in a very fundamental way. And keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.”

Transcript by Elaine Castillo.

Filed under: occupy