Friendly colonialism and the “Harvey fashion”

by Eduardo Gudynas – Latin American progressive governments like citing Harvey’s work because it allows them to position themselves against global capitalism while glossing over the contradictions of their own extractivist policies.

One of the most striking issues in the critiques of capitalism coming from Latin America are the continuous invocations of the English geographer David Harvey. References to the idea of “accumulation by dispossession” are repeated in hundreds of academic texts published by Latin Americans, and the author himself has been invited by the progressive governments of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Let us recall that Harvey proposed the idea of “accumulation by dispossession” to replace Karl Marx’s concept of “original (or primitive) accumulation”. It refers to processes such as the commodification of land, expulsion of peasants, the transformation of labour into a commodity, colonialism or other aspects of the financialisation of economies.

They are attractive ideas which, without elaborating, many would share, and which in part explains the avalanche in citations of the term. Beyond that, however, I would like to explore other aspects of this “Harvey fashion” especially in South America, and the fact that the progressive governments of invite him and use his concepts to enhance their image as radicals. I am concerned about two issues.

The first is that this “fashion” ignores the rich history of Latin American reflections and takes us back into the hands of Northern thought. The second is that, while critiques such as Harvey’s can be shared, they are in any case insufficient for the Latin American reality. And it is precisely because of their incompleteness that progressive governments cite him and invite him.

A fashion

Let me explain, starting with the first point. The problem of accumulation by dispossession popularized by Harvey, as capitalist appropriation of natural resources or labour, in its basic ideas is not new. In Latin America we have a long and sad history of massive appropriation of our resources and of dispossession of indigenous people and peasants to enrich corporations and governments in other continents.

We also have many thinkers, activists and academics who, in their own way, in the last century at least have essentially supported these ideas. To give a few examples that come to mind, the reflections proposed decades ago by Mario Arrubla in Colombia, René Zavaleta Mercado in Bolivia, Ruy Mauro Marini from Brazil and Fernando Velasco Abad from Ecuador. Regardless of the positions one may have today regarding these and other authors, my point is that there is a very rich library of Latin Americans which is neglected time and again.

All this leads me to point out that, irrespective of whether one agrees or not with specific aspects of the theory of accumulation by dispossession, it would seem at times that this fashion is a new symptom of intellectual colonialism, whereby many prefer to quote an English author, leaving aside the recovery of our Latin American intellectual references. This may have to do with the academic obsession embraced in Latin America to cite texts in English or publications in Northern journals, as a demonstration of scientific expertise.

We are not facing a problem with Harvey, but rather a limitation in us Latin Americans. It is a friendly colonialism. It is friendly because the idea of a critique of global capitalism is attractive, but what goes unnoticed for this reason is that this is a form of colonialism, since we all draw upon, copy, repeat or seek the legitimation which irradiates from the “North”.

Four shortcomings

My second point does have to do with the emphasis of Harvey’s analysis. I insist that many of his theses can be shared, as they offer a valuable tool for understanding global capitalism. But the key issue to consider is whether these contributions are sufficient to understand what happens in Latin America, in our continent, and at this exact moment, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Here I find four important limitations.

The first one is that the approaches of the British geographer are primarily at a high level of abstraction, very focused on the dynamics of planetary capitalism. There are local and national examples, but there is no in-depth analysis of the forms of capitalist organisation typical of Latin America. His studies are so abstract that they allow a radical critique of capitalism as a global phenomenon but do not require analysing the details of national or Latin American contexts. This is not a minor limitation, since Latin America is inserted into globalization primarily through its extractive exports, and that kind of specificity does not appear clearly in Harvey. The geographer’s emphasis is on much larger scales. Couldn’t this be one of the reasons why he is cited and invited by progressive governments?

Because many progressives do just that, they challenge international capitalism but without taking on the contradictions internal to capitalism itself, or they attack imperialism but are almost silent on the internal colonialism they impose on peasants and indigenous peoples. Harvey’s texts fit perfectly with this duality, allowing global critiques (with the symbolic advantages of his Marxist language), without requiring much on national predicaments. This is a duality that has not gone unnoticed at conferences by the geographer in Quito or La Paz.

A second problem is the limited attention that Harvey pays to the ecological dimension. There is a no local Nature, rooted in territories, but rather an abstract consideration of the environment. This is not surprising because this author has had many problems in considering the environmental dimension (for instance, he distrusts ecological limits to economic growth). But if we want to carry out a Latin American critique of capitalism, we must necessarily incorporate an ecological dimension, involving the role of natural resources as well as concepts such as Pacha Mama, ayllu or life-territories. The distinctive ecological features of our region are not found anywhere else. In addition, its principal developmentalist strategies rest on a massive extraction of natural resources, and therefore any analysis will be incomplete if these aspects are not considered.

Again I wonder if this limitation is not one of the reasons why progressive governments endorse Harvey, since it offers the possibility of radical discourse against capitalism but without addressing local ecological destruction, territorialized in each country. It is a very attractive theoretical crutch for a government that wants to criticise, for example, the transnational nature of corporations, without saying anything about their role in generating negative social and environmental impacts associated with resource extraction in their own countries. (As a warning to the reader, it must be recognised that in one of his visits to Quito, Harvey symbolically signed a petition by Yasunidos to request a public consultation for oil exploitation in the area of Yasuni, in the Ecuadorian Amazon).

A third point concerns the fact that Harvey pays little to no attention to the indigenous world. His discourse is committed to popular sectors, such as in cities in the northern hemisphere, but the knowledge and visions of indigenous people are almost nonexistent. It is a viewpoint informed by western and modern knowledge. I cannot find a place for the Ecuadorian sumak kawsay or the Bolivian suma qamaña in Harvey’s texts. A key reason is that the ways of understanding the concept of value are very different in this author and in the framework of Buen Vivir. Once again this offers a good reason for progressive governments’ invitations, because his ideas allow for a critique of capitalism while avoiding indigenous demands. International financialization and power asymmetries in relation to capital can be treated at length without having to consider indigenous voices. This is also an untenable position for the Latin American context.

My last point is that alternatives to capitalism are given very limited space in Harvey. He seems to fall into pessimism, in suggesting that the only solution would be to move from exchange value to use value. This is very similar to the discourse of various rulers who say, for example, that they must remain extractivist because there are no alternatives to global capitalism. It is quite understandable that Harvey would find in Latin American progressive governments a step towards the alternatives he seems to hope for, given that they certainly have positive aspects compared to the conservatism of the governments he has known for decades in Europe and the United States. But that’s not enough for Latin America, since we now have different references for comparison. Here again I cannot help to note the convenience for rulers to cite Harvey, since the alternatives he proposes are so abstract and distant in time that they can be embraced while continuing to negotiate with contemporary capitalism.

Nor should it be forgotten that in the continent there are civic organisations and reflections which explore much more substantial alternatives, not concerned exclusively with use value. The clearest example is the rights of Nature in Ecuador’s Constitution, which start from a recognition of Nature as a subject, and therefore with its own values. Here there is a huge theoretical gap in Harvey’s gaze, which many pretend not to see. For in Harvey’s classical Marxism there is value only in humans and their work, and therefore there is no room for the rights of Nature.

Recover our own thinking

As it can be seen from this brief review, the work of Harvey is good to discuss global capitalism, but it does not require addressing social, environmental or economic impacts within each country, or a dialogue with indigenous knowledge. It is very useful to understand the workings of Wall Street, but it misses what happens in our Amazon. Is comfortable for academics and progressive governments to quote Harvey (and something analogous happens with Tony Negri), as it allows them to adopt anti-capitalist discourses while skipping prickly issues such as the contradictions of the capital within the country. It is a type of analysis which allows them to avoid almost all thorny issues regarding their development strategies.

As I said above, this is not a problem with these authors; rather, we face limitations and contradictions in the creation of a thought that is specifically Latin American. We, Latin Americans, must carry this discussion forward, and not wait for Harvey, Negri or others to stimulate it. This does not mean they should be ignored, since in their writings there are many worthy and useful lessons which can contribute to our own debate. But this task should essentially be in our hands.

The problem with the abuse of the “Harvey fashion” is that such theoretical positions are friendly, and thus it is difficult for us to recognise their limitations. It is a weakness which is exploited precisely by those who want to silence debates about national contradictions or those who abuse academic power in order to limit reflections. This trend also reinforces a colonialism which searches in the “academic north” legitimisation and truths. In this way we hold onto a colonialism that hinders our own thinking and the possibility of exploring substantive alternatives.

To break this colonial fence, a critical look from a Latin American standpoint must always be anchored in national and local circumstances (it must be grounded), it must pay attention to the environmental implications (it must be ecological), it must necessarily incorporate and dialogue with indigenous peoples (it must be intercultural), and it must illuminate ideas and practices around alternatives to development (it must break the fence of Modernity).

Eduardo Gudynas is a researcher of the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology (CLAES), Montevideo. Twitter: @EGudynas. This piece was republished with the author’s permission from Translation by Diego Andreucci and Melissa García Lamarca. Published in ENTITLE Blog here