Spaces of Hope

The Global Question in an Urban World

David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000)

It is hard to overstate the influence of David Harvey in critical social studies in the last three decades, extending from his home discipline of Geography as far out as Sociology, Anthropology and Cultural Studies. Alongside figures like Manuel Castells and Henri Lefbvre, Harvey is one of the principal influences on a generation of critical scholarship of space, place, and the city. He is as well known for some of his innovative conceptual work as he is for what he helped reintroduce to social studies: his emphasis on space, his attention to the urban, and his deployment of Marxist tools in his “reading of the city like a text.” In Spaces of Hope, Harvey looks back over his career and into the future, mapping out utopian possibilities in an urban and global world, which, as he reminds us, was already foreshadowed in Capital.

The first part of the book treads over old ground, as Harvey returns to some of the theoretical foundations underlying his work. He recasts both the Communist Manifesto and Capital as grounds for a relational and materialist geography, jettisoning some of the more dated assumptions in those works (such as the Eurocentric reference to “barbaric” nations) in favor of some of the more provocative propositions for studies of a globalized capitalism today. He points, for example, to several ways in which some of the features of global capitalism were already prefigured in those works, including the centrality of the “spatial fix” to the contradictions of capital, and the creation of an uneven global organization of space for production.

In subsequent sections of the book Harvey deploys these tools in an analysis of the possibilities of resistance to global capitalism. In one of the more interesting passages, he proposes a “return to the body” in a way that links “postmodern” studies of the body with globalization studies. Both approaches have proceeded apace in recent years without significant overlap. While scholars familiar with the literature from which Harvey assembles this theoretical bricolage may find fault with his at times cursory invocation of those approaches, it is hard to deny the importance of the linkage. A theoretical synthesis, one that recasts the body as site of constestation and experience in global capitalism, holds significant political and intellectual promise. After all, it is the body that works, consumes, suffers, and resists capitalism. For example, a possibility implicit in this formulation (not explored by Harvey) would be the study of the circulation of bodies in global cities, and the way in which this sets the ground for struggle over dis-placed bodies (such as those of “unwelcome immigrants”) at certain times.

In the later sections, Harvey also discusses the possibilities of utopian moments and spaces¾spaces of hope¾in global capitalism. He provides a philosophical justification for a dialectical utopianism, one grounded not only in temporal possibilities (such as that of a utopian future) but in spatial ones as well. He calls for renewed attention to “species being” as well as for a new ethic toward nature, and uses the image of the “insurgent architect” as a call to this long revolution of transforming practices and imaginations, constantly bridging movements and platforms toward the unknown utopian destination.

The latter portions of the book are very different from many of Harvey’s other writings, and perhaps for this reason they leave the reader wanting something more concrete. All calls to utopia are necessarily speculative, and other Marxist and Marxist-friendly scholars who have called in recent years for a return to utopian thinking (Immanuel Wallerstein, Erik O. Wright, Roberto Unger, among others) have done so with equal flair. Harvey, however, shies away from making too many concrete connections to some of the earlier portions of the book and avoids giving political recipes, insisting that utopian futures are unknown and indeterminate. But this strategy leaves the reader with open questions. Some have to do with the connections between dialectical utopianism and earlier analyses: for example, how do spatial fixes of capitalism constrain the possibilities for the proposed new uses of space? Does the globalization of capital in any way facilitate the globalization of resistance? And other questions remain about real-world models that may or may not qualify as “spaces of hope.” Harvey mentions the examples of Porto Alegre and Kerala approvingly, though in passing. In the case of Porto Alegre, he cites the importance of mediating institutions that bridge the gap between universalist and particularist agendas. This is an interesting insight, but does not allow purchase on the question of other instances where such agendas meet, or whether there are moments in which “particularist” agendas might be liberatory as well.

The openness of these questions, however, may be intentional on the author’s part. Perhaps we are indeed at a crucial juncture in history, and it is the experienced critics of capitalism and its institutions, such as David Harvey, who are best poised to point to the hopeful potentials implicit in today’s world. The history we make out of these potentials, as Harvey reminds us, is up to us.

Reviewed by Gianpaolo Baiocchi
Department of Sociology
University of Pittsburgh

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