Imperialism David Harvey

David Harvey is a distinguished professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He was born in 1935 in Britain and lived through the Second World War in his early years. Harvey completed both his undergraduate degree and PhD at the University of Cambridge. In his academic career he has held a number of positions in Britain, the USA, and elsewhere.

Harvey is perhaps best known for his YouTube lectures on Karl Marx’s Capital, based on over forty years of teaching. These involve a close reading of Capital, which can be followed with his readily accessible videos and accompanying books (Harvey, 2010; 2013). This has been a part of – and even helped spur – a renewed interest in reading Capital, something that can be seen in the surge of reading groups that have sprung up in the wake of the recent economic crisis.

Harvey has written extensively on geography and Marxism. In one of his early essays he argued for a revolution in geographic thought, basing this on the position that the ‘general acceptance of revolutionary theory will depend upon the strengths and accomplishments of revolutionary practice’ (Harvey, 1972: p13). His intervention in the field of geography has been significant, reintroducing class into the geographic theory. The nature of this ‘revolutionary practice’ is less clear and not elaborated in the essay. In terms of political activity, he has spoken at a wide range of academic, political, and social movement events. Harvey is involved in the Right to the City Campaign and is a member of the Interim Committee for the International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS).

In The New Imperialism Harvey (2003) details his theory of imperialism. The book builds on Harvey’s work on the analysis of global capitalism ‘through the lens’ of what he calls ‘historical-geographical materialism’ (Harvey, 2003: p1). The book was written in the wake of the invasion of Iraq with the aim of understanding why it happened. Harvey explains that ‘imperialism is a word that trips easily off the tongue’ – as became clear with the word being frequently used in the anti-war movement at the time, often simply as a synonym for war – ‘it has such different meanings that it is difficult to use it without clarification as an analytical rather than a polemical term.’ Therefore Harvey (2003: p27) uses a definition specified as ‘capitalist-imperialism’, a contradictory combination of ‘the politics of state and empire’ and ‘the molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time.’

This notion of twin logics draws on and develops Arrighi’s (1994: p33) conception of ‘territorial’ and ‘capitalist’ logics of power. Harvey (2003: p183) argues that a specifically capitalist form of imperialism:

arises out of a dialectical relation between territorial and capitalistic logics of power. The two logics are distinctive and in no way reducible to each other, but they are tightly interwoven. They may be construed as internal relations of each other. But outcomes can vary substantially over space and time.

This understanding of imperialism as the result of two contradictory and competing logics is the crucial to Harvey’s theory.

Accumulation by dispossession is one of the key concepts developed by Harvey. It draws on the work of Rosa Luxemburg (1968) in The Accumulation of Capital and the idea that capital accumulation has a dual character. The first is the extraction of surplus value, an economic exchange between capitalist and wage labourer, while the second ‘concerns the relations between capitalism and the non-capitalist modes of production,’ appearing as a ‘tangle of political violence and contests of power.’ Instead of seeing the two as separate historical phases, Luxemburg views them as ‘organically linked.’ The analysis that Luxemburg put forward is based upon a theory of underconsumption as the explanation of economic crisis, which has been robustly critiqued (Bleaney, 1976; Brewer, 1990). However despite this Harvey (2003: p140) argues that Luxemburg’s conceptualisation remains useful. The ‘idea that capitalism must perpetually have something “outside of itself” in order to stabilize itself is worthy of scrutiny, particularly as it echoes Hegel’s conception . . . of an inner dialectic of capitalism forcing it to seek solutions external to itself.’ There are therefore two ‘outsides’ that capitalism can utilise: Firstly a ‘pre-existing outside’. This could involve a non-capitalist ‘outside’, for example the seizure of land from indigenous communities. It could also involve a sector within capitalism that could be proletarianized, for example Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of state owned companies and social housing in Britain. Secondly, capitalism can seek to ‘actively manufacture it.’

This argument has similarities with Hannah Arendt’s (1968) theory of imperialism. Her analysis saw the economic depression of the 1860s and 1870s in Britain as the impetus for a new form of imperialism. She argues that the bourgeois realized ‘for the first time that the original sin of simple robbery, which centuries ago had made possible ‘the original accumulation of capital’ [see: Marx 1990: p915] and had started all further accumulation, had eventually to be repeated lest the motor of accumulation suddenly die down’ (Arendt, 1968: p28). The search for new resources – whether to find or produce them – is not considered by Marx other than the creation of a reserve army of labour through the introduction of new technology, Harvey points out that ‘it is interesting to consider why’ (Harvey, 2003: p143). The answer, Harvey (2003: p144) argues, stems from the ‘brilliance of Marx’s dialectical method’ in its ability to explain how market liberalization produces increasing levels of inequality and chronic crises. This creates a limitation in that the assumptions used ‘relegate accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence to an ‘original stage’ that is considered no longer relevant or, as with Luxemburg (1968), as being somehow ‘outside of’ capitalism as a closed system.’

What Harvey is therefore arguing for is an understanding of the continuing importance of what has previously been called primitive accumulation. This concept was defined by Marx (1990: p915) as the process of development of capitalism that involved:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginning of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

The argument that Harvey uses is that these are not only present at the ‘dawn’ but play an important role in contemporary capitalist production too. Therefore the terminology is updated from primitive accumulation to the more appropriate ‘accumulation by dispossession.’

In a number of books Harvey (1989; 2001; 2007) explains the importance of a space economy. As Lefebvre (1976) had previously argued capitalism survives through the production of space, Harvey attempts to go beyond what he sees as Lefebvre’s failure to explain the why or the how and produce a theory that is capable of understanding it as part of a two logics. As both Lenin (1975) and Luxemburg (1968) sought to develop their theories of imperialism to understand the crises of capitalism, Harvey (2001; 2007) does this in a different way with the theory of a ‘spatio-temporal fix’ to the contradictions of capital accumulation. Harvey (2003: p115) defines this in the context of imperialism:

A certain portion of the total capital is literally fixed in and on the land in some physical form for a relatively long period of time (depending on its economic and physical lifetime). Some social expenditures (such as public education or a healthcare system) also become territorialized and rendered geographically immobile through state commitments. The spatio-temporal ‘fix’, on the other hand, is a metaphor for a particular kind of solution to capitalist crises through temporal deferral and geographical expansion

These fixes can be observed in the development of capitalism, which as Harvey (2003: p98) argues, is one of technological innovations that ‘dramatically altered the conditions of spatiality (the friction of distance).’ Marx (1973: p524) first noted the tendency towards the ‘annihilation of space through time’ and Harvey (2003: p98) indicates that ‘the trend towards “globalization” is inherent in this . . . driven remorselessly by round after round of time-space compression.’

The argument develops Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and to therefore produce crises of overaccumulation, and is articulated fully in Limits to Capital (Harvey, 2007). The lack of opportunities for capital to make a profit has to be overcome and Harvey argues that ‘geographical expansion and spatial reorganization provide one such option’ (Harvey, 2003: p88). This understanding of the importance of the geographical aspect is developed through the competition between the territorial and capitalist logics of power. Therefore Harvey (2003: p108) argues:

The event corollary of all this is that geopolitical conflicts would almost certainly arise out of the molecular processes of capital accumulation no matter what the state powers thought they were about . . . it will, in short, necessarily engage in geopolitical struggle and resort, when it can, to imperialist practices.

The search for spatio-temporal fixes requires that surplus capital be absorbed somehow. Harvey (2003: p109) considers how this can happen in two different ways, or indeed through a combination of both. The first is a ‘temporal displacement’, investment – whether in capital projects or social expenditure – do delay the reintroduction of capital back into circulation. The second is a ‘spatial displacement’, the prizing open of new markets or possibilities, which could take the form of violent slum clearances or new building projects for example. The context within which these occur is important and Harvey draws attention in particular to neoliberalism, in doing so he rejects the stageism of Lenin’s (1975) theory of imperialism.

Harvey’s (2003) interpretation of the importance of the ‘molecular processes of capital accumulation’ and the introduction of the term ‘accumulation by dispossession’ has drawn criticism. Firstly, Robert Brenner (2006: p82) has argued that the ‘contradictory fusion’ of the politics of state and empire and the ‘molecular processes of capital accumulation’ that Harvey (2003: p26) refers to ‘remains unexplained.’ Brenner (2006: p86) continues to point out how the analysis fails to take into account the historic role of imperialism, instead reducing ‘the great wave of European territorial expansion and its geopolitical consequences is understood, virtually in its entirety, in terms of the imperatives of capital accumulation.’ To exacerbate this, Brenner (2006: p100) states that it is ‘downright counterproductive to assimilate to accumulation by dispossession, as he also does, a virtual grab bag of processes.’ Ben Fine (2006: p143) develops this point to argue that the extension of Marx’s (1990: p915) ‘primitive accumulation’ removes the aim of the ‘act to create wage-labour where previously it was absent’, something crucial for understanding the transformations of the Soviet Union and China. The concept therefore becomes problematic for understanding the political dimensions of the historical processes tied up with imperialism.

The development of Harvey’s analysis benefits from a focus on neoliberalism. As Ben Fine (2006: p145) argues, ‘even more emphasis for the current period should be placed on the hegemonic role of finance within the developed world.’ In A Brief History of Neoliberalism Harvey (2005: p2) argues that neoliberalism is:

in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that propose that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

These ‘political economic practices’ have risen to a position of hegemony since the 1970s. The result has been programmes of ‘deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision.’ It has also entailed a process of ‘creative destruction’ affecting not only economic but social relations too (Harvey, 2005: p3). Harvey (2003: p150) situates the rise of neoliberalism as a class based project to overcome the ‘chronic difficulty of overaccumulation since 1973’ and so the ‘project of privatization of everything makes a lot of sense as one way to solve the problem.’

This definition of neoliberalism has implications for understanding contemporary imperialism. Harvey (2003: p62) outlines the importance of the move from a gold backed monetary system to a new dematerialized form. This expedited the flow of money capital now freed from state control, something that was furthered after the 1973 oil crisis as banks in the USA monopolized petrodollar recycling. The deregulated financial markets in New York became the centre of the world economy, catapulting it from near bankruptcy to immense prosperity. Harvey (2003: p63) argues that as the USA was ‘threatened in the realm of production’ it ‘countered by asserting its hegemony though finance.’ This required the opening up of ‘markets in general and capital markets in particular’ achieved through institutions like the International Monetary Fund and an adherence to Neoliberalism. Furthermore ‘financial power could be used to discipline working-class movements’, and a devastating assault on the working class was waged, and is continuing to be waged today. Therefore the aggressive ‘privatization’ wrought by neoliberalism forms ‘the cutting edge of accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey, 2003: p157). This process can be identified in the response to the 2008 financial crisis: widespread austerity programs that involve attacks on worker’s wages and conditions, slashing of public spending, and the privatisation of public services like health and education.

The strength of Harvey’s analysis of imperialism lies in its deployment of Marx’s method to uncover the economic processes unfolding in contemporary capitalism. Harvey (2003: p169-171) makes an important criticism of what he calls ‘the classic view of the Marxist/socialist left’ that ‘the proletariat . . . was the key agent of historical change’ and therefore ‘all other forms of struggle were viewed as subsidiary, secondary, or even dismissed as peripheral or irrelevant.’ Harvey believes that ‘a fatal mistake’ was made by overlooking the struggles against accumulation by dispossession. This strategic critique could benefit greatly from further articulation. The only indication is the development of Luxemburg’s dual character of capital accumulation to apply to struggles within expanded reproduction and struggle against accumulation by dispossession. Against the backdrop of the anti-globalization movement taking place when the book was written, Harvey (2003: p176) argues that the struggles must be ‘seen in a dialectical relation.’

The role of resistance is discussed further in Rebel Cities. Harvey (2012) develops Lefebvre’s (1996) concept of ‘the right to the city’, and tries to envisage what an urban politics would involve. There is a consideration of how ‘the capitalist form of urbanisation is so completely embedded in and foundational for the production of capitalism’, that ‘alternative forms of urbanization must necessarily become central to any pursuit of a capitalist alternative’ (Harvey, 2012: p65). This identification of a new contradiction of capitalism, while not displacing the capital-labour contradiction, highlights the importance of moving beyond a crude prioritisation of the working class that Harvey (2003) criticised previously. However this perspective is limited in the use of ‘rights’ as a basis for resistance in the face of capital – especially considering Harvey’s (2003) emphasis on the continuing importance of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – because, as Marx (1990: p344) showed, ‘between equal rights force decides.’

In conclusion, Harvey (2013: p182) argues that ‘new imperialism . . . appears as nothing more than the revisiting of the old, though in a different place and time.’ What Harvey shows is a nuanced understanding of the competing territorial and capitalist logics that underpin imperialism and in doing so is able to highlight important characteristics of contemporary capitalism. The importance of Harvey’s intervention into the theoretical debates on imperialism stems from his detailed historical materialist analysis. In particular it is the understanding of the geographical dimension and the significance of accumulation by dispossession, not consigning it to an earlier phase of primitive accumulation. The contributions that Harvey has made to Marxist scholarship are impressive, whether on Marx’s own writings, economics, neoliberalism, imperialism, or the urban complex. The limitation of Harvey’s contribution is that by drawing on theorists like Rosa Luxemburg it is also necessary to remember that they were committed to a revolutionary practice. Therefore while Harvey poses important questions and provides a number of important concepts these are not judged in terms of their practicalities.


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Arrighi, G. (1994) The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origin of our Times, London: Verso.

Bleaney, M. (1976) Underconsumption Theories: History and Critical Analysis, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Brewer, A. (1990) Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.

Brenner, R. (2006) ‘What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?’, Historical Materialism, (14)4, 79-105.

Fine, B. (2006) ‘Debating the ‘New’ Imperialism’, Historical Materialism, (14)4, 133-156.

Harvey, D. (1972) ‘Revolutionary and Counter Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’, Antipode 4 (2), 1-13.

Harvey, D. (1989) The Urban Experience, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey, D. (2001) Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2007) Limits to Capital, London: Verso.

Harvey, D. (2010) A Companion to Marx's Capital, London: Verso.

Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso.

Harvey, D. (2013) A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2, London: Verso.

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