Book review: The Ways of the World

SINCE receiving his PhD from St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961, David Harvey has had virtually unchallenged standing as the most insightful and innovative voice on modern Geography and social theory, and is generally considered the world’s foremost authority on the works of Karl Marx.

David Harvey

Profile Books, €25.50; e-book, €15.75

Now in his 80th year, and currently distinguished professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate School, he has authored more than 20 books, many of which have had bestselling status and been translated into some 16 languages.

His latest book, The Ways of the World, is an important volume, particularly for readers unfamiliar with his work and ideas, in that it collects 11 key essays, all previous published, from across his long career. 

Each addresses different facets of urban geography in its broadest sense, giving consideration to inevitable social, environmental, financial, colonial and political evolution.

The opening piece sets the bar, and is essential in helping to explain Harvey’s approach to geographical analysis. 

‘Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’ was penned in the aftermath of the 1968 Baltimore riots, when as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, he undertook a detailed study of the housing conditions that had contributed to the uprising among the black population in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

In search of some perspective, he turned to Marx’s Capital, and his gathering and analysis of data, coupled with a rigorous interpretation of the facts, earned him admiration among city officials, landlords and financiers, as well as notable plaudits within wider academia.

But to ensure that the work would be considered on its own merits and without bias, he deemed it necessary to conceal the Marxist theories which had proven so vital in successfully constructing his case.

And encouraged by the resultant reception, he began to immerse himself even deeper in these ideas.

Following on from this essay, he puts such left-leaning explorations front and centre, with ‘The Geography of Capitalist Accumulation — a Reconstruction of the Marxian Theory’. 

In the short commentary addendum (a most helpful feature of the book, and one that, in accompanying each chapter, provides important hindsight considerations as to what has worked and what hasn’t), Harvey explains that “the lack of any geographical perspectives in most left theorising and in Marxian political economy in particular was a hot topic in radical geography in the early 1970s” and that “Anarchist tradition... had within it a far more sensitive approach to questions of space, place and environment than mainstream Marxism.”

His intention was to assemble the various asides and remarks of Marx on issues such as the production of space and the spatial dimensions of social relations, “to see if they could be synthesised into something more systematic.”

Geography is constantly changing, whether due to the vagaries of nature or the manipulations of mankind. Economics take their toll, as might be exemplified by China’s digging itself out of west-inflicted recession by putting 27 million people to work pouring the concrete that will extend its cities. 

And in one of the book’s most readable chapters, ‘Monument and Myth’, the impact of culture on the subject at hand is demonstrated using the fascinating history of the Sacré-Coeur in Paris.

The Ways of the World is a scholarly tome, the dense text reflective of a deep and constantly questioning intellect. However, while it resists any kind of casual perusal, the lay reader will, with the necessary determination, find that Harvey’s prose style possesses enough clarity to make his ideas accessible and thought provoking.

He states his aim early on: “to find a framework to understand the processes making and remaking our geography and the consequences thereof for human life and the environment of planet earth.”

These collected essays bring him close to achieving that goal.

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