Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Friend’s Dinner with David Harvey and Reflections on Intellectuals, Progressive Publishing and Kumarian Press

At the post office the other day, I met a neighbor who works with the progressive nonprofit Solidago Foundation. She was all excited because she had just come back from New York City where she had dinner with David Harvey. In my opinion, David Harvey should be a household name, but in case his is a new name to you, Harvey is distinguished professor of anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

His numerous books, heavily influenced by Marx and characterized by dialectical engagement with issues of social, political and economic injustice, are required reading for many graduate students in the social sciences. His online course on Volume One of Marx’s Capital is the best guide that I know to unraveling the complexities of this gargantuan and wonderful book.

Back to my friend: She hoped that she could encourage David to help spread the word about progressive organizations such as Solidago. Her comments got me to thinking about whom to enlist in progressive causes and the position of intellectuals (in the Gramscian sense of a distinctive class of individuals: clergy, philosophers, professors and teachers, etc. that engage in intellectual activity as a specific social, political and economic function) in these causes. I have heard David Harvey speak in both formal academic settings where his language (or “discourse,” rather) and argumentation is complex and “informal” gatherings where he communicates the same ideas with an awareness and sympathy to a “non-specialist” audience without condescension or dilution of his arguments and ideas. And he is a wonderful teacher: do watch his video on Marx!

But his books, marvelous and penetrating as they are, can be difficult, reinforcing the Marxian conviction found in Volume One of Capital that there “are no royal roads to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” This is not to denigrate the value or importance of Harvey’s work, but I doubt if many beyond the institutional venues where intellectual activity is commodified and exchanged would have the time and energy to read, say, Harvey’s The Limits of Capital, let alone in conjunction with Marx’s Capital itself!

In these times of economic, environmental and all manner of turmoil and conflict that indeed pose a threat to the very survival of the human race, the role of the intellectual and the role of Kumarian Press as a site for the transformation of intellectual labor into a commodity that both sustains and questions the structures, systems and practices that characterize our era is both paradoxical and critically important. Paradoxical in the sense that Kumarian Press is after all a capitalist business venture that has to be competitive and has to reap continued growth in terms of sales and profits in order to survive and important in the sense that Kumarian, in spite of its imbrications in the contradictions (and perpetuation, albeit slightly) of capitalism, seeks to provide viable alternatives that run counter to the interests and power of dominant groups in society.

One of my favorite passages in a David Harvey book comes early in his Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.

While attending an academic conference on globalization with its tense and frequently hard to follow arguments afflicted by the radical and no doubt chic skepticism of poststructuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism and so on, he sat in on a conference of evangelical Christians that was taking place at his hotel. Harvey was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd as they listened to the preachers and it was clear that what was happening at the evangelical conference was an “orchestration of emotions and passions rather than of intellect.” But it was an orchestration that was explicitly scored with expressions by the evangelical of foundational beliefs. Harvey wondered what would happen if he returned to the academic conference and spoke of foundational beliefs. He would probably be put out to pasture or seen as a dinosaur. While I believe, as does Harvey, that one should scrutinize all manner of foundational beliefs (including those of the secular Left), his experience with the evangelicals led him to a rather disturbing conclusion: “…when a political group armed with strong and unambiguous foundational beliefs confronts a group of doubting Thomases whose only foundational belief is skepticism towards all foundational beliefs, then it is rather easy to predict who will win.”

The tensions and imperatives of capitalist commerce, the necessity for global social, political and economic change, and encounters with the powerful armed with foundational beliefs: all these are familiar components of work at Kumarian. The bulk of my career at Kumarian has been during the bleak years of the second Bush administration. Talk about foundational beliefs and power! And as the evermore seemingly dysfunctional and rough beast that is the US government slouches towards Bethlehem (and possible default), I ask myself the same questions that I do every day: what is the role of Kumarian Press, what the role of its authors is and how to be “progressive” during periods of intolerance and myopia. I’ll conclude with another of my favorite David Harvey reflections, this one from The Limits of Capital as he gives me a valuable answer to my questions and hope. He writes about the need to project theory “into the fires of political practice” so that “new strategies for the sane reconstruction of society can emerge.” This statement I have emblazoned on my wall as it encapsulates for me the very essence and purpose of Kumarian Press and forms the framework for my editorial strategies. We need sanity now more than ever and Kumarian Press needs authors who can write for wide audiences with a diversity of experiences and knowledge so that the fires of political practice will burn brightly and guide us to, if not a promised land, at least one in which empathy, justice and equity and environmental preservation are primary concerns.

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