NOT COLONIALISTS, AND NOT NICE EITHER! A response to Eduardo Gudynas”

David Harvey David Harvey

14th October 2015

By Estefanía Martínez, Verónica Morales, Carla Simbaña, Japhy Wilson, Nora Fernández, Thomas Purcell y Jeremy Rayner (CENEDET)

Eduardo Gudynas has accused David Harvey and his research team in Ecuador of “a nice colonialism”. But his critique is based on a lack of understanding of Harvey’s work and its value for anti-capitalist struggles in Latin America.

In an article recently published on various critical political websites, Eduardo Gudynas accuses David Harvey of “a nice colonialism”. According to Gudynas, the presence of Harvey in Latin America, and the “trendiness” of his Marxist theoretical framework, are providing ideological support for certain governments in the region. As an example, Gudynas refers to CENEDET, the research team led by Harvey in Ecuador. In this article we respond by emphasizing the utility of Harvey’s work for critical thinking and anti-capitalist struggles in Latin America, in contrast to Gudynas’s superficial analyses of “extractivism.”

One of the most important aspects of Harvey’s thought is the concept of accumulation by dispossession, which has been extremely useful for social movements that condemn and resist the dispossession and displacement that have been forced on peoples throughout Latin America. We therefore find it disturbing that this concept should provide the focus for Gudynas’s critique of Harvey’s work.

Perhaps Gudynas senses that he is no longer as ‘trendy’ as he once was, and has chosen to respond by attacking a theory that better serves resistance movements opposed to so-called “extractivism”? In his article he argues that some Latin American governments critique “global capitalism” as a convenient means of concealing the reproduction of capitalist social relations within their national territories. But his own critique of Harvey as a supposedly “kind colonialist” reproduces the same tendency in the field of academic thought, blaming external forces for avoiding internal changes, and rejecting a powerful theory because of its origin in the “North”, in order to hide the weaknesses of his own theoretical framework.

Rather than speculating further upon his motives, it is necessary to clarify some basic errors in Gudynas’s presentation of the theory of accumulation by dispossession. Gudynas refers to this theory as a simple reproduction of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation – of the separation of the peasantry from the land that forms the basis of capitalist social relations. Harvey certainly takes inspiration from Marx in this regard, but his argument is that these processes of dispossession are much more widespread than Marx indicated, and that they cannot be relegated to the past but continue to be active in contemporary capitalism.

According to Harvey, there is a dialectical relation (a concept that Gudynas is apparently unable to grasp) between the expanded reproduction of capital though the production and accumulation of surplus value in the exploitation of labor power – and accumulation by dispossession based on the outright theft of use values and their transformation into exchange values through the process of commodification .

In the context of capitalist crises (dynamics that Gudynas is equally incapable of comprehending), in which expanded reproduction slows and economic growth becomes negative, accumulation by dispossession assumes increasing importance for capital. According to Harvey, the intensification of accumulation by dispossession in the era of neoliberalism is an expression of the crisis of expanded reproduction at a global level, underway since the 1970s.

For Gudynas this focus on the global level is a profound weakness that makes Harvey irrelevant to the analysis of the concrete realities of Latin America. It seems that Gudynas does not understand the importance of examining the relation between geographical scales, which is fundamental to the critique of a capitalist system that operates simultaneously on the local and global levels. It is precisely here that the utility of the concept of accumulation by dispossession lies – it allows us, for example, to connect the violent dispossession of an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the over-accumulation of capital in China, instead of merely denouncing the event in abstract terms as a consequence of “extractivism”.

It turns out that descriptive and one-dimensional concepts such as “extractivism” and “neo-extractivism” are less useful than Marxian dialectics for critical thought and political action. It is for this reason, and not because of an alleged “mental colonialism”, that Latin American intellectuals and social movements are using Harvey’s concepts in place of Gudynas’s ideas.

In this respect, it is important to note that Gudynas’s own concept of extractivism is based on theories of “the Dutch disease” and “the resource curse”. These theories not only come from “the North” but are also derived from neoclassical economics; that is to say, from bourgeois thought. This is a far greater problem than a particular geographical origin when referring to a concept that has pretensions to being a useful tool in subaltern struggles.

Gudynas presents accumulation by dispossession as if it were the only thing that has crossed Harvey’s mind in his entire life. On the contrary, the concept is built on an immense theoretical base that offers a complex and coherent structure for thinking through the relationship between the accumulation of capital and the production and destruction of social space. Other examples of the application of his theoretical framework in Latin America include: rentier capitalism; infrastructural megaprojects; spatial utopias; entrepreneurial urbanism; the ecosystem of capital; and the demand for forms of property that prioritize use value over exchange value. (Gudynas claims that the concept of use value does not apply in Latin America, but indigenous communities dispossessed of their land and the possibility of reproducing their lives could offer him a very different perspective).

In this regard we invite readers to review the working papers that we have produced in our research center, which are based on heterodox readings of Marxism and combine the ideas of thinkers from Latin American and other latitudes in spaces not restricted to academia – such as our recent Summer Conference.

Our work demonstrates that Harvey’s framework provides a far more powerful critical approach than Gudynas’s ideas when it comes to thinking about actually-existing capitalism. In this regard, it is important to emphasize Gudynas’s complicity in trendy fantasies of a nice capitalism based on eco-tourism and “other knowledges,” by means of which he tries to defend “the rights of nature” without confronting the social relations of capital

In the face of this impoverishment of critical thought, we propose a heterodox Marxism that is hostile to simplistic visions that propose false alternatives to the reality of capital. Against the nice capitalism and bourgeois colonialism of Eduardo Gudynas, we begin from Marx’s call for a “ruthless critique of everything that exists”.