Marxism for Human Geographers

Kevin R. Cox author of An Advanced Introduction to Marxism and Human Geography, discusses this insightful topic.

As a guiding set of ideas, the presence of Marxism in human geography goes back at least fifty years. Its impact, its effect on theorizing in the field has, though, been very uneven. Its fundamental ideas have been assimilated in a very patchy way. There are some clear successes and major contributions, but the majority response has been disappointing. There has been focus on topics like urbanization and uneven development, but more from the standpoint of distribution than the production that Marx put at the heart of his arguments. Misunderstandings abound.

Part of the problem is one of mediating between Marx’s work, some of the more fundamental aspects of which, like the law of value, are quite difficult, even arcane; and that wider audience which, while keen, has yet to translate that enthusiasm into critical work of a more penetrating character. A major objective of An Advanced Introduction to Marxism and Human Geography has been to fill that gap. Accordingly, it assumes very little, but then builds on it.

The first part of the book is devoted to an introduction of the central ideas and how they mesh with one another. These include Marx’s historical materialism in the strict sense of an understanding of human development back to the earliest times. Everything starts and returns to production: hence the importance of people’s relation to nature, but always a relation that is mediated by social relations. This is then applied to Marx’s understanding of capitalism.

A major stumbling block for the uninitiated is the law of value. In my introduction this is worked through in an easy-to-understand manner, drawing on essential assumptions which in Marx’s treatment, are left till later. These include the separation of immediate producers from the means of production, without which it is impossible to understand that pervasiveness of production for exchange on which the validity of the law of value depends. But also competition and its basis in the class relation; how competition is enforced in virtue of the need to pay workers and therefore to retrieve the money laid out by sale in a final market where uncertainty has to prevail. The resistance of workers then biases competitive strategies towards the labor substituting. Again, without competition, the pressure to minimize concrete labor times that is at the heart of the law of value makes no sense. In its turn, the law of value allows an exploration and understanding of other central concepts including the value of labor power, surplus value and accumulation.

The nexus of the class struggle, competition and accumulation on an expanding scale is the condition for the development of capital. This occurs through the progressive socialization of production: the deepening of the division of labor and the mobilization of ever larger shared means of production. The capitalist state plays a crucial role in this socialization, but as with discussions of competition there are lacunae: most notably the significance of ideology in the capitalist nature of the state, which is discussed at length.

The second half of the book concentrates on how this conceptual architecture can be brought to bear on the problems typically the concern of human geography: urbanization, difference, uneven development, the ecological question, and geopolitics. As the social theory for human geography, historical geographical materialism has much to recommend it. Earlier approaches tended to emphasize human relations to nature. This was followed by a more narrow focus on social relations over space, as in location theory. The virtue of Marxism is that it is concerned, simultaneously, with both: the politics of urbanization is certainly about the virtues of agglomeration for accumulation and struggles around distribution that show up in housing markets, but also about the relation to nature: issues of pollution, getting ‘closer to nature’ in the suburbs, and so on.

The subsequent discussions then go beyond surveys of how they have been treated hitherto by Marxists, including Marxist geographers. As well as picking up on less well known writings, they are developed in original ways. Some of the ground covered will certainly be familiar: nature is not something separate from the social process as it seems to be in claims about ‘natural’ disasters and the continuing appeal of Malthusianist arguments. It is useful, if unusual, to approach the problem of uneven development through the unevenness in the degree to which production is socialized: the role of the division of labor and of shared means of production like the huge physical infrastructures characteristic of developed countries. This shifts it away from the common perception of it as distributional, to a focus on first on the basis of capital’s extraordinary feats of productivity; and then on the conditions, like the separation of immediate producers from the means of production that allow capitalist production in the first place: something still not satisfied over large parts of the world. Likewise, in considering difference in Marxist geography, there is often a liberal assumption that social movements will eventually prevail. The problem is that difference is hard wired into capital’s incentive system. Despite capital’s structural indifference – what it is really interested in is who will most contribute to the production of surplus value, even while it will take advantage of difference where it exists – there are incentives among the working class, incentives having to do with capital’s value system, to stigmatize and exclude. Old senses of difference can indeed be mitigated, even abolished, but new ones will always emerge. In short, while the book provides an introduction to Marx, that does not shirk confronting the difficulty of some of the ideas, it also addresses lacunae in the argument, like the question of difference and the significance of countries. This then allows fresh contributions of an interpretive sort.

Advanced Introduction to Marxism and Human Geography

Kevin R. Cox, The Ohio State University, US

Course Leader? Click here to receive immediate ebook examination access

, , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: