the senses of the world

Carmela Gross,TIGRE, BANDO series, 2016


Read the “Introduction” of the newly translated book by the Marxist theorist

Lately there have been a lot of impressive reports about China. O United States Geological Survey, which monitors this data, reports that China consumed 6,651 billion tons of cement between 2011 and 2013, in contrast to the 4,405 billion tons that the United States used throughout the XNUMXth century. We already pour a lot of cement in the United States, but the Chinese are perhaps pouring it everywhere and at an inconceivable speed. How and why does this happen? And what are the environmental, economic and social consequences of this?

This book is designed to shed light on questions like these. Let us, then, look at the context of this brute fact and then consider how we might draw a general framework that helps to understand what is going on.

The Chinese economy suffered a serious crisis in 2008. Its export industries faced difficult times. Millions of workers (30 million by some estimates) were laid off because consumer demand in the United States (the main market for Chinese goods) had plummeted dramatically: millions of American families had lost or were threatened with losing their homes because of foreclosures. mortgage loans, and these people certainly didn't run to the shopping malls in order to purchase consumer goods.

O tree and the real estate bubble that emerged in the United States between 2001 and 2007 were a response to the previous crisis in the “internet bubble” that erupted in the stock market in 2001. Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the FED, the US Central Bank, set interest rates low, so that capital that was being rapidly withdrawn from the stock market moved to the real estate market as a preferred destination until the housing bubble burst in 2007. Arizona and Nevada) and the south (Florida and Georgia) of the United States, resulted in millions of unemployed workers in China's industrial regions as early as 2008.

The Chinese Communist Party knew that it had to get all those unemployed workers back to work or risk massive social unrest. At the end of 2009, a detailed study carried out jointly by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that the total loss of jobs in China as a result of the crisis reached three million (compared to seven million in the United States). Somehow, the Chinese Communist Party managed to create around 27 million jobs in one year – a phenomenal, if not unheard of, feat.

After all, what did the Chinese do? And how did they do it? They articulated a massive wave of investment in physical infrastructure, designed in part to geographically integrate the national economy by establishing links between the vibrant industrial zones of the country's East Coast and the largely underdeveloped interior, as well as to improve connections between industrial and consumer markets in the north and south, until then quite isolated from each other. To this was added a vast program of forced urbanization, marked by the construction of entirely new cities, in addition to the expansion and reconstruction of those already developed.

This response to conditions of economic crisis was nothing new. Napoleon III brought Haussmann to Paris in 1852 to restore employment rates by rebuilding the city after the economic crisis and revolutionary movement of 1848. The United States did the same thing after 1945, when it mobilized much of its increased productivity and surplus money to build the suburbs and metropolitan areas (Robert Moses fashion) of all major cities, while integrating the south and west of the country into the national economy through the construction of its interstate highway system.

The objective, in both cases, was to create a situation of relative full employment for capital and labor surpluses, thus ensuring social stability. The Chinese, after 2008, did the same thing, but in an infinitely greater proportion, as indicated by data on cement consumption. This change in proportions had already been seen in the examples cited: Robert Moses worked from a much larger scale, that of the metropolitan region, than that contemplated by Baron Haussmann, who had concentrated only on the French capital.

After 2008, at least a quarter of China's gross domestic product (GDP) was derived exclusively from real estate construction, and if we include all physical infrastructure (such as high-speed rail lines, highways, dams and water projects, new airports and containers, etc.), about half of China's GDP and almost all of its growth (which until recently was close to 10%) can be attributed to investment in construction. That's how China got out of recession – hence all that poured concrete.

The worldwide repercussion of Chinese initiatives was impressive. China consumed about 60% of the world's copper and more than half of global cement and iron ore production after 2008. (wood, soy, leather, cotton, etc.) quickly overcome the effects of the 2007-2008 crisis and experienced accelerated growth (Australia, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador…).

Germany, which supplied the Chinese with high-quality machine tools, also prospered (unlike France). Crisis resolution attempts change as fast as crisis trends, hence the volatility of uneven development geography. However, there is no doubt that China, with the massiveness of its urbanization and its investments in the built environment, ended up taking a leading role in rescuing global capitalism from disaster after 2008.

How did the Chinese manage to do this? The basic answer is simple: they resorted to debt financing. The Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered banks to grant loans regardless of risk. Municipalities, as well as regional and local administrations, were advised to maximize their development initiatives, while loan terms for both investors and consumers to purchase housing or investment properties were relaxed. The result of this was the spectacular growth of Chinese debt: it has practically doubled since 2008.

China's debt-to-GDP ratio is now among the highest in the world. Unlike the case of Greece, however, the debt is denominated in renminbi, not dollars or euros. The Chinese Central Bank has enough foreign reserves to cover the debt if necessary and has the autonomy to print its own money if it wants to. The Chinese have embraced Ronald Reagan's (surprising) idea that deficits and debt don't matter. In 2014, however, most of the municipalities were bankrupt, a shadow banking system had emerged to disguise the excessive granting of bank loans to unprofitable projects, and the real estate market had become a veritable casino of speculative volatility. Threats of devaluation of real estate values ​​and overaccumulated capital in the built environment began to materialize in 2012 and peaked in 2015.

In short, China experienced a predictable problem of overinvestment in the built environment (as had happened to Haussmann in Paris in 1867 and to Robert Moses in New York between the late 1960s and the fiscal crisis of 1975). The huge wave of investment in fixed capital should have raised productivity and efficiency across the Chinese economy as a whole, as was the case with the interstate highway system in the United States during the 1960s. Investing half of GDP growth in capital fixed rate that generates declining growth rates is not a good idea. Thus, the positive global effects of China's growth were reversed: as Chinese growth slowed down, commodity prices began to fall, leading the economies of countries such as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Australia into a downward spiral.

How, then, do the Chinese propose to face the dilemma of what to do with their surplus capital in the face of overaccumulation in the built environment and growing debt? The answers are as shocking as the data on cement consumption. To start with, they plan to build a single city to house 130 million people (equivalent to the combined populations of the United Kingdom and France). Centered in Beijing and connected by high-speed communication and transportation networks (which will “annul space for time”, as Marx once put it*) in a territory smaller than the state of Kentucky, this debt-financed project was designed to absorb capital and labor surpluses for a long time. The amount of cement to be poured for this is unpredictable, but it will certainly be immense.

Smaller versions of projects of this type can be found everywhere, not just in China. An obvious example is the recent urbanization of the Gulf states. Turkey plans to convert Istanbul into a city of 45 million people (the current population is around 18 million) and has begun a massive urbanization program on the northern tip of the Bosphorus. A new airport and a new bridge across the strait are already under construction. Unlike China, however, Turkey cannot do this by borrowing in its own currency, and international bond markets are anxious about the risks – high chances, therefore, that this particular project will be stopped.

In almost every major city in the world, booms of construction, with rents and real estate prices getting higher and higher. Something like that is certainly happening right now in New York City. The Spaniards went through a similarly vigorous process before it all came crashing down in 2008. And when it does collapse, it reveals a lot about the waste and foolishness of the investment schemes that are eventually abandoned. In Ciudad Real, just south of Madrid, an entirely new airport was built at a cost of at least 1 billion euros, but in the end no planes arrived and the airport contract went bankrupt. When the airport went up for auction in 2015, the highest bid offered was €10.

For the Chinese, however, it is not enough to double down on building cities. They also look beyond their borders for ways to absorb their capital and labor surpluses. There is a project to rebuild the so-called “Silk Road”, which in the Middle Ages connected China to Western Europe via Central Asia. “The drive to create a modern version of the ancient trade route has emerged as the hallmark of the Xi Jinping government’s foreign affairs,” wrote Charles Clover and Lucy Hornby in the Financial Times (on October 12, 2015).

The rail network would stretch from China's East Coast, through Inner and Outer Mongolia and through Central Asian countries, to Tehran and Istanbul, from where it would spread across Europe, as well as branching to Moscow. It is already possible to predict that Chinese goods will arrive in Europe by this route in four days, instead of the seven days of travel by sea transport. This conjunction of lower costs and shorter times on the Silk Road will transform a relatively empty area in Central Asia into a string of thriving metropolises. This has already started to happen. In exploring the rationale behind the Chinese project, Clover and Hornby signaled the pressing need to assimilate the vast surpluses of capital and inputs such as cement and steel in China. The Chinese, who have absorbed and created an immense mass of surplus capital over the last thirty years, are now desperately seeking what I call “spatial adjustment”* (see Chapter 2) to deal with these problems.

This is not the only global infrastructure project that interests the Chinese. The Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) was launched in 2000, an ambitious program to build transport infrastructure for the movement of capital and goods across twelve South American countries. Transcontinental connections cross ten growth poles; the most daring projects connect the West Coast (Peru and Ecuador) to the East Coast (Brazil).

Latin American countries, however, do not have the resources to finance this initiative. This is where China comes in, which is particularly interested in opening up Brazil to its trade without the time-consuming detours of sea routes. In 2012, they signed an agreement with Peru to start a route over the Andes towards Brazil. The Chinese also intend to finance a new canal through Nicaragua to compete with the one in Panama. In Africa, the Chinese are already hard at work (using their own labor and capital) to integrate East Africa's transport systems, with plans to build transcontinental railroads from one coast to the other.

I relate these stories to illustrate how world geography was and is constantly being made, remade and sometimes even destroyed in order to absorb capital surpluses that accumulate rapidly. The simple answer to anyone who asks me why this happens is: because it is what the reproduction of capital requires. This sets the stage for making a critical assessment of the possible social, political and environmental consequences of these processes and raises the question: can we afford to continue down this path or do we need to work to contain or abolish the drive to endless capital accumulation? what is at its root? That is the theme that connects the seemingly disparate chapters of this book.

It is clear that there is a creative destruction of the world's geographic environment going on – we witness this process all around us, we read about it in the press and we follow it in the news every day. Cities like Detroit flourish for a while and then collapse as other cities take off. Ice caps melt and forests wither. And the idea that we need to create new theoretical frameworks for understanding how and why “things happen” the way they do is more than a little revolutionary.

Economists, for example, tend to reconstruct their theories as if geography were the fixed, unchanging terrain on which economic forces move. What could be more solid than mountain ranges like the Himalayas, the Andes or the Alps, or more fixed than the shape of the continents and climate zones that surround the Earth? Recently, respected analysts such as Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty: How to End World Poverty in the Next Twenty Years (Companhia das Letras), and Jared Diamond, in Guns, germs and steel: the destinies of human societies (Record), suggested that geography, understood as a fixed and unchanging physical environment, is equivalent to destiny.

A good part of the discrepancies in the distribution of wealth between nations, points out Sachs, is correlated with the distance from the equator and access to navigable waters. Others, like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Elsevier), dispute such a view. Geography, they say, has nothing to do with the question: what matters is the historically and culturally constructed institutional framework. One side says that Europe prospered and became the cradle of free-market capitalism because of its rainfall, its jagged coastline and its ecological diversity, while China lagged behind because of its uniform coastline, feature that inhibited easy navigation, and its hydrological regime, which required a centralized and bureaucratic state administration, hostile to free markets and individual initiative.

The other side says that institutional innovations that reinforced private property and a fragmented structure of regional state powers emerged perhaps by accident in Europe and imposed an extractive imperialism on densely populated regions of the world (such as India and China), which until recently it had contained the economies of these countries, in contrast to the opening of settler colonialism in the Americas and Oceania, which would have stimulated free market economic growth. Captivating histories of humanity were elaborated from analogous themes: let us remember the monumental A study of history (UnB), by Arnold Toynbee, in which environmental challenges and human responses are at the root of historical transformations, or the impressive popularity of the aforementioned Guns, germs and steel, by Diamond, according to which the environment determines everything.

What I suggest in the essays gathered here runs counter to both these traditions, starting with the fact that both are simply wrong. Not just because they err on the details (determining the coastline of China as uniform or the coastline of Europe as jagged depends a lot on the scale of the consulted map), but because their definition of what is or is not geographic makes no sense at all: it depends on an artificial Cartesian separation between nature and culture, whereas in practice it is impossible to discern where one ends and the other begins. It is a fatal mistake to impose dichotomy where there is none. Geography expresses the unity of culture and nature and is not the product of some causal interaction with feedback, as it is so often portrayed. This fiction of a duality produces all sorts of political and social disasters.

As China's recent history shows, the world's geography is not fixed: it is constantly changing. Changes in the duration and cost of transport, for example, perpetually redefine the relative spaces of the global economy. The flow of wealth from East to West from the XNUMXth century could not have occurred without the new transport technologies and military dominance that altered the space-time coordinates of the global economy (particularly with the advent of railroads and steamships). . It is the relative space – not the absolute – that matters. Hannibal struggled to cross the Alps with his elephants, but the construction of the Simplon Tunnel greatly facilitated the movement of goods and people between northern Italy and much of Europe.

In these essays, I try to find a theoretical framework to understand the processes that shape and reshape our geography and their consequences for human life and the environment on planet Earth. I say “theoretical framework” instead of a specific and rigidly structured theory, because geography is in constant transformation, not only because humans are active agents in creating environments conducive to sustaining the continuity of their modes of production (such as capitalism ), but because there are simultaneous transformations in the world's ecosystems taking place under other forces.

Some (not all) of them are unintended consequences of human actions: phenomena such as climate change, sea level rise, formation of holes in the ozone layer, degradation of air and water, marine litter and decline in fish populations, extinction of species and the like. New viruses and pathogens emerge (HIV/AIDS, Ebola, West Nile virus), while old pathogens are either eliminated (smallpox) or are extremely resistant to attempts to control them (malaria). The natural world we inhabit is also in constant transformation, as the movement of tectonic plates spews volcanic lava and causes earthquakes and tsunamis, and sunspots affect planet Earth in many ways.

The reproduction of our geographic environment occurs in a multitude of ways and for all reasons. Haussmann's boulevards in Paris were partly conceived as military installations designed for the military and social control of a traditionally unruly urban population, in the same way that the current wave of dam construction in Turkey is primarily intended to destroy, through flooding. , the agrarian base of the Kurdish autonomous movement, crossing southeastern Anatolia with a series of ditches in order to inhibit the movement of insurgent guerrillas fighting for Kurdish independence.

The fact that both the construction of the boulevards and the dams absorbed capital and surplus labor seems completely fortuitous. Cultural perceptions and customs are constantly embedded in the landscape as the landscape itself becomes mnemonic artifacts (such as Sacré-Coeur in Paris or a mountain like Mont Blanc) that signal social and collective identities and meanings. The cities and villages that fill the hills of Tuscany contrast with the empty hills, considered sacred and untouchable spaces, of Korea.

Cramming such diverse characteristics into a single comprehensive theory is simply impossible, but that does not mean that the production of geography is beyond all human understanding. This is why I speak of “theoretical frameworks” for understanding the production of new geographies, the dynamics of urbanization and uneven geographical developments (and why some places prosper while others decline), and the economic, sociopolitical and environmental consequences for life on planet Earth in general and for everyday life in the mosaic of neighbourhoods, cities and regions into which the world is divided.

Creating such theoretical frameworks requires us to explore process-based philosophies of inquiry and embrace more dialectical methodologies in which typical Cartesian dualities (such as that between nature and culture) dissolve into a single stream of historical and geographic creative destruction. Although this may seem, at first glance, difficult to grasp, it is possible to locate events and processes to better intuit how to navigate dangerous seas and explore unknown territories. There is nothing, of course, that guarantees that the theoretical framework will prevent shipwreck, keep us from getting bogged down in quicksand, keep us from getting stuck, or, for that matter, keep us from becoming so discouraged that we simply give up. Anyone who has pored over the current tangle of relationships and interactions in the Middle East will certainly understand what I mean.

Cognitive maps provide some axes and support points from which we can investigate how such confusions happen and perhaps some indications of how to escape the impasses we face. That's a bold claim; however, in these difficult times, it takes a certain boldness and courage in our convictions to get anywhere. And we must do so with the certainty that we will make mistakes.

Learning, in this instance, means extending and deepening the cognitive maps we carry in our minds. These maps are never complete, and yet they undergo constant transformation, lately, at ever-increasing rates. The cognitive maps, compiled over about forty years of work, reflection and dialogue, are incomplete. Perhaps they provide, however, the foundation for a critical understanding of the meanings of the complicated geography in which we live and exist.

This raises questions about what the senses of our world will be like. Do we want to live in a city of 130 million people? Does pouring cement everywhere in order to prevent capital from going into crisis seem like a reasonable thing to do? The sight of that new Chinese city is not attractive to me for a number of reasons – social, environmental, aesthetic, humanistic and political. Maintaining any notion of personal or collective value, dignity and meaning in the face of such a developmental monster seems like a mission doomed to failure, generating the most profound alienations. I can't imagine that many of us would want, promote or conceive of something like this, although, of course, there are futurologists who add fuel to the fire of these utopian visions and a large number of serious journalists who are convinced or captivated enough to write about these initiatives, as well as financial operators in the management of surplus capital who are ready and desperate to mobilize them and realize these visions.

I recently concluded, in 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism (Boitempo), that, in our times, it is not only logical, but imperative, to seriously consider the changing geography of the world from a critical anti-capitalist perspective. If sustaining and reproducing capital as a dominant form of political economy requires, as appears to be the case, pouring cement everywhere at an ever-increasing rate, then surely the time has come to at least question, if not reject, the system that produces such excesses. Either that, or the apologists of contemporary capitalism need to show that it is possible to guarantee the reproduction of capital by less violent and less destructive means. I look forward to this debate.

*David Harvey is a teacher at City University of New York. Author, among other books, of 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism (Boitempo).


David Harvey. the senses of the world. Translation: Arthur Renzo. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.

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