101: David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity

David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity both updates and spatializes classical Marxist theory and situates studies of place within the context of post-1973 global capitalism.  He argues that postmodernity is a historical-geographical condition that is an aesthetic response to the crisis of overaccumulation.  Throughout, he emphasizes the continuity from modernity to postmodernity, the connection between new cultural and economic practices, the post-1973 development of flexible capital accumulation on a global scale, and new ways of thinking about time-space compression.  Some of his main points:

  • modernity was at once transient, fleeting, contingent AND eternal and immutable; the project of Modernism was effectively the last hurrah of the Enlightenment project: to create a scientific narrative of chaos that could both rationalize internal social fragmentation within a narrative of Progress AND break from the past
  • Postmodernism, on the other hand, celebrates difference, fragmentation, and the vernacular; it is spatial and pragmatic rather than temporal and abstract, and it revels in chaos and complexity.  As opposed to the Modernist city, the PoMo city is not divided into functional zones but instead develops by its own logic into something apolitically beautiful in its chaos.
  • Both Modernism and Postmodernism are dialectically related to their particular “regime of accumulation,” the particular configuration of capitalists, workers, state employees, financiers, and other political-economic agents that stabilizes the net product between consumption and accumulation.  In the first half of the 20th century, Fordism kept the regime of accumulation stable by slowly shaping global mass-production and mass-consumption into a core/periphery model with the US in the center.  

  • The massive recession in 1973 did not constitute a break with modernity, but it did start a reconfiguration of the global regime of accumulation into “flexible accumulation.”  The recession threw a lot of people out of work; this massive unemployment shifted the balance of power from workers and unions to employers, who began to emphasize geographic dispersion, flex time, and contract work.  At the same time, black markets, specialization, sweatshops, and new forms of non-productive “paper entrepreneurialism” further fragmented the world economic system and extended its reach while increasing the disparity between rich and poor.
  • The resultant uneven geographical development/ uneven geographical pattern of accumulation is thus a spatial solution to a new problem: overaccumulation of (non-productive) wealth created in the newly active financial markets.
  • If Modernism responded to economic and social chaos by trying to corral time into a grand narrative of Progress and a static core/periphery model, Postmodernism responds to the global crisis of overaccumulation and uneven development by aestheticizing space and privileging representation, tailored to local economic conditions, over analysis.
  • Both modernity and postmodernity are chaotic processes of capitalist expansion.  However, if Modernism was all about becoming and increasing the pace of production (and consumption), Postmodernism is all about being and increasing the need for consumption (and production)

Gotta love David Harvey for showing how postmodernity connects the “being” of place into the “becoming” of spatial capital flows: rather than arguing for a clean break between modernity and postmodernity, he shows that postmodernity builds networks of aestheticized places out of the existing core/periphery model of modern capitalism.

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