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Postmodernity seen through the lens of political economy,
This review is from: The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Paperback)
David Harvey's 1990 book "The Condition of Postmodernity" has by now likely reached the status of a classic. Little of it is dated for a book now 22 years old, and it remains to be seen whether the current crisis will sound the tocsin for postmodernism as the dominant cultural form of expression of developed capitalism. With that in mind, it is a book much worth reading. Although David Harvey is a geographer, he is often surprisingly adept at art history and cultural interpretation, and this book is a stellar example of this. In the process of understanding the postmodern condition, Harvey leads us from the origins and nature of modernist thought through an excursus on political economic change to an assessment of the flaws of postmodernism as a style of thought. While the argument is rich and many-sided, it essentially has the following flow. Where modernism was the offshoot of the Enlightenment in the period of developed capitalism, seeking to reconcile the individuality of the bourgeoisie with the sense of progress of Enlightenment thought, representing the universal from the particular and the objective from the subjective, the becoming of transformation from the being of space, postmodernism is its opposite: it represents the particular from the universal, the subjective from the objective, and the local, partial, fleeting, and irreducibly particular from the general, the meta, and the universal. This seems a very powerful and valuable way to think about the opposition of the two, although Harvey rightly notes that the two are in their own way attempts to respond to the sense of time-space compression and historical fragmentation resulting from the intensification of competition and accumulation by the ever more full development of capitalism.
Because of this, the middle section of the book leads us into Harvey's analysis of the corresponding change in political economy. He presents us here with the by now familiar story of the Fordist regime of accumulation, with its class compromise, its mass production and economies of scale, and its unionization, to the 'flexible regime of accumulation', with its geographical displacement, its fragmentation of the labor force, and its instantaneous production. As a very general analysis of changes in technology within a capitalist framework, there is a good argument here, but I think much of this traditional story is either wrong or problematic by erroneous emphasis and serious omissions. Harvey is always at his weakest when doing applied political economy (as opposed to economic theory proper), and this shows here. The same story, where I to write it, would focus considerably more on the missing global history dimension, the historical development of the labour aristocracy as the dominant class in the West, the transformation from national to transnational capital within the continuity, rather than rupture, of the forms of production intrinsic to capitalism, and the significance of the global shift of production from the post-imperialist countries to the post-imperialized countries. My view would be much more skeptical than Harvey's about the significance for capitalist accumulation of the changes in technology of communication and production; not because those have not dramatically developed since the 1970s, but because the so-called 'Fordist' regime was always more exception than the rule from a global viewpoint, and was within the West more caused - by historical political developments relating to the rise of the labour aristocracy - than cause. My view would also be much less rosy about the social-democracy that underpinned this 'Fordist' system. This is also not to overdo the super-macro-level effects of the technological changes to capitalism as a mode of production: as Doug Henwood and many others have rightly argued, there is not and will never be such a thing as an 'information economy', a 'knowledge economy', and so forth.
That said, the third part of the book returns to the cultural-political sphere, and is as excellent as the first. Through surprisingly deft and easily intelligible readings of (mainly French) thinkers on ideology and space, Harvey emphasizes the political-ideological consequences of the further compression of space-time resulting from the capitalist technological changes. This in turn, he suggests, produces a further individualization and fragmentation, a massive speeding up of life and a further destabilizing of fixed capital and fixed historical sense of place, so that truly "all that is solid melts into air". Postmodernism then appears as the ideology of individualism and subjectivism turned in on itself, a burrowing into the ground by the middle class now fully individualized and thrown into complete competitive uncertainty. Ironically, Harvey suggests this means the deconstructionist, localist, subjectivist, and counter-narrative projects of postmodernism all really disclose a deep longing for some manner of meaning and stability that can give a sense of place and part to the intellectuals of the Western middle classes. This is not a sneer, because it is a natural enough response, and modernism was also such an attempt in response to the rise of a fully capitalist system in the second half of the 19th century. Whenever competition and loss of symbolic and political power operate, people will seek to find a new ideological ground on which to understand their place in society. The pressures of capitalist individualization will then force these into the local, the subjective, the immediately experienced, and the construction of individual senses of meaning (identities) from the same. It is perhaps the age of the book that leads Harvey to ignore the salient question of the relationship between identity and politics here, when he ends on the high note of wishing to reclaim the modernist project in the name of Marxism (or the Marxist in the name of modernism), but that wish is itself one well worth sharing.