I was brought up in Kent, in Gillingham. My father worked in Chatham dockyard. My first memory was being there on my father’s shoulders watching a ship being launched. It was around 1938 and I was nearly three years old.
My parents never discussed politics but my grandmother was very political. She was into the co-operative movement and a great Labour supporter. She hated Winston Churchill, even in the middle of the Second World War when he was supposed to be a saint. I remember her in a co-op type room talking loudly about ‘that bugger Winston Churchill’, and then adding, ‘But Hitler’s a rotten bugger [too] and it takes one rotten bugger to get another rotten bugger, but after the war we’re going to get rid of all rotten buggers!’
When I was studying geography at Cambridge, quite a few of my teachers had been in the colonial service and there was a sense of coming to terms with what the British Empire was about. Then the Suez invasion occurred. Politically, for many of my generation, it came as a bit of a shock that, suddenly, unilaterally, Britain, in association with France, would go in with the collusion of Israel and do something of this sort. What was the justification for it? It was a critical moment in terms of [my] consciousness.
I went to teach in Baltimore in 1969. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the height of urban unrest. I arrived in the city a year after much of it had burnt down in the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and – of course – there was a vigorous anti-war movement, too. It was a moment of very intense political turmoil within the USA. Many of us thought that the revolution was just around the corner.
I became very active in the anti-war movement, which led into the question of how we understood imperialism. We started reading all kinds of theories of imperialism and began reading Marx to help us understand how such incredible impoverishment could exist within the richest society in the world.
What I’ve learnt from Marx is a method of enquiry. So when something like the Lehman Brothers collapse occurs, I instantaneously know how I would start to analyse it and unpack it. It’s a practice rather than a faith.
I wrote Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism because I felt there was something to be said about where the crisis of 2007–08 came from, and why we’re having such difficulty exiting from it. While formally it seems we came out of the crisis in 2009, there are still plenty of signs that we’re in difficulty.
This crisis may be more problematic than those of the 1930s and ’70s because the conditions of capital accumulation are now at a point where it’s very difficult to find new investment opportunities. What we’ve seen is more and more money flowing into assets, so we’re creating asset bubbles and land grabs.
Much of the property market has become irrational. A real political example is the UK government putting a bedroom tax on people in social housing. They’re putting it on the wrong people. They should put a bedroom tax on private-sector housing, because many big houses in London have excess capacity, and some stand empty all the time – they’re not for living, they’re for financial speculation.
Everywhere I go in the world, moderately incomed people can’t afford to live in city centres. In Istanbul, the only affordable housing is 30 kilometres from the centre. The centre of cities is being taken up by a speculative boom that’s going to crash at some point. It’s a crazy system.
There’s hope within the contradictions of capitalism because when you understand a contradiction, you can lean on one side of it rather than the other. Use-value versus exchange-value is a good example. When a simple market in housing turns into a form of saving and a form of speculation, you’ve created an exchange-value system that’s completely incapable of delivering affordable housing to low-income populations. At that point, we have to find some other way.
It could involve incremental solutions, such as using community land trusts and equity co-ops to gradually withdraw housing from the market, declaring that it’s a human right not a market commodity and trying to increase access to that human right. It’s a geopolitical issue. Could we create whole neighbourhoods that are stable and out of the market, where people can continue to live at a reasonable cost? I think that the answer is yes. It isn’t an impossible dream.
1935 Born in Gillingham, Kent
1957 Received BA (Hons) in geography from St John’s College, Cambridge
1960–61 Studied at Uppsala University, Sweden
1962 Completed MA and PhD at St John’s College, Cambridge
1961–69 Lecturer in geography, University of Bristol
1969–89 Associate professor, then professor, of geography, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
1987–93 Halford Mackinder professor of geography, University of Oxford
1993–2001 Professor of geography, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
2001–present Distinguished professor, City University of New York
This story was published in the July 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine