Economic Geography?

This fall I will be teaching my first economic geography course. And I have to admit, its a bit daunting to step into still another field — after theology, church history, European history, and Economic Theory and History. As I familiarize myself with the most recent literature, I have grown accustomed to the usual caveats: “economics and economic geography differ . . .” in this way or that.

Hovering above these caveats, I believe, is the conviction that unlike economics, geography concerns itself with space. I have had to challenge myself on this conviction. And, I have to admit, I find it lacking. Here’s why.

I have no difficulty finding fault with how some of my colleagues grant the production function (MPL = ΔQ/ΔL) a near quasi-independent, consciousness. This fault could easily be overcome by exploring how a socio-historically unique form of mediation acquires quasi-independence and pseudo-consciousness: how it appears to acquire agency. E Durkheim was surely mistaken to ontologize organic and mechanical solidarity, which led some of his readers to mistakenly conclude that mechanical solidarity was not practically articulated. But he was spot on to the extent that he identified the ways that social forms display logical structures that are, in turn, internalized and rationalized by social actors. In this respect, it is unfortunate that E Durkheim was not sufficiently well versed in GWF Hegel’s works and that his K Marx, tragically, was excessively benign. Why?

First, yes. GWF Hegel surely ontologized the value form of the commodity. But his philosophy of spirit (or mind) was so highly articulated that, without too much thought, it is relatively easy to retranslate it into socio-historically specific categories; more specifically, into the capitalist social form. Here a highly differentiated, directionally dynamic, quasi-rational spirit shapes and is in turn shaped by the thought forms and structures it generates in its compilation of the world it is making in real time out of itself.

Further, the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis [the immediate simplicity]. Only this self-restoring Sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself — not an original or immediate unity as such — is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual (§18).

It took a good deal of critical reflection — and a good deal of self-criticism — for K Marx to finally admit that this self-moving Substance that is Subject was not the industrial working class. This was his thesis in 1848. It was still his working thesis in 1850. Gradually, however, K Marx was brought to see that this self-moving Substance that is Subject was the value form of capital:

[The value form] is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently (Capital I.i.4).

K Marx’s immanent reading of the value form, I believe, is analytically more rigorous than E Durkheim’s, insofar as it seeks to account for the path through which a form of practice acquires independent social subjectivity and agency. Remarkably, K Marx abandons the working class as the subject of history. That position he now grants to the value form of capital: “[I]n the circulation M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms” (I.i.4).

No one would mistake this for anything other than a socio-historically specific exegesis of GWF Hegel’s Preface. What GWF Hegel mistook for the spirit of history, the human spirit, even the divine spirit, K Marx reinterprets as the value form of a socio-historically specific form, the value form of the commodity.

This insight has value, not only for economic theory, but also for economic geography. The analytical frame through which economic geographers appear to operate holds that economic theory transhistoricizes and ontologizes socio-historically specific social forms. This criticism invites us to practically account for states of social subjectivity. But this is not where economic geographers take us. Instead, they ontologize the multiplicity of socially (and geographically) constructed landscapes. These landscapes are real, as is their multiplicity. And, yet, the observation that this is so arises from a specific vantage-point, which has itself to be deconstructed. It is not.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that each socio-historically specific social form — save one — is unaware and unconcerned over its socio-historical constitution. (Indeed, part of its vulnerability consists in this lack of concern or awareness.) Among the value form’s achievements was to relativize all values: to draw all valuation into the vortex of the abstract value form of the commodity. From this socio-historically specific vantage point, we can now see, and appreciate, how all values are relative — historically relative.

Which begs the question: is there a critical vantage-point from which this relativity of value can be criticized?

To this question, GWF Hegel had no satisfying answer. Indeed, the paragraph immediately following §18, cited above, delivers an all too vivid description of God creating the world. God, quite literally, is self-pleasuring: “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself” (§19). Well, yes, but . . .

When we say “there is no universal here,” do we also therein imply “there is no vantage point of critique”?

Let me therefore propose an alternative interpretation and methodology. Like K Marx, let me propose that the value form of capital should be our vantage point of critique; not because it is universal, but because it has been made universal. And let me propose that we focus our attention not on the value form’s universality, but on the practices that made it so. This will mean that we focus, specifically, on its socio-historical contingency — on the specific practices that compose its coherence, both practical and theoretical.

Here I am not faulting the practices out of which the capitalist social form is composed. I am cataloguing them. I am making sense of them. My criteria for cataloguing is not transcendent. It arises within the same world as the object of my critique, the object I am cataloguing. But, the mere recognition of socio-historically specific categories deprives these categories of the ontological, transhistorical character granted to them by a less than fully rigorous social science. The fault I am therefore finding in mainstream economic theory is not an absence of space, but, in fact, an absence of time and temporality, of socio-historical specificity. My critique — which holds equally for economic theory as for economic geographic theory — is of the transcendental, ungrounded, character of the non-Marxian critique.

This removes economic geography from its comfort zone. Economic geography, in this case, is not about equality, or justice, or resistance. It is about adopting a more rigorous, comprehensive, model. This, I believe, is what K Marx’s mature social theory adds to both economic science, but also, therefore, economic geography.

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