Thinking Geographically: Globalizing Capitalism, and Beyond

In the spirit of strengthening our intellectual foundations and clarifying our contributions to shaping Earth I advocate for thinking geographically, as a way of being in the world that all can join, rather than policing the boundaries of a discipline called Geography. Thinking geographically means attending to: the geography of knowledge production; how spatio-temporalities shape and are shaped by socio-natural processes; the more-than-human world as it emerges from the interdependencies between human conception and action and biophysical processes; the variegated ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies underlying knowledge claims; and the world not only as it is but as it could be. Thinking geographically does not seek consensus around some monist body of knowledge, grounded in Lakatosian hard-core principles. It means advocating engaged pluralism: ongoing open-ended debate and mutual criticism between differently positioned knowledge producers willing to learn from one another’s local epistemologies.

What are the implications of thinking geographically about globalizing capitalism? First, it is necessary to problematize the European positionalities from which commonsense understandings of capitalism diffused. Europe did not invent capitalism, but the spatial dynamics of colonialism that elevated Europe to the global core also made it globalizing capitalism’s center of calculation. Globally influential theories of capitalism thus were European in origin, grounded in European Enlightenment thinkers’ encounters with the forms that emerged in eighteenth and nineteenth century northwestern Europe. British capitalism, in particular, became the basis for defining capitalism, and the whetting stone on which theories of capitalism were sharpened. Across Europe, other socio-spatial positionalities generated very different conceptions of capitalism, from the free trade proponents of English political economy, to the trenchant critiques of that socialist German immigrant Karl Marx, or the nationalist vision of Friedrich List. Thinkers positioned beyond the European realm, such as Latin American dependency theorists or the Africans Samir Amin and Frantz Fanon, have also shaped global debate—albeit about the consequences rather than the definition of capitalism. Notwithstanding such interventions, the local epistemology that is global commonsense, and the model of capitalism underwriting it, remains rooted in eighteenth century English political economy with its influential proponents.

Second, thinking geographically about this economic model raises serious questions about its internal coherence. Capitalism cannot be described in terms of an idealized equilibrium outcome where markets clear, but exhibits out-of-equilibrium dynamical complexity characterized by path-dependence, instability, unpredictability, conflict and uneven geographical development. In a spatially differentiated economy, the ‘free’ markets propounded by neoliberal visions of capitalism cannot be self-regulating and harmonious; their creation and maintenance require continual spatio-temporal interventions by extra-market forces. Indeed, capitalism cannot be understood, or successfully practiced, simply as an economic process; its economic aspects are co-implicated with political, cultural, social and biophysical processes, in ways that repeatedly exceed the ‘laws of economics’. This undermines the vision of globalizing capitalism as a rising tide capable of lifting all boats, bringing prosperity to all hard-working and responsible individuals and well-governed territories.

Third, thinking geographically questions the capacity of globalizing capitalism to deliver on its own promise. The mainstream vision of capitalism inclines to a place-based imaginary: Success or failure is generally attributed to characteristics (e.g., culture, climate, governance, coherence) of the entities being assessed—whether individuals, cities, regions or nations. Yet such place-based explanations are insufficient and misleading. Socio-economic performance is equally shaped by the asymmetric connectivities between places, and the inter-scalar dynamics, that co-evolve with uneven geographical development. Further, market-based principles are inadequate for redressing political, cultural or biophysical conflict or dysfunction.

It follows that globalizing capitalism (as we know it) cannot be considered the best practice culmination of some ubiquitously applicable developmental trajectory, mandatory for the success of every territorial economy. Far from being the go-to solution to impoverishment, globalizing capitalism’s uneven geographical development is itself productive of social and geographical inequality—realizing possibilities for those occupying privileged socio-spatial positionalities while undermining them for the majority. It is thus necessary to acknowledge space for alternative, more-than-capitalist experiments and trajectories, enriched by peripheral experiences of and encounters with globalizing capitalism. These alternatives cannot simply be read off from well-trodden European-style debates about capitalism vs. socialism; thinking geographically induces skepticism about the adequacy of any ubiquitous ‘best practice’ alternative. There is a plurality of distinctly situated existing and potential alternatives, whose impact on the livelihood possibilities of both those pursuing them and those living otherwise (and elsewhere) should be critically assessed. This will require reciprocal critical engagement between alternatives, and the political and moral grounds motivating them.

Eric Sheppard, UCLA

The Past President’s Address will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 10, 2014, at the AAG Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida. Eric Sheppard will present the 2013 Presidential Achievement Award to Doreen Massey. See for details and to register.