• Asa Ana

Harvey Examines Origins of Cultural Change Through the Lens of Marxism

“The Condition of Postmodernity. An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change” written by David Harvey examines cultural exchange through the theoretical framework of Marxist Theory. His analysis of capitalism’s influence on cultural movements and disciplines, comparing and contrasting modernity and postmodernity happen often throughout Part I of the book. He makes an argument in the opening few paragraphs that “postmodernist cultural forms” are only “shifts in the surface of appearance” rather than a larger defining movement of some “postindustrial society” (Harvey p. vi). Harvey compares modernity and postmodernism with the backdrop of urban life, how cities and the artists, architects, writers, poets, and musicians act as an important platform for cultural production, claiming “modernism, after 1848, was very an urban phenomenon” (p. 25).

Harvey begins to defend his claim that modernism and postmodernism are simply a shift in cultural forces by defining the myriad of complex interpretations of modernism. The importance of the rise of postmodernism is when shifts in society are recognized. Harvey references multiple cultural creators and definitions noting that modernism celebrates the mechanical identities of the time noting modernism is “linear progress, absolute truths, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production” (pg.9). But Harvey also thoroughly challenges one true definition of modernism noting the varied cultural fragmentation that was happening during the time. A term popular during the time was “creative destruction” a process in which artist and writers reflect the destruction of the current world to create a new world (p. 16), referencing the French poet, Charles Pierre Baudelaire and the architect, Le Corbusier, as key cultural producers of this time.

He begins to address the Marxist theoretical framework by noting the “commodification and commercialization” of art and the market that developed for cultural products during the 19th century. Though artists of the time championed anti-bourgeois sentiments the market of art and the eagerness for artists to sell their work within the market is contradictory. During this period, technology allowed for mass production of art and cultural materials, the author claims, accelerates this market driven capitalist desires. But there is a very serious resistance by cultural workers to capitalist modernization. The socialist movement “inserted class dimensions into modernism” the author questions where the cultural producers are in their relationship to socialism (29). Many examples appear in the text about the varied artists, writers, and architects who developed work related to the machine or industry. For example, the author reference the work of William Carlos Williams noting the poet states “a poem is neither more or less than a machine made of words.” The mural work of Diego Rivera’s celebration of industry as one of many examples of artists hailing the “machine” in their work.

The author’s Marxist theoretical framework reveals itself in his analysis that postmodernism addresses the varied systems of oppression, “resistance to domination, ”and radical politics embraced by Marxism. Marxism and postmodernism are similar because Marx deployed his terms of “value, labor, capital are continually breaking a part and reattaching” (p. 51). He continues this analysis by addressing how cultural production in the postmodern period is motivated by the “power of the market” (p. 62).

Harvey transitions into the inquiry of postmodernism and adds a timestamp to where it begins between 1968 through 1972, but adds that it is an “incoherent movement” as a way to support his claim that modernism and post-modernism are mere “shifts” in time. This important part of the book continues arguing how cultural producers define and interpret postmodernism as they completely change the aesthetic direction of modernism, away for ornamental design, individualism, and custom designed housing to create a new “satisfying urban environment” continuing the compare and contrast of modernism and postmodernism through the lens of a metropolitan experience (p. 40). Postmodernism embraces “chaotic” and “fragmentation” as a way to “counteract” modernism (p. 44). Postmodernism does not prescribe any set representation of the world. The author begins his analysis of postmodernism by evaluating cultural production, works of art, and literary text of the time. Harvey continues to examine the way cultural producers interpret and exercise postmodernism ideals by considering paintings, literature, city, and civic design.

In Part II of analysis between modernity and postmodernity, Harvey address the political and economic transformation of 20th century capitalism, showcasing the author’s core theoretical framework as a Marxist theorist. The author investigates what he defines as the “regime of accumulation” or the amassing of product overtime, associated with “social and political regulation,” the rules of control over social and political entities (p. 123). He notes problems with existing forms of capitalism, price-fixing markets and the control over labor. Though he does not use the term “neoliberalism” the examination of social and political regulation could be a precursor for understanding the principles of a deregulated market. Price-fixing, the author argues, that because of a decentralized system, many people can manipulate the market freely or without much oversight or regulation. Control or appropriation of labor by capitalism is an “intricate affair” manipulating workers through “education, training, persuasion, or through loyalty” (123).

Harvey contextualizes the economic transformation by recognizing Fordism, an economic system that relies on mass consumption and production, championed by the industrialist, Henry Ford. He does this be defining the principles of Fordism noting Ford’s commitment to creating a new society built through corporate power and the propose of the five-dollar, eight-hour day, what Harvey claims is a way to “secure the worker into compliance” (p. 126). Themes of neoliberalism appear when Harvey addresses the need for state intervention, yet Ford’s ability to create new state powers. The defeat of working class movements accelerated Fordism. Harvey cites Daniel Bell often in this Part, noting his commitment to “mass production and consumption as a new aesthetic and a commodification of culture (p. 135).

The introduction of Keynesianism, that demand is measured as the sum of spending which drives the forces of the economy – related to Fordism’s platform of mass consumption and production are challenged by the contradictions of capitalism. This contradiction is defined by what the author calls “flexible accumulation” that new markets and services intensified at a fast rate because of technological advancements. Here, Harvey highlights his commitment to his Marxist theoretical framework by noting capitalism’s assault on labor through flexible accumulation. “These enhanced powers of flexibility and mobility have called employers to exert stronger pressures of labor control of a workforce in any case weakened by two savage bouts of deflation, that say unemployment rise to unprecedented postwar levels in advanced countries” (page 147). Technological influences, new organizational forms, global financial systems, and mergers play an important role in flexible accumulation.

In what seems like an extreme philosophical leap, Harvey attempts to connect flexible accumulation and postmodernism by highlighting the “space and time in social life” (p. 201) linking his past inquiry of cultural processes, politics, and the economy. In modern society, people have different senses of time, he notes. “The time horizon implicated in a decision materially affects the kind of decisions we make” (p 202) claims Harvey, highlighting the relationships of multiple layers of interpretation of time with different societies. There is no singular objective sense of time or space. Space has “direction, area, shape, pattern and volume as key attributes” that society is measured as objective. Cultural forces can influence our sense of time and space.” When an architect like Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright change our built environment, society must abject their time and space continuum.

As it relates to concepts of community engagement, Harvey emphasizes this point in terms of how societies use “ancient spaces” in contemporary ways and treat history as something we need to create. He states “The same concept of say ‘community’ (as a social entity created in space through time) can disguise radical differences in meaning because the process of community production themselves diverge remarkably according to group capacities and interests. Yet the treatment of communities as if they are comparable (by say, a planning agency has material implications to which the social practices of people who live in them have to respond” (p. 204 – 205). I understand this interpretation of time and space as it relates to the author’s notion of community as both analyzing the ways in which the built environment impacts a community over time and the way the people who live in the community interact with each other and the “material implications” of community. He notes people in community “disguise radical differences in meaning” because of group interests, capacities, and knowledge. His Marxist theoretical framework argument recognizes the acceleration of economic processes speed up time and space as a result of capitalism (p. 230). The “elements of profit” is an authority over labor time that gives capitalists power (p. 230). Harvey notes a “compression” of time and space shape periods cultural forces that define modernism and postmodernism, with an emphasis that these are still simply shifts.

Artists, filmmakers, and writers are noted – those who challenged ideals of space and time, highlighting a key contributor, Gertrude Stein who wrote about how Cubism was a response to time-space compression. It is important to note, Harvey cites mostly males while defining modernism, postmodernism and political-economic ecosystems in this book. Though he does cite women when noting creative influences, Sherman, Carol, Gilligan, and Stein are referenced for their contributions to define the cultural forces of modernism and postmodernism.

Harvey investigates the state and historical attributions of postmodernism in the final Part of the book. An important passage to define the influence of postmodernism is when Harvey states, “in periods of confusion and uncertainty, the turn to aesthetics (of whatever form) becomes more pronounced” (p. 327). Recognizing the over accumulation created a shift in “moral judgments, science, and aesthetics” (p. 328), a core argument that these “shifts” of this kind (modernism and postmodernism) are “nothing new.” Written in 1990, Harvey shapes his arguments around outdated motives, in Part IV, he references the pop culture, shape-making of Ronald Reagan as a political icon. He uses political experiences of the 90’s to use a “mirror” metaphor to look back at how these shifts are not new yet recognized in the form of postmodernism.

In conclusion, I thought the book blended economic-political frameworks and the impact of cultural production as a way to define a moment of modernism and postmodernism important. This critical relationship between aesthetic influences of a time, the artists who impact a geographical space, and the influence of the built environment are important to my future research evaluating how artists change postindustrial communities. Harvey’s analysis that postmodernism is simply a “shift” but yet clearly puts a time stamp on this moment is helpful to guide other cultural and economic forces happening in my area of research. Important sources appear in this book including Daniel Bell, what Harvey defines as a “neo-conservative.” He is the seminal writer in post-industrial communities and will be instrumental in future research in my studies. The author’s survey of artists, writers, architects, and urban planners who shaped or influenced modernism and postmodernism is vast and will be a critical review and source to understand how artists shape identity in post-industrial community. The outdated references did not bother me, themes and influences of his writings about Ronald Reagan can be a “mirror” to what themes we see with President Trump and neo-fascism. Also, this work is a seminal foundation for the theory of neoliberalism. The acceleration of globalism, technology, markets across the country moving more towards deregulation of corporations. I found the book impressive and it will be an important part of my research in the future.


Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of postmodernity. an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Blackwell Polishers, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

3 views0 comments