Spatial Fixes, Temporal Fixes, and Spatio-Temporal Fixes

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Spatial fixes, temporal fixes, and spatio-temporal fixes’, in N. Castree and D. Gregory, eds, David Harvey: a Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 142-66, 2006.


It is especially productive to probe major thinkers on issues central to their work and widely regarded as their strong points. Accordingly, my contribution reviews Harvey’s concern with the spatialities and temporalities of capitalism and capitalist social formations. Harvey is famous for stressing the importance of spatiality for an adequate historical materialism. If one phrase symbolizes this, it is surely ‘spatial fix’. He has also shown how capitalism rests on a political economy of time and has explored the dynamics of time-space compression in both modern and post-modern societies. More recently, he has introduced the term ‘spatio-temporal fix’ to decipher the dynamics of capitalist imperialism and its grounding in the interaction between capitalist and territorial logics of power. These interests are reflected in his successive but overlapping accounts of three interrelated fixes: spatial, temporal, and spatio-temporal. Each works in its own way to defer and/or displace capitalism’s inherent crisis-tendencies but does so only by subsequently intensifying these tendencies and their effects. My chapter affirms Harvey’s key contributions on these themes but also suggests that they have significant ontological, epistemological, methodological, and substantive limitations. It also proposes a potentially more productive reading of the spatio-temporal fix that is nonetheless consistent with and, indeed, inspired by his approach.

Harvey on Methodology, Dialectics, and Internal Relations

Harvey’s work on spatial fixes is obviously rooted in his long-standing interest in land-use patterns and locational dynamics, spatial forms, spatial justice, and urbanism and his later sustained engagement with Marx’s method and theory and with capitalist dynamics (2000d/2001a: 8-10; Merrifield 2003). But it is also informed by a deeper ontological and methodological project, namely, ‘to reconstruct theory with space (and the “relation to nature”) clearly integrated within it as foundational elements’ (1996a: 9). This project corresponds in part to his desire to overcome the privileging, in conventional dialectics, of time over space (1996b: 4; cf. 1989b: 207, 273). Thus Harvey suggests that an ‘[e]scape from the teleologies of Hegel and Marx can … most readily be achieved by appeal to the particularities of spatiality (network, levels, connections)’ (1996a: 109). A further, and later, justification suggests that, whereas neo-classical economics collapses when it confronts spatial issues, these are foundational for Marx’s critique of political economy.[1] This holds both for the general ontological importance Marx attaches to place and space in social life and for the substantive importance of possible (dis)connections between qualitatively different forms of labour performed in different places and times and their integration as abstract labour into the circuit of capital. Finally, whatever his intellectual motivations, Harvey’s interest in space and place also reflects his view of political practice, inspired by Raymond Williams, namely, ‘militant particularism’ rooted in local mobilization but linked to wider social movements (1996a; 2000a; 2001a).

Whereas his training as a geographer, his inquiries on cities and his intellectual and political projects all motivate Harvey’s spatial interests, his interest in temporal fixes owes more to his knowledge of Marx’s critique of political economy and his own growing recognition of the tendential autonomization of financial capital. Thus his key contributions on the spatio-temporality of accumulation are rooted in Marx’s dialectical method as developed in the 1857 ’Introduction’ (1973b), the Grundrisse (1973a), and Capital (1970). Harvey deploys this method to respecify and elaborate key economic categories and crisis mechanisms and to reveal their inherently spatio-temporal qualities. His broader contributions to historical geographical materialism are further rooted in a broader understanding of the dialectic, the ontology of internal relations, and the cogredience and compossibility of social relations with different spatio-temporalities (Harvey 1973: 285-301; 1982a: 1-2; 1996a: 286). This dual approach, indebted to Marxian political economy and the theory of internal relations, shapes his analysis of all three fixes.

Harvey remarks that ‘Marx chose never to write out any principles of dialectics… The only way to understand his method is by following his practice’ (1996a: 48; cf. 1973: 286). On this basis, Harvey incisively summarizes Marx’s overall method. This involves a movement from abstract to concrete, i.e., the increasing concretization of a given phenomenon (e.g., commodities in general vs the real wage). It also involves a movement from simple to complex, i.e., introducing further dimensions of a given phenomenon (e.g., capital in general vs competition between states to control new markets on behalf of their respective national capitals). Hence concepts are never introduced just once and for all but are continually developed, expanded, and refined. Indeed, ‘since we cannot possibly have that understanding at the outset, we are forced to use the concepts without knowing precisely what they mean (1982a: 1-2). Harvey’s ‘first cut’ theory of crisis, based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is relatively abstract-simple, for example, referring mainly to capital in general. The second and third cut theories become more concrete and complex. In this context, Harvey’s key contribution to the concretization of Marxist analysis concerns his exploration of ‘socially necessary turnover time’; and, regarding complexification, it concerns his work on finance capital and the inherent spatiality of accumulation. Yet theories never reach completion. The coherence and explanatory power of concepts and arguments are therefore always relative to a given stage in the spiral movement from abstract-simple to concrete-complex. Thus we should not criticize a theoretical approach just because that movement is incomplete – a point relevant to Harvey’s work too. But we may properly critique it insofar as later productive development is blocked by the way in which earlier concepts are presented.

Harvey describes his own approach as ‘a dialectical, historical-geographical and materialist theory … [that] deals with totalities, particularities, motion, and fixity in a certain way, hold[ing] out the prospect of embracing many other forms of theorizing within its frame, sometimes with only minimal loss to the integrity of the original’ (1996a: 9). Likewise, disavowing any interest in developing a theory of the capitalist state, he describes his task as ‘to construct a general theory of space-relations and geographical development under capitalism that can, among other things, explain the significance and evolution of state functions (local, regional, national, and supranational), uneven geographical development, interregional inequalities, imperialism, the progress and forms of urbanisation and the like. Only in this way can we understand how territorial configurations and class alliances are shaped and reshaped, how territories lose or gain in economic, political, and military power, the external limits on internal state autonomy (including the transition to socialism), or how state power, once constituted, can itself become a barrier to the unencumbered accumulation of capital, or a strategic centre from which class struggle or interimperialist struggles can be waged’ (1985c/2001a: 326-7). Both quotations illustrate Harvey’s recognition of the limits of a purely value-theoretical analysis and the need to explore the totality of internal relations in capitalist societies. But what do such relations involve?

Harvey’s response offers various propositions that stress, inter alia, the primacy of processes and relations over things and structures; the importance of internal contradictions; the importance of external boundaries as well as internal relations; the multiplicity of spaces, times, and space-times; the mutual constitution of parts and wholes; the reversibility of cause and effect within a relational analysis; the grounding of transformative processes in heterogeneity and contradictions; and the universality of change in all systems. These principles also apply to dialectical inquiry itself, which, he writes, is a reflexive, self-potentiating process and must explore possible worlds as well as actually existing worlds (1996a: 49-56).[2]

While there is little harm in using an ontology of internal relations heuristically in the process of discovery, dangers arise if it becomes an all-purpose method of presenting research results at the expense of detailed concern with specific causal mechanisms and dynamics in specific domains. Harvey avoids this risk in his analysis of the value-theoretical dimensions of his critique of capitalism. Thus, although he claims that Capital adopts a dialectical approach based on internal relations, he also gives a more specific account of Marx’s method. He suggests that Marx builds more and more specific versions of his argument to establish the highly differentiated, internally contradictory nature of capital accumulation; and that Marx uses these increasingly specific versions as explanatory devices without ever completing the analysis (1996a: 62-67). The same spirit imbues Harvey’s remark that Limits to Capital ‘seeks to integrate the financial (temporal) and geographical (call it global and spatial) aspects to accumulation within the framework of Marx’s overall argument. It attempts to do so in a holistic rather than segmented way. It provides a systematic link between the basic underlying theory … and the expression of those forces on the ground as mediated through uneven geographical developments and financial operations’ (1999: xix). In these respects Harvey’s approach is remarkably similar to recent critical realist readings of Marx (see, for example, Brown et al., 2001). But when he moves to the extra-economic aspects of the capital relation, Harvey has tended to revert to a more general ontology of internal relations that lacks the same focus on the specific causal mechanisms, pursued at increasingly concrete-complex levels of analysis, that connect the circuits of capital to the wider social formation.

Harvey on Spatial Fixes

Harvey’s ‘trademark’ notion of ‘spatial fix’ is loose and heterogeneous. It is a general term that refers to many different forms of spatial reorganization and geographical expansion that serve to manage, at least for some time, crisis-tendencies inherent in accumulation. Harvey’s first discussed ‘spatial fixes’ at length in an essay on Hegel, von Thünen, and Marx (1981a/2001a). Curiously for one whose studies are generally seen as firmly grounded in Marx’s work and who later stresses the latter’s spatial foundations, Harvey’s essay argues that Marx cast his critique of capitalism in an ‘aspatial mould’ and also separated the economic (market-mediated, profit-oriented) and political (territorially-grounded, power-oriented) aspects of accumulation (1981a/2001a: 308). Harvey is not claiming here that Marx ignored space or the organic connection between economics and politics – only that he did not consider it theoretically appropriate or relevant politically to highlight them. Thus he writes:

‘Marx, though supremely aware of the underlying unity of political and economic affairs as well as of the global dynamics of capitalism, excluded specific consideration of the spatial fix on the grounds that integrating questions of foreign trade, of geographical expansion, and the like, into the theory, merely complicated matters without necessarily adding anything new. Again and again he seeks, as in the chapter on “Colonization”, to close the door to a possibility which Hegel left open. … Marx had little incentive to go beyond depicting the spatial fix as anything other than the violent projection of the contradictions of capitalism onto the world stage. His supreme concern, and contribution in Capital, was to unravel the nature of capitalism’s inner dialectic’ (1981a/2001a: 308; cf. 2000a: 28-30).

Hence Marx’s theory of accumulation was ‘spelled out, for the most part, in purely temporal terms’[3] and neglected the ‘outer transformations of the capital relation’. It was later Marxists (e.g., Bukharin, Lenin, Luxemburg) who reconnected the economic and political in exploring the historical geography of capitalist imperialism (1981a/2001a: 308-9). Harvey follows this later tradition, of course, having long emphasized the propensity of capitalism to lead to violence and war (e.g., 1981a/2001a: 309-310; 1982a: 438-445; 2003d: 64, 80-1). More recently, he has emphasized the distinction, the intertwining, and the potential contradictions between the now familiar globalizing logic of mobile individual capitals operating in continuous space and time and the – less well specified and grounded – territorializing logic of states oriented to imagined collective interests defined in terms of residence within relatively fixed boundaries (2003b: 27-32; see also below). These two logics are most closely articulated (although still contradictory) in the strategies pursued by the current US hegemon because its global economic expansion impels a corresponding expansion of military power as well as political and ‘soft’ ideological capacities to support and protect its economic interests (2003b: 34-36).

Harvey develops two analytically distinct but overlapping perspectives on spatial fixes, each with its own internal complexities. These perspectives correspond to two different types of fix: a more literal fix in the sense of the durable fixation of capital in place in physical form; and a more metaphorical ‘fix’ in the sense of an improvised, temporary solution, based on spatial reorganization and/or spatial strategies, to specific crisis-tendencies in capitalism.[4] Harvey sometimes implies that these also correspond to two types of capitalist transformation: inner and outer. This latter terminology derives from Hegel but Harvey does not define it clearly or consistently. Below I will relate these terms respectively to (a) the internal transformation of capitalism within a given territorial space or economic region marked by a certain structural coherence and (b) its transformation through the export of surplus capital or labour beyond the boundaries of the space or region in which it was generated. Although studies of imperialism often treat this space as a national space, there is no reason to privilege this scale. Thus Harvey also argues that structural coherence is a key feature of regional spaces (see below).

The role of spatial fixes in internal transformation is linked to capital’s expanded reproduction. Harvey stresses the general need for long-term investment in fixed, immobile capital to facilitate the mobility of other capitals and explores how such investments affect locational dynamics. He starts from ‘the interface between transport and communication possibilities on the one hand and locational decisions on the other’ (1985c/2001a: 328). This reflects Marx’s claim that the productive forces of capitalism include the capacity to overcome spatial barriers through investment and innovation in transport and communication (1985c/2001a: 328). This connects to expanded reproduction insofar as capital’s growth imperative leads to market expansion and hence to the need to intensify transport and communication links within and/or beyond a given region (Marx 1970: 351-64; 1973a: 524ff). Such responses reduce the turnover time of industrial capital and accelerate the circulation of commercial and financial capital. Besides the normal role of infrastructural facilities in annihilating space by time and expanding the market, Harvey also addresses their role in buying time through fixed investments in general conditions of production. He notes especially how crisis-tendencies can be overcome in the short- to medium-term through investments that absorb current surplus capital and increase its future productivity and profitability. This involves both senses of ‘fix’. For not only are these typically long-term investments, they also provide a potential escape from crisis via market expansion. This enables ex post validation of these investments as productive forces are upgraded, relative surplus-value is increased, or effective demand grows. Harvey also describes this second, ‘escape’ moment of the internal spatial fix as a temporal displacement (and, occasionally, as a temporal fix) because it involves long-lived physical and social infrastructures (in transport and communications networks and education and research for example) that take many years to return their value to circulation through the productive activity they support (1989b: 182-3; 2003d: 63).[5]

Harvey argues that these attempts to resolve capital’s contradictions through internal transformation reflect the inherent tension between the ‘fixity’ and ‘mobility’ of capital at any given moment and over time. This tension is evident within fixed capital itself (e.g., the mutual presupposition of fixed airports and mobile aircraft), circulating capital (raw materials, semi-finished goods, finished products versus liquid money capital), and the relation between fixed and circulating capital (e.g., commercial centres and commodity flows). It also unfolds over time. For ‘capital has to build a fixed space (or “landscape”) necessary for its own functioning at a certain point in its history only to have to destroy that space (and devalue much of the capital invested therein) at a later point in order to make way for a new “spatial fix” (openings for fresh accumulation in new spaces and territories)’ (2001e: 25; cf. 1996b: 6). Successive rounds of spatial fix are facilitated, of course, by innovation in physical and social infrastructure; but their particular form varies according to whether capital is seeking a spatial fix to overcome overproduction (new markets), to reduce surplus population, to access new materials, to deal with localized overaccumulation (new investment opportunities), etc. (1982a; 2003d). Moreover, fixing capital and labour in the production and maintenance of infrastructure (whether this is undertaken by the state and/or private capital) works only insofar as the remaining capital ‘circulates down spatial paths and over a time-span consistent with the geographical pattern and duration of such commitments’ (1985c/2001a: 332). Overall this means there is ‘no long-run “spatial fix” to capitalism’s internal contradictions’ (1981a/2001a: 307).

This argument enables Harvey to link Marx’s historical and Lenin’s geographical accounts of accumulation (1981a/2001a: 332-3). For it is the role of spatial fixes in the outer transformation of capital that Marx allegedly neglected in his ‘aspatial’ analysis.[6] Harvey suggests that this external fix does have a positive, albeit temporary, role in resolving the tendential overaccumulation of capital and labour-power. Overaccumulation occurs when capital and labour can no longer be re-invested at the average rate of profit (or, worse, any profit) in their originating territory/space. This threatens ‘the devaluation of capital, as money (through inflation), as commodities (through gluts on the market and falling prices), as productive capacity (through idle or under-utilized plant and equipment, physical infrastructures, and the like, culminating in bankruptcy), and the devaluation of labour power (through falling real standards of living of the laborer)’ (1981a/2001a: 300). The export of surplus money capital, surplus commodities, and/or surplus labour-power outside the space(s) where they originate enables capital to avoid, at least for a period, the threat of devaluation. So the necessity of a ‘spatial fix’ derives from ‘capitalism’s insatiable drive to resolve its inner crisis tendencies by geographical expansion and geographical restructuring’ (2001e: 24).

A spatial fix can only be temporary. For the search to escape the contradictions and crisis-tendencies of capitalism through profitable reinvestment of surplus capital elsewhere typically spreads these contradictions and crisis-tendencies and thereby subsequently intensifies them. This holds for all four modes of externalizing contradictions: (a) developing external markets elsewhere in the capitalist world in response to underconsumption; (b) trading with non-capitalist societies to widen markets; (c) exporting surplus capital to establish new production facilities; and (d) expanding the proletariat by separating peasants, artisans, the self-employed, and even some capitalists from control over their respective means of production. Each solution creates its own distinctive problems in balancing the mobility of capital and labour at home and abroad and this generates in turn chronic instability in regional and spatial configurations, from the local level through to the imperialist chain and the world market (1981a/2001a: 304-6; 2001e; 2003b; 2003d)

The Temporal Fix

It is important to distinguish words from concepts. Thus, although Harvey seldom uses the phrase ‘temporal fix’, its concept is implicit in his second-cut theory of capitalist crisis and his recurrent reflections on the temporal displacement of crisis. The absence of the phrase may stem from Harvey’s dismissal, in his early work, of the importance of time. He argued that:

‘viewed abstractly, space … possesses more complex and particularistic properties than time. It is possible to reverse field and move in many different directions in space whereas time simply passes and is irreversible. The metric for space is also less easily standardized. Time or cost of movement over space do not necessarily match each other and both yield different metrics to simple physical distance. Compared with this, the chronometer and the calendar are wondrously simple. Geographical space is always the realm of the concrete and the particular. Is it possible to construct a theory of the concrete and the particular in the context of the universal and abstract determinations of Marx’s theory of capitalist accumulation? This is the fundamental question to be resolved’ (1985c/2001a: 327).

This statement considers only the metrology of time. It seems to imply that time was more complex before chronometers and calendars were invented. If so, the complexity and heterogeneity of modern space-time (or spatio-temporality) would arise from the particularistic spatial overdetermination of an essentially universal time. Yet this fits ill with Harvey’s subsequent recognition that time measurement and command over time are sources of social power (1989b: 226, 252) and with the many particular concrete-complex temporalities that Harvey reveals in later studies (e.g., 1982a, 1989b). These discuss differential turnover times, the spatio-temporality of international currency markets versus long-term projects of environmental transformation, the role of credit in managing uneven development, and the resulting problems for capitalism, if crisis is to be avoided, in ‘establish[ing] mechanisms of “cogredience” or “compossibility” between such radically different processes’ (1996a: 286). He has also written on the heterogeneity of natural time, environmental time, the everyday routines of the individual lifeworld, the rationalized time of monetized relations, and the more general social construction and contestation of times and temporalities (1989b; 1996a; 2002). Moreover, although Harvey once stressed the need to bring space in to compensate for the primacy of time in the dialectic, he later declared that ‘Marx was not necessarily wrong to prioritize time over space. The aim and objective of those engaged in the circulation of capital must be, after all, to command surplus labour time and convert it into profit within the socially-necessary turnover time. From the standpoint of the circulation of capital therefore, space appears in the first instance as a mere inconvenience, a barrier to be overcome’ (1985c/2001a: 327).

This rediscovery of time and temporality as key moments in accumulation is extensively elaborated in Limits. Indeed, one of its major contributions is the concept of socially necessary turnover time and its central role alongside socially necessary labour time. This corresponds to Marx’s grounding of capital accumulation in the ‘economy of time’ and his highly original development of temporal categories to explore its dynamics (Grossman 1977; Postone 1993). This said, when moving beyond questions of socially necessary labour time, Harvey tended in Limits and elsewhere to equate the temporal with the financial and credit aspects of accumulation, the geographical with its global and spatial aspects (1999: xix). This explains his interest in how credit and finance can provide a temporal solution to capital’s crisis-tendencies. It may also explain the temporal aspect in his analysis of spatial fixes based on investments with a long gestation and tunover time. As for the ‘temporal fix’ proper, Harvey’s ‘second cut’ at crisis theory reveals how the credit system can secure a short-term, provisional, contradictory, and eventually crisis-magnifying ‘temporal fix’ for accumulation. This occurs through the articulation of uneven development and differential turnover times, the stock market and securitization, the pseudo-validation of long-term investment through private and/or state credit creation, and, linked to the outer transformation of capitalism, the export of money capital, commodities, or labour-power to compensate for their lack elsewhere (1982a; 2003b: 98-99; 2003d;). Yet, ‘resort to the credit system simultaneously makes territories vulnerable to flows of speculative and fictitious capitals that can both stimulate and undermine capitalist development and even, as in recent years, be used to impose savage devaluations upon vulnerable territories’ (2003d: 67).

There is another sense in which it is important to distinguish words from concepts in relation to Harvey’s analysis of ‘temporal fixes’. For his recent interest in primitive accumulation and his renaming it as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ suggests both a new approach to a temporal fix for a crisis-ridden capitalism; and a new basis for periodization in terms of the primacy of this kind of temporal fix in the latest stage of capitalism imperialism as well as the primacy of financial over industrial capital (cf. 2002a; 2003b; 2003d). The most evident temporal aspects of this particular fix are seen where resources are expropriated once and for all from a ‘commons’ that has been built up over many years and/or where the rate of economic exploitation of a given resource exceeds its natural rate of renewal or the absorptive capacity of the environment (cf. Brennan 2000; Stahel 1999). Analogous processes can be found in the privatization of public utilities, collective consumption, or the expropriation of occupational or public pensions and other funded future welfare entitlements for immediate profit. Although Harvey mentions such private capitalist-initiated and/or state-sponsored forms of dispossession, he does not consider them under the rubric of temporal fix. Yet this could be a fruitful line of investigation.

On Spatio-Temporal Fixes

Many of Harvey’s interests come together in his latest work on the new imperialism. This introduces the notion of ‘spatio-temporal fix’ to explore the forms and periodization of capitalist imperialism and to explain the overall logic of its latest, neo-conservative phase. However, although Harvey has written explicitly about spatio-temporal fixes only recently, he has long emphasized the importance, complexity, and heterogeneity of the spatio-temporalities of contemporary capitalism (1996a: 234-47), the dynamics of time-space distantiation and, especially, albeit initially in a rather mechanistic fashion, of time-space compression (1989b), and the ‘ultimate unity and multiplicity of space-times’ (1996a: 218).[7] All of this requires, claims Harvey, that we ‘identify the modes of translation and transformation from one spatio-temporality to another, paying particular attention to the mediating role of things’ (1996a: 233). [8]

Writing on the ‘new imperialism’, Harvey notes that spatio-temporal fix is ‘a metaphor for solutions to capitalist crises through temporal deferment and geographical expansion’ and involves many different ways to absorb existing capital and labour surpluses’ (2003d: 65; cf. 2003b: 115). The basic idea, he claims, is simple enough:

‘Overaccumulation within a given territorial system means a condition of surpluses of labour (rising unemployment) and surpluses of capital (registered as a glut of commodities on the market that cannot be disposed of without a loss, as idle productive capacity, and/or as surpluses of money capital lacking outlets for productive and profitable investment). Such surpluses may be absorbed by (a) temporal displacement through investment in long-term capital projects or social expenditures (such as education and research) that defer the re-entry of current excess capital values into circulation well into the future, (b) spatial displacements through opening up new markets, new production capacities and new resource, social and labour possibilities elsewhere, or (c) some combination of (a) and (b). The combination of (a) and (b) is particularly important when we focus on fixed capital of an independent kind embedded in the built environment’ (2003d: 64; cf. 2003b: 109).

This passage combines themes from Harvey’s earlier work on temporal and spatial fixes. It does not introduce a distinctive third type of fix that involves more than the sum of its two parts (see, for example, 2003b: 121-4). The new element in this new work is its focus on the long-run periodization of spatio-temporal fixes and their current dynamics as each group of recipients of exported capital is forced in turn to export capital to another set. Thus Harvey now examines international spatio-temporal fixes, provides a threefold periodization of imperialism, highlights the changing structure and dynamics of American capitalism, and explores the USA’s hegemonic role in orchestrating the succession of the last two stages of US hegemony – from what some term postwar ‘embedded liberalism’ based on the primacy of productive capital to an open imperialism based on the primacy of neo-liberal financial capital and characterized by rounds of primitive accumulation through dispossession and a general propensity to war (2003b: 46, 124). And, as in his earlier work, he concludes that ‘such geographical expansions, reorganizations and reconstructions often threaten … the values fixed in place but not yet realized. Vast quantities of capital fixed in place act as a drag upon the search for a spatial fix elsewhere’ (2003d: 66; cf. 2003b: 100).

Spatio-Temporal Fix, Regional Structured Coherence, and the National Scale

Just as Harvey does not use the phrase ‘temporal fix’ but nonetheless introduces the concept in his second-cut theory of crisis, his earlier work develops an implicit concept of spatio-temporal fix that is more than the sum of spatial and temporal fixes. This is clearest in his use of the concept of ‘structured coherence’ adopted by Philippe Aydalot (1976). He introduces this notion as follows:

‘There are processes at work … that define regional spaces within which production and consumption, supply and demand (for commodities and labour power), production and realization, class struggle and accumulation, culture and lifestyle, hang together as some kind of structured coherence within a totality of productive forces and social relations’ (1985c/2001a: 329; cf. 2003b: 101-3).

Harvey suggests four possible bases for such bounded regional spaces: first, the space in which capital can circulate without the cost and time of movement coming to exceed the potential for profit tied to a given socially-necessary turnover time; second, the space within which labour power can be substituted on a daily basis – the commuter range defined by cost and time of daily labour movement; third, the formal territory towards which local, regional, or national states orient their economic and extra-economic policies to produce coherence and cohesion; and, fourth, the informal territory invested with meaning and identity by local or regional cultures (1985c/2001a: 328-9). He adds that such structured coherence provides the basis for defensive regional class alliances, loosely bounded within a territory and usually (though not exclusively or uniquely) organized through the state. These alliances emerge to defend regional values and coherence and to promote them too through the provision of new economic and extra-economic conditions favourable to further accumulation (1985c/2001a: 333). Nonetheless, for reasons rooted in underlying crisis-tendencies, in the increasing porosity of boundaries as new spatial fixes are sought, in the continued logic of capitalist restructuring, and in the potentially explosive nature of class and factional divisions, regional class alliances are bound to be unstable (1985c/2001a: 329-30, 336-9). Harvey concludes that ‘[t]he persistence of any kind of structured regional coherence, in the face of such powerful forces, appears surprising’ (1985c/2001a: 330; cf. 1989a: 147, 150-2).

Harvey has since elaborated the state’s key role in shaping structured coherence and regional alliances. He attributes this to its distinctive concern with territory and territorial integrity, its capacity to impose relatively firm boundaries on otherwise porous and unstable geographical edges, its wide range of fisco-financial and regulatory powers, and its authority to shape regional class alliances through various mechanisms of government and governance. The state thereby actively promotes and sustains the structured regional coherence that emerges from capitalist dynamics and gives it a political as well as economic character (1985c/2001a: 334; 2003b: 105-6). But this capacity is also closely linked to the rise, consolidation, and strategic capacities of regional ruling-class alliances (1989a; 2003b: 105). This implies that structured coherence results as much from political and cultural processes as from an economic dynamic – a point made explicit in New Imperialism (2003b: 102-3).

While this account focuses on the regional scale, elsewhere Harvey examines the national scale and the national state. He argues that the state, like capital, is a social relation and emerges historically to control a society split into irreconcilable class antagonisms. He then develops a form-determined theory of the capitalist type of state, derives its distinctive functions in and for capitalism, emphasizes the contradictions and limitations of liberal bourgeois democracy, and explains the ruling class’s preference for governing – as far as possible – through hegemony (see 1976a). These ideas re-appear in Limits but are supplemented by Harvey’s recognition that institutions vital to capitalist reproduction (such as the central bank) are separated from those concerned with reproducing the labourer and labour power; and that state institutions must attain a certain unity if society as a whole is to be reproduced. This raises questions about the displacement of class struggle from the point of production to the political and ideological class struggle to control the state apparatus and its policies (1982a: 449)

In this context Harvey prioritizes the national rather than regional scale. The same priority appears later, when he writes that ‘the political power to act, decide upon socio-ecological projects and to regulate their unintended consequences has also to be defined at a certain scale (and in the contemporary world the nation states mostly carved out over the last hundred years maintain a privileged position even though they make no necessary politico-ideological sense)’ (1996a: 204). It is unclear, however, why the national scale is so important. For, as Harvey himself notes, ‘if … there are no basic units to which everything can be reduced, then the choice of scale at which to examine processes becomes both crucial and problematic. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the temporal and spatial scales at which human beings operate have also been changing. … there is an instability in the definition of scale which arises out of practices of capital accumulation, commodity exchange, and the like’ (1996a: 203). In noting this problem, Harvey invites us to consider other approaches to spatio-temporal fixes.

The Capitalist and Territorial Logics of Power

While Harvey’s New Imperialism involves an incremental extension of his work on spatial, temporal, and spatio-temporal fixes and re-affirms his arguments about the structured coherence of regions (and regionality), it also tries to develop a novel theory of capitalist imperialism based on the interweaving of the familiar capitalist logic of power and the ‘territorial logic of power’. In contrast to the systematic movement from abstract-simple to concrete-complex in his analysis of the capitalist logic of accumulation, however, his analysis of territorial logic switches between generic transhistorical and particular conjunctural statements. Thus Harvey presents only a few simple ad hoc generalizations about the territorialization of political power and the general politics of states and empires. Insofar as he identifies any distinctive features of this territorial logic outside the framework of the capitalist state, they concern the self-interest of state managers and politicians, particular styles of nation-building and governance, rivalry over strategic geo-political resources (such as oil), or a Mackinder-esque struggle for control of the Eurasian heartland (2003b: 19-20, 23-5, 27, 44, 85, 183-4, 198, 209). In practice he focuses on the overdetermined territorial logic (and strategies) of capitalist states in their inner (domestic) and outer (inter-state) dimensions and, indeed, takes such states for granted when analyzing the capitalist logic of power (2003b: 93). And, while he does refer in passing to the path-dependent effects of the historical development of states in capitalist societies (2003b: 91-2, 183-4), Harvey nowhere addresses the problematic relationship between these political trajectories and states’ capacities to function as a normal capitalist state. Instead he moves directly to specific statements about the relative importance of the historically specific capitalist and the generic territorial logics of power in particular periods, stages, or phases of capitalist imperialism. This means that his account of territorial logic is already over-determined by the logic of capital rather than unfolded in pure geo-political terms before it is articulated with that logic.

The basic steps in Harvey’s argument can be reconstructed as follows:

  1. “Power” (an undefined primitive term in this analysis) can be accumulated through a territorial or capitalist logic. These logics are variously described as distinct, intersecting, intertwined, correlated, interdependent, internally related, dialectically related, primary or secondary in relation to each other, complementary, mutually constraining, mutually frustrating, contradictory, antagonistic, or even mutually reinforcing in with potentially catastrophic results (2003b: 27, 29ff, 33, 89, 103-4, 140, 183-4, 204).
  2. Whereas the state is based in the first instance on the territorial logic of political, diplomatic, and military power oriented to fixed territorial boundaries; capitalism is based in the first instance on the spatial logic of [economic] power that flows across and through continuous space and time.
  3. Each logic generates contradictions that must be contained by the other. This results in a spiral movement as contradictions are displaced from one logic to the other in a continuing process of mutual adjustment and reaction. This is reflected in different forms and dynamics of uneven geographical development, geopolitical struggles, and imperialist politics.
  4. Imperialism refers to inter-state relations and acquires a distinctively capitalist form once the logic of capital accumulation dominates economic organization. For Harvey, capitalist imperialism can be understood by ‘invoking a double dialectic of, first, the territorial and capitalist logics of power and, secondly, the inner and outer relations of the capitalist state’ (2003b: 183-4).
  5. There are different forms of capitalist imperialism depending on the relative primacy of the capitalist or territorial logics of power in the dialectical fusion of the strategic politics of control over territory and the molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time (2003b: 26). It is false to assume that ‘political-economic processes are guided by the strategies of state and empire and that states and empires always operate out of capitalistic motivations’ (2003b: 29). Instead there are potential tensions, disjunctions, contradictions, or even antagonisms between these logics. If the territorial logic blocks the logic of capital, there is a risk of economic crisis; if capitalist logic undermines territorial logic, there is a risk of political crisis (2003b: 140).

A more detailed presentation of the analytically distinct but contrasting logics of power is presented in Table 1, which systematizes as far as possible diverse remarks presented in New Imperialism.


F-2005c-Castree-harvey-table1Table 1: The Capitalist and Territorial Logics of Power

Harvey alludes to these contrasting logics in his largely ‘thickly descriptive’ – but often confusingly dense – division of capitalist imperialism into three periods, argues that a disjunction between these logics between the two World Wars led to the economic and political catastrophes that unfolded in this period, explores them more fully in his analysis of the contrasting logics of neo-liberal and neo-conservative imperialism, and exploits them most in his account of the internal contradictions of this latest phase of American imperialism as a global project (respectively, 2003b: 42-74, 140-1, 69, 204-5ff). He also suggests that these logics can also be seen in strategic terms, as elements in imperialist and sub-imperialist strategies, as elements in sub- and counter-hegemonic state strategies to resist imperialism, and as tactical elements in regional and/or middle and working class resistance to predatory capital (2003b: 82-3, 185-6, 188-9, 202). Of particular interest here are his remarks on American efforts to weaken the EU both as a potential hegemonic bloc oriented to a capitalist logic and as a potential ‘Fortress Europe’ oriented to a territorial logic of power through the use of NATO as a distinct apparatus for the exercise of military (territorial) power that remains under US control (2003b: 82-3).

Overall, then, Harvey’s recent attempt to integrate the territorial logic of power into his analyses of capitalism remains underdeveloped and pre-theoretical. The asymmetrical conceptual development of the two logics leads him to privilege the capitalist logic of power in both his theoretical and empirical analyses. Indeed he explicitly states that capitalist imperialism is typically associated with the primacy of this capitalist logic but does not explain why this is the case. He therefore prioritizes the long-term logic of capital – with attempts by state managers, subaltern fractions of capital, and/or subordinate classes to promote a relatively autonomous territorial logic, whether offensively or defensively, leading to ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ states, to potential economic catastrophes within imperial or sub-imperial blocs, or to economic marginalization. This contradicts Harvey’s own aspiration that ‘concrete analyses of actual situations … keep the two sides of this dialectic simultaneously in motion and not to lapse into either a solely political or a predominantly economic mode of argumentation’ (2003b: 30). Perhaps this aspiration could have been realized if he had combined his value-theoretical interest in spatial, temporal, and spatio-temporal fixes with a more state-theoretical interest in the ‘territorial fixes’ that might enable the territorial logic of power to constrain the tendential ecological dominance of the logic of capital by restricting the scope of its operation within definite boundaries and so limiting the full realization of the capitalist world market (Jessop 2002:24-8).

An Alternative Approach

Harvey’s approach to capitalist temporality and spatiality can be criticized on three grounds. First, while noting that they operate at the same time, for many years he treated temporal and spatial fixes as distinct or else combined them in an additive rather than interactive manner. This is especially clear in Limits and involves more than the order of presentation. For the two fixes are presented as resolving different crisis-tendencies. And, while spatial fixes are said to displace and defer the contradictions produced by temporal fixes, the latter seem to have no role in displacing or deferring the contradictions of spatial fixes.[9] It would have been better to analyse the spatio-temporal complexities of both fixes. For the credit mechanism is inextricably spatial as well as temporal because it is linked to spatially specific circuits rooted in the tension between national money and international currency. Further, as Harvey notes, the distinction between fixed and circulating capital involves temporal as well as functional issues. The mutual implication of spatiality and temporality in these fixes is much clearer in his more recent work.

Second, Harvey’s account of spatial fixes in expanded reproduction focuses on just one of capital’s interrelated economic contradictions. This concerns productive capital’s alternating ‘modes of being’ as concrete stock of time- and place-specific assets in the course of valorization and as abstract value in motion (notably as realized profits available for re-investment).[10] Although Harvey refers to temporal problems regarding both modes of being, the solution he identifies is spatial. It involves, as we have seen, a dialectic of fixity and mobility in the circuit of capital. Localized geographical landscapes of long-term infrastructural investments (of place relations, territorial organization, and inter-linked places) are produced only to be destroyed later and then rebuilt to accommodate a new dynamic of accumulation (1996b: 6). This underplays the importance of other economic contradictions, each of which has its own spatio-temporal aspects and associated dilemmas (Jessop 2002: 19-22). These are more significant in Harvey’s account of the role of spatial fixes in crisis-management and crisis-displacement as capital is switched from one place, space, or sector to another. A coherent spatio-temporal fix must reflect all aspects of capital’s spatio-temporal contradictions both in regard to ‘normal’ periods of expanded reproduction and to more or less prolonged moments of crisis.

Third, Harvey’s analysis of temporal and spatial fixes is primarily value-theoretical. There is little explicit concern with the explanatory limitations of economic categories and, despite his emphasis on ‘internal relations’, the extra-economic dimensions of the capital relation generally enter only in his more expansive and historically specific analyses (e.g., on successive spatial and/or temporal fixes in Paris) and/or in a relatively ad hoc manner. Thus the clearest examples of Harvey’s interest in the articulation of the economic and extra-economic occur in his analyses of structured coherence (especially in the context of urbanism), the state’s form and functions, and imperialism. Like Marx, he emphasizes that capital’s economic laws are historically specific and mediated through class struggles; that the state is crucial in securing conditions for capital accumulation; and stresses that the development of class consciousness and class action is deeply problematic. But Marx also considered the capitalist mode of production to be political as well as economic (Krätke 1998a). This can be seen in Marx’s planned ‘Weiterentwicklung der Theorie’ (1847), which promised a critique of the political economy of the state that would focus on ‘taxes as the essence of the state, economically expressed’; and from his intention that Capital should include a book on the state. Economic laws are definitely not un- or apolitical, then, but always profoundly political (cf. Théret 1992).

This is not surprising. For one cannot adequately determine the elementary categories of the capitalist mode of production – commodity, money, exchange, wage, capital – without including the distinctive forms of modern politics and the capitalist type of state. In particular, the basic economic forms of the state (taxes, the national money, state credit, state spending, etc.) are also juridio-political forms; the state has a constitutive role in capital’s economic forms and organizing the circuits of capital, including production as well as credit (cf. Harvey 1982a: 281-2, 306-12, 321); and the state’s own economic activities are conducted under the primacy of the political, i.e., the importance of maintaining social cohesion in a class-divided society (Poulantzas 1979). This introduces an inescapable political dimension into the historical materialist critique of capitalism. This holds not only for individual states, of course, but also for the interstate system (Rosenberg 1994). In short, ‘politics’ is an immanent necessity for every capitalist economy, without which the latter could not appear as a ‘closed’ and self-reproducing system (Krätke 1989b: 153). Moreover, according to Limits, once the frontiers for ‘normal’ primitive accumulation were closed in the late 19th century, inter-state wars became a new form of primitive accumulation and the ultimate means of devaluation when ‘normal’, market-mediated, and profit-oriented competition became ineffective (1982a: 445).[11]

To understand the political character of the capital relation as an articulation of the economic and the extra-economic, we must ask why market forces alone cannot reproduce capitalism. The answer lies in three aspects of the indeterminate but antagonistic nature of capitalism. First, there is capital’s inherent incapacity to reproduce itself wholly through the value form in a self-expanding logic of commodification. This is linked to the fictitious nature of land, money, and, above all, labour-power as commodities and the dependence of accumulation on various non-commodity forms of social relations. Second, more concretely, these problems are reinforced by the structural contradictions and strategic dilemmas inherent in the capital relation and their changing articulation and forms of appearance. And, third, conflicts occur over the regularization and/or governance of these contradictions and dilemmas through a variable mix of temporal fixes, spatial fixes, spatio-temporal fixes, and institutionalized compromises that help to stabilize, albeit provisionally, the circuit of capital and wider social formation (Jessop 2002).

In short, there is no single best way to regularize accumulation in the long term. Instead, various second-best solutions emerge as different accumulation regimes, modes of regulation, and associated compromises get institutionalized. These compensate partially for the incompleteness of the pure capital relation and give it a specific dynamic through the linkage between its economic and extra-economic elements. This permits an alternative reading of spatio-temporal fixes. A spatio-temporal fix resolves, partially and provisionally at best, the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in capitalism by establishing spatial and temporal boundaries within which a relatively durable pattern of ‘structured coherence’ can be secured and by shifting certain costs of securing this coherence beyond these spatial and temporal boundaries. This sort of spatio-temporal fix displaces and defers contradictions both within a given economic space and/or political territory and beyond it. It also involves an internal as well as external differentiation of winners and losers from a particular fix, linked to the uneven social and spatial distribution of benefits from a given fix and to its associated uneven development. An adequate account of such spatio-temporal fixes must consider their extra-economic as well as their value-theoretical dimensions. Without the former the analysis of spatio-temporal fixes would degenerate into a reified and largely economistic analysis of the logic of capital; without the latter, it would degenerate into a ’soft’ economic and political sociology. Harvey gives us many useful concepts to resist the latter temptations – witness his value-theoretical insights into time-space compression and flexible accumulation in an emerging post-Fordism (1989b: 121-97 and passim). But he has not explored capitalism’s extra-economic dimensions at the same high levels of abstraction and to the same extent as its economic dimensions nor shown convincingly how they belong to the essential ’internal relations’ of capitalist societies. Some contributors to the regulation approach, with which Harvey coquetted briefly in Condition of Post-Modernity, have attempted these tasks – albeit often at the cost of abandoning value-theoretical issues and with sometimes disappointing overall results, which may explain why Harvey did not take this flirtation further. In short, compared to developing the more stratified and asymmetrical ontologies found in critical realist readings of Marx (cf. Brown et al., 2001; see also Sayer 1995), there are serious limitations to what is often a banale and tautological emphasis on internal relations and/or a focus on general institutional linkages. Nor has Harvey addressed the forms of spatio-temporal fix in different stages or forms of accumulation or their links to institutionalized class compromise or modes of regulation. For, while he gives examples of spatial and temporal fixes from different stages of capitalism, he does not see different scales or temporal horizons as being more or less important in particular periods or forms of capitalism.

This does not exclude future integration of these issues into Harvey’s work. Indeed, he has already hinted at elements of this wider and deeper understanding of spatio-temporal fixes. Thus he discusses the importance of the specific ‘time-space frameworks’ in which accumulation occurs (1982a: 236). He notes that the ‘third cut’ crisis theory assumes the co-existence of relatively closed, self-contained regions and more open spaces beyond their borders that offer opportunities for crisis-management or displacement and can be turned, within limits, into their ‘appendages’ (1982a: 427). And, introducing the reprint of Limits, he notes:

‘Crises have no existence outside the matrix of spatio-temporalities that capitalism itself creates. Crises are as much about reconfiguring the spatio-temporal form of class relations (through all manner of stressful adjustments) as about the internal class contradictions of capitalism specified in some absolute and immutable space and time’ (1999: xiv).

Relevant spatial factors in these matrices include place-based social relations, the built environment, land markets, the rural-urban division of labour, urban hierarchies, locational policies, the territorialization of political power, and attempts to manage uneven geographical development. Harvey also refers to temporal aspects, such as fixed capital and consumpton funds, the rhythms of everyday life (including the domestic sphere, individual and collective consumption), social reproduction, and the dynamics of class struggle. The resulting time-space frameworks (or, in my terms, spatio-temporal fixes) are inevitably political as well as economic and have a key role in displacing, deferring, and defusing crisis-tendencies and contradictions. They are also strategically selective, i.e., some classes, class fractions, social categories, or other social forces located within these spatio-temporal boundaries are marginalized, excluded, or subject to coercion. Beyond these boundaries the course of accumulation is more chaotic and anarchic, lacks structured coherence, and proves more disruptive and exploitative as particular capitals (or their states) seek to transform external spaces into useful appendages. The overall course of accumulation depends on the complementarity (or not) of different solutions within the world market and the extent to which the resulting uneven geographical (and temporal) developments provoke increasing opposition and resistance (1982a: 427).


This chapter has explored Harvey’s arguments on time and space, temporal and spatial fixes, spatio-temporal fixes and structured coherence. These are integral to his rich elaboration of Marx’s method and its application to accumulation and they play a key role in his brilliant analyses of: (1) the money form and its various contradictions; (2) the credit form, the temporal fix of accumulation, and financial crises; (3) the partial, temporary spatial fixes of accumulation as capital seeks to resolve crises through geographical expansion, uneven geographical development, and switching into new investments; and (4) the linkages among crisis tendencies, the conflicts between capital in general and individual capitals, the class struggle, and competition. Nonetheless his work on these issues is limited by a one-sided, value-theoretical analysis of the capital relation to the frequent neglect of its extra-economic dimensions. Moreover, where it does go beyond a purely value-theoretical analysis, his work is strongly influenced by a general Marxian ontology of internal relations and a strong commitment to the capitalist nature of social formations considered as totalities. This means that Harvey has no systematic conception of a ‘constitutive outside’ of capital as a social relation (with all the problems that this poses for securing the extra-economic as well as economic conditions necessary to capital’s expanded reproduction) or of modes of societalization that might challenge the dominance of self-valorization in contemporary social formations. New Imperialism does contain one half-ironic reference to constitutive outsides (2003b: 141) and also provides some pre-theoretical comments on the territorial logic of power as an alternative mode of societalization. But Harvey does not develop these comments systematically. I suggest that an alternative account of spatio-temporal fixes and the introduction of arguments about the tendential ecological dominance of the logic of capital can help redress his one-sided emphasis on the value-theoretical analysis of capitalism, his neglect of the inherent incompleteness of capitalist social formations and alternative modes of societalization, and his failure to theorize why the logic of capital nonetheless tends to prevail in certain historical conditions. Nonetheless, as careful readers will have noted, my preferred account of spatio-temporal fix extends and amplifies Harvey’s account and is, I would argue, consistent with its general line of development to date.


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[1] I owe this argument to Derek Gregory, personal communication, 26 November 2003. He and Noel Castree provided other excellent comments too. The usual disclaimers apply.

[2] Social Justice and the City includes a less developed but broadly similar account of internal relations (1973: 287-96).

[3] It is unclear whether this claim should be read teleologically and/or financially, i.e., as concerning the inevitable future of capitalism and/or describing the role of credit in providing a temporal fix for accumulation.

[4] Although Harvey first identifies this double meaning in exploring the new imperialism (2003b: 115; 2003d: 65-6), it is implicit in his 1981 discussion of the spatial fix inspired by Hegel, von Thünen, and Marx and several later works.

[5] This indicates either confusion in the notion of ‘spatial fix’ or the inherent spatio-temporality of all resolutions of capital’s crisis-tendencies.

[6] Given Marx’s many references to space, place, and scale in the Grundrisse and Capital, this is the only reading that makes sense of this criticism.

[7] In New Imperialism, Harvey even claims that, ‘beginning more than twenty years ago, I proposed a theory of a “spatial fix” (more accurately a spatio-temporal fix) to the crisis-prone inner contradictions of capital accumulation’ (2003b: 87). This claim to a long-standing interest in spatio-temporal fixes is double-edged because it minimizes the novelty of his subsequent theoretical arguments.

[8] Marx writes that ‘capital is capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things’ (1974: 717).

[9] This is implied in the movement from the first to the second cut theory of crisis.

[10] Given the continuing, spiral development of Marxist analysis, this is not problematic in itself: non-value aspects of spatial fixes could be integrated later.

[11] Harvey now writes that primitive accumulation, renamed ‘accumulation by dispossession’, is a permanent but fluctuating feature of capitalism (2003b, 2003d).

2 thoughts on “Spatial Fixes, Temporal Fixes, and Spatio-Temporal Fixes

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