Sunday, February 24, 2008

Richard Peet---Geography against neo-liberalism

This is an interview I had with Prof. Richard Peet at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai, when we met during the International Conference on Critical Geography in December, 2007, which no one wanted to publish.

Prof. Richard Peet is a well-known Marxist Geographer. He has a B.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics, an MA from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He works in the Clark University in the United States. His areas of interest include: social and economic geography, political ecology, liberation ecology, development theory, geography of consciousness and rationality, philosophy and social theory, iconography, semiotics, and critical policy studies. He has published several popular books including Geography of Power, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO, Liberation Ecology and Theories of Development (with Elaine Hartwick). A very friendly and sensitive individual, he speaks with a lot of passion especially when he talks about poverty and neo-liberalism. He was recently at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai, to participate in the 5th International Conference on Critical Geography. In this interview that was started in Mumbai and completed through e-mail, Prof. Peet speaks about poverty in India, neo-liberalism, the Indian left and so on.

Q: Prof. Richard Peet, Welcome to India. Is this the first time you are visiting India?

A: Yes, it is. I have been in India only five days.

Q: How do you find India?

A: India has made a deep impression on me. I have never seen the depth or extent of poverty I have seen here anywhere in the world. I have visited many poor countries, and lived in such countries, as for example South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world. But nowhere have I seen so much poverty. I was in Delhi before I came to Mumbai, and one moment stands out. When traveling in Delhi by car, beggars come up to you when you stop anywhere, especially when they see a white person. This has happened many times. But one moment stands out. A little girl, about 5 years old, came begging in the usual practiced way, mournful face, hand pointing to mouth, and
everybody rejected her. I did too. She was talking to herself as she went from car to car. She has lost her childhood in this way. I was thinking what it must be like for a child to grow up being rejected a thousand times a day, instead of being re-inforced, told she is wonderful, hugged and kissed by her Mum and Dad. That night I called my wife and tried to tell her about this. I could not complete the conversation because I became so emotional. And here in Mumbai, along the road, little naked kids play inches away from trucks, cars, taxis. I even saw a couple of boys flying a home-made kite over the traffic. What a mess. India needs hundreds of millions of new houses, with good services, in pleasant places, so its children can grow up ... happily.

Q: That leads to a very important question. Why do you think, after sixty years of independence, we have failed to effectively address the question of poverty?

A: I think it failed because the development model that has been used has been totally inadequate in meeting the problem. What we need is to be able to generate a large number of productive jobs, you know, to make most of the people productive in society making useful goods and useful services. There were some indications of that in the early days when there was still some degree of socialist commitment in India. But that has dissipated. And now we have the neo-liberal model but it's never going to do it. That model will never be able to produce the number of jobs necessary to end poverty. Even China, which has been supposedly successful using this development model for the last fifteen years, is ridden with inequalities to the extent that, even in difficult circumstances, there are eighty thousand major protests each year. And protesters in China are not only beaten with the cane, as with India, but also imprisoned, tortured and shot for taking part in those demonstrations. So even the most successful case of using the neoliberal model has produced that level of inequality. It just shows the whole neo-liberal model to be completely inadequate to solving the kinds of problems faced by the masses, the peasants and workers in China, India and elsewhere in the Third World.

Q: We are standing in Mumbai, which is possibly the most industrialised city in India. But we find abject poverty also here, with people living even inside concrete pipes meant for drainage. Why does this happen?

A: It is because this model deliberately siphons income to super rich people. It disguises this by saying: "Look, to develop we need people to invest. For investment to happen we need people with money. So rich people should have large incomes in order to raise capital. They are the people who are going to invest and create jobs.'' This is a corrupt idea. Rich people may or may not invest, may or may not keep their money in India, and so on. There is nothing that forces them to invest in productive jobs for people. They can invest in movie production, they can gamble on the international market, all they want to do is make a profit. So siphoning income to super rich people is a totally inadequate way of producing jobs for the masses. What you need instead is more a bottom-up model of development, where you subsidize co-operative production, small scale production, medium size industries, where you have land reform to enable the peasants there to use their surplus in increasing
productivity capacity. And in the end what you get is a more productive agriculture leading to smaller scale industrialisation, the two sectors interchanging goods with each other. To generate an internal field of this kind of productive exchange you need protection against competition from the global market, at least for a while. Economics emphasizes competitive efficiency far too much. The more important thing is for the economy to produce jobs that bring
income and dignity. "Efficiency'' needs rephrasing to mean efficiency in generating income for poor people.

Q: As you said, there was a socialist approach in the initial days after the independence. The left was very strong then, though not in a position to influence the government since the ruling party had a large majority. But now the left is split into several parties. And some people believe that the split has actually helped its growth. What do you think about that?

A: I think you can have very productive discussions among people in the left that do not splinter the left. It's difficult I know. But in the case of dialogue among the far too many Communist parties in India, we have to remember that Marxism is not some dogmatic doctrine that forces you to think along a certain line, though it is often interpreted to be exactly that---as though its been learned by heart, through class recital. It is a way of thinking creatively on behalf of the working class. If you are an intellectual, you are well educated, you can think generally, you can think theoretically, then you should be using that capacity to think on behalf of the people. Not that you just impose your views on people. But you take their ideas and help restate them in a more theoretical and general way. Then, of course, you have lots of discourse among people who hold different kinds of opinion. Because all these ideas are extremely creative. But don't let that split the left. There is a difference between discussion and splitting into factions. Splitting is just selfishness.

Q: We find the left parties coming out and saying something like "We made a mistake when we did that. We admit our mistakes.'' This is good, in a way, that they admit mistakes. But this seems to happen rather frequently. They seem to continue to make mistakes. One would have expected them to learn from the mistakes and take care not to make new mistakes.

A: You would think that the left is the most pretentious, egocentric and split-prone group of people in the whole world! All that they want to do is split and form splinter parties. This has always been a problem, it seems almost to be a natural characteristic of the left. However, we can learn from the past, without being imprisoned by it. The differences among left parties are insignificant in comparison with the tasks faced by the left, by anyone who has a conscience, in India. This country is ready to explode! You cannot have such a degree of inequality in a country without having major uprisings. Be the spokesman of those people, say it eloquently, concentrate on your real enemies, don't dissipate energy on inter-factional in-fighting.

Q: Yes, it is a wonder that, with so much disparity, this place has not exploded.

A: Neo liberalism is actually a very effective ideology. Somehow it gets people to think that maybe they can be one of them, one of the rich and powerful. A lot of new capitalists have come up. But it does provide also a very nice entertainment system---I have never in my life seen more people dancing on TV. So the misery of the masses is reflected at the utter opposite pole in the super happiness of the movie idol. I have never seen an entertainment system that is more opposite to the conditions faced by the majority of the population than I have witnessed in India.

Q: It sometimes appears that the left has vacated spaces that one would think should have been naturally theirs. The first thing that comes to my mind is the environment movement that the left rejected as a conspiracy of the developed countries. Some of the environmentalists were even branded as CIA agents.

A: Let us take the environment movement. I was a socialist when I heard the first environmental discourse. I thought it was a diversion, you know, from the main issues of class, power, poverty etc. I didn't realize the connection between capitalism and the destruction of nature and I didn't know the extent to which the damage has already been done, to the point of being irreversible. Climate change is a massive transformation in the natural system. Even now, with the
little bits of realisation we've achieved experiencing "natural catastrophes'', we go on doing the damage. Even when people realize what they are doing to nature, they still consume and produce in careless ways. This resembles some kind of mass suicide which says, "I know I am destroying nature, but let me get my bit in first''.

Q: Interestingly, our conversation almost appears like a conversation with an economist or a politician. However, you are a geographer. You have also written that you do take a definite political stand when you teach geography. We understand geography as something related to the surface of the Earth, distribution of people and so on. How is politics involved in this?

A: I think, write and teach as a social scientist not encumbered by disciplinary limits. But I emphasize issues of space and nature more than, say, an economist. For example, my recent book Geography of Power looks at concentrations of power in hegemonic global cities and the outward diffusion of power as policies, the re-shaping of these in sub-hegemonic centers, like New Delhi, and the interactions among different power centers, as with Mumbai (financial power) and Delhi (political power center).

Q: We are now in the middle of a conference on Critical Geography. Most people have little idea about this subject. Can you please explain what Critical Geography is?

A: Once you understand what Geography is---for example, the study of power in global space---the notion of a critical geography becomes easy to realize. We are critical of the existing globalization. We want a different kind of globalization. We stand for the oppressed in this globalization. We want to help in a political process that might be summarized as; "Poor people of the World, Unite ... you have nothing to loose except your Chains''.

Q: Can you say something about how popular is Critical Geography in the US and in other countries?

A: We call it radical geography, and it appeals to students and the public on a wide scale. In the US, students have a lot of freedom to take classes that they are interested in, rather than just courses that are prescribed. They come to radical geography en masse, and leave ... changed for ever.

Q You have written that you take a Leftist stance when you critique geography in your classroom. I would imagine that you would have to face quite a bit of criticism in the US for doing that. Have you faced problems because of your Leftist ideology?

A: Not really in the sense of censorship. I say what I want, in and out of the lecture theater. The students protect me. Where they get you is by not awarding grants to openly Marxist faculty, not appointing you to endowed ``chairs'', not giving you pay raises. But who cares? Contributing to the global struggle is satisfying at a level far above these petty punishments. We live our lives saying interesting things to interested people. They live their lives doing
petty things, going to boring meetings, writing memos, reading trivial texts, and so on. I feel sorry for administrators, for powerful people in general. They have no meaning in their lives.

Q: Hope you will be coming to India again, sooner rather than later. Are you thinking of any work in India?

A: I'm going to write a couple of things based on my experiences here, and I will send you copies. I will return if I'm invited.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribute No Derivatives 3.0 Licence. The article may be published in any media provided this note is also included. To view a copy of this licence, visit


Unknown said...

Dear Sir, Great post on Peet. I am surprised to see that you did a complete interview with him. I read his three volumes on Modern Trends in Geography (Richard Peet & Nigel Thrift) and had been a great fan of his. Though have some criticisms on his defenitions of marxism and the way he aligns it with geography as a thought of human-nature interaction. Classically, marxism is the science of all sciences as it is the only philosophy that translates science as a way of living, adhering to objective realities and varified truths. I often felt that he misses this position. I may be wrong, but I never had the guts to email him with a set of notes that I made long back on his books.

More over I am elated to know that a physicist found meaning in interviewing a geographer.

V. Sasi Kumar said...

Dear Sekhar,

Thanks for your comment. I am happy that one person found this interview interesting enough to write a comment. I found that Dr. Peet was a great humanist who speaks with a lot of passion when it comes to poverty and development, whatever his views on Marxism. Incidentally, this interview was refused by a so-called national magazine that has a left-leaning and by a Malayalam magazine of repute. Thanks again, for writing.

Anonymous said...

Here's another comment then, so that there is at least more than one, for this very worthwhile piece: Thank you. I enjoyed the frank conversation with Dr. Peet very much and I appreciate your posting it here (especially since it was not embraced by a publisher). I agree with Sekhar--great post.
Again, many thanks.

Unknown said...

Dear Sasi Kumar
Never too late to post a comment, I believe.The 2007 Seminar on Critical geography was enlightening on many counts.Your interview with Peet is very interesting- also because of the fact that the need to see geographic understanding politically is still new to many- because we are fed with mountain- river names as Geography. The significance of space is social and political, not just physical.I'll find your piece useful to be discussed with students.
Yemuna Sunny