Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory

Ladies and gentlemen, today we are going to tackle some theoretical history.

David Harvey is a brilliant geographer who has written numerous books that I highly recommend, including A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) and The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010).

One of his early articles, “Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the problem of Ghetto Formation,” was groundbreaking when it was first published in 1972.  Today it still serves as a brilliant approach to framing theories in a historical context.

You can read the whole article here:

In his paper, Harvey explains that revolutionary theory comes about when the current paradigm – “generally accepted concepts, categories, relationships and methods” (2) – no longer adequately explains observable phenomena.  For example, two scientists “discovered” oxygen within three years of each other in the last 1700s.  One, Priestley, “interpret[ed] his results in terms of the old phlogiston theory and therefore called his discover ‘dephlogisticated air’” (4).  However the other scientist, Lavoisier, “recognized that his discovery could not be reconciled with the old phlogiston theory as  it was and, as a consequence, was able to reconstruct the theoretical framework of chemistry on a completely new basis” (4).

Harvey uses Keynes’ economic theories as an example of revolutionary theory in the social sciences.  Pre-Keynesian economics could not explain the most pressing problem of the 1930’s: unemployment.  As a result, Keynes’ theories provided another framework that revolutionized government policies.

Counter-revolutionary theory, on the other hand, is a technique employed by those in power to maintain the current system.  In Harvey’s words, “a counter-revolutionary theory is one which is deliberately proposed to deal with a proposed revolutionary theory in such a manner that the threatened social changes which general acceptance of the revolutionary theory would generate, are, either by cooptation or subversion, prevented from being realized” (4).

Why do I bring this up?

Sometimes I feel like NGO work is counter-revolutionary.

In my opinion, the current globalized, neoliberal economic and political system is unjust.  It needs to be completely overhauled.  But that seems like too big a task to undertake.  As result, I – like many others – am trying to address small injustices where I feel like I can make an impact.

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t going to work.  We can’t each put a band-aid on gaping wound and think it’s going to make a difference.  The existing global system is the source of many problems that may seem unrelated, but are often a result of high levels of inequality and exploitation.

Furthermore, if the system is inherently unjust, can any actions within it truly achieve justice?  By working within a system that I know is wrong, is it possible for me achieve anything good without involuntarily supporting it?

On my cynical days, I wonder if my work is actually prolonging the destruction of neoliberalism.  Is my energy being coopted to work within the system?  Are those in power subverting people’s good intentions by using their labour to sustain the world’s unjust structure?

I could spend my whole life trying to address the injustices constantly created by the world’s socioeconomic structure and not make a dent.  In fact, that seems to be what the majority of the NGO sector is doing.

These questions are purely philosophical.  Let’s face it – how am I supposed to work outside the world system?  Completely separate myself or join an isolated community?  No.  Inaction is still a choice that supports the system.

My current strategy is a mix of opposing approaches.  On the one hand, I chose a profession that I hope will improve the world.  On the other, however, I won’t stop talking about this stuff.  Maybe that makes me a difficult party guest sometimes – many people have told me I need to be more moderate and less passionate in my opinions (mostly Canadians) – but at this point I won’t compromise my beliefs.  That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy listening to opposing points of view.  Honestly, I love being proved wrong.

Sorry for the cynical tone of today’s post.  I usually try to focus on the positive side of development work, but these issues nag at me constantly.

How do we bring about the revolutionary theory necessary for global justice?


Works Cited

Harvey, David. (1972). “Revolutionary and Counter Revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation.”  Antipode. 4:2, 1-13.


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