Geography students: read David Harvey. Read and learn about Harvey’s view of geography and capitalism [or watch and learn about Harvey’s view of geography]. And bear in mind that Harvey’s work – albeit alongside the work of many other geographers – has helped put the discipline ‘on the map’. Ok, lecture over!
One of David Harvey’s critical concepts is his notion of ‘structured coherence’, which he suggests can emerge in the capitalist world when places find some sort of niche in amongst a highly inconstant geography of production, of flows of money or people or ideas. Detroit had a niche: cars. San Francisco’s has been high-tech. The coherence comes (if at all) from the ‘hanging together’ of businesses, production, and workers, which forms a sort of regional economy or regional labour market, in which firms make profits and workers earn wages, and life goes happily along. Well, sort of. Because any tendency for capitalism in a specific place to result in a kind of structured coherence will constantly be undermined, either by firms elsewhere (and even governments in other places) trying to outperform them, or by firms based in the region but trying to leave to seek out more profitable places in which to produce. Any sort of coherence that emerges, therefore, can be quite short-lived. This is why firms relatively fixed into a place (and sometimes their workers, via their trade unions) can unite to fight that inconstant geography, to battle to retain their niche and ensure their foothold in the competitive world. Coalitions of businesses and workers put aside their differences and sing from the same hymn sheet: they use boosterism to draw in new producers (and new workers if needs be) or they shout to make sure they receive their ‘fair share’ of funds from the state.
For an (approximate?) example, take Northern Ireland’s emerging economic force, Newry. Newry’s a border city on an island where two states exist: north and south, Kingdom and Republic. Its niche recently has been to pull in consumers from the south to pick up cheaper goods in its shops. Nappies, wine, beer, food, and so on are cheaper because Ireland’s currency, the Euro, buys a lot of British pounds. Its structured coherence, if you like, is based on its position at the border, which helps it bring in money from the south. Geography matters; geography helps. But geography is also Newry’s vulnerability: If the Euro falls, fewer buyers will travel north; the movements cease.
‘Team Newry’, led by its business community – including Dr Gerard O’Hare, who owns the Quay’s Shopping Centre – loves the sound of the cash registers ka-chinging. And so it’s weary of the situation changing. Enter, then, a ‘stealth marketing event’ called Opportunity Newry which points out that, ‘Newry has something unique to offer companies based in the Republic of Ireland that they will not find anywhere else on the island.’ The claim is that, for southern-based businesses, the city’s a gateway to the north and to the rest of the UK; and then of course it’s a gateway for northern businesses wanting to access the south. Newry is, in short, open for business. And, sit up and really take note, it has workers who are paid, by southern standards, relatively low wages. So come on in, invest in Newry, take advantage of its position and its qualities.
It is interesting that Francis McDonnell, who writes the weekly Belfast Briefing for the Irish Times, is surprised that the Newry effort has been led by the private sector and not the state, even though state agencies, such as Invest NI, support Team Newry’s agenda. What would Harvey say? Don’t be surprised, perhaps. But then, what we’re not seeing in the Newry case is the coalition with labour, with workers. Just what do unions in Newry make of the city’s boosterism? And in the context of its economic crisis, just what should unions in the south be saying and doing about Newry’s strategy? Finally, just what impact does Newry’s strategy have on boosting the very existence of the border?