The geographies of capitalism, a king of Geography, and the destruction of political dreams

“It would be difficult to deny the difficult days that the world is going through. One might say that the four horseman [sic] of the apocalypse have moved from a quiet trot to a full gallop and this increase in activity has been accompanied by the rise of Right-wing politics of various kinds which are clearly associated with a series of state and corporate ideologies and practices that must be denied any more room in the world and that, in time, must be rolled back.” (Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, What’s Left? Just the Future, 1995, 236)

Did you foresee when you were writing this, Nigel, the danger of you becoming a horseman of capitalism? When naming as a value for the Left, “a constant and unremitting critical reflexivity towards our own practices” (Amin and Thrift, 1995, 221), at what point did you relinquish and decide on the other side? In proposing for the Left, “an unending, always-changing politics” with “no anchor” (Amin and Thrift, 1995, 220), did you worry about where you might float if anchor-less?

Photo by The Ruby Kid: "Amazing art from the occupation, updating the famous May 68 poster to feature their VC Nigel Thrift. Great atmosphere here, honoured to be invited to speak. #FreeEducation #Solidarity #StudentsandWorkersUnite"
Photo by The Ruby Kid: “Amazing art from the occupation, updating the famous May 68 poster to feature their VC Nigel Thrift. Great atmosphere here, honoured to be invited to speak. #FreeEducation #Solidarity #StudentsandWorkersUnite”

Some background

  • Professor Nigel Thrift is one of the most successful and influential human geographers in the world. Recent works include, Knowing CapitalismNon-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, and Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left (with Ash Amin).
  • A generation of human geographers have been shaped by Thrift’s geographical research direction.
  • In 2005, Professor Nigel Thrift was appointed Vice Chancellor at the University of Warwick. He took up office in 2006. Also in 2005, Thrift (and his colleague Ash Amin) published a challenge to Marxist geography in the Antipode journal, titled What’s Left: Just the Future.
  • In January 2014, VC Nigel Thrift had a pay rise of £16,000, taking his annual salary to £332,000.
  • On December 3rd 2014, a group of University of Warwick students staged a sit-in protest on campus against university tuition fees, and were subjected to police force, including CS spray. Amnesty International stated in response: “Videos of the incident and accounts from several eyewitnesses raise serious concerns about whether the police acted heavy-handedly and seriously endangered people at the scene. Eyewitnesses report that CS gas was used in a relatively confined space against peaceful protesters posing no threat, while one police officer is clearly seen discharging a Taser into the air for a prolonged period – an action that could have caused serious injury if gas had been ignited.”

  • On December 4th 2014, VC Nigel Thrift issued a statement reminiscing of a previous “spirit of co-operation” and sharing his present disheartenment caused by the behaviour and non-cooperation of certain students. He expressed hope for future protest to be “peaceful”. Warwick for Free Education responded with “A Critical Analysis of Nigel’s Statement”.
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  • On December 4th 2014, after a large protest of over 1,000 people took place on the University of Warwick campus – in response to the police violence and the VC’s statement – a group of students went into occupation.
  • On December 9th 2014, the management at the University of Warwick issued the students in the occupation with a court injunction.
  • On December 12th 2014, in an “Exit Statement”, Warwick for Free Education wrote: “The University is in crisis. A vital part of the fabric of our society, universities are sites of analysis and debate, where the ideal of intellectual honesty drives us to confront difficult problems and propose rigorous solutions. They are places where thought is cultivated as a public good. In 2010, however, a new imperative emerged in higher education: universities are to compete for funding in the form of individual student fees, while precarious research funding means grants, patents, contracts and private investment have become increasingly crucial to the survival of institutions. Under these conditions everything must change. […] On the 3rd of December, this conflict of interest manifested as a conflict between police and students. […] The thin end of the wedge was driven into our community a long time ago; what happened on the 3rd was a result of that same wedge being hammered harder and deeper into our campus: it must be hammered no further. The court order will not be a fatal blow to our community, but it must mark the moment where we once more conjure the energy that brought us together on the 4th and tell those who so enthusiastically capitulate with the marketisation of higher education that, despite their titles, despite their money, despite their power, this is our university.”
  • In December 2014, the University and College Union (UCU) accused the University of Warwick of “damaging and dangerous practices” in threatening redundancies to academic staff who have failed to bring in research income of £90,000 per year in the past four years. UCU have petitioned VC Nigel Thrift to reverse this practice.
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What’s left Nigel?

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What’s Left: Just the Future works as a paper if one accepts a monolithic beast of an authoritarian-leaning, prescriptive, purist, certain and moralistic, Utopian Marxism. But, of course, Marxism is as multiple and dynamic in tendencies as the rest of the Left. It is absurd to conflate the grassroots democratic spirit of Marxism with the totalitarian betrayals and crimes of Stalinism and Maoism. Read Marx and you’ll find, for example, his commitment to doing away with the State. For Marx (1875): “Every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

What’s Left: Just the Future offers friendship to every current on the Left other than Marxism, including anarchism. It sees hope in loose alliances and fluid politics, in the absence of telos and coherence, such as in the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq. In a paper of mine in which I offer a Marxist critique of the revolutionary socialist vanguard of this anti-war movement, I indirectly problematise this hope of Amin and Thrift’s – for the politics of the anti-war movement was built on ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ with no progressive alternative to either.

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Could one have foreseen the irony of Thrift’s words when he called for an “expanded ethics”: “in a world in which violence is rife and forms of inhumanity seem to be multiplying, perhaps in part precisely because of fundamentalist moral templates which the Left itself may sometimes be closer to than it might wish to believe” (Amin and Thrift, 2005, 225). Remind me Nigel, was it the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith who sold out the Left in Geography, or was it you?

Alarm bells should surely have gone off when, in the same year that Professor Nigel Thrift posed as a stalwart for the Left in Geography, bravely chopping down the beast of Marxism, he also became a Vice Chancellor. The rest is history.



On 30th December 2014, it was announced that Nigel Thrift would be awarded with New Year Honours for his services to higher education. He is now Sir Nigel Thrift.

5 thoughts on “The geographies of capitalism, a king of Geography, and the destruction of political dreams

  1. To me Nigel Thrift is always the peddler. Last time I heard he was peddling the oxymoronic “non-representational theory”

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