Tuesday, May 28, 2013

David Harvey - Rebel Cities

Subtitled "From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution", David Harvey's Rebel Cities has been a big seller. In part this is because it has captured a sense of city-wide resistance in the aftermath of the global Occupy! movement.

However having seen the book around a lot I was very disappointed. Mostly because I found it superficial, but partly because I don't think that Harvey's central argument is particularly new, or convincing. Harvey is a Marxist geographer and one of his central theories is that cities have been central to both the development of capitalism and its continued existence. They are the places were production was centralised, bringing together millions of workers and their networks in factories. Cities have "arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product." But for Harvey, the cities are also an important sink where the surplus generated by capitalism can be absorbed, the market for the products of the system and the necessary escape valve for the capitalists who must constantly produce more and more.

None of the this particularly surprising, though Harvey has a tendency to portray it as a newly discovered theory that should make us all gasp with surprise. From this analysis, Harvey then develops the ideas of those who called, and continue to call, for a "right to the city". For Harvey this is more than simply the right to work, or access to public services, open spaces or clean water. This is about having a collective right on the exercise of collective power over urbanisation, a "shaping power over the process of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way."

To support this argument, Harvey argues that there have been many attempts in the past by city dwellers to fight for this sort of control - the Paris Commune of 1871 for instance, Red Bologna, Petrograd in the early years of the Russian Revolution and so on. More recently he points in some detail to the experience of city wide resistance in the Bolivian city of El Alto. Writing about the Commune he says that "the dispossessed rose up seeking to reclaim the city they had lost."

On this I felt that Harvey was trying to shoehorn a thesis onto existing facts. In none of these examples did the city dwellers rise up with the intention of redrawing their own cities. In fact, they begin with very specific instances of struggle, based around a single issue or workplace. They generalise through the process of struggle and revolution and ultimately, the logic of these struggles is to challenge the state for power. All revolution is about the clash of powers and it should be no surprise then that in particular cities that have a concentration of workers, workplaces, or organisations this can and does lead to questions about the lives of people as a whole. When workers councils organise struggle, this leads to questions of transport and food dsitrbution as well as times and locations of strikes and protests.

Nonetheless, the city is central to capitalism. As Harvey rightly points out, recent economic crises are tied to the boom and bust cycle linked to the housing and property markets. He eloquently points to the way that cities are constantly redrawn, as low income households are pushed out in favour of richer people, "clearances for land value", citing examples from around the globe that show how the very nature of working class communities, with their diversity and culture makes them attractive, but they are destroyed when the community is forced out. Sometimes the city redesign is in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann.

Harvey finishes by asking "how does one organise a city" in the sense of resistance? He offers a number of suggestions, none of which are particularly controversial. Rightly he argues against the notion that resistance and social organisation can be simply horizontal with no hierarchy. He points to the problems that this would lead to for social organisation on a planet of 7 billion people. He also shows how the best city wide resistance movements are ones that often have democratic decision processes to elect a group to represent wider forces. But Harvey seems to think that the existing left has it wrong.

"urbanization is itself produced. Thousands of workers are engaged in its production ,and their work is productive of value and of surplus value. Why not, focus on the city rather than the factory as the prime site of surplus value production?"

Because the left only relate to specific workplaces, or have an outdated view of workers based on a utopian idea of factories that comes from Marx and Engels we are making enormous mistakes says Harvey. There is some truth in this. The working class is constantly changing. But to argue that the left in (say) Britain should ignore specific workplaces in favour of city wide structures would have meant missing out on some key struggles over the last few years. For instance, in Manchester where I lived, in 2011 there was a growing wave of public sector strikes. Should the left have simple begun by calling for city wide action, or did we have to begin where individual workers were? Reality meant leafleting and paper selling at council offices, schools, libraries, fire stations and the like. A general rhetorical call for city wide action would have bypassed the very individuals who made that sort of action possible.

Ultimately Harvey's book is disappointing, but it is not useless by anymeans. There are some fascinating ideas here and a useful recap of how cities are at the heart of the modern economy. There is a brilliant critique of the "tragedy of the commons" thesis in relation to urban life and some very good facts on the way that the booms and busts have been linked to urban development. Sadly I felt that much more was needed and was left feeling that Harvey's genuine call for the revolutionary transformation of our cities and spaces was lacking in a serious strategy that could change the world.

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