David Harvey on Rebel Cities

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Philip Belpasso playing the flute at Zuccotti Park, Wall Street
Protest March, September 26, 2011, Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.

This post originally appeared on Shareable. Introduction by Neal Gorenflo, Publisher of Shareable

One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna
in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city
available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing
widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This
undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the
world’s most livable city in 2011.

Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering
the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear
about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market,
pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of
capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown.
The Floridas and Glaesers
of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never
happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future
will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode
well for the future.

What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commons
is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is
no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square
inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie
of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal
off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver,
there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is
literally born out of commons.

Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the
solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization
is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade
regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons
and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural
populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums,
rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical
opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.

Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.

Harvey’s new book Rebel Citiestempted
me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in
creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban
processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from
my eyes.

And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities
offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons
advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as
American as apple pie–cities by the people, for the people. I will
stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever
you call them.

I asked my friend Chris Carlsson, a co-founder of Critical Mass, to interview Harvey as he explored similar themes in his book, Nowtopia.
Below is a recent e-mail discussion between Carlsson and Harvey which I
think you’ll find fascinating no matter your political persuasion.
Alone, Harvey is not the complete tonic, but I hope the interview
broadens your view of cities like Rebel Cities did for me.

The gentrification blues at work on a Noah’s Bagels in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Tedeytan. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Chris Carlsson: Who did you write Rebel Cities for?

My aim was to write a book for everyone who has serious questions
about the qualities of the urban life to which they are exposed and the
limited choices that arise, given the way in which political and
economic power asserts a hegemonic right to build cities according to
its own desires and needs (for profit and capital accumulation) rather
than to satisfy the needs of people.

In so doing, I wanted to provide indications of the kind of
theoretical framework to which I appeal and I, therefore, use seemingly
abstract (often, but not exclusively, Marxist) concepts. But my aim is
to use these concepts in such a way that anybody can grasp them. (I
don’t always succeed, of course.) I then hope that people might become
interested to seek a deeper knowledge of the sort of framework that I
use. For example, in “The Art of Rent,” I use a seemingly arcane concept
of monopoly rent, but I hope by the end of the chapter people can
understand very well what it might mean and wonder how it is that a
society that lauds competition as foundational to its functioning is
populated by capitalists who will go to great lengths to secure monopoly
power by any means and how they capture unearned rents by resorting to
that power.

If people want a broader understanding of my framework, they can use
many resources including my own Enigma of Capital, and A Brief History
of Neoliberalism
, and my website lectures (including those on Marx’s
Capital and the Companion to Marx’s Capital). I hope, however, that
Rebel Cities is understandable enough without going through all of those
materials first. In my view, one of the biggest problems for
anti-capitalist social movements in our times is the lack of an
agreed-upon framework to understand the dynamics of what is going on; if
I can somehow incite activists to think more broadly about what they
are doing and the general situation in which they are doing it (and how
particular struggles relate to each other), then I would be very happy.

You write: “The chaotic processes of capitalist creative
destruction have evidently reduced the collective left to a state of
energetic but fragmented incoherence, even as periodic eruptions of mass
movements of protest … suggest that the objective conditions for a more
radical break with the capitalist law of value are more than ripe for
the taking.”

For many people, targeting the “capitalist law of value” is
terribly abstract. Can you rephrase that in terms that people can see
and feel in their everyday lives?

I could substitute the phrase “capitalist law of value” with the
phrase “the maximization of profit in a context of global competition”
and then point to the devastating history of deindustrialization (more
destruction than creation) from the 1980s across city after city, not
only in North America, but also Europe and elsewhere (e.g. Mumbai and
Northern China).

But I wanted to use the term “value” very explicitly to raise the
question of what it is that capital values and how radically that
contrasts with other ways of thinking about the values that might
prevail in another kind of society. The capitalist law of value is what
animates the activities of Bain Capital, etc. and we have to see that
value system as profoundly opposed to human emancipation and well-being,
that there is a distinctive “law of value” that capital internalizes
and imposes that overrides all other values that stand in its path.

The values that capital internalizes do not contribute to the
well-being of people and indeed may threaten our survival. The more
people come to recognize the value system of capital the more we can
mobilize “our” alternative values against it. To see the fight against
capitalism as a fight over values is very important. It has, at various
times, animated a theology of liberation that is profoundly
anti-capitalist. It is for this reason that the capitalist class does
not want to talk of or admit to the distinctive “law of value” that
animates its actions. Apologists for capital claim they are for family
values, for example, while capitalism promotes policies that destroy
families. They claim they are in favor of freedom, but omit to say the
freedom they favor is that of a few to exploit and live off the labor of
the many, of the Wall Streeters to be free of regulation to gain their
inordinate bonuses through predatory practices.

Many people joined in to help make the protest signs used for the
march on Wall Street, September 26th 2011, Zuccotti Park,
Financial District, New York.
Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons.

Most of the people reading this website are involved in
various types of co-ops, collectives, and projects that are proudly
based on values beyond mere monetary profit. But you don’t think this is
enough. You argue: “… attempts to change the world by worker control
and analogous movements — such as community-owned projects, so-called
“moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and
barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which
today would be that of the Zapatistas) — have not, so far, proved viable
as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the
noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going
in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions … Indeed, it
can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of
collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that
which capital imposes …”

You properly point out that efforts to create socialism in
one country, let alone one city, or one small enterprise, have always
failed. Why do you think people ignore this overwhelming history and
keep trying to make it work anyway?

This is one of the most difficult paradoxes embedded in the history
of the left (its thinking, its project, and its activities). We can all
understand the urge to control our own lives, to achieve some degree of
autonomy at work, as well as in the neighborhoods we inhabit; and that
basic urge which is, I believe, both widespread and broadly acceptable
to many elements in society, can be the basis for a broader politics.
When capital collapses as it periodically does, then workers frequently
mobilize (as in Argentina in 2001-02) to save their jobs, and there are
some long-lasting examples of cooperative systems and of worker control
that are encouraging (e.g. Mondragon).

The problem is that these operations operate in a context where the
capitalist law of value (Yes, that is why this is so important.) remains
hegemonic such that producers are subject to the “coercive laws of
competition” that eventually force such independent efforts towards
autonomous forms of organization to behave like capitalist enterprises.
This is why it is so important to eventually think and act in such a way
as to challenge the hegemony of the “capitalist law of value”.

Lefebvre thus notes that heterotopic practices (spaces where
something radically different happens) can only survive for a while
before they are eventually re-absorbed into the dominant practices. This
says that, at some point, we have to mount a challenge to the dominant
practices and that means challenging the power of a deeply entrenched
and thoroughly dominant capitalist class and the law of value to which
it adheres (as represented by, for example, Bain Capital). You are right
that this is a somewhat abstract idea; but if we cannot embrace it,
then we will simply be ruled by other abstractions (such as those of
“the market” or “globalization”).

You dismiss Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons with the
point that he is studying cattle herders with privately owned herds,
undercutting the very presumption of a commons in land and resources.
But you also look critically at Elinor Ostrom’s ideas about the commons,
mostly because of her relatively small samples of communities
self-managing common resources. 
Though she
short-circuits the banal opposition of state and market, she ducks (as
do most anarchists and autonomists, as you argue) the problem of
organizing complex, territorially dispersed economic relationships. “How
can radical decentralization — surely a worthwhile objective — work
without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is
simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of
decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and
active enforcement.”

Do you think the state, currently a wholly-owned project of
“the existing democracy of money power,” can be made to serve other
interests than capital accumulation and economic growth?

The state is not a monolith, but a complicated ecosystem of
administrative structures. At the core of the capitalist state lies what
I call a “state-finance nexus” which, in our times, is best represented
by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and I think it was deeply
illustrative that these two institutions, in effect, took over the U.S.
government entirely in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It is
notoriously the case within the state that the Treasury has the final
say over many projects in other departments.

In parallel with the state-finance nexus is the military industrial
complex which is a bit of a misnomer because it is really about the
concentration of military and police powers backed by a justice system
that is shaped in support of capitalist class power. These make for a
distinctively capitalist class state apparatus. Obviously, that form of
state power has to be confronted and defeated if we are to liberate
ourselves from submission to the capitalist law of value.

But, beyond that, there are many aspects of public administration
providing essential public services — public health, housing, education,
and the governance of common property resources. In our own society,
these branches of government often become corrupted by capital, to be
sure, but it is not beyond the power of political movements of the left
at the local, national, even international levels to discipline these
aspects of the state apparatus to emancipatory public purposes.

Ironically, neoliberalism, by turning the provision of much of this
terrain of state action over to NGOs, has opened a potential path to
socialize these aspects of the state to the will of the people if the
limitations of the NGO form could be overcome. The frontal attack from
the left against state power has to target the state-finance nexus and
the military/police complex and not the sewage department or the
organization of the Internet and air traffic control, even as it has to
be alert to how all departments of the current state are likely to be
used as vehicles for furthering capital accumulation. The current
situation is that the capitalist class is heightening its powers of
control through militarization and the state-finance nexus while not
bothering with much else.

The first day of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2011. Wall Street
barricaded and Zuccotti Park taken. PhotobyDavid Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.

At the end of your book you write, “Alternative democratic
vehicles such as popular assemblies need to be constructed if urban life
is to be revitalized and reconstructed outside of dominant class
relations.” How do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement evolving in
the absence of public space?

It is clear that the vicious police response to Occupy Wall Street is
an indication of the paranoid fear of Wall Street that a popular
movement might arise to threaten the power of the state-finance nexus
and, as has happened in Iceland and now in Ireland to indict and
eventually jail the bankers.

Militarization is, for them, the necessary answer, and part of that
militarization is the control over public space to deny that the Occupy
movement has a public space for its operations. In that case, the
liberation of public space for public political purposes becomes a
preliminary battle that will have to be fought. The assemblies provided a
brief whiff of what an alternative democracy might look like, but the
small scales and limited arenas make it crucial to experiment with other
democratic forms of popular governance capable of looking at the
metropolitan region as a whole … how to organize a whole city like New
York or Sao Paulo.

A street scene in Berlin’s Schöneberg district showing the interplay between blight and gentrification. Credit: Sugar Ray Banister. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Going beyond physical space, you helpfully point out that,
“There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. […] At the heart of
the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between
the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a
common shall be both collective and non-commodified–off-limits to the
logic of market exchange and market valuations.”

How do you see this logic of “commoning” emerging from the
actual social movements of our time, which seem preoccupied with ethical
shopping on one hand, or addressing racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and
other identitarian questions on the other?

The essence of a great urban and civic life, for me, is the free
intermingling of all manner of people opening up the possibilities of
all manner of encounters. If, for often good reasons, women, LGBT youth,
or other so-called “identitarian” groups cannot freely use the public
and supposedly “common” spaces of the city, then it is critical that
movements emerge to liberate those common spaces for their
participation. Such movements can provide a vital opening for a broader
common politics. The problem comes when that is the only preoccupation
for that group and what begins as a demand for inclusion becomes a
movement for exclusions. Alliances are needed and the more it becomes
acceptable to liberate public spaces for all public purposes, the more
open become the democratic possibilities to go a-commoning, to build a
commons and achieve a politics of the commons throughout the city or
metropolitan region as a whole. But there are counter-movements that
have to be combated. Right now, exclusionary fascist movements (like
Golden Dawn in Greece) are precisely occupying space by space urban
neighborhoods (e.g. in Athens); they are occupying spaces in the name of
an exclusionary politics. This is an extreme case, of course, but I
think it critical that the relation between the commons and the balance
between enclosures and exclusions, on the one hand, and openings and
free uses, on the other, be perpetually open for discussion and
political struggle. These are the sorts of battles in which we all have
to be involved. There is no automatic harmony to be had and I actually
think a certain level of perpetual conflict around urban life is a very
positive feature.

Artists and “culture workers” have historically been leading
voices of dissent, but we see a lot less of that now. Most people are
beholden to one or another institution of the “nonprofit industrial
complex” as the Incite! Collective put it in The Revolution Will Not Be
Funded. The types of dissent remain safely within boundaries that do not
challenge the logic of markets and money.

You write, “It is one thing to be transgressive about
sexuality, religion, social mores, and artistic and architectural
conventions, but quite another to be transgressive in relation to the
institutions and practices of capitalist domination that actually
penetrate deeply into cultural institutions. […] The problem for capital is
to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural
differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate
monopoly rents from them.”

How do highly individualized and competitive artists and
culture producers find common ground to fight for a world beyond

I don’t quite agree with the view that the cultural workers are
passive. The context has changed (which is what I am pointing to as
culture becomes an industry and a vehicle for capital accumulation and
building asset values) which means that dissidence has to take a
different form of expression. Subversion, rather than confrontation, has
to become the main tactic and I see quite a lot of evidence of a
willingness to do that. We have, incidentally, very much the same
problem in academia. My colleagues have quite a lot to learn about how
to go about that and, in the cultural world, that sentiment for
subversion is far more widespread.

You write, “The struggle for the right to the city is against
the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from
the common life that others have produced. […] Capitalist urbanization
perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political, and
livable commons.” Americans are fairly religious about the idea of
private property. Even progressives don’t like to challenge the
prerogatives of property ownership.

Do you think there can be any meaningful way to halt
gentrification and the debasement of thriving urban neighborhoods that
it brings, short of creating collective ownership of neighborhood

The thing that often amazes me is the wide array of instruments
already available for left experimentation in all manner of arenas of
social life. This is very true of housing with all sorts of possible
property arrangements that offer ways to secure housing for low-income
populations. Yet these instruments are neglected and underutilized, in
part, I suspect, because of ideological barriers but also due to lack of
political and other forms of support for them.

Much can be done within existing structures, but, again, the problem
is how, for example, limited equity co-ops might be reabsorbed into the
dominant practices unless there is an active social movement to keep
them in place and expand them. Otherwise, we are in the situation of
winning a skirmish here or there (e.g. against gentrification) but
losing most of the battles and having no impact on the anti-capitalist
war. So when and how are we going to learn to fight the war against the
dominant practices?

You point to the need to integrate an understanding of the
process of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general
theory of the laws of motion of capital. Other writers have analyzed
the breakdown of Fordist mass production and the evolution of capitalism
into a system based on a “social factory.”

I think we should get away from the imagery of the factory entirely.
The issue of the urban is quite different because it is not only about
production, but about realization of values through consumption,
consumerism, spectacle (e.g. Olympic Games which have sent many cities
into economic difficulties and played a key role in the Greek collapse
of public finances). One of the things I get from Marx’s theories is the
relation between production of values and the realization of values
through exchange in the market and both are equally important and the
urban is “where it all comes together”.

A public square in Helsinki offers plenty of space for activists to gather. Credit: La Citta Vita. Used under Creative Commons license.

You note, “Public spaces and public goods in the city have
always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such
spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make.” How can public
spaces become a commons?

Language is a commons and part of what political life is about is
changing the languages we use to relate to each other and to understand
the world around us (which is why I want to talk about the capitalist
law of value). But the commons has to be materialized and objectified
(e.g. in print) and discussed (e.g. in an assembly or a chat room).
Commoning embraces all of these features. It is not only a physical
space, but bodies on the street still have a political priority (as we
saw in Tahrir Square) and this is particularly important to the degree
that the capitalist class has almost total power over all other forms of
political power (money, the repressive apparatus, key elements in the
state apparatus, political elections, the law, etc.).

Finally, you argue that “Decentralization and autonomy are
primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through
neoliberalization.” How do social movements fight this trajectory while
holding on to their own autonomist and egalitarian practices?

What is so odd in these times is that much of the left agrees with
much of the right that decentralization and opposition to all forms of
centralized power is the answer. This is why I talk of the “fetishism of
organizational forms” that prevails on the contemporary left. The
market is, of course, when individualized, the most decentralized
decision-making system you can imagine and it is exactly the
organization of such a competitive decentralized market that produces,
as Marx so clearly proved, highly concentrated capitalist class power.
It does so because “there is nothing more unequal than the equal
treatment of unequals.”

If all the world were organized into a series of independent and
totally autonomous anarchist communes, then how would the global commons
(e.g. biodiversity) be preserved, and what would prevent some communes
from becoming much more prosperous than others, and how would the free
flow of people and goods and products from one place to another work
(most communes have some principles for exclusion)? Interestingly, most
corporations are into networked models of administration and there are
all sorts of parallels between left and right which pass unrecognized,
as well as overlaps between corporate practices and anarchist visions.

There is a lot to be said for a decentralized basis for political
action. But, at some point, it has also to jump scales and organize at
least at the metropolitan bioregional level to take on those wretched
dominant class practices that seem to survive unscathed in the midst of
the current plethora of oppositional social movements.


David Harvey (born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge
in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors
in the humanities. In addition, he is the world’s most cited academic
geographer, and the author of many books and essays that have been
prominent in the development of modern geography as a discipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate; most recently he has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism. He is a leading proponent of the idea of the right to the city, as well as a member of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.

Chris Carlsson,
co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a
wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org), is a writer, publisher,
editor, and community organizer. He has written two books (After the
Deluge, Nowtopia) edited six books, (Reclaiming San Francisco, The
Political Edge, Bad Attitude, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant
Celebration, Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-78, and
SHIFT HAPPENS! Critical Mass at 20). He redesigned and co-authored an
expanded Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay. He
has produced Shaping San Francisco’s weekly public Talks and conducted
its award-winning bicycle history tours since January 2006. He has given
hundreds of public presentations based on Shaping San Francisco,
Critical Mass, Nowtopia, Vanished Waters, and his “Reclaiming San
Francisco” history anthologies since the late 1990s, and has appeared
dozens of times in radio, television and on the Internet.

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