Reviewing Rebel Cities by David Harvey

I am working up a review to send to a couple of places in a couple of languages, but in the mean time, here are some of my notes on David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution, London & New York: Verso 2012.

David Harvey is one of the most cited critical urban scholars today.  Rebel Cities paints a grim picture of our times and our cities. Taking its cue on the one hand from urban rebels – activists – who are saying “no” to neoliberalism, and on the other from the depressing urban environments that capitalism so frenetically produces, the book is pretty much a call to arms: Capitalist normality is morally bankrupt not to mention materially disastrous. Where is “the left” when it could be articulating a better alternative?!

The book combines two insights, firstly that it is in the city that capitalism is at its most intense and secondly that it is in the city where it is definitely most contested. Rebel Cities shows how the economics of neoliberalism have been indelibly etched into the urban fabric. Everywhere, not only in the long-polarized developing world, cycles of boom and bust have produced not just new millionaires and new paupers, but an anti-social cocktail of Disneyfied authenticity, fortified fragmentation and ceaseless surveillance. The book also lays bare the costs of society’s fixation with private property – most tragically in the desire to own one’s home – and shows how this has crowded out other forms of politics.

Not, of course, that the process is linear or evenly distributed, as Harvey has been at pains to demonstrate throughout his career. It is the “rebel” perspective that Harvey develops, but it is clear that the mainstream can no longer pretend that all is well either. Post-2011 with its Arab Spring, Tel Aviv summer, London riots and global Occupy camps, we know that simmering discontent can and will crystallize into action. Despite the repressive efforts of capital-friendly states and municipal guardians of law and order (in the service of the propertied classes) autonomous actions have continued to flourish. They arise both in response to immediate needs – as in campaigns against entrenched homelessness or in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy – and in the guise of more or less utopian experiments that hark back to the countercultures of previous generations.

Harvey’s Marxist background provides ample tools for connecting the street level experience of urban space to the dynamics of capitalist expansion. The book scans the horizon for the real costs – environmental and human – of what convention still dubs “development”.  Its important contribution is in linking these to macroeconomic “disruptions”, the absurdities of bankers’ bonuses, freshly produced homelessness and the full scope of the speculative transformations unfolding in urban built environments. The cities we fight for turn out not to be under accidental or random assault. Rather, the relentless competition between cities and the equally relentless rearrangements of the built environment, are part of the same problem: capitalism.

The book takes a global view, arguing that capital’s drive to extract surplus operates against any sociable common goals. Capital appropriates not just physical production but the creation of cultural value. Everything comes under assault, but above all the environment and the people of the city, the laborers who, in body (labor) and spirit (culture), actually already produced and continue to produce that environment. Perhaps that is why there is something very understandable in the recent upsurge of interest in campaigns that claim a “right to the city”. The slogan, which was launched by Henri Lefebvre in the social upheavals of the late 1960s and which has been given recent exposure by Harvey’s own work, has almost become institutionalized. The Right to the City Alliance came into being in 2007, and continues to provide a shared language and a platform for a plethora of urban-based justice campaigns within the USA, and inspiration and resources for activists beyond. In Brazil a right to the city was incorporated into law in 2001. Despite the revolutionary tone of the slogan, it is not clear that struggles for urban rights really do challenge prevailing and essentially bourgeois concepts of rights, ones based on individualist and property-based notions of legality. And it is not clear whether the slogan’s apparent popularity is an academic illusion either.

Harvey does not elaborate much on urban movements, but he is probably on the right track in that many of them are struggling against privatization at a local level. (I’d hazard a guess that in practice whatever alternative to activists taking charge of Hietaniemi’s pavilion, see my previous post in Finnish, the results would lead to a privatized and visibly corporate result, perhaps in the shape of some “design yourself better”-sports facility that would suit the entrepreneurial, self-responsible and forever young values of Helsinki’s major political actors).

Hietsu2013

Claiming the right to the city is, as Harvey observes, actually often about wanting safe public spaces, wanting affordable housing, and demanding more say in the definition of what the city could be. It is necessary but it is reformist and does not strike at the real problem, just like a workers’ collective that ends up behaving like a capitalist firm is not exactly threatening the operations of the market, as he points out. There are many interesting points about urban struggles here, but though they are presented as core to the book, it is not quite clear how they connect to Harvey’s argument about capital and its urban character.

Much of the argument is rather abstract and assumes prior engagement with the histories of urban struggle. What is new and interesting is that a deepening respect for the generative powers of culture is evident throughout the book. Towards the end of Rebel Cities, empirical detail is put to work explicitly to support a more general argument for attending to cultural specifics. The example he offers is of El Alto in Bolivia, invoked to show that a city can be reclaimed for anti-capitalist struggle. Harvey relies almost exclusively on the work of two anthropologists, Leslie Gill and, in particular Sian Lazar, who both (separately) describe and analyze the mix of indigenous and class politics that brought El Alto to international attention as a “rebel city”, which successfully resisted neoliberal reforms in 2003. When subsequently Evo Morales was elected as president of Bolivia, many saw it as a sign of a totally new momentum to progressive left-wing politics. Harvey admits that since then Bolivia has been drawn into a kind of reconstituted neoliberalism, but he still sees in these accounts of El Alto important lessons for anti-capitalist struggle. The local ties of solidarity so carefully described by Lazar especially, offer Harvey a tantalizing glimpse of how the abstract need for an alternative to global capitalism fuses with local forces to produce real change and genuine hope.

There is a suggestion in the book that as more and more struggles come out into the open surely this should be telling us that the conditions are ripe for a break with capitalism. Whilst the activists are doing their bit the intellectuals are fainthearted, Harvey seems to be saying. For instance, he does not see that the noticeable and productive interest in the politics of the commons and the active pursuit of commoning is particularly well served by current academic debate. Of course Harvey’s primary targets are the architects of the new normal who insist on imposing austerity on the poor to save “the markets”, but even the Marxists whose theories are based on something called “historical materialism”, and the theorists of the commons for whom culture as well as materiality are already incorporated into economic analysis, fall short of the kind of radicalism he is seeking.

As a book Rebel Cities could be more robust and more thoughtfully edited. Each chapter is very different, as might be expected of a book put together from previously published articles. Still, in readable prose and with some impressive analysis, Harvey persuades that it is time to dislodge the dysfunctional and immoral Party of Wall Street and replace its intellectually incoherent model of “normal” with something else. He manages to weave together a compelling story about a global system, incoherent, crisis-ridden and raggedy as it is, whose impacts on social reproduction and the environment – built and unbuilt – are of the same destructive kind everywhere. The book left me unsure of how, exactly, the history of urban struggles is linked to the urban character of capitalism, but the terrain is worth more exploration.

Shantitown in SA at speedAnd in reading Rebel Cities I did often visualize the imagination-defying architectural gigantism of Shanghai and New York, felt the eeriness of China’s new ghost towns and conjured up some sense of life in a slum, based (unsurprisingly) on a few fleeting drive-by encounters. I also thought about Helsinki’s perhaps less spectacular but no less distressing “developments” and how they suit “the new normal” so much better than the old “human scale” that used to be so typical here.

Harvey’s book has its shortcomings then, yet in his hands the idea of “the city” as the locus of capitalism’s most voracious, even feral, powers makes sense. So does his claim that urban struggles are a force of history worth taking seriously. Thinking about these things in Harvey’s company might lead to more ambitious debate about why our cities are in such a mess.

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