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Cities of struggle

Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, by David Harvey, reviewed by Andre Pusey

August 4, 2012
5 min read

With the recent upsurge in struggle around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy protests, I was eagerly anticipating David Harvey’s latest book Rebel Cities. It starts on well-trodden territory for those familiar with Harvey’s work, with chapters such as ‘The Right to the City’ and ‘Urban Roots of the Capitalist Crisis’.

Originally proposed by Henri Lefebvre in 1967 as both a ‘cry and a demand’, the idea of the ‘right to the city’ has been taken up and discussed by a range of authors and activists. Harvey clearly situates the increased interest in this idea not just within academia but within urban social movements such as the Right to the City Alliance in the US and the experiments with ‘participatory budgeting’ in Brazil.

For Harvey, struggles over what kind of city we desire cannot be distinguished from discussions about what kind of social relationships we want. The right to the city is also, importantly, a collective right, and it therefore follows that the struggle to attain it, to participate not just in the self-management of the existing city but in its transformation, will also be collective. The right to the city for Harvey therefore, has at all times been a radical project, and he views urbanisation as always having been a ‘class phenomena’ of one kind or another.

Harvey discusses how urbanisation has always played a central role in the absorption of surplus capital, for example through processes of ‘creative-destruction’ in the form of large-scale restructuring. But this strategy has necessarily involved the dispossession of the ‘urban masses’.

As testament to this, Harvey spends some time exploring Haussman’s Paris as a conscious project to solve the surplus capital and unemployment problem of the time through massive restructuring. Part of this project included widening the boulevards in order to make the barricades that had sprung up during the uprisings of 1848 far more difficult for future urban class struggles, and Harvey suggests that the Commune of 1871 was in part a desire to take back the city for those that Haussman had dispossessed.

In the chapter ‘Urban Roots of the Capitalist Crisis’, Harvey explores the increasing importance of the city to capital accumulation. Tracing the developments of capital accumulation and circulation, he uncovers the centrality of the city as a site which the capitalist class needs to dominate. It does this not just though the state, in the form of local governance, for example, or even though control of labour power, but increasingly over urban inhabitants’ lifestyles, cultures, political values and even their conceptions of the world. The result is that the city, and urban processes more broadly, form a key site of class struggle.

An important component of this struggle involves the collective experimentation with emancipatory, anti-capitalist alternatives, which brings us to the next chapter, the ‘Creation of the Urban Commons’. This critically applies recent work on the commons to the urban context.

Harvey is less critical of the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel prize in economics for her work on commons in 2009, than I might have imagined. This is puzzling in part because he makes the point towards the end of the chapter that the idea of the commons, just like that of the ‘right to the city’, is open to appropriation by those in power, as well as by anti-capitalists. This is precisely the point another key proponent of the commons, George Caffentzis , makes in an article in which he explores the utilisation of the commons as a way of constructing a ‘neoliberalism Plan B’. He cites Ostrom as a key theorist of the capitalist use of the commons.

This chapter also explores the problem of organising the reproduction of the commons once we ‘jump scale’ and need to act within a much larger framework than small-scale alternatives. In order to do this, Harvey explores the ‘libertarian municipalism’ of Murray Bookchin as a possible solution.

This section is one of several places in Rebel Cities where Harvey is critical of proponents of ‘horizontalism’. Although Harvey concedes that horizontal methods may work in small groups, he is extremely dubious about their applicability once we move to larger environments. At times it feels like Harvey conflates ‘horizontalism’ with some kind of crude ‘anti-organisationalism’. In one chapter he even associates recent movement critiques of hierarchy with a stifling ‘political correctness’. There are some important criticisms to be aimed at horizontalist politics, but these are not necessarily the most productive ones.

The chapters on recent events, such as Occupy Wall Street and the urban unrest in Britain during the summer of 2011, are disappointingly only very short comment pieces. I was rather hoping for something a little more developed, and overall Harvey seems strongest when he is analysing the various intricacies of the developments and crises of capital, rather than recent social struggles and their internal dynamics.

These comments aside, there is a great deal of interesting material in Rebel Cities, and although much of it will not be new to those who have some acquaintance with Harvey’s previous work, many will find this a challenging and timely collection.

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