Michael Henderson: Thoughts on David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

What I take as a given is that we live in a political world where those who have power use that power to protect and enhance their own positions, and this is clearly an underlying assumption of Harvey’s Marxist interpretation. [If you doubt this assumption you can find detailed evidence for the UK situation, where the gap between rich and poor has been growing over the last forty years, in Jones’s The Establishment (2015)].

This basic assumption implies that collective action is needed to challenge the powerful, but the definitions of who has power and who does not are contentious, and discussion of a right to the city suggests that the inhabitants of a city should all have a right to urban life, which Harvey extends to include a right to the “production of space”.

Image result for david harvey rebel cities

However Harvey is keen to distinguish between the narrow perspective of “factory workers” as those who should be able to exercise a right to the city, to cover more broadly the urban working class; this leaves unresolved the question of how to identify those who are within this definition and those who are excluded; rich investment bankers who do work long hours in city offices might not be the people Harvey has in mind, but more broadly he seems to exclude those who accept neo-liberal ideas about profit and private property (and capitalists are defined, of course, as the outgroup). He does not quite spell out what he sees as the defining characteristics of a capitalist but he comments (p 93) that “every capitalist seeks to persuade consumers of the unique and non-replicable qualities of their commodities”.

If there is to be any prospect of people collectively being able to “make and re-make ourselves and our cities” achieving some degree of consensus on process and on outcomes is essential, and very challenging. Even if some democratic openness about choosing between possible developments can be made to work across the urban working class, power to make things happen is far less achievable than power to stop things which are rejected by a majority. (What gets imposed on a minority remains an issue.)

An important argument that Harvey puts forward is that capitalism fails because it depends on continuing economic expansion. He discusses the attempts to address what he defines, following Marx, as the “capital surplus disposal problem” and suggests that major urban restructuring, like Haussmann’s work in Second Empire Paris (covered in more detail in Harvey, 1985) was primarily intended to use capital. In Chapter 2 he looks closely at a number of similar situations where neoliberal freeing up of planning to allow wealthy investors to reconstruct the city environment is seen as stimulating economic growth (though, of course, often at an enormous human cost). Although he sees the following slow-downs or crashes as crises of capitalism the richest in society seem to cope pretty well (interestingly depicted too in Zola’s L’argent). Harvey recognises too the inevitability of financiers preferring to save developers from bankruptcy rather than protecting individual house purchasers (p 48).

Discussion of re-configuring cities seems to relate essentially to very large cities, and this re-inforces the idea that substantial capital investment is needed in order to make a noticeable difference; how capital is controlled may be as important as establishing meaningful ways of judging what people want from the cities they live in. (The neoliberal model of treating people as customers and basing need on what people are able and willing to pay is, of course, largely irrelevant here.) Swift (2014) argues that “We desperately need to be able to redirect finance … away from paper speculation … towards alternative projects of sustainability that would support democratic degrowth” (p 150) and he offers some specific suggestions on democratically controlled investment institutions that could be part of a solution. However Harvey might have little sympathy for such suggestions as he comments negatively on the French “dirigiste state”, though his later discussion of the Meidner plan to tax corporate profits to create worker control of businesses is more sympathetic.

Harvey says little to recognise that individual life cycles vary enormously so people’s goals and what they want and expect from or within their cities are not constant or consistent. However he is very dismissive of suburbia, partly, it seems, on the grounds that this is a choice made by the outgroup who are definitely not the urban working class.

Harvey does seem to see protest movements as having significant success, and in this respect he has common ground with David Graeber coming from a rather different, anarchist, perspective. This leads on to the question of whether urban protests have a specifically urban character, and this is not necessarily the case in relation to some of the broadest protests e.g. anti-war demonstrations in 2003 widely supported by people from outside major cities travelling to take part.

In Part 2 Harvey gives more emphasis to ways forward, and these include:

  1. Recognising that anti-poverty goes with anti-wealth;
  2. Adopting lifestyle changes to recognise environmental needs’
  3. Rejecting the emphasis on economic growth (like Swift’s support for degrowth).

Artefacts that demonstrate investment -driven reconfiguring of the city may be easy to identify. It may be rather more challenging to find and analyse artefacts which have been created through collective re-invention as these are likely to be smaller local changes rather than city-wide or large-scale.

Graeber, David (2012) Debt: the first 5,000 years, New York, Melville House

Harvey, David (1985)Consciousness and the urban experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

Harvey, David (2013)Rebel cities, London, Verso

Jones, Owen (2014) The Establishment, London, Penguin

Swift, Richard (2014) SOS Alternatives to Capitalism, Oxford, New Internationalist

Zola, Emile (1891/1969) L’Argent, Paris, Garnier