Book Review: David Harvey, “Rebel Cities”

David Harvey
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, 2012. London/New York, NY: Verso Books.

Within Marxist economics, David Harvey has made himself a specialist in questions of space, place, and geography, and this book is a specific application of that body of thought to the urban. Previously, Harvey had written on the history of Paris as the development of modernity, on spatial differentiation of global capitalism, and similar topics; now, he has turned his eye on the city in the modern day, and the role of urban struggle in the struggle against capitalism more generally. In so doing, he makes a number of very valuable points of analysis. While he is at times, especially in the first chapter, somewhat vague in his summaries of (financial) capitalism generally, he is excellent when it comes to explaining the significance and particulars of the spatial dimension and the way it applies to the city. Harvey’s analysis focuses on the city in two ways: first, as site of the generation of rents, and the role that rent plays in the accumulation of capital; and secondly, as a commons, created by the collective physical and symbolic production of its inhabitants.

On the former topic, his chapter on wine-making is particularly excellent, using this perhaps obscure topic to delineate how different kinds of rent are the practical form of accumulation and thereby structure its production from beginning to end. One important aspect here that Harvey rightly, and quite originally, underlines is the necessarily subjective nature of rent: because rent is a category of distribution, it is entirely dependent on the social convention of property, and thereby requires constant efforts to reinforce those symbolic and subjective discourses and ideologies that underpin its existence as property. Not just in the sense of respecting the private ownership of intellectual goods or of land, but also in the ability of companies to appropriate the symbolic value attached to a particular place and social geography, a fictitious value produced by its history and cultural significance. From tourism to advertising, a considerable degree of of capitalist activity concerns itself with such second-order appropriations. This also posits such cultural, symbolic and historical spheres as sites of struggle, where class conflict may arise over such appropriations and the desire of those living in those spaces, or reproducing those symbolic values, to reclaim them as a commons.

The second point, with regard to the city itself as commons, is the mainstay of the book. Here, Harvey outlines the potential of understanding the urban struggles, whether over housing, rent, open spaces, parks, safety, public transport, or whatever, as elementary forms of class struggle. He rightly excoriates those who would withdraw from cities and their struggles into the minimal forms of self-association in remote areas or self-contained communal houses, or who believe that it is sufficient to have self-governing municipalities and localism and decentralization above all else – as he rightly points out, neoliberalism can be decidedly accomodating to localism and decentralization, and smaller is not always better. But he also emphasizes the role of urbanization worldwide in creating a historically uniquely urban working class, a clear locus of potential for vigorous struggle against capitalism, and rightly calls on communist theorists to follow anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin’s example in developing adequate ideas for an urban socialist future (Bookchin 1993). At times, Harvey certainly veers too strongly in the direction of claiming originality here – he attacks Marxists for having ignored urban struggles and the newly precarious workforce as being equal participants in the class struggle with factory workers, but this is largely a strawman. Indeed, for most of the history of capitalism, and in most parts of the world, the description of “temporary, itinerant, insecure and precarious” has attached to industrial work as much as anything, and therefore this is nothing new. But the historical move to a worldwide urban working class majority is indeed new, and of great significance for Marxist thought.

For Harvey, then, the ‘right to the city’ is his proposal for what traditionally would be called a ‘transitional demand’: a political form of struggle and a way of organizing which is not anticapitalist per se, but will necessarily have to organize against capitalism to succeed, and has the potential to organize a broad array of very diverse groups. This is plausible and important. The question, of course, is as Harvey himself asks: how does one organize a city? Of great significance here, especially in the wake of the fiasco in Wisconsin recently, is his use of American union theorists Fletcher and Gapasin (Fletcher & Gapasin 2009) in seeking to broaden the traditional union struggles to comport with the real significance of rent and accumulation through rent in the life experience of the urban population. One major argument of this book is that the significance of rent has been understated by Marxist analysis as a practical and political site of struggle, mainly because as a distributional category it plays a subsidiary role in the pure theory presented in “Capital”. This has in many cases led to an unacceptable narrowing of the activities of communist parties and movements as well as of labor unions, restricting their activities to those workers immediately occupied in production of commodities. Instead, as Fletcher & Gapasin rightly write, and Harvey cites: “If class struggle is not restricted to the workplace, then neither should unions be”. Connecting such struggles with the wider struggles of unemployed people, of marginal workers of all sorts, of those engaged in domestic work and reproduction, and with the questions of practical life in the city outside the workplace are important ways forward for socialist organization and for a revival of unions; not just in Third World communities like El Alto in Bolivia or the Zapatistas in Chiapas, but at least as much for having a chance to organize urban Westerners against capitalist interests. At times, Harvey’s suggestions here move somewhat in the direction of reformist ‘municipal socialism’, although he is right to point to the real accomplishments of those administrations. But with the Occupy movement in mind, Harvey’s throwing down of the gauntlet to find an appropriate, centralizing, and internationalist urban basis for communism is a challenge that our best minds should seek to answer.

– Bookchin, Murray. 1993. Urbanization without Cities: Rise and Fall of Citizenship. Montreal, QC: Black Rose Books.
– Fletcher, Bill and Gapasin, Fernando. 2009. Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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