So, first, we had the whole Caster Semenya saga: a female athlete who is really good… so good indeed that it is suspicious. Is she really a woman? Let’s test. Ok, she is. But she is not feminine enough, so, let’s pump of her full of hormone to increase her femininity and lower her performance because she is getting way to close to men’s performance levels and that is just wrong.
And now, we have the Chinese Superwoman, as Le Monde calls her. We are talking about Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who’s killing it at the Olympic Games in London. She’s good. Too good. Well, she’s obviously a woman so her men-level performances can only be explained by doping (Chinese, y’know).
“The world of swimming may have spent 36 hours in a ferocious debate over the means by which she could achieve such astonishing feats, but the 16-year-old had other things on her mind. As the electronic beep sounded to mark the start of the race, she leapt from the blocks, put her head down, and swam.
On Saturday, Ye had stunned a crowd that thought it had already seen the shock of the evening 40 minutes before, when the great Michael Phelps failed to win a medal in the men’s 400m individual medley.
In the women’s race of the same event, Ye swam a final freestyle leg of such jawdropping acceleration that she overhauled the race leader, finishing almost three metres ahead in a time which shattered the world record. On Monday, in qualifying for Tuesday night’s event, she had gone on to break the Olympic record for the longer distance.
It was awesome, astonishing, unbelievable. And it didn’t take too long for a leading US coach to say what many had been muttering.”
And the real issue is this:
“La Chinoise Ye Shiwen, 16 ans, médaillée d’or sur 400m 4 nages samedi, a battu le record du monde de cette éprouvante discipline (4 m 28′ s 43 centièmes), mais elle a surtout crawlé les cent derniers mètres de sa course presque aussi vite queRyan Lochte (58 s 68 contre 58 s 65), sacré la veille chez les garçons, au terme du deuxième 400m 4 nages le plus rapide de l’Histoire (4 m 05 s 18 centièmes).”
She swam almost as fast as the male winner in the same category. Something is wrong. Except not:
It is interesting that when women performance improve and get closer in line with male performance, then, that is an issue. The same thing happens with scholarly achievement. How many books have been (and continue to be) written about the relative greater success of girls in school and women in universities? All of them deploring the loss of gender supremacy for boys and men. And sometimes calling not so subtly for a restoration of such supremacy through intervention (all couched in terms of making school less ‘feminine environments’ and more attuned to alleged masculine needs).
The case of these women athletes getting closer to men performance levels generates the same kind of anxieties, if not direct intervention, as in the case of Caster Semenya.
And so, the overpaid pompous pseudo-sociologist tells us all that the perpetrators of mass killings are driven by psychological factors: mental illness, bruised pride or loss of job. Nothing sociological. Psychology explains it all (insert obligatory disclaimer that we can never really know for sure!).
So, here we go again. Just like Jack Douglas described years ago the mechanisms of the social construction of suicide, there are equally mechanisms of the social construction of mental illness. As I joked on Facebook, killings by blacks are ghetto warfare, killings by Latinos are related to drug cartels, but killings by whites are individual acts of mental illness (note how Brooks goes digging for a non-white case). And for those of us who have seen Tough Guise, we already know that when women kill, then it’s all feminism’s fault, unless the killers are obviously non-feminist women (Andrea Yates), in which case, they’re obviously crazy (rather than committing in Yates’s case religiously-based violence). Different social categories, different conceptualization and categorization of the same type of action.
Similarly, to declare an act to be the product of mental illness does not just absolve (somewhat) the perpetrator from full responsibility. It also shuts down the discussion by placing the act as outside the scope of rational explanation. The person was crazy. We may shake our heads and deplore the state of mental health care but since such an action, being crazy, is, by definition, unpredictable and unexplainable… nothing to see. Let’s all pray for the victims of this senseless (!!) act.
What is then never discussed is HOW we define and socially construct mental illness. The flip side of this is that mental illness is so perceived because it is fully embedded in the culture as deviation from it. As I said when I discussed the Gabby Gifford shooting, the perpetrator did not choose to run naked in the streets or do something similarly outside of the norms that would get him labeled as crazy. In both cases, the perpetrators tapped into cultural and social resources: the availability of weapons, the use of the Internet, the rational selection of equipment, the choice of target. And certainly, the Aurora shooter was rather well prepared, all geared up and picked a dark, closed place, and picked the ‘right’ moment in the movie to start shooting. And, of course, he picked just the right movie (because crazy people do keep track of the box office).
None of this is psychological.
And then, of course, there is the big elephant in the room that Brooks conveniently ignores:
“Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem — a lost job, a divorce or a school failure — and decided to strike back in some showy way.”
And that, of course, is the gender thing. As is a major point in Tough Guise and is still true, in all these killings, the perpetrators are white males perceiving – and reacting to – the loss of privilege or dominant position and reclaiming it in a manly fashion. So, indeed, it may be a loss of control over one’s family with divorce or loss of custody (and in these cases, we see husbands / fathers killing their wives and children), the inability to get women (as the guy who shot women in an LA Gym after his implementation of pick-up artist techniques failed), loss of job (and therefore income and therefore ability to provide). And in the case of Breivik, the perceived loss of white supremacy to immigrants.
In all cases, the essential background is patriarchy. But somehow, this fact must never enter the discussion. Let’s just say these guys were crazy and move right along. The whole ” solving problems / satisfying fantasies through gun violence” cultural theme is gendered. This is the cultural background that these men tap into when they lash out.
And, of course, family / work / immigration are all social institutions and processes where we are embedded into a variety of social relations whose status determine our happiness / satisfaction / fulfillment (or the negative counterparts of these). Our emotions and feelings towards others (relative, co-workers, immigrants) are inherently social. It is in the “in-between” of these interactions between individuals that feelings are generated.
And, of course, Brooks makes the common mistake to assume that to look for sociological factors that have played a part in a killing means to excuse or justify the action. That is so profoundly stupid.
There is an intersection on my way to work where a lot of accidents happen. I can see why. It is a busy, yet poorly designed, intersection. To point out that the structure of this intersection may account for a generally higher level of accidents is not to exonerate the people who get into them. It simply means that the structure of this intersection (for which individual drivers are not responsible) makes accidents more likely than at other intersections when people cut it close at the light change (for which they are responsible). According to Brooks, people just happen to turn into bad drivers at this particular intersection. A proper sociologist would argue that it is the interaction between structural factors (the intersection) and certain drivers (careless ones) that explains the elevated accident rate.
Legitimately aggrieved according to mainstream media commentators like Brooks, but not crazy:
No big surprise here. There are no reasons to have heavy metal in African or Asia. It’s just not cultural place for this genre. And yes, Scandinavia and Iceland are well known bastions of heavy metal bands. But Greece and Portugal? The original articles notes these but does not provide an explanation either.
I miss Shootyz Groove. This album was running non-stop in my car when I drove hundreds of miles a week between UofC Stamford in CT and Western New England College in Springfield, MA (the blessed life of the adjunct). Too bad the band broke up after it:
“To be young in the post-industrial nations today is to be excluded. Excluded from the comforts enjoyed by preceding generations; excluded from jobs; excluded from hopes of a better world; excluded from self-ownership.
Those with degrees are owned by the banks before they leave college. Housing benefit is being choked off. Landlords now demand rents so high that only those with the better jobs can pay. Work has been sliced up and outsourced into a series of mindless repetitive tasks, whose practitioners are interchangeable. Through globalisation and standardisation, through unemployment and the erosion of collective bargaining and employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage.
The promise the old hold out to the young is a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity. A rentier class holds the nation’s children to ransom. Faced with these conditions, who can blame people for seeking an alternative?
But the alternatives have also been shut down: you are excluded yet you cannot opt out. The land – even disused land – is guarded as fiercely as the rest of the economy. Its ownership is scarcely less concentrated than it was when the Magna Carta was written. But today there is no Charter of the Forest (the document appended to the Magna Carta in 1217, granting the common people rights to use the royal estates). As Simon Moore, an articulate, well-read 27-year-old, explained, “those who control the land have enjoyed massive economic and political privileges. The relationship between land and democracy is a strong one, which is not widely understood.”
Well, there is one we can claim: Brazil’s former President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, one of the central thinkers of dependency theory (although not a massive radical). He is getting an award, so, he got to be interviewed by the Washington Post.
First an understandable mistake
“At the time, probably I was confusing sociology with socialism.”
“Then when I entered the university and I started to receive lessons, I was a bit disillusioned because it was so theoretical, my training. You know — what would I do with that? It took some time for me to realize the necessity of having a better understanding of how society works and then to try to change society a little bit.”
“Without development, it’d be impossible to solve problems. My main concern was on development as a tool to transform society. But development alone is not enough. . . . In the 1970s, the rate of growth in Brazil was very impressive. We used to speak about the “Brazilian miracle,” but if you look at data on income, you would see that income and inequality were worsening for some segments of Brazilian society. So it’s necessary to complement development with some measures of social justice. So you also need access to land for those who need land. And also a tax system that is less regressive than the system you normally have. And education. But, of course, since I believe in a capitalist society, we need to train people to have more skills and be able to compete. What’s important is more opportunities and try to use state power to become more egalitarian.”
On social inequality:
“The tipping point comes not only with what is going on materially, but also with the horizons of opportunity for the future. The lack of dreams, the lack of horizons. When you don’t see possibilities of moving ahead and the situation is worsening, then you have the possibility of a serious crisis.”
“I was criticized for the fact that my fiscal policy was not that strict and people asked for more — more austerity. My perception of the situation was, “Well, I have to be cautious, because people have to have hope.” If I instituted tremendous austerity without opening up possibilities for the future, it would be impossible to implement the policy. So I tried to combine the hope of the people — that is to say, to keep some degree of growth and to enforce austerity. Not just austerity, but also private investment — I asked people to invest in the country. In Europe, what’s happening is that people are being asked to be more austere. They’re cutting social policies without opening up windows of possibility for the people. I think this is what provokes unrest.
Also, just for fun, Cardoso and Lula then:
These presidents put ours to shame, frankly (they’re in the wrong order. It should be FHC, Lula, Rousseff):
It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).
My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.
The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:
“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?
Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?
To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)
At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.
“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.
China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.
These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).
But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)
This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.
Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:
“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.
Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)
Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:
“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)
It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.
Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:
“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.
The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.
All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.
In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)
As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.
This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.
In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.
I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:
In chapter 5 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on the role of the cities in the anti-capitalist struggle. This is not new:
“If urbanization is so crucial in the history of capital accumulation, and if the forces of capital and its innumerable allies must relentlessly mobilize to periodically revolutionize urban life, then class struggles of some sort, no matter whether they are explicitly recognized as such, are inevitably involved. This is so if only because the forces of capital have to struggle mightily to impose their will on an urban process and whole populations that can never, even under the most favorable of circumstances, be under their total control. An important strategic political question then follows: To what degree should anti-capitalist struggles explicitly focus and organize on the broad terrain of the city and the urban? And if they should do so, then how and exactly why?
The history of urban-based class struggles is stunning. The successive revolutionary movements in Paris from 1789 through 1830 and 1848 to the Commune of 1871 constitute the most obvious nineteenth-century example. Later events included the Petrograd Soviet, the Shanghai Communes of 1927 and 1967, the Seattle General Strike of 1919, the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the uprising in Córdoba in 1969, and the more general urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s, the urban-based movements of 1968 (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City, Bangkok, and others including the so-called “Prague Spring,” and the rise of neighborhood associations in Madrid that fronted the anti-Franco movement in Spain around the same time). And in more recent times we have witnessed echoes of these older struggles in the Seattle anti-globalization protests of 1999 (followed by similar protests in Quebec City, Genoa, and many other cities as part of a widespread alternative globalization movement). Most recently we have seen mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Plazas del Sol in Madrid and Catalunya in Barcelona, and in Syntagma Square in Athens, as well as revolutionary movements and rebellions in Oaxaca in Mexico, in Cochabamba (2000 and 2007) and El Alto (2003 and 2005) in Bolivia, along with very different but equally important political eruptions in Buenos Aires in 2001–02, and in Santiago in Chile (2006 and 2011).” (115 – 6)
So, the city is where the battle lines are being drawn in the 21st century. The powers that be know this and they are taking population control into account in urban planning, pretty much the same way that Haussmann designed the Parisian “grands boulevards” to facilitate cavalry charges and make building barricades more difficult. The city is now a site of global political control but also of potential anti-systemic social movements that can disrupt urban economic activities.
However, Harvey argues that the centrality of the city has been relatively ignored on the left as it privileged a social class / industrial proletarian view rather than a specifically urban analysis. And this perspective has not led to massive success:
“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.” (121)
The alternative then turned out to be taking control of the state… not much success here either:
“The rather dismal historical experience of centrally planned Stalinism and communism as it was actually practiced, and the ultimate failure of social-democratic reformism and protectionism to resist the growing power of capital to control the state and to dictate its policies, has led much of the contemporary left to conclude either that the “smashing of the state” is a necessary precursor to revolutionary transformation or that organizing production autonomously from within the state is the only viable path towards revolutionary change. The burden of politics thus shifts back to some form of worker, community, or localized control. The assumption is that the oppressive power of the state can be “withered away” as oppositional movements of various sorts—factory occupations, solidarity economies, collective autonomous movements, agrarian cooperatives, and the like—gather momentum within civil society. This amounts to what one might call a “termite theory” of revolutionary change: eating away at the institutional and material supports of capital until they collapse. This is not a dismissive term. Termites can inflict terrible damage, often hidden from easy detection. The problem is not lack of potential effectiveness; it is that, as soon as the damage wrought becomes too obvious and threatening, then capital is both able and all too willing to call in the exterminators (state powers) to deal with it.” (123 – 4)
The problem, for Harvey is what he calls the left’s fetishism of organizational forms and right now, it is the horizontal, non-hierarchical organizational form that seems to be popular with the Occupy movement, for instance , as opposed to previous infatuation with communes or various local forms of collectivities.
So, what alternative does Harvey proposes? For him, these alternatives must have some core bases:
How to reduce the massive impoverishment of the world and give most a chance to develop their potentials, human capacities and creative powers. And there are no two ways around poverty reduction: anti-poverty also means anti-wealth politics. Obscene global stratification has to be confronted head on.
How to reduce environmental degradation.
How to abolish the power of the capitalist law of value to regulate the world market.
So, is there a specifically urban anti-capitalist movement capable of addressing all three dimensions? After all, dynamics of exploitation are not limited to the factories and the cities can be seen as centers of accumulation by dispossession.
“These secondary forms of exploitation are primarily organized by merchants, landlords, and the financiers; and their effects are primarily felt in the living space, not in the factory. These forms of exploitation are and always have been vital to the overall dynamics of capital accumulation and the perpetuation of class power. Wage concessions to workers can, for example, be stolen back and recuperated for the capitalist class as a whole by merchant capitalists and landlords and, in contemporary conditions, even more viciously by the credit-mongers, the bankers, and the financiers. Practices of accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and profit-gouging, lie at the heart of many of the discontents that attach to the qualities of daily life for the mass of the population. Urban social movements typically mobilize around such questions, and they derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is organized around living as well as around working. Urban social movements therefore always have a class content even when they are primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails of social reproduction.” (128)
In other words, the city, not the factory, is the locus of surplus value production across a variety of actors beyond the factory worker. For Harvey, we need to change how we defined the working class as well as how we organize it.
The city is also central because that is where the wealthy are vulnerable:
“It is in fact in the cities that the wealthy classes are most vulnerable, not necessarily as persons but in terms of the value of the assets they control. It is for this reason that the capitalist state is gearing up for militarized urban struggles as the front line of class struggle in years to come.
Consider the flows not only of food and other consumer goods, but also of energy, water, and other necessities, and their vulnerabilities to disruption too.
Organizing the neighborhoods has been just as important in prosecuting labor struggles, as has organizing the workplace. One of the strengths of the factory occupations in Argentina that followed on the collapse of 2001 is that the cooperatively managed factories also turned themselves into neighborhood cultural and educational centers. They built bridges between the community and the workplace.
To the degree that conventional workplaces are disappearing in many parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world (though not, of course, in China or Bangladesh), organizing around not only work but also around conditions in the living space, while building bridges between the two, becomes even more crucial.
As the lens is widened on the social milieu in which struggle is occurring, the sense of who the proletariat might be and what their aspirations and organizational strategies might be is transformed. The gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when relations outside of the conventional factory (in both workplaces and living spaces) are brought firmly into the picture.” (131 – 2)
They key question, then, for Harvey, is how one organizes a city. This gets us back to the initial question of the right to the city as basic social demand and central organizing slogan. Why?
“The right to the city is not an exclusive individual right, but a focused collective right. It is inclusive not only of construction workers but also of all those who facilitate the reproduction of daily life: the caregivers and teachers, the sewer and subway repair men, the plumbers and electricians, the scaffold erectors and crane operators, the hospital workers and the truck, bus, and taxi drivers, the restaurant workers and the entertainers, the bank clerks and the city administrators. It seeks a unity from within an incredible diversity of fragmented social spaces and locations within innumerable divisions of labor. And there are many putative forms of organization.” (136 – 7)
And we already have a few examples of how one organizes a city through the case of the water wars in Cochabamba and El Alto in Bolivia.
Is this the future?
“Imagine in New York City, for example, the revival of the now largely somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization. What the story of El Alto suggests is that such a coalition will work only if the forces of culture and of a politically radical tradition (which most certainly exists in New York, as it also does in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) can be mobilized in such a way as to animate citizen-subjects (however fractious, as indeed is always the case in New York) behind a radically different project of urbanization to that dominated by the class interests of developers and financiers.” (150)
So, the National Geographic regularly publishes the Greendex (Green Index) with 19 countries, ranking them in terms of low Greendex (the “bad” countries) or high Greendex (the “good” countries):
“This is the fourth year National Geographic has partnered with GlobeScan to develop an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption. The key objectives of this unique consumer tracking survey are to provide regular quantitative measures of consumer behavior and to promote sustainable consumption.
Why? We want to inspire action both among the millions that the National Geographic brand touches worldwide and among others who will hear about this study. A chief component of this effort is giving people a better idea of how consumers in different countries are doing in taking action to preserve our planet by tracking, reporting, and promoting environmentally sustainable consumption and citizen behavior.
This quantitative consumer study of 17,000 consumers in a total of 17 countries (14 in 2008) asked about such behavior as energy use and conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the relative use of green products versus conventional products, attitudes toward the environment and sustainability, and knowledge of environmental issues. A group of international experts helped us determine the behaviors that were most critical to investigate.”
Obviously, the main issue is the number of countries not surveyed, especially in Africa and the Middle East. These are two big regions to be ignored.
At the same time, it is not surprising to find that core countries rank lower on the Greendex. Our consumption practices are certainly far from green.
And on this the article notes a twisted little logic at work:
“The study also demonstrates the perverse logic of sustainable thinking: “People in countries that were the least likely to make sustainable choices … were also more likely to feel like they could have a postive [sic] impact on the environment. People in developing countries, while more likely to report practicing sustainable behaviors, also said that they didn’t feel like individuals could do much to affect the environment””