July 15, 2012 by SocProf and tagged Activism, book review, Commodification, Corporatism, Global Cities, Globalization, Labor, Power, Public Policy, Social Change, Social Movements, Sociology, Urban Ecology
I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:
- the fetishism of the local and the horizontal
- monopoly rent and local capitalism
- the cities in the context of the anti-capitalist struggle
- And more broadly on global cities.
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:
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