"Rebel Cities" is world renown Geographer David Harvey's case for the modern urban city's importance as a battleground for the future of humanity. Neither a complacent hagiographer of the capitalist city nor a hopeless misanthrope of the James Kunstler variety, Harvey's most recent book on the capitalist city is clearly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Harvey has spent his entire career studying urban class conflict, urban social movements, and the political economy of built environments. Naturally, a book on this subject at this moment in history should be highly anticipated, coming from this author.
The overall goal of this book, which was constructed out of about four different articles Harvey composed (mainly) for the Socialist Register, is to argue that Marxism should conceive of the city as the stage of class conflict, as opposed to confining itself to merely challenging economic exploitation as it occurs in the workplace. Harvey argues this for several wide, yet compelling reasons. First, Harvey begins with a brief history of the urban world's relationship to modernity. In cities, the worst aspects of capitalism are often solidified into the very construction of the city itself. In Haussman's Paris, the authority of the French military was empowered by the construction of the city's new wide boulevards in the 19th century. In American cities, environmental unsustainability is as much a part of a city's streets as the pavement that covers it. For some critics, this makes cities unredeemable. I had more than one professor at my old college who spoke of the modern city as if it were Gamorrah, one giant mistake that produced nothing good, and never could. Harvey himself makes no excuses for the modern city's cultural fakeness or its negative environmental impact. However, Harvey sees these traits as indicative of inspiring possibilities. The loci of economic and political power that submerge the rest of society in inequality and destructiveness are located in cities- but so are the people most capable of stopping them (the 99%, the proletariat, whatever you want to call them). In the modern city, wide arrays of different people with tremendous creative powers are placed alongside one another. The capitalist class expends an astounding amount of energy in an effort to keep this from working against them, as the protesters in Zuccoti park learned the hard way, and is evident in the neo-liberal era's hostility towards public spaces. In tandem with modern technological possibilities, a widespread social movement undoubtedly could change the nature of the city itself, and combat the social and ecological ills elites impose on urban citizens. In my personal experience, many otherwise liberal types, and especially environmentalists, despair at the modern city's structural defects. As Harvey reminds the reader though, the solutions to seemingly overwhelming social conditions are often intrinsically tied to the conditions themselves, but we can only bring out these possibilities if the masses organize and reject the logic of capitalism.
The second part of the first section, which mainly constitutes chapters 2-3, argues that built environments (the environments that human beings construct) play an essential role in capitalist crisis that is largely ignored by both mainstream economics and even radical political economy. Continuing an argument he first formulated in The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition), Harvey claims that one of the most consistent contradictions of capitalism is the contradiction between the particularities of geography and the interchangeability of value. When economists discuss the trade of space, they speak about forests, neighborhoods, factories, and other spaces as if they're commodities. However, space cannot possibly be a commodity in this sense. Spaces are monopolies. When you cut down a forest, you have eliminated the trees! When you sell real estate, nobody can build a competing neighborhood on top of that one, and so on. Harvey examines recent economic crises across the world, with a particular emphasis on the U.S. and China, and notices that real estate played a critical role in virtually all of them, even crises such as the "Savings and Loan" crisis which isn't usually considered in this fashion. Harvey argues that this is because when capital accumulation becomes frustrated, and as a Marxist he assumes that profit rates inevitably have a downward momentum, that finance attempts to take advantage of the monopoly character of space by continually reselling built environments at ever-higher prices. Eventually though, the system becomes a debt-based pyramid scheme, which results in the ravaging of the entire economy.
The third theme that I was able to identify was the relationship between "commons," "enclosures," and the Marxian concept of value. Here, Harvey makes an elegant case for the idea that the Marxian conception of value should lead Leftists to view urban centers as if they were built solidifications of exploitation. Harvey briefly assesses Lockean, Smithean, and Marxian conceptions of value, and notices that even in Marx's case, the issue of collective value-production is rarely touched on. Harvey argues that the modern city, along with many modern political movements, demonstrate that this is an inexcusable oversight. Capitalists often like to defend the neo-liberal order claiming that it represents the principle that an individual should own what they work for. Harvey claims that they're almost right. It's difficult to disagree with the idea that if someone puts labor into something, then they have some kind of claim to it. The problem Harvey finds though, is that capitalism doesn't operate on this principle. Instead, it operates on the principle that all property and capital needs to be owned by an individual, which is not at all identical to the previously described conception of ethical value. Most of our labor has a collective element to it. We are surrounded by environments, cultural traditions, and practices that are collective in nature. On top of that, much of the private wealth owned by capitalists doesn't correspond to labor that they conducted, but rather the value that they were able to appropriate from the more collectivistic labor that was carried out in the process of production. If we follow this labor "principle" to its logical conclusion, then communities should collectively own the built environment in one way or another, and the wealth that capitalists accumulate does not deserve respect. Harvey identifies this struggle in various fights over commons and enclosures in various situations. When an enclosure obstructs capitalism, such as a nature preserve, or a plot of land owned by a group of peasants, it seeks to turn the enclosed space into a common on the market. However, when a common obstructs the operation of capital, capitalists seek to enclose the common, which happened in rural Europe at the beginning of the modern era, or the elimination of streets as a place of communal activity. Because of this, Harvey criticizes leftists who see the common-ization of everything as an inherent principle. The relationship between socialist value and the enclosure/commons distinction is more complicated than both libertarian-socialists and Marxists give it credit for.
The second section of the book is significant for Harvey's corpus, because as far as I know, it is the first time he has actually laid out a positive model for enacting social change. Harvey assesses two kinds of leftist movements: Movements that are anarchic in disposition, such as social ecology, Zapatistas, and worker's syndicates, and movements that are socialist in disposition, such as state socialism, Trotskyism, and more traditional left-union bodies. Harvey clearly identifies with both to some extent, but ultimately falls into the socialist camp. He strains through both traditions, harshly criticizing the failings of each, and praising their successes as well. He hybridizes both traditions in his own conclusion. He praises the anarchic traditions for promoting self-determination, skepticism of bureaucracy and involvement in empowering disadvantaged groups. However, he berates them for being too sporadic, and too prone to being co-opted by capitalist market forces. He argues that any anti-capitalist movement must be socialist, because capitalism is too powerful for anything less. Then, Harvey lays out a general (but surprisingly specific) vision for a socialist society that hybridizes municipal socialism and democratic state socialism. Municipalities must be highly responsive to the demands of its citizens, and are an ideal unit to promote communitarian lifestyles and human flourishing. At the same time, a state is necessary in order to keep the municipalities from exploiting one another, and to ensure that capitalism can transition into socialism in a geographically even manner.
Harvey finishes on an optimistic note. OWS may have somewhat subsided over the past few months, but we must remember that it didn't come out of nowhere. The 2000s were host to a US immigrant labor strike that nearly shut down both Chicago and LA, the largest anti-war movement in world history, the growing influence of the World Social Forum, the crippling of the WTO through street action, the Arab Spring, South American peasants' movements, the return of class struggle in China, and other mass movements and victories. The OWS itself is only one site of a larger wave of democratic political struggle that is sweeping the world. The last few pages of this section contain one of the most furious and acidic polemics against capitalism I've ever read, which I found to be very entertaining!
This book is an excellent synthesis of urban studies, political economy, and political theory. I suspect that my reading of this book was enriched by my familiarity with Harvey's past works. Harvey assumes that the reader understands the Marxist conception of value, exploitation, the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall, and class. If the reader is not familiar with these terms, or how Harvey uses them in his own writings, then this book may get a little confusing, or appear to rest on many unstated assumptions. However, this is somewhat inevitable when a scholar applies his theories to a specific subject. Harvey has managed to impress yet again. HIGHLY recommended!
"David Harvey provoked a revolution in his field and has inspired a generation of radical intellectuals." Naomi Klein "Harvey is a scholarly radical; his writing is free of journalistic cliches, full of facts and carefully thought-through ideas." Richard Sennett Praise for Limits to Capital: "A magisterial work." Fredric Jameson