David Harvey’s new book explores the intersections between capitalism and the city, and is fascinating and frustrating by turns, finds Dan Poulton

David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso 2012), xviii, 187pp.

David Harvey attempts two main aims in his latest book, Rebel Cities. One is to integrate his Marxist theory of urbanisation into the ‘general laws of motion’ of capital, and to provide a framework for analysing the current crisis and the development of neoliberal trends in globalisation. The other is to construct a strategic approach to building an anti-capitalist movement that can transform urban spaces to the benefit of those that are presently exploited by the class-nature of urbanisation. In Harvey’s analysis urbanisation is both the product of and the driving force for the absorption of ‘surplus product’ (on which see below) in the process of capital accumulation.

It is perhaps too ambitious to cover both aims in such a short book, and as such Rebel Cities often reads like an extended notebook, with each observation begging to be expanded in further detail. There is a lot to stimulate thought, and much that is provocative and useful, but it must be said that there is an unevenness about the book; in particular the theoretical does not relate to the strategic in an entirely convincing manner.

Liberal theories of ‘globalisation’ and ‘development’ are put to bed by Harvey’s relentless focus on capital accumulation as the prime mover of urban development. The flip side of this is that his strategic arguments emerge directly from his theoretical focus on urbanisation in particular as opposed to from an assessment of the consciousness, and indeed, immediate concerns, of people in struggle. He does not want to be characterised as a ‘specialist’ but his political arguments conform too closely to his academic field of urban geography for his denial to be entirely convincing.

The Right to the city

This is most apparent in his raising of the slogan ‘the right to the city’, one of the key themes of the book. The phrase was coined by the Marxist intellectual Henry Lefebvre in 1968 in response to the upsurge of urban struggle that exploded in France during May of that year. Harvey seeks to root the notion in the concrete reality of struggle, telling us that the right to the city does not ‘arise primarily out of various intellectual fascinations and fads …  It primarily rises up from the streets, out from the neighbourhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times’ (p.xiii).

For Lefebvre, ‘revolutionary movements frequently if not always assume an urban dimension’. Nonetheless, Harvey adds, ‘it is still the case that much of the traditional left has had trouble grappling with the revolutionary potential of urban social movements’, which are often dismissed as reformist (p.xiii). This rather sweeping statement is never fully elucidated and there is no mention made of the strategy of the ‘united front’, advocated by major figures like Gramsci, Trotsky and Lenin. This approach was precisely aimed at bridging the gap between reformists and revolutionaries.

One problem with the ‘right to the city’ slogan is that it feels a very abstract concept compared to the slogans that stand out in recent decades: ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’; ‘That’s not what democracy looks like!’; ‘Stop the war’; ‘Occupy!’; ‘We are the 99%’; ‘No cuts’. Can it really be said that ‘the right to the city’ is the unifying theme behind these slogans? Of course urban life is the main battlefield of most political struggles in the developed west, but most slogans cannot be reduced to such a general level without losing their ability to mobilise masses of people reacting to the myriad political and social problems of the day.

In a way, Harvey appears to recognise this. Despite his assertion that, due to a rapid process of urbanisation over many years, ‘the mass of humanity is thus increasingly being absorbed within the ferments and cross-currents of urbanised life’, nonetheless ‘the right to the city is an empty signifier’, which socialists must struggle to advance along class lines and in opposition to the ‘equal rights’ of the capitalist class (he reminds of us Marx’s adage that ‘between equal rights force decides’ (p.xv).

It is unclear why Harvey is so keen on structuring a mass movement around a slogan that he himself admits is abstract, when so many concrete slogans are vying for attention. The various urban movements discussed in the book tackle the conceptual and practical problems which the slogan evokes, but that seems merely to corroborate the reflexive nature of Lefebvre’s ‘empty signifier’. A slogan predicated on the ubiquitous nature of ‘urbanisation’ runs the risk of explaining both everything and nothing.

Ultimately Harvey envisions the right to the city as a driving principle behind a reconstitution of ‘a totally different kind of city’ than the exclusionary and class-riven kind which exists under capitalism. To this end he claims the necessity of ‘a vigorous anti-capitalist movement that focuses on the transformation of daily urban life as its goal’ (p.xvi). This is at times reformulated as a demand for democratic control over the surplus product and so on. These are of course desirable objects of revolutionary struggle, but we are left with no obvious mechanisms for attaining such control. There is no discussion of direct challenges to state power, which would be the obvious consequence of any anti-capitalist uprising in a modern city, as the Arab Revolutions (absent from the book) testify.

‘Only when politics focuses on the production and reproduction of urban life as the central labor process out of which revolutionary impulses arise,’ we are told in the preface, ‘will it be possible to mobilize anti-capitalist struggles capable of radically transforming daily life.’ Later he observes that, ‘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 … and to do so in a fundamental and radical way’ (p.5). There seems to be a high level of abstraction to the formulation of the slogan here.

Most movements are messy, uneven and infused with contradictory class consciousness, let alone actual class differentiation in their composition. Some sort of intermediary, transitional, political argumentation is presumably needed if a truly mass movement is to be created. Revolutionaries will not make much impact by simply chanting revolutionary slogans. This is not to advocate reformism, but to acknowledge that it is through the process of urban struggle that wider sections of society can be won to revolutionary action, though that is rarely their initial starting point.

Harvey seems down on contemporary movements for change, though this is unwarranted. Indeed, the anti-capitalist movement centred on the 1999 Seattle protests fractured the World Trade Organisation which has never been quite the same since. If the anti-capitalist movement died away, or rather was largely diverted into the global anti-war movement, now its spirit surely resides in Occupy and indeed in the European left resurgence of recent months, as represented by Syriza, the Indignados, Front De Gauche and so on. And for all its limitations the 99% slogan has already raised the spectre of class-based movement politics in a more overt way than the ‘right to the city’ slogan is capable of without significant qualifications.

Marxism and urbanisation

It is when Harvey is analysing the relationship between capital accumulation and urbanisation that the book is most enlightening. ‘From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product,’ he explains. ‘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 … This general situation persists under capitalism, of course, but in this case there is a rather different dynamic at work’ (p.5).

Capitalism is about producing surplus value (the origin of concrete profit) and this requires the production of surplus product: ‘This means that capitalism is perpetually producing the surplus product that urbanization requires. The reverse relation also holds. Capitalism needs urbanization to absorb the surplus products it perpetually produces’ (p.5). As a result, over time, periods of capital expansion correspond with periods of urbanisation. ‘The politics of capitalism are affected by the perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital surplus production and absorption’ (p.5).

Labour shortages and high wages must be tackled by capitalists to remove any ‘obstacles to continuous and trouble-free expansion’ (p.6). This can be done by using technology to displace workers or by assaults on organised labour as orchestrated by Thatcher and Reagan in the 80s. Alternatively (or, as history transpires, as well as this) new sources of labour need to be found through immigration, outsourcing, or the ‘proletarianization of hitherto independent elements in the population’ (p.6).

The hunt for new means of production and resources puts increasing pressure on the natural environment. The ever growing expansion of capital not only necessitates geographical expansion in itself but leads to the opening of new markets once existing ones have been exhausted, leading to the creation of new lifestyles and product promotion. Finally new ‘credit instruments and debt-financed state expenditures’ arise and ‘monopolization (mergers and acquisitions), and capital exports to fresh pastures provide ways out’. If any of these ‘barriers’ becomes ‘impossible to circumvent’, then capitalism enters crisis (p.6).

The 1848 crisis in Second Republic Paris saw ‘unemployed surplus capital and surplus labour side-by-side …’ (p.7). The result was an abortive revolution and a wave of repression, as well as the ascent of Louis Bonaparte, who came to power in 1852 as Napoleon III. However political repression was not enough. He also had to solve the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ (p.7). He did this through a massive programme of state-funded ‘infrastructural investment both at home and abroad’ (p.7). The result was investment in railroads in Europe and the Orient (and support for the Suez Canal), and railway, port and harbour construction and so on at home.

To do this he brought in the civic planner Baron Haussmann who ‘clearly understood that his mission was to help solve the surplus capital and unemployment problem by way of urbanization’ (p.7). Haussmann completely transformed the city on a massive scale. As Harvey notes, he effectively set up a ‘Keynesian system of debt-financed infrastructural urban improvements’ (p.8). But then the inevitable happened. The ‘overextended’ system of speculative finance and credit structures crashed in 1868. Haussmann was sacked and, ‘in desperation’, Napoleon went to war with Germany. These conditions lead to the Paris Commune, ‘one of the greatest revolutionary episodes in capitalist urban history’ (p.8).

The splits that emerged within the Commune, between the ‘hierarchical’ Jacobins and the ‘horizontalist’ Proudhonists still divide the left between Marxists and anarchists today, he argues.

Harvey’s apparent desire (implied throughout the book) for the left movement to coalesce around a single Marxist approach to radical action, bolstered by the appropriate approach to interpreting Marx, is of course, wishful thinking. Nonetheless, the battle for hegemony is real and necessary if an anti-capitalist movement is ever to challenge capitalist power in a serious way.  This, of course, urgently raises the question of challenging state power in a very concrete way. However Harvey downplays the question of organisation in favour of in-depth analysis of various forms of radical social institutions. Lengthy discussion of the pitfalls of various forms of municipal socialist governance structures, infused with philosophical explication of notions of ‘the commons’ are interesting but seem many steps removed from the present state of anti-capitalist struggle.

Approaches to Marxist theory

Rebel Cities is most stimulating when engaging with questions of Marxist methodology. Harvey’s non-dogmatic approach to Marxist analysis means that he avoids some of the pitfalls of orthodoxy. The flip side is that he does not take questions of state power seriously.

Harvey reveals that the World Bank continues to push neoliberal policies despite the devastating crash of 2007/8 which was of course predicated on the extensive period of deregulation and marketisation of the past three decades. By placing property rights above all other rights and pushing for ‘fluid land and property markets’ the seeds are sown of future class division (p.28): ‘But land is not a commodity in the ordinary sense. It is a fictitious form of capital that derives from expectations of future rents. Maximizing its yield has driven low or even moderate-income households out of Manhattan and central London over the last few years, with catastrophic effects on class disparities and the well-being of underprivileged populations’ (p.29).

Harvey also draws the link between ‘gentrification’ and rising rent prices. His brilliantly simple observation that the development of parklands directly correlates to rising rents is an invaluable tool for understanding some of the more insidious aspects of ‘gentrification’. One only needs to look at the regeneration programme rolled out in East London for the Olympic Games to see this phenomenon in action.

By placing data on financialisation and debt creation alongside property booms a remarkable link between urbanisation and crisis emerges. Because of significant time delays between investment and construction, new builds tend to emerge at the same time that crashes happen. This of course creates crises of over-production and feeds into market volatility (see the charts on pp.33-34).  This is starkly illustrated by a chart mapping tall buildings constructed in New York City over the twentieth century: ‘The property booms that preceded the crashes of 1929, 1973, 1987, and 2000 stand out like a pikestaff’ (p.32).

However, if bourgeois economists are oblivious to the nature of contemporary crisis, and view urbanisation as inferior or irrelevant to macroeconomic policy, Harvey argues that Marxists have also largely failed to explain the present crisis: ‘… the structure of thinking within Marxism generally is distressingly similar to that within bourgeois economics. The urbanists are viewed as specialists, while the truly significant core of macroeconomic Marxist theorizing lies elsewhere’ (p.35). He is concerned that there has been little concrete attention paid to the specific nature of the post-2007 crash: ‘… there has been no serious attempt to integrate an understanding of processes of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general theory of the laws of motion of capital. As a consequence, many Marxist theorists, who love crises to death, tend to treat the recent crash as an obvious manifestation of their favoured version of Marxist crisis theory’ (p.35).  

Harvey identifies an inevitable paradox in Marx’s theory. Marx was deliberately generalising the specific features of capitalism and crisis of his era in order to give an insight into the ‘laws of motion’ of capital in general. By relating the specific to the general he was performing a necessary act of theoretical abstraction. That is what makes his theories relevant today, although we are living in a different world (nonetheless, one that more profoundly conforms to his depiction of capital accumulation than did the world in his day).

Nevertheless, this theoretical gift is a double edged sword. The task of Marxists today, as Harvey explains, is to relate the specific features of capital peculiar to our times to the general understanding of capital that Marx provided. The danger is that Marxists continue to operate at a generalised level of abstraction that fails to provide concrete explanations for today’s crisis: ‘We cannot hope, therefore, to explain actual events (such as the crisis of 2007-09) simply in terms of the general laws of motion of capital (this is one of my objections to those who try to cram the facts of the present crisis into some theory of the falling rate of profit). But, conversely, we cannot attempt such an explanation without reference to the general laws of motion of capital’ (p.39).

Harvey seeks the integration of ‘credit into the general theory’ in such a way that maintains ‘albeit in a transformed state, the theoretical insights already gained’. We cannot see the credit system as a free-floating entity unrelated to real economic activity on the ground, but nonetheless much of the credit system is ‘fundamental and absolutely necessary to the functioning of capital’ (p.39).

There is much to be gained from Harvey’s ‘back to the drawing board’ approach to Marxist theorising, but one cannot avoid the feeling that certain wheels are being reinvented here. Lenin’s writings on imperialism explain a lot in terms of the relationship between a decaying and parasitic capitalism and financialisation. The post ’89 period of globalisation, driven by and largely beneficial to US hegemony, entailed the opening up of the formerly state capitalist economies of the Soviet bloc to a specifically neoliberal form of imperial expansion. It was finance, not pure military power, which drove forward imperial hegemony on behalf of the Western powers. As Harvey points out, the European Union was a primarily neoliberal formation (constructed, not incidentally, in the wake of Soviet collapse). There is perhaps not a gaping chasm between ‘orthodox’ Marxist theorising and convincing answers to today’s global conjuncture, it is just that Marxists have to up their game and cannot afford to be complacent on key issues.

Rebel city

As Harvey acknowledges, one of the major barriers to understanding how a city might be organised along radical, anti-capitalist lines is a lack of available data. With notable exceptions like the Paris Commune and the early days of Russian socialism, real life examples of actual ‘rebel cities’ are few and far between. This may explain some of the book’s lengthy philosophical digressions into ‘the right to the commons’ (chapter 3), ‘nested hierarchical governance structures’ (chapter 5) and so on.

‘How, then, does one organize a city?’ he asks in chapter 5, ‘reclaiming the city for anti-capitalist struggle’. The ‘honest answer’ he tells us, is ‘we simply do not know’ (p.140). This starting point could make for a short chapter, but he goes on to ‘search for clues’ in the recent example of the rebellious city of El Alto, a large urban centre in La Paz, Bolivia. As Harvey explains, it was here that ‘rebellious movements arose to force the resignation of the pro-neoliberal president, Sanchez de Lozada, in October 2003, and to do the same to his successor, Carlos Mesa, in 2005’. In Bolivia, Harvey notes, it was resistance to ‘violent’ neoliberal measures that led to the election of leftist Evo Morales to power in 2005.

It was the nation-wide and regional experience of oppression and economic exploitation that provided the context for El Alto’s emergent radicalism (p.149). The local experience of the marginalisation of various indigenous social groups, fused with class-based solidarity, created El Alto’s unique radical identity, Harvey argues, citing various academic works including Sian Lazar’s book, El Alto: Rebel City. For Lazar, ‘citizenship in the indigenous city of El Alto involves a mix of urban and rural, collectivism and individualism, egalitarianism and hierarchy. The alternative visions of democracy that are being produced have reinvigorated national and regional indigenous movements by the ways that they combine class-based and nationalist concerns with identity politics, through the contestation over the ownership of the means of social reproduction and the nature of the state’ (p.149). Harvey concludes on this basis that it is possible to organise ‘a political city out of the debilitating processes of neoliberal urbanization, and thereby reclaim the city for anti-capitalist struggle’.

This is an uneven, at times problematic, but often insightful book, and its essential affirmation of the potential of radical anti-capitalist struggle in the neoliberal era is very welcome at a time when the stakes have never been higher.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.