Rebel Cities

“David Harvey provoked a revolution in his field and has inspired a generation of radical intellectuals.”

– Naomi Klein

Ewan Mcdonald reviews David Harvey’s new book ‘Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’ and makes suggestions for how Scottish cities could be radically re-ordered post-independence.

Resurgent anti-capitalism and urban social movements must unite to build the socialist city; such is the clarion call of Rebel Cities, David Harvey’s most recent book. An essential thesis for adoption by the radical left, it presents the source of the current capitalist crisis, and previous crises, as distinctly propertied in form. The ‘boom and bust’ pattern of macro-economic development is attributed to the operation of the global ‘urban property machine’ composed of state and private developers, and mortgage securitisation and other financial institutions. Harvey charts urban development in 19th Century Paris, the progression of the New York skyline and the recent sub-prime mortgage disaster in the U.S. as precursors to capitalist crises. Rebel Cities declares therefore that the objective for socialists is abolition of the capitalist law of property.

The Right to the City movements and Lefebvre’s vision of an urban landscape free from alienation are central to Harvey’s argument. Lefebvre, in 1960s France, depicts the ‘glum desperation of marginalisation’ evident in cities, a burgeoning of unemployment and idle youth whilst rampant commercialism, commodification and gentrification persist. Such a description befits a London 40 years later where riots have erupted, actually picked up in the book’s postscript as an example of ‘feral capitalism’. The political task which Lefebvre sees though is one of imagination and urban transformation, agitating for an entirely different city free from the ‘disgusting mess’ of urbanising capital.

The Right to the City social movements emanating from U.S. but also present in Latin America and Europe, are inspired by collective action in claiming such an imagined ‘city’. Democratisation of housing provision and participatory budgeting in Brazil is cited by Harvey as an example of Right to the City struggles for full democratic decision-making. Unsurprisingly, such urban social movements tend to be dismissed by some on the traditional left as limited and reformist in scope, rather than meaningful and revolutionary. Rebel Cities deconstructs such criticism in numerous dialectical spheres throughout, including analysis of capital accumulation and monopoly rent as well as the reproduction of capital. Harvey declares that ‘only when politics focuses on the production and reproduction of urban life as the central labour process out of which revolutionary impulses arise will it be possible to mobilise anti-capitalist struggles capable of radically transforming daily life.’

In the first chapter, Harvey returns to the themes of his previous book, ‘The Enigma of Capital’, in describing the circumventing characteristic of capital. As capital is on a perpetual search for surplus value so debt and finance must be applied to service property expansion. Harvey charts Haussmann’s public works programme and subsequent crash in 1860′s Paris as a prima facie example of circumvention, a prelude to the 1871 Paris Commune act of resistance. The existence of property bubbles and their effect on macro-economies is detailed in chapter 2, with focus on the ‘fictitious capital’ of US sub-prime and the debacle of over leveraged mortgage financiers and developers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The consequent predatory practice of repossession by lenders is also discussed as well as the history of ‘blockbusting’ tactics by landlords in inner areas of US cities.

Chapter 3 concerns the challenges for urban social movements in creating urban commons that can avoid being appropriated by state or real estate interests. Syntmagma Square and Tahrir Square are viewed as successes in this regard, centres of public education which can make political demands. Harvey emphasises the importance of ‘relational’ attributes to such spaces in order that creative ways can be found to harness the power of collective labour.

Monopoly rent and globalised urbanisation are discussed in Chapter 4, with an illustration of how niche markets and cultural meanings are colonised by the accumulation of capital. Harvey argues though that not all cultural activity is economically determined and autonomy of culture on its own terms can exist, such as in Porto Allegre and ‘Red’ Bologna in the 1960s. Therefore, as part of creating an urban commons, Right to the City movements must engage in ‘vibrant anti-commodification politics.’

The crucial polemic for the left in Rebel Cities however lies in the final chapter where models and ideas for the socialist city are presented. Harvey states that in order to ‘re-create the city as a socialist body politic’ and eradicate poverty and environmental degradation ‘destructive forms of urbanisation’ have to be stopped. To this end Harvey develops the work of anti-statist Murray Bookchin and ‘confederalism’ whereby urban networks can be both hierarchal and democratic through ‘nested’ affiliation of unions, and neighbourhood and cultural groups. Argentinian solidarity in neighbourhoods and municipal networked community groups, such as Ken Livingstone’s GLC in 1980′s, are likened to such models. Harvey’s main focus as a guide for reclaiming the city however is El Alton in Bolivia, where an affiliation includes smallholders, artisan guilds and labour unions, with cultural events fundamental to the movement’s viability. In essence the emphasis of Rebel Cities is that more attention should be paid by leftists to geographical structures or neighbourhood organising rather than the standard sectorial or labour approach.

A number of criticisms can be attached to the book; a lack of flow of argument as a result of it being constructed from a series of previously published articles; very little attention to gender in the context of capital reproduction and Right to the City; and the postscript on the London Riots appears as an odd moralising rant rather than a serious deconstruction of the events. Notwithstanding these limitations however the analysis and ideas discussed in Rebel Cities can be of great significance to socialists in developing alternatives to neo-liberalism for local contexts.

In Scotland the independence referendum offers the Left an opportunity to articulate demands for how our cities should be organised. The Radical Independence Conference is a forum for which progressive ideas for a fair, equal and sustainable Scotland can emerge. Harvey’s ‘Rebel Cities’ inspires the following five suggestions for a radical re-ordering of Scottish cities post-independence: (i) the restructuring of the Scottish economy to productive not fictitious property-based capital (ii) the abolition of city-wide local authorities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh to include North, East, West and South administrations, thus weakening the monopoly rent component of capital accumulation (iii) more powers for community councils including for housing, parks & leisure, capital investment and economic development (iv) nested affiliations of community councils, housing groups, unions and small traders (v) participatory budgeting to be incorporated into community council and affiliated bodies decisions over capital expenditure.

First published at ISG  here, with thanks.

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