Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

By David Harvey
Verso Press, November 30, 2011, $21.00

David Harvey, anthropology professor, geographer and authority on Karl Marx’s work Capital, has just published Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. The book addresses the state of inequality in capitalist society, the role of the city as concentration point of struggle around that, and the prospects for a different world.

Aaron Leonard spoke with him recently in his office at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Aaron Leonard: Why do you call the book, Rebel Cities?

David Harvey: One of the questions I’m asking is what is the role of the city in anti-capitalist struggle. Clearly a lot of struggles against capitalism occur in the cities, but there is a lot of struggle going on about cities which are actually about the capitalist mode of urbanization. So it seemed to me, putting that all together, we ought to be rebelling against this through urban struggles as well as the struggles which we often hear talked, everything from peasant rebellions, to classical class-struggles around labor organizing and the like.

I am saying there is another terrain of struggle, which is over the city. In the same way there is a long history of peasant rebellions, there is a long history of rebellions going on in cities, general strikes and such. If you look at the American Revolution, while it ended up being fairly rural, it began in the port cites — in the taverns where people would argue and debate — that is where much of the thought of getting rid of the British came from. I thought that it would be a striking thing to insert that theme into the political dialogue right now.

AL: In the first part of your book, in discussing the concept of fictitious capital, you quote Karl Marx.

“All connection with the actual process of capital’s valorization is lost, right down to the last trace, confirming the notion that capital is automatically valorized by its own powers.” (Capital, Vol. III p. 597)

It seems that description gets at the nub of a number of points of confusion — that somehow value, wealth, economic health, or whatever you wish to call it, gets ascribed to something other than what actually determines it. Could you talk about what this means and why Marx such an important reference in understanding our present circumstances?

DH: I have taught and written about Marx for many years and have a bit of a project to make Marx comprehensible to people. In my view Marx has one of the most sophisticated understandings of how capitalism works — and the problems that are attached to the ways in which it works — of any writer who has ever tried to really dissect capitalism.

You’ve got 11,000 economists in the United States and none of them saw the crisis coming. In Marx’s theory you can see exactly where the tensions build up, in his words, where the contradictions come from. One thing I try to do is make it as comprehensible as I can while at the same time redirect people, to say you may want to go back and read Marx because he has these wonderful understandings.

For example, before the current [financial] mess, we would put our money in a savings bank and expect it to grow by three per cent. We put money in a pension fund and expect it to grow by four or five per cent per year. We don’t ask, where did that four or five per cent come from? It seems magical, disconnected entirely from the people in the factories, fields and mines who made it. What Marx does is to connect the two and say look if there is an increase of some kind, then somebody’s making it somewhere. Who’s making it? Labour is making it down in the mine, out in the field and in the factories… and when you take it further in the home.

What then happens is in the financial system, banks lend to banks, they leverage on each other and magically they become incredibly richer. Hedge fund managers can get three billion dollars personal renumeration in one year. Where does that wealth come from? Marx is always asking that type of question. But we live in a world where this category of fictitious capital has really taken off, and much of Wall Street functions in a form of fictitious capital where nobody knows what really grounds it. It’s magical, yet it produces this vast rate of return for all the people who are managing it. That is the kind of world that Marx is very good at penetrating and depicting. I am saying that we have to understand how that works, but by the way, Marx understood this very well. To the degree I understand it comes from my studies of Marx.

AL: You ask in the book: “Where is our ’68?, or even more dramatically our version of the Commune?” [the Paris Commune of 1871]. What do you mean?

DH: I am struck by the enormous disparities and inequalities that exist in society. To give you a simple case study about New York City. The top one per cent earns on average something like $3.7 million dollars a year. That means that they are earning about $10,000 a day. There are a million people in New York City who are trying to live on $10,000 a year. Half of the population of the City are earning less than $30,000 a year. We haven’t seen such disparities since the 1920s.

In the past, these inequalities have generated, at some point, a revolt and I have been looking for the last few years to see, where is the revolt? We saw some of it in the anti-globalization movement in Seattle and Montreal and now we have such things as Occupy Wall Street. But we haven’t seen a mass of the population rising up and saying, “Enough is enough! Stop it.” Part of the reason is politics is entirely ruled by money power. The top one percent dominate all political discourse, the media and [exercise control] through Congressional influence.

I think underneath it there is this sort of volcano waiting to explode. I am waiting for it to happen and am surprised it hasn’t. Where is our ’68, Where is our Paris Commune? It hasn’t come. We are beginning to see signs of it coming in various parts of the world.

The place where it has really come big time, is in Chile. The Chilean student movement has occupied all the universities. They are attacking Pinochetism. Here we’ve got to get rid of Reaganism — Reagan’s gone, the Republican party however, now looks much worse than Reagan. The same is true in Britain, Thatcher is gone but Thatcherism remains. I think at some point there has to be a coherent counterattack upon the tremendous concentration of political and economic power that now exists all around the world.

It is going to have to be by using the only power that we have, which is to take back the streets and take back the cities. Which is why I get into the question of how can we organize whole cities to create a more just world, a different and alternative form of society? That is the question I am very interested in posing in the book. The answer is I don’t really know quite how to do it, but let’s talk about it and let’s think about it

AL: Zbigniew Brzezinski — a friend of U.S. global domination — in his book, Strategic Vision writes, “If America continues to put off instituting a serious reform plan that simultaneously reduces spending and increases revenue, the United States will likely face a fate similar to previous fiscally crippled great powers, whether ancient Rome or 20th-century Great Britain.”

How do you see the implications of the 2007-08 crisis in terms of its more far-reaching global ramifications?

DH: Look at the data. The United States has been stuck with massive unemployment, stuck with very low growth. What has China been doing? China lost 30 million jobs in the crash, but the end of the year they had recuperated 27 million of them and they were growing again at 10 per cent. There is a tremendous shift of wealth and power to the Far East. It used to be the West was draining the East now its the other way around. Giovannia Arrighi has this thesis about hegemonic shifts which occur and they usually occur after periods of rapid financialization.

The shift from Dutch hegemony to British hegemony was preceded by a certain financial expansion. The shift from British to U.S. hegemony was preceded by a financial expansion. The financial expansion of the United States in the last 30 years was complicitous in the deindustrialization of the United States and the shift of economic power in many ways toward the Far East. So yes we are seeing those shifts. Saying that, I don’t belong to that particular group that would say this is the end of America at all. In fact one of the problems is the United States still has a preeminent military power, even as its economic power and moral influence and all the rest of its is considerably on the wane.

But look at the urban side of that. Go to a place like Shanghai or some of these new cities that are being entirely built in China, the urbanization of China is phenomenal. The urban dimension to it is very significant. Then the question rises, what urban model is being followed. For instance in the Chinese case, sadly in many ways, its a version of what happened in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The Chinese are building gated communities, they are building suburbs, the automobile is going everywhere. It’s an environmental disaster, and social inequality is escalating. There is a real set of problems there that is creating a good deal of unrest. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people don’t see urban rebellions going on in China. In other words there’s much talk about what’s happening differently between nation states, but to shift the conversation a bit, let’s talk about what’s going on in the cities.

AL: Is it enough to just be “anti-capitalist?” Isn’t a different paradigm of organizing society going to require a much bigger break than we might imagine, at once, more audacious and more visionary — with all the risk involved in that?

DH: Yes it will take a radical break. To be anti-capitalist is to talk about finding a way to displace the fundamental ways that breakfast gets put on your table; which is through the market system, through corporate power, corporate agriculture, advertising and all the rest of it. So to be anti-capitalist is to be anti all of that.

This then says we have to find an alternative way in which we can figure out how to feed the seven billion people on planet earth; how do they get housed, how do they have a reasonable standard of living without resort to capital accumulation, without resort to market processes of the sort we now utilize? I can’t see that just being engineered by going on the barricades or storming the Winter Palace. We have to talk about a whole generation which is going to actually work through creating this entirely different configuration in the world economy.

We have reached this point in capitalist history, and I have argued elsewhere, I think we are at an inflection point where capital cannot continue to accumulate at its compounding rate of growth and be sustainable in a social or political way. There are a lot of stresses inside it and what we are seeing is now the last gasp of traditional capitalism going on in the Far East and stagnation effectively hitting North America and Europe. This means an alternative is going to have to be found. We have to collectively start to think about it.

The trouble right now is that we have universities dominated by neoliberal ideology, a managerial corporatist ideology, and most of the media is dominated by all of that. We cannot even have a conversation about what it would would mean to be anti-capitalist, or a broad discussion amongst intelligent people about how are we going to change this system so that seven billion people can have a reasonable lifestyle without the inequality I mentioned earlier, in New York and in fact every American [and other] city.

Yes it’s going to be a radical break, but one that will take a whole generation to accomplish. We have to start thinking about organizational alternatives. There are many organizations out there who are trying to do such things; creating solidarity economies, communes… little bits and pieces of organization out there. The difficulty is to scale them up from local solutions to a mass global solution, which is going to be a real challenge.

Aaron Leonard

Aaron Leonard

Aaron Leonard is a writer and journalist. His book, Heavy Radicals – The FBI’s Secret War Against America’s Maoists: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980,...