August 2012



Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey

With the contemporary art of rent and real-estate speculations on the constant rise and angry ecologists and activists worrying over the increasing urbanization of our planet, the urban space (or what it has remained of it) was and still is a precious tool that can be used by grassroots opposition in the social struggle against global capital. Large urban concentrations of young and active people who are visibly angered by the extreme rank, income and wealth disparities among citizens have the potential to transform the cities they’re dwelling into effective triggers for strong political movements. With its polluted yet genuine air as if it were the product of natural growth and evolution, the contemporary city can easily distract the attention from and even hide the inequalities on which its distribution of social resources and political power is based. Opening his latest collection of updated and revised articles and essays, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, with a preface dedicated to Henri Lefebvre’s vision on the so-called heterotopic spaces of difference and people’s right to their own city, David Harvey, a highly-acclaimed social critic and cultural geographer, argues that the contemporary urban dwelling has now become a source of constant capital accumulation due to the re-colonization of the ruins left behind by the industrial age, ruins that have turned into really valuable real estates and are now the easy target of vicious real estate practices. 

Aligning his own ideas with Lefebvre’s call for eradicating the dominant practices from the core of the urban dwelling through broader revolutionary movements, Harvey is committed to uncovering the meeting points between the present process of urbanization and capitalism and demonstrating the importance of the right to the city: “The whole capitalist system of perpetual accumulation, along with its associated structures of exploitative class and state power, has to be overthrown and replaced. Claiming the right to the city is a way-station on the road to that goal. It can never be an end in itself, even if it increasingly looks to be one of the most propitious paths to take.” Basically, Harvey has two main areas of interest when it comes to contemporary urban sites and these areas of interest are also the skeleton of his latest book, framing it in two main parts: the way cities are created through various modes of capital accumulation, and the reasons why cities are such important stands when it comes to triggering class conflict. 

Harvey argues that capitalism needs a continuous process of urbanization in order to absorb all its profits, all the surplus services and products that are perpetually produced. So basically, capitalists are thus enabled to do something with their profit, namely to build even more cities when other types of reinvestments are simply dried out. In this particular context, shifting to an increased urban production can definitely absorb all the extra capital and even something more: create the so-called fictitious capital, a highly appreciated form of capital whose value depends on expected future profits (for instance, the value of an apartment is related to its future rents). Pointing at China’s accelerated development, predatory economic practices and urbanization process that sustained capital accumulation and examining the dynamics of exaggerated urbanization from the standpoint of capital, Harvey argues that this development has also managed to increase the environmental degradation, deepen the burgeoning social inequalities and place China next in line to become the new problem child of the capitalist development. “But the urbanization of capital presupposes the capacity of capitalist class powers to dominate the urban process. This implies capitalist class domination not only over state apparatuses (in particular those aspects of state power that administer and govern the social and infrastructural conditions within territorial structures), but also over whole populations -- their lifestyles as well as their labor power, their cultural and political values as well as their mental conceptions of the world.”    

Perhaps one of the most relevant chapters for this book is Harvey’s chapter on the creation of the so-call urban commons. Defined as ˝the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common of perpetually changing and transitory life,˝ the contemporary city bursts with all the practices employed by the people in its diverse spaces. However, a distinction needs to be made between the commons and the public goods and public spaces. While public goods and public spaces have always been directly subjected to the public and state administration thus becoming a crucial factor to capitalist development, the urban commons are to be seen as unstable yet quite malleable social relations between a particular group and the space this group dwells, a space that is regarded as being crucial to the group’s livelihood and life. So, in fact, Harvey talks about the social practice of communing, a practice that can stay totally exclusive to a particular social group, or, on the contrary, it can become totally open to other groups as well. The practice of communing needs to take into account various ways of fair production, distribution, exchange and consumption in order to meet everyone’s needs and all these on an anti-capitalist basis. And this particular social practice needs to be constructed and fully integrated into the contemporary anti-capitalist struggle. 

The common as seen by Harvey must not be appropriated by the dominant political power. It has to preserve its essence and keep it away from being grabbed and used for real estate interests. Harvey argues that the main point here is challenging and changing the existing commons and in order to do this we need to use our creative forces and powers of collective labor for the common goods we produce and keep the value we produce under our control. Harvey’s suggestion on how to do this? Well, it is all about self-organizing among populations and constantly attacking the dominant politics in order to force the state to supply more public goods for public purposes. Pointing at the production and use of public goods in cities such as Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Mumbai, Harvey exemplifies the way commons circulate and become a central issue for any democratic social movement to consider. Constantly created and prevented from being appropriated by various capitalist schemes of urbanization, such commons can easily become a radical practice and even if the process is at its very beginning, there are plenty of signs worldwide (for instance, the indignados in Spain, the Occupy movements, the revolutionary outbursts in Latin America, the striking workers in Greece) demonstrating that critical masses of people and political energies are ready to bring the contemporary common back to the scene in order to regain people’s right to their own "rebel cities." 

Dealing with the charming art of rent we’re all familiar with and with a strong emphasis on monopoly rent and competition, the wine trade, the urban entrepreneurialism, the next chapter also points to the constant search for collective symbolic capital, monopoly rents and marks of distinction as opposed to the so-called spaces of hope and transformational politics that can provide people with the right tools and opportunities to create a city of their own once they learn that no alternative should be expected to come from above or delivered from on high. The seeds of such spaces of hope are to be found only in local and multiple initiatives focused on particular urban spaces that should conjoin later into a much broader movement. It’s here where Harvey underlines the contradictions faced by capitalists caught in their race for monopoly rent based on the market value of locality, culture, authenticity, collective history and memories as they are the ones who actually open the space for alternatives, namely the political ideas and actions that are mandatory when it comes to devising and pursuing oppositional movements that bring together producers and production on order to mobilize culture in the direction of the commons thought to be the best solution in our contemporary context. Still, ˝popular culture as produced through the common relationships of daily life is also crucial. Here lies one of the key spaces of hope for the construction of an alternative kind of globalization and a vibrant anti-commodification politics, one in which the progressive forces of cultural production and transformation can seek to appropriate and undermine the forces of capital rather than the other way round.˝ 

Harvey’s recourse to the Paris Commune of 1871 is relevant almost in any chapter of his book due to thesimilarities between the workers from those times and today’s proletariat, both being characterized by insecurity, temporary employment and facing constant difficulty when trying to organize themselves at their workplace. Harvey argues that the Paris Commune can be connected to our metropolitan struggles when it comes to these similarities, but he also points out the danger implied by the organization of this particular commune, namely its cocktail of socialism, communism and anarchy that could turn out to be a complete failure when applied to our contemporary context. This may be the main reason why he tries to underline the importance of changing the classical left perspectives when it comes to anti-capitalist struggles and coming up with anti-capitalist strategies that re-evaluate both the past and present ideas. ˝Whose side will each of us, as individuals, come down on? Which street will we occupy? Only time will tell. But what we do know is that the time is now.˝

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey
Verso Books
ISBN: 978-1-84467-882-2
187 Pages