New Star Blogs

Rebel Cities, by David Harvey


Brian Kaufman, editor of subTerrain magazine as well as publisher over at Anvil Press, asked his colleague Rolf Maurer, the publisher of New Star Books, to write a review of Rebel Cities, the latest book from David Harvey. A version of this review, edited for concision (and space), appears in the current issue of subTerrain. Brian has consented to us publishing the writer’s cut on New Star Blogs.

Rebel_citiesWe’re supposed to be done with all that nonsense, but from Tunisia to Tahrir Square, from Athens to New York, people have been increasingly taking their anger to the streets, evoking the spectre of another big city: Paris, circa 1968, but also 1871. These demonstrations seem more and more to cohere not around established class identities — fellow workers, e.g. — but around the neighbourhoods they share, and what’s being done to them.

Here in Vancouver we have our own perfectly respectable history of urban-based resistance to capitalist brutality, if nothing on the global scale of Seattle et al. (Unless you include the Stanley Cup riots.) David Harvey’s latest, Rebel Cities, comes at a perfect time for those of us trying to come to grips with local events.

Rebel Cities is David Harvey’s attempt at deploying the insights he’s developed across a dozen-plus books to understand this global movement, and the forces of urban development that are increasingly inspiring defiance and rebellion. Harvey’s insights are a particularly useful tool for understanding issues like condo redevelopment in the Downtown Eastside, the demolition of the Cambie Projects, Bob Rennie, even the so-called Stanley Cup riot.

As Harvey explains, urban (re)developments like Sequel 138, the Little Mountain project, Woodward’s and Olympic Village aren’t just more, or less, desirable in and of themselves; they are desperately needed by capital to soak up all that surplus value created by the last round of profit-taking. Soak it up, at a profitable rate of return; that part goes without saying. Hate Bob Rennie all you want; it’s other people’s money he’s talking about investing. Like Gary Bettman, he’s just carrying out his duties.

David Harvey has gained a place as a leading contemporary Marxist thinker with his painstaking tracing of the movement of capital not just within the realm of production, the shop floor that produced much of the Old Left’s political economics, but on through the realms of circulation / finance, and of rent and consumption. Harvey’s body of work make clear how all that of “crisis” and “late” capitalism was fatuous, simply uncomprehending of capitalism’s protean mutability.

For the past couple of decades Harvey has been particularly occupied with urban redevelopment. In books like The Enigma of Capital and Paris: Capital of Modernity (intermediate level) and The Limits to Capital (advanced), he lays bare the role that large urban projects — freeways; public markets and squares; large-scale apartment complexes — play in the circulation of capital, and the reproduction of capitalism.

David Harvey’s big contribution has been to talk about what Daddy Warbucks actually does with that pile of profit he’s extracted from his workers. He has to do something with it, or else the whole scheme collapses. What he does is turn around and reinvest it; or even better, he sticks it in the bank and directs the bank to make it worth his while, and the bank does the actual work of turning around and reinvesting. Generally, in the form of credit, which means it can loan it out ten or twenty times. A certain amount of it gets used to build buildings that their owners (which might include Warbucks) can then charge rent for — another way, apart from employing them, that the capitalist extracts profit from his workers. (Harvey is especially good on “fictitious capital” and rent.) And so it goes, around, and around, until one day —

Which brings us to our rebel cities of today, and their uprisings big and small. (Harvey includes the London rioting at one end of the continuum.) That’s where Rebel Cities runs out of steam a bit. So, to be fair, do many of the urban uprisings themselves. Now that we’ve taken Zucotti Square .. . what next?

In old the blueprints, it says the industrial working class is supposed to be leading us over the top of the barricades. But the North American union movement has been relentlessly beaten back since the Thatcher and Reagan-era offensives. What’s left of it consists largely of public sector workers, and the part that isn’t have got all their pension funds invested in the stock market. As for whether there’s hope to look for in the direction of Shenzhen, that could be a while.

Meanwhile, Harvey (who could gloat, but does not) has long favoured the idea that urban community could form the basis of a social class with historical agency. In Rebel Cities he asserts that the role of just such a class has been written out of standard left accounts of the Paris commune, in particular. The wave of urban protests, and the “right to the city” movement, have manifested the existence of such a formation, albeit with much less homogeneity than an industrial workplace-based proletariat, in turn requiring the constant formation of alliances and coalitions across traditional boundaries, including ones of class. (Hardt and Negri would call this their “multitude”, the alliances and coalitions “rhizomes”.)

What leadership there has been of many of these protests, especially in the West, has tended to come not from the mainstream left — unions, political parties — but from anarchists. They seem to have the most pertinent answer right now to the question that persists, of what is to be done: “Let’s find out!”

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey. Verso, 2012.