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Book Review: David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

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By Peter

David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities, is the latest entry in his life-long interest in uncovering the intersection between capitalism and urbanization. It’s a collection of previously published, but updated and revised, essays and articles. They are all particularly important to our understanding of both the long fall out of 2008’s economic crash and the rise of urban revolts in Egypt, Greece, New York and elsewhere. You should pay attention to David Harvey for lots of reasons (he’s probably the most important Marxist theorist alive today, and one of the most important intellectuals in general). But you should read him for no other reason than the fact that he was cautioning against the mortgage bubble, and worrying about “what happens if and when this property bubble bursts,” in 2003, years before celebrated bourgeois economists like Nouriel Roubini made their reputation predicting it.

This is a simplification, but basically Harvey has two distinct areas of interest in cities. First, he explores the way that urban spaces are created by distinct modes of capital accumulation; second, he’s interested in the reasons that cities are particularly important sites of class conflict. These are, obviously, related, since cities are important sites of political mobilization and conflict exactly because they have such central roles in the creation and circulation of capital. But loosely, this division frames the two parts of the book.

Capitalists need cities, Harvey argues, because building them up is one of the primary manners in which capitalists can dispose of excess surplus product. That sounds a bit jargony, but basically it comes down to the idea that construction (of buildings, of roads, of infrastructure) allows capitalists to do something with the profits they have made, once reinvestment in other things has run out. I understand that this argument was made in full in Harvey’s classic Limits to Capital. Unfortunately, due to a (sorely disappointed) thief in the West Village who took my messenger bag last year, I never actually finished Limits to Capital. But Rebel City seems like a good introduction for amateurs like myself.

Over-accumulation is a constant problem for capitalists; the logic of capitalism is such that they are driven to produce more than the market can bear. Shifting to urban production is a way to sop up all that extra capital. Part of the reason is temporal, as real estate development displaces the moment of crisis by creating fictitious capital, capital whose value is related to the expected future profits it will earn. Building, say, an apartment complex, is particularly useful because the value of the property is understood as the aggregation of all the future rents that will be collected in the building. You create value today, that won’t be realized until tomorrow. This is part of the reason that real estate and debt-finance go hand in hand, as do those two things and spectacular economy-destroying bubbles and crashes. Governments, from Hausmann in the 1850s to the postwar US Federal Government, have seen encouraging a certain type of urbanization as a way to promote economic development, provide jobs, and contain class conflict. Keep people busy (and relatively prosperous) putting up houses and digging roads, and they won’t throw up barricades.

The take-away of this Marxist theory for those allergic to discussions of surplus value, is that the type of economy you live in, and the particular mode of capitalist circulation, is written into the face of the cities that we live in. The grand aspirations of the postwar social democratic state, with its massive Federally-funded Interstate Highway system and Federal mortgage-deduction, gave us the suburbs. Today’s neoliberalism tends towards “market-driven” disneyification of gentrified neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, and that most relevant, for those us who live some Portlandia style hip urban environment (you know who you are: Williamsburg, Jamaica Plains, Northern Liberties, etc…), is his chapter on art, tourism, and rent. Urban capitalism operates in an interesting dialectic (ok, probably a couple of dialectics). On one hand capitalism tends towards producing endlessly fungible mass produced goods (exchange-value, after all presumes that all things can be expressed in the terms of some common denominator). On the other hand, capitalists actually hate perfect competition, and one way to continue to extract monopoly rents is to imbue a particular place or good with some sort of unique value that cannot be reproduced endlessly: wine from certain parts of France, real estate along Park Avenue, a painting by Picasso, etc… The fact that champagne can only be produced in a certain area in France allows it to resist ruinous competition from sparkling wine that (lets face it) would be just as good made elsewhere.

The First Duane Reade in Williamsburg

In urban environments, this creates a dilemma. Real estate developers love nothing more than those new hip neighborhoods full of bike-riding hipsters, artists, gay couples, and disempowered old-time residents of color who can be easily pushed out. But as rent rises and real estate developers (and their personal valet Mike Bloomberg) raze every last artists’ loft to put in new condos, eventually all you have left is high-rises and Duane Reades on every corner and now your neighborhood has lost its edge, turned into another corporate Disneyland. On to the next!

This raises an interesting point, though. Who creates what Harvey calls the “collective symbolic capital” that turned Williamsburg into a real estate bonanza? Well a lot of it comes from the collective labor of the thousands of artists, intellectuals, street musicians, freelancers, community-garden tenders, and everyone else who makes the area desirable. The real estate developers, then, act as a parasitic force on our common-labor, growing rich building the condos that will destroy the communities that are the product of our labor and life-activity. It strikes me that universities act in similar, though less self-destructive, ways. It is all of our labor and intellectual production that gives NYU its reputation, which it then trades on to consume ever more of Greenwich Village, raise money, and develop in the future.

The second part of the book highlights ways that cities can foster urban rebellions that can challenge the very capitalist processes that remade them. From the Paris Commune to the Occupy movement, cities are often the sites of the most exciting political revolutions. Harvey suggests that “there is something about the urban processes and the urban experience—the qualities of daily urban life—under capitalist that, in itself, has the potential to ground anti-capitalist struggles.” Harvey struggles with the tension between localist urban struggles and the reality of a global marketplace. He criticizes (implicitly mostly) the anarchist-inspired idea that a future anti-capitalist world could operate on the principles of small free association with no hierarchy whatsoever. Who would, for instance, deal with global warming absent a global power structure that could effectively regulate carbon emissions across the planet?

Nevertheless, Harvey wants to ground a great deal of anti-capitalist struggle in the lived experience of urban dwellers: fights against high rents and gentrification; struggles of the urban commons, like our public parks, streets, schools, and hospitals; and broad vision for the city.He defines the “right to the city,” exactly as the collective ability to have “have shaping power over the processes of urbanization,” a slap at the type of ultra-Jane Jacobian preservationist who wants to devolve all power to intensely parochial neighborhood associations. Certainly the police repression unleashed against the Occupy movements has highlighted how important it is for the public to have access to our parks, streets, and plazas—and what lengths the ruling class will go to ensure that we don’t.

I have to admit that I’m a bit more skeptical of some of Harvey’s arguments about the links between urbanism and revolt. “Revolutionary movements frequently if not always assume an urban dimension,” he declares. To paraphrase bank robber Willy Sutton, I suspect revolutions often happen in urban spaces because that’s where the people are. In intensely rural societies, that’s where the revolts tend to be. Today, not only do cities have lots of people, but they are the symbolic and institutional centers of the country, making them obvious targets of popular unrest. America has been the site of a number of crucially important rural revolts, from Shay’s Rebellion to Nat Turner’s rebellion to the Populist movement, all of which should not be obscured. And both the French and Russian Revolutions only succeeded because of massive peasants’ rebellions that occurred alongside the urban revolts. You could make an argument about rural revolts generally being backward looking as opposed to forward looking urban revolts, but you end up engaging in gross simplifications and over-romantic celebrations of the urban proletariat. I worry that urban revolts, like urban studies in general, is just sexier and more appealing to cosmopolitan intellectuals than their rural or suburban counterparts.

Whatever its (minor) flaws, Rebel Cities, is an excellent both as an addition to the Harvey canon, as well as a great introduction to Harvey’s urban thought for those of us not as familiar with him.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 8, 2012 at 23:09

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] Book Review: David Harvey’s Rebel Cities « Ph.D. Octopus […]

  2. […] Peter at PhD Octopus reviews David Harvey’s Rebel Cities. […]

  3. […] Wirzbicki, writing at Ph.D. Octopus, is intrigued by Harvey’s ideas about capitalists capturing monopoly rents based on the […]

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