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Synthesis/Regeneration 60   (Winter 2013)

The Urban Revolution

by Richard Burke

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, by David Harvey, Verso Books, London, 2012, 187 pages, ISBN-13:978-1-84467-882-2. $19.95.

Many of the great revolutions of past centuries have been urban affairs. The names of major cities have been irrevocably linked with revolutionary uprisings: Paris with the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the events of May 1968; Barcelona and Madrid with the Spanish Civil War; and St. Petersburg with the Russian Revolution. In light of this history, it is strange how little theorizing has been devoted by thinkers of the world left to the place of the city in movements for social change. Much of Marxian thought has centered around the factory and its labor struggles, while Anarchism has often displayed a nostalgia for the rural commune. This ignores a basic reality—that the world is steadily becoming more urbanized. According to the UN, 2007 marked the tipping point: the first time in history that 50% of the human race was living in cities. That percentage has only increased in the years since.

Thankfully, we have the work of David Harvey to correct this oversight. His new book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, is a much needed attempt to drag Marxist theory out of the factory and into the wider context in which the factory exists—that of the city. In doing so, he has displayed an insight which allows him to transcend the dilemma in which much Marxian theorizing has been trapped for the past four decades. This is the question of the relevance of a theory centered on industrial workers in an age where industrial employment (in the developed world at least) is in decline, while that in the service sector increases. By placing this issue within the context of the city, Harvey allows us to think in terms of the production of the urban environment.

…the world is steadily becoming more urbanized.

Rebel Cities begins with a discussion of the work of the French Marxist and sociologist Henri Lefebvre. A dissident former member of the French Communist Party, Lefebvre was a major influence on the New Left for his pioneering work in which Marx’s early concept of alienation was applied to the investigation of everyday life. In the 60s, his thought increasingly turned towards the investigation of urban life, in particular the spread of gentrification. Lefebvre was one of the first to notice the increasing trend to make the city oriented towards the needs of the wealthy, and to dispossess workers and the poor of their access to urban life. It was he who coined the slogan “the right to the city,” recognizing that the revolution of the future would essentially be an urban one. As Harvey comments:

Only when politics focuses on the production and reproduction of urban life as the central labor process out of which revolutionary impulses arise will it be possible to mobilize anti-capitalist struggles capable of radically transforming daily life.

By moving the focus of Marxist theorizing from the workplace to the city, Harvey reveals a site of ongoing struggles and a wealth of organizational forms with a potential to challenge and undermine capitalism. What has often been presented as workers’ revolts are more properly urban revolts, and the people involved in them are not necessarily industrial workers.

Focusing on cities rather than workplaces allows us to recognize the roles which people in a variety of occupations, in both industrial and service sectors, play in the production and reproduction of urban life. It is this central labor process, the production of the urban, which the capitalist class seeks to expropriate for its own profit.

Harvey shows us that historically there has been a long series of struggles over the right to the city and who is to benefit from the production of the urban. For example, during the reign of Louis Bonaparte in the 19th century, Baron Haussmann was given charge of the project to redesign Paris, a project undertaken precisely in order to prevent urban revolts from taking place.

…workers’ revolts are more properly urban revolts…

The wide avenues associated with Paris today are part of a conscious plan to make it harder to erect barricades. Yet despite his efforts, the Paris Commune of 1871 erupted in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. The efforts of Haussmann were nonetheless well appreciated by a later planner, Robert Moses, who was responsible for the building of the highways in New York City in the 40s and 50s which led to suburbanization, urban sprawl, and the decay of inner-city neighborhoods.

This process, repeated throughout the United States, played a major role in the stabilization of capitalism after the Second World War. The capitalist class and its planners are well aware of the centrality of the city to the continued expansion of investment opportunities for capitalism. Here one can see clear connections between the theories of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in Monopoly Capitalism with Harvey’s views on the production and reproduction of urban life. The spread of urbanization becomes an opportunity for a monopoly capitalist world-system that continually generates a surplus needing to be profitably re-invested. The role that governments play in facilitating this process provides the outside aid that monopoly capital needs in order to counteract its inherent tendencies to stagnation.

Harvey calls attention to the fact that capitalist crises have their roots firmly in the production of the urban. In particular, he points out the connection between the bursting of housing bubbles and economic crises. Data is presented showing that expansions in building and real estate markets, and their eventual collapse, are closely correlated with economic expansions and downturns. If the production of the urban is the central activity of capitalist profitability, this is precisely what one would expect to find. The fact that the most recent economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, was triggered by the bursting of a housing bubble is common knowledge. What Harvey does here is to show that such events have happened repeatedly. In purely Marxist terminology, overproduction in the urban production process is a cause of capitalist crisis.

…the metropolis is a ‘factory’ for the ‘production of the commons’…

Harvey agrees with Hardt and Negri’s observation that the metropolis is a “factory” for the “production of the commons.” Here he takes issue with those who misuse the concept of “the tragedy of the commons” as a justification for privatization and deregulation. The real tragedy lies in the appropriation of the commons for private profit, and the negative externalities that result from this. In a chapter called the “Art of Rent,” he reflects on the concern with intellectual property rights as a form of rent. Here he echoes the views of Andre Gorz in The Immaterial regarding the ways in which capitalist profitability has increasingly become a form of rent-seeking. Applying this to the production of the urban, he notes that it is precisely the unique characteristics of a city which capitalists seek to market profitably. In so doing they undermine and destroy those qualities which make a city unique by seeking to capitalize on them. These unique qualities derive precisely from the collective production and reproduction of the urban commons, which the capitalist class seeks to monopolize for themselves. In doing so, they engender resistance and revolt.

Thus we come to the revolutionary explosions which began in 2011, and which are continuing at the time of this writing. As Harvey points out, these are yet again urban revolts, in which the urban commons— in particular, city squares and parks—become sites of resistance. Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Zuccoti Park in New York are all places where the masses attempt to reclaim the urban commons from appropriation by the capitalist class and its managers. These are the “Rebel Cities” of the book’s title. Harvey here re-veals the wealth of organizational forms in which anti-capitalist resistance takes place. Not just in workplace struggles but in the organization of neighborhood councils. Would the sit-down strikes of 1930s labor struggles have succeeded without the support of the larger community outside? By recognizing the centrality of the production of the urban to the capitalist world-system, Harvey has targeted precisely where and how an anti-capitalist revolt might be successful.

…Harvey has targeted precisely where and how an anti-capitalist revolt might be successful.

While Rebel Cities is a ground-breaking work, it provides little in the way of concrete blueprints as to how we might reorganize urban life. There is nothing said regarding how we might make cities more sustainable. Perhaps here we might have a thing or two to learn from the Arcology of Paolo Soleri or the designs of R. Buckminster Fuller. Nothing is said about what kinds of renewable energy will be necessary to maintain urban life in a world plagued by anthro-pogenic global warming. There is little about how we might reorganize the economies of cities in a socialist manner, nor are we given ideas on how struggles in isolated cities might be coordinated to become a successful global revolt against the monopoly capitalist world-system.

Yet perhaps this is too much to expect from one small book. The value of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution is precisely that it provides a starting point for the rethinking and reimagining of a successful socialist revolution. The revolution will be urban—or not at all.

R. Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and teacher living in St. Louis.

[5 dec 12]

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