on December 31, 2013
Harvey is a Marxist and the author of A Brief History of Neoliberalism which I read and which impressed me. Rebel Cities is equally impressive.
In Rebel Cities, Harvey attempts to flesh out a gap in Marx regarding the role of land in the economy and the place of cities and city dwellers in revolutionary movements.
Harvey builds on the work of Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist who wrote in the 1960s. Lefebvre coined or popularized the phrase “right to the city.” Some left wing groups gather under this banner today.
The right to the city means city dwellers’ “unalienated right to make a city more after their own heart’s desire” (p. xvi). The right to the city includes the right to the wealth urban dwellers generate. (When Harvey discusses urban dwellers he is obviously not talking about people like Donald Trump.) Harvey points out that the right to the city is a collective, not an individual right.
There’s a chapter in Michael Harrington’s Socialism (1972) called “The Substitute Proletariats.” Mao, for instance, based revolution on the peasants rather than the industrial workers. Harvey believes revolution should be based not on the Marxian proletariat but on what Lefebvre called the urban based “working class.” Why? For one thing, owing to deindustrialization there is no longer a proletariat in the West: today the proletariat is in the Third World (p. xv).
The urban “working class” is a much broader category than the proletariat. The proletariat consists of the workers who produce goods. The urban working class includes all who labor in the city--not just producers, but also workers who distribute the goods. Not just factory workers, but also taxi drivers, restaurant workers, sanitation personnel, small shopowners, etc., etc. Many of these workers live a precarious existence marked by high unemployment and poverty which has led to them being dubbed the "precariat."
As a group, the urban working class is much more diffuse, fragmented, and divided than the Marxian proletariat. This can pose a problem. Harvey is concerned about the working class pursuing a lot of small scale reformist projects which leave capitalism unchallenged. Harvey doesn’t believe that socialism in a single city is possible: at some point all this urban political activity has to catch fire and overthrow capitalism. (But will it? Harvey himself notes that the promising urban agitations of 1968 in the end came to nothing.)
Harvey’s second reason for basing revolution on the urban based working class: most revolutionary movements have been urban based. Most radicals, he says, overlook this. Harvey's prime example is the Paris Commune which he discusses at length.
That’s the political part of the book. Here’s the economic part.
Relation of the city to capitalism: cities answer capitalism’s need/imperative to “dispose of overaccumulating capital” (pp. xv-xvi). “Capitalist urbanization” “absorb[s] the surplus product that capitalists are perpetually producing in their search for surplus value” (pp. 6-7).
Harvey describes Haussman’s redesign of Paris under Napoleon III. In the process, many of Paris’ poor were callously uprooted. Robert Moses derived a lot from Hausman, even publishing an essay on the Frenchman. Haussman’s work kept Paris booming for about twenty years until the inevitable crash.
Cause of economic crashes: there is a causal link between housing bubbles and crashes in the macro economy. This connection is overlooked by both conventional and Marxist economists. (Harvey includes an approving mention of the followers of Henry George.) Real estate values and construction peak shortly before major depressions. Harvey illustrates this point with a series of historical charts and graphs. Much of the book is taken up with a discussion of the economic crisis which began in 2008 with the implosion of the sub-prime mortgage market.
Harvey discusses how the government has historically contributed to housing bubbles. Starting in the 1930s the government fostered initiatives to encourage home ownership among the masses. This was not pure altruism. Debt-encumbered workers don’t strike. Also, there was a need to pacify American soldiers returning from World War Two. Later, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created.
Harvey places some of the blame for the most recent housing bubble on the Community Development Act. I found this interesting coming from a Marxist because conservatives blame the 2008 crisis on the Community Development Act (but not on any of the other factors Harvey names).
Banks’ predatory practices leading up to 2008, Harvey notes, were made possible by the dismantling of regulatory mechanisms under neoliberalism. In the Keynesian era after World War Two, running roughly from 1945 to the early 1970s the US economy had been free of major crises. Which makes me wonder: why not restore Keynesianism? That would be difficult, but easier than a socialist revolution.
Back to politics and a look toward the future: some problems, like global warming, cannot be solved at the urban level. There has to be coordination among cities while at the same time keeping most power at the lower levels closest to the people. Also, Harvey does not want the creation of a patchwork of warring cities. He doesn’t want a reintroduction of inequality with some cities being rich, others poor. Harvey believes some sort of federation will have to be created among cities, but power should flow from the bottom up.
I cannot possibly adequately convey everything worthwhile in this incredibly rich book. I have said nothing of Harvey’s discussion of the fading of the urban-rural divide; the suburbs; South American favelas and other impoverished metastasizing shanty cities in the Third World; or Harvey’s discussion of China.
I cannot recommend Rebel Cities too highly.
on March 19, 2013
David Harvey has a good grasp of historical Marx, and while like Marx, David does a good job of dissecting the problem, the book falls short of leading us to much of a solution. Of course, that is the typical problem when looking into complex issues in that the really hard part is to shed light on a solution. A lot of grunt work will usually uncover the problem however true genius is harder come-by and only occasionally finds the light of day - in this case David falls short of a hoped for solution. Still worth the read. Maybe will help to trigger some collective new thinking among those with open and free minds to show us the way