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on March 30, 2012
"Rebel Cities" is world renown Geographer David Harvey's case for the modern urban city's importance as a battleground for the future of humanity. Neither a complacent hagiographer of the capitalist city nor a hopeless misanthrope of the James Kunstler variety, Harvey's most recent book on the capitalist city is clearly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Harvey has spent his entire career studying urban class conflict, urban social movements, and the political economy of built environments. Naturally, a book on this subject at this moment in history should be highly anticipated, coming from this author.

The overall goal of this book, which was constructed out of about four different articles Harvey composed (mainly) for the Socialist Register, is to argue that Marxism should conceive of the city as the stage of class conflict, as opposed to confining itself to merely challenging economic exploitation as it occurs in the workplace. Harvey argues this for several wide, yet compelling reasons. First, Harvey begins with a brief history of the urban world's relationship to modernity. In cities, the worst aspects of capitalism are often solidified into the very construction of the city itself. In Haussman's Paris, the authority of the French military was empowered by the construction of the city's new wide boulevards in the 19th century. In American cities, environmental unsustainability is as much a part of a city's streets as the pavement that covers it. For some critics, this makes cities unredeemable. I had more than one professor at my old college who spoke of the modern city as if it were Gamorrah, one giant mistake that produced nothing good, and never could. Harvey himself makes no excuses for the modern city's cultural fakeness or its negative environmental impact. However, Harvey sees these traits as indicative of inspiring possibilities. The loci of economic and political power that submerge the rest of society in inequality and destructiveness are located in cities- but so are the people most capable of stopping them (the 99%, the proletariat, whatever you want to call them). In the modern city, wide arrays of different people with tremendous creative powers are placed alongside one another. The capitalist class expends an astounding amount of energy in an effort to keep this from working against them, as the protesters in Zuccoti park learned the hard way, and is evident in the neo-liberal era's hostility towards public spaces. In tandem with modern technological possibilities, a widespread social movement undoubtedly could change the nature of the city itself, and combat the social and ecological ills elites impose on urban citizens. In my personal experience, many otherwise liberal types, and especially environmentalists, despair at the modern city's structural defects. As Harvey reminds the reader though, the solutions to seemingly overwhelming social conditions are often intrinsically tied to the conditions themselves, but we can only bring out these possibilities if the masses organize and reject the logic of capitalism.

The second part of the first section, which mainly constitutes chapters 2-3, argues that built environments (the environments that human beings construct) play an essential role in capitalist crisis that is largely ignored by both mainstream economics and even radical political economy. Continuing an argument he first formulated in The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition), Harvey claims that one of the most consistent contradictions of capitalism is the contradiction between the particularities of geography and the interchangeability of value. When economists discuss the trade of space, they speak about forests, neighborhoods, factories, and other spaces as if they're commodities. However, space cannot possibly be a commodity in this sense. Spaces are monopolies. When you cut down a forest, you have eliminated the trees! When you sell real estate, nobody can build a competing neighborhood on top of that one, and so on. Harvey examines recent economic crises across the world, with a particular emphasis on the U.S. and China, and notices that real estate played a critical role in virtually all of them, even crises such as the "Savings and Loan" crisis which isn't usually considered in this fashion. Harvey argues that this is because when capital accumulation becomes frustrated, and as a Marxist he assumes that profit rates inevitably have a downward momentum, that finance attempts to take advantage of the monopoly character of space by continually reselling built environments at ever-higher prices. Eventually though, the system becomes a debt-based pyramid scheme, which results in the ravaging of the entire economy.

The third theme that I was able to identify was the relationship between "commons," "enclosures," and the Marxian concept of value. Here, Harvey makes an elegant case for the idea that the Marxian conception of value should lead Leftists to view urban centers as if they were built solidifications of exploitation. Harvey briefly assesses Lockean, Smithean, and Marxian conceptions of value, and notices that even in Marx's case, the issue of collective value-production is rarely touched on. Harvey argues that the modern city, along with many modern political movements, demonstrate that this is an inexcusable oversight. Capitalists often like to defend the neo-liberal order claiming that it represents the principle that an individual should own what they work for. Harvey claims that they're almost right. It's difficult to disagree with the idea that if someone puts labor into something, then they have some kind of claim to it. The problem Harvey finds though, is that capitalism doesn't operate on this principle. Instead, it operates on the principle that all property and capital needs to be owned by an individual, which is not at all identical to the previously described conception of ethical value. Most of our labor has a collective element to it. We are surrounded by environments, cultural traditions, and practices that are collective in nature. On top of that, much of the private wealth owned by capitalists doesn't correspond to labor that they conducted, but rather the value that they were able to appropriate from the more collectivistic labor that was carried out in the process of production. If we follow this labor "principle" to its logical conclusion, then communities should collectively own the built environment in one way or another, and the wealth that capitalists accumulate does not deserve respect. Harvey identifies this struggle in various fights over commons and enclosures in various situations. When an enclosure obstructs capitalism, such as a nature preserve, or a plot of land owned by a group of peasants, it seeks to turn the enclosed space into a common on the market. However, when a common obstructs the operation of capital, capitalists seek to enclose the common, which happened in rural Europe at the beginning of the modern era, or the elimination of streets as a place of communal activity. Because of this, Harvey criticizes leftists who see the common-ization of everything as an inherent principle. The relationship between socialist value and the enclosure/commons distinction is more complicated than both libertarian-socialists and Marxists give it credit for.

The second section of the book is significant for Harvey's corpus, because as far as I know, it is the first time he has actually laid out a positive model for enacting social change. Harvey assesses two kinds of leftist movements: Movements that are anarchic in disposition, such as social ecology, Zapatistas, and worker's syndicates, and movements that are socialist in disposition, such as state socialism, Trotskyism, and more traditional left-union bodies. Harvey clearly identifies with both to some extent, but ultimately falls into the socialist camp. He strains through both traditions, harshly criticizing the failings of each, and praising their successes as well. He hybridizes both traditions in his own conclusion. He praises the anarchic traditions for promoting self-determination, skepticism of bureaucracy and involvement in empowering disadvantaged groups. However, he berates them for being too sporadic, and too prone to being co-opted by capitalist market forces. He argues that any anti-capitalist movement must be socialist, because capitalism is too powerful for anything less. Then, Harvey lays out a general (but surprisingly specific) vision for a socialist society that hybridizes municipal socialism and democratic state socialism. Municipalities must be highly responsive to the demands of its citizens, and are an ideal unit to promote communitarian lifestyles and human flourishing. At the same time, a state is necessary in order to keep the municipalities from exploiting one another, and to ensure that capitalism can transition into socialism in a geographically even manner.

Harvey finishes on an optimistic note. OWS may have somewhat subsided over the past few months, but we must remember that it didn't come out of nowhere. The 2000s were host to a US immigrant labor strike that nearly shut down both Chicago and LA, the largest anti-war movement in world history, the growing influence of the World Social Forum, the crippling of the WTO through street action, the Arab Spring, South American peasants' movements, the return of class struggle in China, and other mass movements and victories. The OWS itself is only one site of a larger wave of democratic political struggle that is sweeping the world. The last few pages of this section contain one of the most furious and acidic polemics against capitalism I've ever read, which I found to be very entertaining!

This book is an excellent synthesis of urban studies, political economy, and political theory. I suspect that my reading of this book was enriched by my familiarity with Harvey's past works. Harvey assumes that the reader understands the Marxist conception of value, exploitation, the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall, and class. If the reader is not familiar with these terms, or how Harvey uses them in his own writings, then this book may get a little confusing, or appear to rest on many unstated assumptions. However, this is somewhat inevitable when a scholar applies his theories to a specific subject. Harvey has managed to impress yet again. HIGHLY recommended!
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on May 30, 2012
In 'Rebel Cities', David Harvey re-examines and interprets the basis of capitalist accumulation to show its essentially urban roots. This is certainly a wide and sweeping project and it is largely convincing.

He starts with 'The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crises', looking at the bases of the current malaise from a Marxist perspective. Too often, he suggests, Marxist analyses of the crises of capitalism parallel or mirror bourgeois economics, considering exploitation of the proletariat within a national economy. Harvey suggests that:

'[t]he role of the property market in creating the crisis conditions of 2007-09, and its aftermath of unemployment and austerity (much of it administered at the local and municipal level) is not well understood, because there has been no serious attempt to integrate an understanding of processes of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general theory of laws of motion of capital. As a consequence, many Marxists theorists, who love crises to death, tend to treat the recent crash as an obvious manifestation of their favoured version of Marxist crisis.' (P35)

Harvey goes on, therefore, to address this lack and to explore the role of housing and the built environment in the current crisis. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has taken even a moderate interest in current affairs - the rise of predatory lending, the housing asset bubble, political pressures on state supported institutions such as the US Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, years of low interest rates and the supply of 'cheap' money all leading to the final collapse of the asset bubble. But he extends this account to consider the longer term 'capital accumulation through urbanization' (P42).

By emphasising the geographical specificity of class struggle, Harvey breaks away from the more 'traditional' bases of analysis at national or supra-national level. This makes a lot of sense with the demise of any easily identifiable proletariat (except in, as he points out, parts of China and India). By stressing the struggles within the urban environment, he can view class struggles in, to my mind, much wider and more dynamic terms. Whereas Zizek might talk of 'proletarianisation' in order to weld together 'three fractions of the working class: intellectual labourers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed, or living in slums and other interstices of the public space)' (The Idea of Communism, P226), Harvey takes the public space itself as the basis for the class struggle. Rather than the usual emphasis on the control of wages, by looking at class relations from 'the other side' so to speak, allows Harvey to:

'recognise how easily real wage concessions to workers can be clawed back for the capitalist class as a whole through predatory and exploitative activities in the realm of consumption.' (P57)

Capitalism is, therefore, fundamentally bound up in the forms of urbanisation that we see around us. In order to combat this exploitation, it is fundamentally necessary to do it precisely from within these forms. This will inevitably cut across more 'traditional' views - clearly such an approach cannot simply be based on an industrial proletariat but must include cultural workers, immigrant workers, it must cross gender lines and even include those dismissively labelled the 'lumpenproletariat'.

In Chapter 4, Harvey examines 'The Art of Rent' or the ways in which capitalism attempts to take over, amongst other things, the common spaces and cultural production in the process of commodification. Sounding at times reminiscent of Thomas Frank, he still sees the city and the urban environment as the place where opposition to this commodification may most easy and effectively be mounted.

After this thorough grounding in theory, Harvey looks, in Section 2, at 'Rebel Cities' (P113). From the Paris Communes to the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War to the Prague Spring and the recent rebellions and revolts in Cochabamba, Tahrir Square and El Alto, the urban environment is where active resistance to the counter-revolutionary neoliberal forces happens.

To put it another way, you do not step out of the class struggle when you leave work - it is all around you, in the (urban) environment and the relations that this implies - and so to ex- or abstract these movements from consideration within a greater class struggle is not only to ignore powerful and progressive forces but is also to irretrievably weaken analysis of the situation. If you don't realise this, the capitalists certainly do:

'It is in fact in the cities that the wealthy classes are most vulnerable, not necessarily as persons but in terms of the value of the assets they control. It is for this reason that the capitalist state is gearing up for militarized urban struggles as the front line of class struggle in years to come.' (P131)

This review is by no means comprehensive. At times, this book is hard work, but it is really worth the effort. It fits in well and extends David Harvey's previous analyses, but it does more than that. Apart from a sound theoretical underpinning, it also explores and suggests alternative means of social organisation, looking to the work of, amongst others, Murray Bookchin. And in 'The Party of Wall Street Meets Its Nemesis' the book ends with a rousing and powerful call to action.
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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.
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on February 17, 2013
This book gets very into economy and socialism. This is fine and it does this in a very intelligent way. I would have liked more in depth conversation on cities that rebuke traditional city structure.
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on November 17, 2013
Shows that there is hope. Forces that are prevailing in the struggle for equality and justice don't want you to read David Harvey.
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on July 11, 2015
good book. but harvey is too marxist for me... but he has good points and describes city upheavals with passion.
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on July 19, 2013
Harvey focuses
on revolution where it
belongs: the city
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on March 21, 2015
Got this book for school it was pretty good
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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
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on November 2, 2012
This book is an excellent resource for all the scholars and researchers that want to know about the relationship between the cities and the surplus. The author is related to the marxist theories in an academic and analytic way. I think that the theoretical basis of this publication can be exported to other experience in latin america, or in Puerto Rico (a US Territory placed in the caribbean).
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