Rebel Cities

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


Manifesto on the Urban Commons:

"Long before the Occupy movement, modern cities had already become the central sites of revolutionary politics, where the deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface. Consequently, cities have been the subject of much utopian thinking. But at the same time they are also the centers of capital accumulation and the frontline for struggles over who controls access to urban resources and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life. Is it the financiers and developers, or the people?

Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, and from New York City to São Paulo. Drawing on the Paris Commune as well as Occupy Wall Street and the London Riots, Harvey asks how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways—and how they can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance."


Conducted by John Brissenden and Ed Lewis.

"John: Would you say there’s a central argument to Rebel Cities, or is it more by way of bringing a range of arguments together?

David: I think it’s a bit of both. If there is a central argument, it’s really chapter 2 (‘The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crises’) and chapter 5 (‘Reclaiming the City for Anticapitalist Struggle’), chapter 2 essentially being about the relationship between capital and urbanisation, and chapter 5 really being about the opposition to capital and urbanisation. So class confict is directly addressed through chapters 2 and 5.

John: You talk about monopoly rent and the contradictions inherent in that process, and I wondered if you could explain those contradictions and their significance for your analysis.

David: We are told that capitalism is very much about competition and everyone goes on and on and on about competition, but if you ever talk to any individual capitalist, you’ll find that actually they would prefer monopoly, if they could possibly get it. So what you find is actually a long history of trying to get out of competitive situations by some monopoly trick.

For instance, just simply brand-naming your product is an attempt to put a monopoly stamp on it, so that you’ve got a Nike swoosh or something like that which makes it different from everything else. There is this perpetual tendency for monopoly to take over, and what I was interested in ’The Art of Rent’ piece was how that then is the way in which capitalists like something they can call original, authentic, unique – why they like the art market, anything like that. There’s a tendency therefore to treat history as a source of uniqueness, and place as unique, so there’s a tremendous flow of capital towards anything which you can easily monopolise.

John: But, once that process begins, of course

David: Well, you have then to take something that is not really a commodity, and turn it into a commodity, then it’s a commodity like any other. So there’s always that tension that goes on. I think harbour development is a good example. The first one that happened was very good, and everybody said “how interesting”, and now you can go around the world and you go to all these cities and everybody says “have you seen the harbour?” And you say, “well I’ve seen one, and I’ve seen the lot.” So Barcelona doesn’t look as unique as it once did, because it’s got a harbour developoment that looks like every other harbour development. Rotterdam has one, Cardiff has one, it just goes on and on and on. Of course, here in London you have one. So it’s no longer a unique feature, it becomes just sort of standard urban fare.

John: You argue that there’s a space that opens up in that tension for oppositional groups…

Yeah, I think, for example, the quality of life in a city is often something that gets defined by its residents and their way of life, and their mode of being, and so on. To the degree that that becomes unique, it means that capital has to depend on the inventiveness of a population to do something, to make something different. Capital tends to be homogenising. People frequently make the differential, and that then becomes the unique feature, so there’s a kind of relationship there. What that means then, is that popular movements can have a space in which they can flourish, to try to define something that’s radically different.

John: Can you think of particular examples where this is happening?

David: In Hamburg there’s an area, the St Pauli district, which was occupied by squatters, and what the squatters did was to create a unique kind of environment. It’s a very mixed kind of environment – mixed ethnicity, mixed class, the street life is very vibrant, and the rest of it. The developers got much of the rest of Hamburg and turned it into something very homogeneous, and then they suddenly realised that there’s this wonderful district, so now they’re trying to get in and appropriate that, by buying up single houses and then renting them out at a premium rent because “isn’t it interesting to live in this vibrant district?”. This is the sort of thing that you see going on in cities all the time: people create a rather unique neighbourhood, and then it gets gentrified and it becomes boring.


Ed: Going on from that, we’re interested in your discussions about strategy. As a starting-point, it’s clear that the traditional conception that the left had, of the industrial working class as a revolutionary subject, the agent of change, is not one that we can cling to in the West. So can you tell us about the way in which you re-conceive of the revolutionary subject, who might constitute that now, and how that’s related to the cities and urban identity?

David: The way I deal with this, is to ask the question: who is it that is producing and reproducing urban life? If you say that that is the kind of production we are looking at, then you find yourself defining the proletariat in a completely different way than if you just simply stick with the idea of factory labour.

So that’s the basic idea, and then you say what forms of organisation are possible in those populations? Precisely because they’re not in factories they’re very difficult to organise. For instance, delivery workers, all the trucks going around: how could you organise all of the delivery workers? The Teamsters have done some work with some of that in the States. Or taxi drivers for example: can you organise them? We have a very interesting organisation of taxi drivers in New York City and another one in Los Angeles now. Politically, they can’t be a trade union in the ordinary sense, they have to become a different form of organisation. Domestic workers: again, what you find is a good organisation of domestic workers in New York City and across the United States, and this is a big issue right now. What they fought for, and got, eventually, was New York State did pass a sort of domestic worker bill of rights, which starts to spell out how many hours you can expect, and tries to codify it.

Now again it’s very difficult to organise domestic workers, and particularly if they’re illegal, it becomes even harder. But they’re a very very significant workforce now in many cities. So part of what I’m saying is that all of these are forms of labour which are going on in the city, which seem vital to be vital to reproducing urban life, and therefore we should start to think about how to organise that labour force politically, so that they can start to exercise some power on the qualities and nature of urban life. So that’s the general idea. Some of it’s very difficult to organise and some are actually quite vigorously organised, but frequently it takes a different kind of organisation than the conventional trade union.


Ed: In terms of the difficulties that come with organising some of the groups you’re talking about, obviously you’ve investigated a whole range of different movements around the world at different times. Are there some particular lessons that emerge from some of these investigations that you think should be generalised?

David: Most groups of this kind organise themselves as rights organisations. Certainly under that umbrella, they can create an organisational form, and as a rights organisation they’re not constrained in the way that conventional unions are. Now, one of the things that I experienced in Baltimore when I was there was that the conventional union movement could be rather hostile to these rights organisations. The conventional union movement was a bit divided, sometimes they’d support, but most of the time they regarded these forms of organisation as a challenge and a threat to themselves.

But now I think the conventional union movement is prepared to think about these organisations as being crucial to support the unions, so there’s more of a coalition beginning to build between these rights organisations on the one hand, and the conventional union movement. We saw that, I think, very much on the May Day march which occurred in New York just recently, where some conventional union people were part of that march and they were joined with the social movement people.

So there’s a coalition beginning to emerge, and I’m very much in favour of a different form of union organisation, which is geographical rather than by sector. I think the conventional unions should pay much more attention to the local trades councils and city council units, and interestingly, one of the consequences of that is that, as unions tend to be caught in a philosophy of only looking after the well-being of their members, a geographical organisation has to think about the proletariat in general, in the city, rather than simply about its particular members. So I think from that standpoint, there’s a different mode of organising which is, well, will we organise across the whole city, and will we bring together all of the people who are involved in all these different trades, and all these different things, into one kind of city union, or a city political organisation.


Ed: You’re also critical of the termite theory though.

David: I always have to be careful. When I’m critical, I’m not being dismissive. I’m saying I think this is good, I think people should be doing that, but on the other hand we’ve got to see what its limitations are. At what point do you go from a termite kind of strategy to some other strategy? One of the things I was really trying to do in chapter 5 was to try to open up a sense that there’s a variety of strategies which are suited to a variety of situations and purposes, and that we should not therefore lock ourselves into “this is the only strategy that will work”. We should be adopting a variety of them, whichever’s possible. In some cases there’s no option except to engage in termite politics, in which case you can do sometimes a pretty good job." (



Neal Gorenflo:

"One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna” in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the world’s most livable city in 2011.

Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market, pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown. The Floridas andGlaesers of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode well for the future.

What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commonsis the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons.

Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums, rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.

Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.

Shareable has offered an alternative to a free-market vision of cities by publishing consistently about urban commons, but we’re no match for the flood of content from The Atlantic Cities and their ilk. And, frankly, we haven’t offered a deep or consistent enough analytical counter to influence the discourse. So, I’ve been looking for a tonic.

I eventually discovered David Harvey, the world’s most cited academic geographer and one of the most influential urban thinkers anywhere. At first, I resisted his work because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist. I’m allergic to ideologues of all political stripes. I find the clubbishness of Marxist discourse alienating. And we at Shareable don’t want to alienate readers.

However, Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities tempted me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from my eyes.

And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as American as apple pie — cities for the people, by the people. I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever you call them." (

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