It’s hard to be a saint in the city

Issue: 135

Dan Swain

David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso, 2012), £12.99

David Harvey has established himself as one of the most significant and influential thinkers in contemporary Marxist thought. Recordings of his reading groups of Marx’s Capital have been viewed by tens of thousands of people online, while last November he filled Friends Meeting House in central London when giving the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture. Harvey has contributed in particular to developing the influence of Marxism within the field of geography, focusing in particular on the role of space and location within the dynamics of modern capitalism. In doing so he has contributed towards extending the scope of both geography and Marxism itself.

This book is a continuation of an argument for the importance of urbanisation, the production of the modern city and its suburbs that Harvey has been developing over a number of years. It is, characteristically, extremely clearly written and easy to understand, free in the main of the kind of jargon that dominates many academic Marxist writers. Harvey is as concerned with destroying capitalism as he is with understanding it, and, he argues, grasping urbanisation is crucial to both. His argument is that much of the existing and traditional left has failed to understand its significance. Urbanisation has played and continues to play a role in both capitalism’s development and its crises. The creation of vast cities, through, for example, huge investment in building projects, has been, he argues, crucial to absorbing the surpluses created by capitalism. At the same time housing markets are a frequent trigger for crises, of which the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis is a clear example.

Because of the central role of the city in capitalism, Harvey argues that the left ought to take movements which are focused on the city far more seriously. This is the “right to the city” referred to in the title. This is not a narrow, individual property right of the sort which prevail under capitalism, and which is, for many, the only kind we can imagine. It is “to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanisation, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way”. The argument goes that, by focusing either on entirely excluded groups or on the traditional working class, the existing left has ignored the importance of such struggles, and that this has to stop. Urban movements and organisations, including demands for citizenship and rights of access to public services and public space, have to be seen as central to the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

It is difficult to disagree with much of Harvey’s conclusions. This, however, is not always a strength, since it is difficult to disagree in part because the conclusions are somewhat vague and imprecise. To a certain extent this reflects a sincere and welcome modesty; Harvey does not know all the answers, any more than anyone else (least of all the British left!), and it is to his credit that he does not pretend that he does. However, there remains a frustrating vagueness about Harvey’s arguments, a feeling that he, perhaps, intends to say something more controversial and radical than he actually does.

Harvey argues for a rethinking of anti-capitalist struggle along urban lines. In particular, he offers a number of “theses” for urban revolution. One of these is that “work-based struggles, from strikes to factory takeovers, are far more likely to succeed when there is strong and vibrant support from popular forces assembled at the surrounding neighbourhood or community level”. This is something it is hard to disagree with, and it is not clear who would. Another, however, is trickier: “the concept of work has to shift from a narrow definition attaching to industrial forms of labour to the far broader terrain of the work entailed in the production and reproduction of an increasingly urbanised daily life.” On the one hand, this looks like an important argument for the extension of the concept of work and working class into all those who produce, not merely the stereotypes of a traditional factory worker. This is, once again, hard to disagree with. However, it also seems to mask important differences. It is not always clear who Harvey means to include in this category. So sometimes it seems to be producers of value in the traditional Marxist sense, other times it appears to include almost everyone in the city.

One problem with this is that not all reproducers of the city, in Harvey’s terms, are equally powerful, equally capable of undermining capitalism or stopping it from functioning. So, for example, Harvey notes, “Thousands of delivery trucks clog the streets of New York every day. Organised, those workers would have the power to strangle the metabolism of the city.” This is an important observation about the potential power of a particular group of workers, but not everyone within the city has such power. Similarly with the British electricians’ struggle of last year, an example which Harvey does not mention. These protests showed the power of a militantly organised group of workers in an urban environment. The nature of their work meant their action could be astonishingly effective, and ultimately victorious, yet this kind of power does not exist in everyone who produces and reproduces the city. Furthermore, it is not clear to me exactly how seeing them primarily as producers of the city would have changed either the approach of the sparks themselves or of those who delivered solidarity to them.

Although we are hardly the main target, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) does get a direct mention, so it is worth responding to it. Harvey, repeating a comment made at the Historical Materialism conference in November, argues that the SWP “led the successful struggle against Thatcher’s poll tax in the 1980s”. This is a claim that gives us far too much credit, and will perhaps surprise those who were present. It is also indicative of the vagueness surrounding Harvey’s claims. This is intended as a sort of “gotcha” moment. The implication is “You guys go on about factories and workers, but actually your most successful historical intervention was over an issue of citizenship and tax”. Yet it is unclear where this criticism is supposed to land. For one thing, it suggests a certain ambivalence about what counts as truly urban, since, as comrades where I live in East Anglia never tire of telling me, the poll tax revolt was hardly limited to the urban metropolises. On the other hand, it shows that the “traditional left” might have been rather better at identifying the class character of this kind of issue than Harvey maintains.

None of this is to ignore that Harvey is grappling with serious questions, probably the most important of which is how to organise a vast and diverse working class, for many of whom organising within the workplace (if they even have one) is extremely difficult. Here the idea of city-wide organising has a genuine appeal, and should not be ignored. Nor is it to demand from Harvey a new manifesto or roadmap for the future. Obviously that would be too much. But I was left wanting more, much more. This is compounded by the final two chapters, one a short commentary on the London riots and one a hymn of praise to Occupy Wall Street, which feel (and I assume were) bolted on. In these chapters the detailed questions of class and production fade out, in favour of generalisations about broad coalitions of the oppressed and exploited. This is out of keeping with the rest of the book, and it would be a shame if this is where Harvey’s compelling analysis ends up.