David Harvey on Cities in the Anti-Capitalist Struggle

In chapter 5 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on the role of the cities in the anti-capitalist struggle. This is not new:

“If urbanization is so crucial in the history of capital accumulation, and if the forces of capital and its innumerable allies must relentlessly mobilize to periodically revolutionize urban life, then class struggles of some sort, no matter whether they are explicitly recognized as such, are inevitably involved. This is so if only because the forces of capital have to struggle mightily to impose their will on an urban process and whole populations that can never, even under the most favorable of circumstances, be under their total control. An important strategic political question then follows: To what degree should anti-capitalist struggles explicitly focus and organize on the broad terrain of the city and the urban? And if they should do so, then how and exactly why?

The history of urban-based class struggles is stunning. The successive revolutionary movements in Paris from 1789 through 1830 and 1848 to the Commune of 1871 constitute the most obvious nineteenth-century example. Later events included the Petrograd Soviet, the Shanghai Communes of 1927 and 1967, the Seattle General Strike of 1919, the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the uprising in Córdoba in 1969, and the more general urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s, the urban-based movements of 1968 (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City, Bangkok, and others including the so-called “Prague Spring,” and the rise of neighborhood associations in Madrid that fronted the anti-Franco movement in Spain around the same time). And in more recent times we have witnessed echoes of these older struggles in the Seattle anti-globalization protests of 1999 (followed by similar protests in Quebec City, Genoa, and many other cities as part of a widespread alternative globalization movement). Most recently we have seen mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Plazas del Sol in Madrid and Catalunya in Barcelona, and in Syntagma Square in Athens, as well as revolutionary movements and rebellions in Oaxaca in Mexico, in Cochabamba (2000 and 2007) and El Alto (2003 and 2005) in Bolivia, along with very different but equally important political eruptions in Buenos Aires in 2001–02, and in Santiago in Chile (2006 and 2011).” (115 – 6)

So, the city is where the battle lines are being drawn in the 21st century. The powers that be know this and they are taking population control into account in urban planning, pretty much the same way that Haussmann designed the Parisian “grands boulevards” to facilitate cavalry charges and make building barricades more difficult. The city is now a site of global political control but also of potential anti-systemic social movements that can disrupt urban economic activities.

However, Harvey argues that the centrality of the city has been relatively ignored on the left as it privileged a social class / industrial proletarian view rather than a specifically urban analysis. And this perspective has not led to massive success:

“Attempts to change the world by worker control and analogous movements—such as community-owned projects, so-called “moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which today would be that of the Zapatistas)—have not so far proved viable as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions.” (121)

The alternative then turned out to be taking control of the state… not much success here either:

“The rather dismal historical experience of centrally planned Stalinism and communism as it was actually practiced, and the ultimate failure of social-democratic reformism and protectionism to resist the growing power of capital to control the state and to dictate its policies, has led much of the contemporary left to conclude either that the “smashing of the state” is a necessary precursor to revolutionary transformation or that organizing production autonomously from within the state is the only viable path towards revolutionary change. The burden of politics thus shifts back to some form of worker, community, or localized control. The assumption is that the oppressive power of the state can be “withered away” as oppositional movements of various sorts—factory occupations, solidarity economies, collective autonomous movements, agrarian cooperatives, and the like—gather momentum within civil society. This amounts to what one might call a “termite theory” of revolutionary change: eating away at the institutional and material supports of capital until they collapse. This is not a dismissive term. Termites can inflict terrible damage, often hidden from easy detection. The problem is not lack of potential effectiveness; it is that, as soon as the damage wrought becomes too obvious and threatening, then capital is both able and all too willing to call in the exterminators (state powers) to deal with it.” (123 – 4)

The problem, for Harvey is what he calls the left’s fetishism of organizational forms and right now, it is the horizontal, non-hierarchical organizational form that seems to be popular with the Occupy movement, for instance , as opposed to previous infatuation with communes or various local forms of collectivities.

So, what alternative does Harvey proposes? For him, these alternatives must have some core bases:

  • How to reduce the massive impoverishment of the world and give most a chance to develop their potentials, human capacities and creative powers. And there are no two ways around poverty reduction: anti-poverty also means anti-wealth politics. Obscene global stratification has to be confronted head on.
  • How to reduce environmental degradation.
  • How to abolish the power of the capitalist law of value to regulate the world market.

So, is there a specifically urban anti-capitalist movement capable of addressing all three dimensions? After all, dynamics of exploitation are not limited to the factories and the cities can be seen as centers of accumulation by dispossession.

“These secondary forms of exploitation are primarily organized by merchants, landlords, and the financiers; and their effects are primarily felt in the living space, not in the factory. These forms of exploitation are and always have been vital to the overall dynamics of capital accumulation and the perpetuation of class power. Wage concessions to workers can, for example, be stolen back and recuperated for the capitalist class as a whole by merchant capitalists and landlords and, in contemporary conditions, even more viciously by the credit-mongers, the bankers, and the financiers. Practices of accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and profit-gouging, lie at the heart of many of the discontents that attach to the qualities of daily life for the mass of the population. Urban social movements typically mobilize around such questions, and they derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is organized around living as well as around working. Urban social movements therefore always have a class content even when they are primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails of social reproduction.” (128)

In other words, the city, not the factory, is the locus of surplus value production across a variety of actors beyond the factory worker. For Harvey, we need to change how we defined the working class as well as how we organize it.

The city is also central because that is where the wealthy are vulnerable:

“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.

Consider the flows not only of food and other consumer goods, but also of energy, water, and other necessities, and their vulnerabilities to disruption too.

(…)

Organizing the neighborhoods has been just as important in prosecuting labor struggles, as has organizing the workplace. One of the strengths of the factory occupations in Argentina that followed on the collapse of 2001 is that the cooperatively managed factories also turned themselves into neighborhood cultural and educational centers. They built bridges between the community and the workplace.

(…)

To the degree that conventional workplaces are disappearing in many parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world (though not, of course, in China or Bangladesh), organizing around not only work but also around conditions in the living space, while building bridges between the two, becomes even more crucial.

(…)

As the lens is widened on the social milieu in which struggle is occurring, the sense of who the proletariat might be and what their aspirations and organizational strategies might be is transformed. The gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when relations outside of the conventional factory (in both workplaces and living spaces) are brought firmly into the picture.” (131 – 2)

They key question, then, for Harvey, is how one organizes a city. This gets us back to the initial question of the right to the city as basic social demand and central organizing slogan. Why?

“The right to the city is not an exclusive individual right, but a focused collective right. It is inclusive not only of construction workers but also of all those who facilitate the reproduction of daily life: the caregivers and teachers, the sewer and subway repair men, the plumbers and electricians, the scaffold erectors and crane operators, the hospital workers and the truck, bus, and taxi drivers, the restaurant workers and the entertainers, the bank clerks and the city administrators. It seeks a unity from within an incredible diversity of fragmented social spaces and locations within innumerable divisions of labor. And there are many putative forms of organization.” (136 – 7)

And we already have a few examples of how one organizes a city through the case of the water wars in Cochabamba and El Alto in Bolivia.

Quick reminder:

Second part:

Is this the future?

“Imagine in New York City, for example, the revival of the now largely somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization. What the story of El Alto suggests is that such a coalition will work only if the forces of culture and of a politically radical tradition (which most certainly exists in New York, as it also does in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) can be mobilized in such a way as to animate citizen-subjects (however fractious, as indeed is always the case in New York) behind a radically different project of urbanization to that dominated by the class interests of developers and financiers.” (150)

Harvey seems to think it is possible.

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