Of all human creations, the city is undoubtedly the most victorious at remaking the natural environment on our own terms and for our own benefit. In many ways, the city is a mirror into the soul of humanity. Its roads and skyscrapers reflect our ingenuity. Its bustling crowds reflect our status as social animals. Its crippling poverty and violence reflect our capacity for cruelty. Freed from the harsh decrees of nature, cities are our environmental tabula rasa in that they are tailor-made to be what we decide them to be. The question is, who gets to decide how they should be organized and why? Where ancient cities once displayed the divine will of pharaohs, the gentrified neighborhoods, privatized public areas, and endless traffic jams where low-cost public transportation once operated are all reflections of the triumphs of capitalism today. Cities have also been an important commons for revolutionary thought and action, and Rebel Cities is a call to arms for the working class to remake their neighborhoods in a radical way.
Rebel Cities is an engaging book that largely succeeds in its argument that an anti-capitalist struggle cannot remain at the workplace, but must also challenge where and how we live. David Harvey is a gifted political economist whose Marxist analyses are often original and backed with tremendous economic data. Rebel Cities is without a doubt another fine jewel in his academic treasury, despite this not being his most easily accessible work. It can be a difficult read at times for those without prior knowledge of urban studies, and some may have to strain to catch up with Harvey’s brisk pace. Further, some arguments within the book are stronger than others, and thus some readers may find the book a bit uneven. Despite that, the book should be hard for anyone to put down. Loaded with rich analysis, timely discussion, and bits of unexpected dry humor, Rebel Cities is a wonderful addition to Harvey’s impressive oeuvre. Of course, a work of this nature justifiably provokes charges of economic reductionism. Fortunately, it does not pretend to be the final word on the matter. Rather, Rebel Cities strives to contribute to a larger analysis of the urban phenomenon.
The political economy of urbanization has not always received adequate attention in mainstream Marxist theory. Marx recognized that capitalism affected not only economic production, but also the production of living space, and that these two were systemically bound together. Since then, theories of urbanization have become rather peripheral within Marxism. Economic exploitation has come to be mistakenly viewed as occurring primarily within the workplace. Like Henri Lefebvre before him, Harvey is intent upon returning urban analysis into a central pillar of Marxism and recognizing the city as an important site in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
The author begins by introducing the fundamentals of Lefebvre’s The Right to the City. Since most readers will be unfamiliar with Lefevbre’s work, the introductory chapters are critically important, although perhaps more academic than they should be. What surprises Harvey is that urban rights and Lefevbre’s vision are ignored not only by mainstream academia, but within Marxist circles as well. For Harvey, cities as a social, political, and livable commons are under perpetual assault from privatization and commodification. The right to the city has been largely forfeited to political and economic elites when it should be reserved for the working classes who built them and have suffered in their cramped slums. The overall revolutionary demands should be for greater democratic control over the surplus that cities are built upon. Unions must therefore broaden the definitions of “labor” and “exploitation.”
Harvey begins by arguing that cities arise from the social concentration of surplus product, and thus urbanization is to some extent a class phenomenon. Capitalism propelled urbanization, and, reciprocally, urbanization has been a vital process for sustaining capitalism. The role of urbanization, Harvey argues, is to help absorb the infinite surplus product created under this system. Capitalism requires not only a constant search for profits, but also a place where they can be absorbed and reinvested to repeat the process. Harvey writes, “Hardly surprising therefore, the logistical curves of growth of capitalist output over time are broadly paralleled by the logistical curves of urbanization of the world’s population.” It is a compelling argument, however brief.
He next discusses the housing crash of 2007-08 in terms of Marxist theory. He analyzes the credit and mortgage system through Marx’s lesser-known concept of fictitious capital, which includes mortgage and credit interest, lending to land speculators looking to charge high rents, and bank leveraging at higher ratios. These are all surface phenomena inextricably tied to class relations. This form of capital is fictitious, according to Harvey, because it relies ultimately upon the value created by productive labor. Harvey’s analysis is helpful in understanding the recent financial collapse.
In his discussion of the urban commons, Harvey turns the thesis of Garret Hardin’s infamous “Tragedy of the Commons” on its head by arguing that it rather demonstrates the tragedy of privatization. He also discusses how best to manage the commons democratically at different levels. He criticizes the left, particularly anarchists, for a dogmatic organizational fetish for non-hierarchical, non-centralized horizontality. Harvey sees it as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to managing the commons that works well at some levels but not on a large scale. He points to the anarchist writer Murray Bookchin’s theory of “confederalism” as a well-rounded balance of horizontality and hierarchical political structures capable of managing large commons. His varied ruminations on the plight of the commons are thought-provoking, but of uneven persuasiveness.
The last major section of the book returns to Marxist theorizing, but grounds it in unique examples that can be seen hidden in everyday life. He elaborates his theory of “monopoly rent”; a seemingly simple analytical tool that becomes instantly recognizable in a variety of social and cultural dilemmas. In essence, monopoly rent is the income stream generated through exclusive control over something unique and non-replicable. Examples include wine-production of a certain region based on its unique climate, tourist industries built upon non-replicable cultural experiences, property proximity to city centers, etc. For Harvey, though, the drive for monopoly rent, based on the push for homogenized, easily marketed, Disney World-style cultural commodities, undercuts the original uniqueness and therefore becomes self-destructive. He cites the rise to prominence of Barcelona, a city known for its memorable architecture and history, as an example of this contradictory process.
The later phases of waterfront development look like every other in the western world: the stupefying congestion of the traffic leads to pressures to put boulevards through parts of the old city, multinational stores replace local shops, gentrification removes long-term residential populations and destroys older urban fabric, and Barcelona loses some of its marks of distinction. (105).
This discussion is among the most engaging in the book. It leaves the reader with a cultural Marxist theory verifiable in any city center.
Rebel Cities concludes by returning to the discussion of the right to the city and urban revolutionary politics. Harvey calls for organizing revolutionary activity in neighborhoods and living spaces. If capitalist exploitation extends outside the factory, then why should not labor unions as well? This has profound implications for Marxist theory, particularly for definitions of class. The old Marxist classifications become muddled when geographical considerations are added. How should we then define the proletariat in a methodologically useful way, and what precisely should be made of the suburban, rural, and other living environments? Rebel Cities leaves the readers on the cusp of a new approach, and an implicit hope to carry Harvey’s and Lefebvre’s approach even further.
Harvey recounts a case study of Bolivia’s El Alto as an example of what radical and democratic urban governance might look like. Ultimately, though, the book suffers from a lack of existing models to draw from. How to organize whole cities to reclaim their rights to anti-capitalist governance remains frustratingly unanswered. The ‘right to the city’ thesis frustratingly remains as abstract a concept as it did at the start of the book. The author briefly discusses the class character of the London riots of 2011, and expresses his optimism for the Occupy Wall Street protests. He is clearly proud to see that these protests have taken an urban character and that their main strategy has been to occupy urban commons. He is also not surprised that political and economic elites have responded by granting themselves the exclusive right to regulate these crucial public spaces.
Overall, Rebel Cities is a successful foray into the political economy of urbanization. It is a highly concise tour-de-force through a wide array of topics. The right to the city may remain an elusive claim, but Harvey still makes a persuasive case for revolutionary activity to move beyond the workplace. Is he oversimplifying urban phenomena? Absolutely so, but what is equally certain is that he has shed light on a truth that has been sorely neglected in the social sciences. Rebel Cities is a strong piece of Marxist scholarship which I highly recommend.
Reviewed by Philip Louro
Elizabeth, New Jersey