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Rebellious Cities

Robert Young is an assistant professor in the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of Texas at Austin. He works in the fields of urban planning, sustainable economic development, and urban ecology, and co-founded the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.
David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012), 208 pages, $16.95, paperback.

Noting the global rise in urban social movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring that are challenging the present global order, David Harvey asks in his new book Rebel Cities: “Is there an urban alternative and, if so, from where might it come?” (16).

In answering these questions Harvey explores the critical role of the city in the reproduction of capital and birth of radical social movements. He argues that many theorists and activists interested in broad-based social change have largely overlooked cities, despite the historical and growing importance of metropolitan centers in all aspects of human affairs.

Harvey identifies cities as keystones of social revolution. However, the left’s main theoretical focus traditionally “lies elsewhere” (35). This blind spot, he contends, has resulted in its weakness in grappling with urban issues, mapping effective strategies, and distinguishing clear objectives. Lack of understanding of the city’s strategic role is central to these failings. This calls for a fresh approach to social movement theory and strategy which transcends the factory and industrial working class to encompass the whole city, its citizens, and ecological systems as critical elements in any progressive social transformation.

Harvey’s assertion that urbanization plays “a crucial role in the absorption of capital surpluses and has done so at ever increasing geographical scales” is central to this critique (22). The growth of cities and capital accumulation are two parts of the same motion. While observing that the current burst of urban development in China and the global south may continue to service the needs of capital accumulation in the short term, he declares the period of urban-based accumulation and capitalist stabilization in the northern hemisphere has most likely come to an end. Indeed, now that over half the world’s human population lives in cities (a percentage the United Nation expects to rise to over two thirds by 2050), the implication is that urbanization’s ability to enable global accumulation may be reaching its limits.

But even if endless urbanization were possible, ensuring unlimited opportunities for capital accumulation, the uneven nature of remaking the capitalist city would still intensify social divisions. These divisions would aggravate insurrectionary tendencies possibly sparking revolutionary movements as occurred, most famously, with the Paris Commune or the urban riots of the 1960s. In this manner, Harvey broadens the term “urban crisis” to include both the potential for urbanization to decline as an arena for capital accumulation and the uneven nature of urban development that so often leads to social upheaval.

With a clear eye to the limitations, splinters, and past failures that bedevil the left, Harvey asks, “But if these various oppositional movements did somehow come together—coalesce, for example, around the slogan of the right to the city—then what should they demand?” (22).

His seemingly straight-forward answer: democratic control of society’s surplus. However, he adds, “There is always a struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests” (73). In response, Harvey goes on to distinguish between public goods and spaces (which may be controlled by less-than-progressive private or state sector institutions) and the actual commons:

There is an important distinction here between public spaces and public goods, on the one hand, and the commons on the other. Public goods and public spaces in the city have always been a matter of state power and state administration, and such spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make. Throughout the history of urbanization, the provision of public spaces and public goods (such as sanitation, public health, education, and the like) by either public or private means has been crucial for capitalist development. (72)

This is parallel to Harvey’s point that the physical characteristics of urban terrain can be conducive to both rebellion and suppression. To this latter point he correctly notes the importance of cities’ spatial component to both successful uprisings and social control and calls upon the traditional left to reconsider the importance of urban design on the outcomes of popular struggles.

To advance the democratic social and physical possibilities of the city, he suggests urban movements adopt the social practice of “communing”:

At the heart of the practice of communing lies the principal that the relation between the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified—off limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations. This last point is crucial because it helps distinguish between public goods construed as productive state expenditures and a common which is established or used in a completely different way and for a different purpose, even when it ends up indirectly enhancing the wealth and income of the social group that claims it. (73)

But even a commons is not necessarily open to all. Thus Harvey demands we carefully unpack the social relations around public goods, spaces, and commons. This examination, he argues, is vital for the development of neighborhood or citywide strategies to create decommodified, democratic, urban landscapes that produce solidarity through daily life, celebrations, and resistance.

More than a detailed analysis, Rebel Cities is written as a sometimes structural, sometimes anecdotal call for action for the emergence of a radical agenda of urban resistance. In making this call, Harvey argues progressive movements go beyond the limitations of the factory or shop floor and excessive abstraction of globalization to focus instead on the city as an effective middle ground. He correctly notes the vital, historical importance of community support in successful labor struggles: “Organizing the neighborhoods has been as important in prosecuting labor struggles, as has organizing the workplace” (132). Similarly he notes the crucial role cities will play in projecting larger agendas and visions onto the national and world stage: “No alternative to the contemporary form of globalization will be delivered to us from on high. It will have to come from within multiple local spaces—urban spaces in particular—conjoining into a broader movement” (112).

Harvey makes a well-placed critique of the left’s eschewing of hierarchical systems and its frequently vague prescriptions about how to move democratic, local decision-making to scale. In contradistinction to much of the contemporary discourse, he warns of the potential limitations of decentralization and autonomy: “It is simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and active enforcement” (84). Here, however, he treads on narrow historical ground. To simply say, as he does, that “in such a hierarchymechanisms can surely be devised to prevent dictatorship or authoritarianism” is to downplay the very real challenges related to this problem of decentralization and hierarchy (152). Moreover, the issue lies not so much in the mechanisms being devised as in keeping them viable in face of the tendency of central organs, as a matter of seeming social physics, to accumulate increasing levels of power and control at the center to the detriment of more locally based bodies.

In the end we are left with the question of what alternatives to pursue within the rebel city project. “If the capitalist form of urbanization,” Harvey writes, “is so completely embedded in and foundational for the reproduction of capitalism, then it also follows that alternative forms of urbanization must necessarily become central to any pursuit of an anti-capitalist alternative” (65). But if capital accumulation and the process of urbanization are so intimately bound together, as Harvey indicates, what will the nature of the city be within the context of new modes of production? What about biologist and regional planner Patrick Geddes’s notion that the city is the natural evolutionary form of human life? How, then, can the city be reconstituted and still remain a city? And indeed what does a materialist urbanism look like and what are its theoretical foundations?

These questions, associated with Harvey’s work and also going beyond it, tie into the criticism that contemporary social movements such as Occupy Wall Street lack a viable theory and strategy for urban-based, social transformation. The traditional left, as Harvey observes, has provided little theoretical structure to go on in the process of seeking to construct new, coherent urban alternatives—or as grist for ongoing discussion, organization, and action. Rebel Cities does not directly address all of the challenges that face us in this area. But it constitutes an important contribution to the wider task of framing these alternatives and moving their realization forward.