Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pacification by Cappucino? Or Smelling the Coffee...

"Rebel Cities – from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution,” by David Harvey, 2012

Harvey is a British-born Marxist geographer.  He attempts in this book to unite the class struggle work-based elements of Marxism with a focus on the terrain of the ‘precariat’ – the city - and generally succeeds.  Setting up somewhat of a straw-man, he contrasts the idea that the factory/workplace is the ‘only’ and primary locus of revolution with the idea that the ‘city’ is also a locus of revolution – and without each other, they cannot succeed.  Mike Davis’ book, “Planet of Slums,” (reviewed below) and "The Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Dubord (also reviewed below) can be seen as volumes that address some of these same issues.

Harvey bases himself on the work of Henri LeFebvre, who was inspired by the Parisian Situationists of the late 1960s and early 70s.  The 1870 Paris Commune, of course, is the classic example of a combined proletarian rising with a ‘precariat’ uprising, taking over Paris and overthrowing the bourgeoisie – for a time.  Harvey cites many general strikes and revolutions based on various cities to show that the ‘city’ itself, as a geographic entity, has something special to do with revolution.   Now that the majority of the people in the world are urbanized, and human connections between city and countryside are frequent, Harvey suggests the weight of present urbanization impels the world towards revolution.  He points out that city squares – Tahrir in Egypt, Puerta Del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, Pearl Square in Bahrain and our own Madison State House or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan – have been the locus of the present rebellions against capitalist austerity.   Factories have not yet joined on that scale.

Harvey knows you cannot have ‘socialism in one city’ or ‘socialism in one square’ anymore than you can have socialism in one country or one island.  So the key idea is how to spread the rebellion between squares, factories, cities and eventually nations.  While friendly to aspects of anarchism, he comes down against pure anarchist ‘horizontalism’ – which can involve a maximum of up to 15,000 people and no more.  A true revolution, even in one city, needs to deal with issues of immense scale, and here he praises Murray Bookchin for supporting ‘confederal’ assemblies of representatives.  Confederalist assemblies are similar, of course, to the Marxist idea of factory councils or regional councils – in the Russian argot, soviets.  Harvey also understands Marx was for worker control, not mere state control.  State ownership of an entity is only a prelude to worker control for Marx, not an end in itself.  Harvey suggests this idea of worker control unites both Marxists and left anarchists. 

Havey makes several valuable points.  He insists many progressives underplay the role of real estate and land issues in capitalist development, yet they are essential. Harvey describes how massive building projects – suburbs, cities, railroads, freeways, infrastructure – were and are a key method of absorbing surplus capital, and have been for years - and also underlie many capital busts. The creation of ‘suburbia’ in the 1950s and 60s was a key part of that boom.  The massive building boom in China has probably kept the world economy going since 2008, even though many Chinese office towers are empty.  70% of their economy in 2010-2011 was dedicated to building – a figure with no match in history. The 2008 crash itself was intimately connected to housing, which was 40% of the U.S. economy.  Even the 1929 crash was preceded by a bust in real estate.  Building is a Keynesian method of stimulus - and destruction.   Much present building benefits the rich of course, which is why it must be so irresistible.  Witness the grotesque makeover of Dubai City. A ski slope indoors in the desert?  Done!

He notes that, unsatisfied with soaking regular mortgage owners with profitable interest rates that triple the price of the house, with interest paid up-front for 30 years – the capitalists decided en mass to soak the poor too with sub-prime mortgages.  These are similar to payday loans or the ‘micro-finance’ movement that is impoverishing so many third-world people.  Capitalists see that even the poor can be a veritable gold mine as long as they have a dime.   

As Harvey describes it, the bourgeoisie configures cities and regions (Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris or Robert Moses grand demolition of old New York) by destroying working class and poor neighborhoods through demolition, gentrification, and walling off upscale and vital bourgeois downtowns by freeways or other barriers from proletarian and poor neighborhoods.  Manhattan is becoming a gated community – and for good reason - four of the richest 10 zip codes in the U.S. are in Manhattan.  Anyone who experienced the street battles in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA during the 2008 RNC knows how the I94 freeway ditch protected downtown St. Paul and the conventioneers.  Although the giant fence cage didn’t hurt. 

The ‘right to the city’ means the right of the residents to democratically control their urban world, according to Harvey.  Right now, as we know, our mayors and city council members are mostly whores to real estate developers, giant corporations and mega projects dedicated to corporate suits, like the new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis.  Instead, struggles around homelessness, foreclosure, gentrification, segregation, disaster relief, living wage struggles, city counsel elections, stadiums, historical preservation, rent control, urban gardens, co-ops or ‘peoples’ businesses, high and trivial fines, voting rights, use of tax money, corporate welfare, high housing prices, road issues, rip-off businesses, tenants rights, waste disposal, recycling, alternative transport, mass transit, eminent domain, high utility prices, march and camping permits, even crime and police brutality, are all based on ‘right to the city’ issues.  Though of course, they can all end up, as frequently happens, alone, as tiny reformist struggles unconnected to any greater movement.  The point is to unite them. 

Harvey is at pains to integrate his theory of the city with ‘traditional’ Marxism.  Like many authors writing now, he is adding to and updating Marx for the present, not merely regurgitating the ‘bible.’  What Marx saw in England – the methods of the capitalist economy – has now spread across the world.  But according to Harvey, Marx never developed his theories of land rent, credit and commodification sufficiently.  In Marxist terms, while surplus value is extracted at the point of production, later in the life of the worker, a series of additional parasites – landlords, mortgage bankers, shop-keepers, pawn brokers, contractors, real estate developers, payday lenders, gamblers, financial advisers, etc. – attempt to ‘legally’ steal even more of the worker’s pay check.  And get another chance to get a slice of 'surplus value."  This many times happens on the terrain of the city.  Capitalists take advantage of their control of the land in the form of rents, mortgages and products – he cites ‘wine’ as an example of land used to gain ‘monopoly rents’ (i.e. higher than normal payment for ownership of a certain piece of property) – to extract additional profits.  This ‘fictitious capital’ and the credit system that make it possible are essential parts of the circulation of capital, and not something outside of it, or irrelevant to it. 

Harvey points to the commodification of ‘authentic’ neighborhoods, or authentic places, through tourism, real estate speculation, gentrification and corporatization, as an important issue for capital.  Capital has to keep in touch with many cultural issues in order to commodify them – and still not completely kill them through sterility, through Disneylandification. Even paying attention to a city's fashion ideas and businesses can build profitable 'cultural capital.'  This is a delicate balancing act, as seen in some hipster neighborhoods that become overloaded with ‘urban entrepreneurialism.’  This is almost what has happened to Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood, which is now a fake upscale copy of an actual urban neighborhood. And down the river, the character of New Orleans French Quarter is changing because of forces like tourism and MTV.

In Harvey’s view then, workers that exist on a local, geographic level attain increased importance – taxi drivers, construction workers, mothers, home workers, delivery truck drivers, street vendors, the unemployed, temp workers and others.  As I suggested in the 1980s, organizing shops on a geographic basis in ‘advanced’ capitalist countries – in industrial parks, office parks and downtowns – irrespective of the company – might make more sense at times than just concentrating on separate companies alone.  Large factories and work-sites continue to disappear - just look at the recent closure of our local Ford plant in St. PaulHarvey suggests unions organize communities, not just work-places, and thus reinforce both struggles.  In this book, Harvey studies the history of the rebellions in Cochabamba and El Alto, Bolivia, which did just that.  These rebellions changed the face of Bolivia and Latin America, but he knows there is no ideal road map.  Understanding these issues may, at the right time, allow the working class to reclaim the cities they built. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
May 15, 2012

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another great review, Red. I'll be getting this one at Mayday!