If, in the traditional communist view, the revolution was to be led by the industrial proletariat, then how do we explain the recent wave of urban protests? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new revolutionary force made up not of factory workers but of urbanites more generally? With the political awakening last year of a ‘protest generation’ and military strategists turning to questions of handling urban insurrection, it is a timely moment for David Harvey’s Rebel Cities. In it, the eminent geographer, social theorist and Marxist minces no words in the expression of his goal, which is ‘collectively to build the socialist city on the ruins of destructive capitalist urbanisation’. His polemic is persuasive and at times rousing, even if he is more tentative on how the revolution will be achieved.
It has to be said that while Rebel Cities is a response to recent events, it is not about them. Most of these essays were published previously and are appended here with a couple of much thinner, though no less trenchant, reckonings on last year’s London riots and the Occupy Wall Street protests. The results are mixed, but the first two chapters alone are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the economic and social crises facing the modern metropolis. Harvey opens with Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the right to the city, a catchall concept that upholds citizens’ access to public space, to the street, to jobs and to everything that urban culture affords. That may sound trite, but the history of modern urbanisation proves that the right to the city is most often the preserve of oppressive or neoliberal governments and rapacious developers. From Haussmann’s Paris to Robert Moses and the suburbanisation of America, Harvey argues, the city has been a primary mechanism for the extraction of surplus value. In other words, cities march to capitalism’s drumbeat – and there is no capitalism, in the Marxian view, without exploitation of the proletariat.
Harvey is very good on the role that urbanisation, and property speculation in particular, has played in the history of economic crises. From the end of the construction boom in America in 1928 (heralding the Wall Street crash of 1929) to the roots of the current recession in the subprime mortgage fiasco, the greedy extraction of surplus value ends up hurting the urban poor most. Foreclosures and repossessions are the result of bankers, speculators and politicians playing at what Marx called fictitious capital and what Harvey dubs unreal estate. The lessons are there, and Harvey insinuates that there may be more to come if China, which is experiencing speculative urbanisation on a scale the world has never seen, follows suit.
What is to be done, then? Picking up the Lefebvrian gauntlet, Harvey’s call is for citizens to remake the city ‘more after their own heart’s desire’. There are precedents, albeit short-lived ones. The most important is the Paris Commune of 1871, which was not an uprising of the working class but drew on broader social alliances. This, he argues, is the key, the rising up of a new proletariat not comprising factory workers but urban dwellers across the board. A more recent example is the El Alto rebellion in Bolivia in 2003, when the city challenged the privatisation of the gas industry and brought down the president. The new revolts, in Harvey’s view, cannot be mere class warfare but will rely on cross-sector alliances and a sense of place. In other words, the city itself is the battleground, and the quality of urban life is what can unite a divided left in the anticapitalist struggle.
The problem is that protest movements are ephemeral things, which often fail to achieve a critical mass or are undermined from within (because horizontal politics are a leftist fetish). Harvey gives last year’s global protest movement rather short shrift. There is nothing on Cairo. When it comes to the London riots, he attacks the Daily Mail’s ‘feral’ rioters epithet, and turns it back on a ‘feral capitalism’ – but we know this is not the revolt he’s waiting for. Occupy Wall Street fares better – less of a Lefebvrian bacchanal and more socially diverse. More righteous anger here: ‘They [the police and the mayor] claim they are taking action in the public interest (and cite laws to prove it), but it is we who are the public!… And by the way, is it not ‘our’ money that the banks and financiers so blatantly use to accumulate ‘their’ bonuses?’ The solution to undermining the forces of capital appears to be not merely a politics of defiance but one of reorganisation. ‘How does one organise a city?’ That is the question.