David Harvey. Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to urban revolution

Harvey’s latest book is a useful synthesis of his seemingly disparate work in Marxist theory, geography, and social justice. His argument will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work, e.g. crises of capital accumulation drive urbanization projects directed by a collusion of the state and finance; resistance to such reorganization of urban life offer the clearest historical path to revolutionary change. Although these urbanization projects may seem like the basis of urban life, Harvey rightly notes that it is the work of the people within these communities that makes up urban life. What’s new here is how his work on the construction of social life coincides explicitly with Hardt and Negri’s work on the common in Commonwealth. In effect, Rebel Cities bridges Harveys work on neoliberalism, finance, and urbanism and Hardt and Negri’s expansion of social labor.

For me, the payoff of this convergence is Harvey’s discussion of the production of the common and capitals continual attempts to enclose and appropriate the social goods produced by this labor in monetized form. The key term here, and also crucial in Commonwealth, is rent, specifically monopoly rent. Harvey returns to a key passage in Marx on the monopoly rents that wine producers can extract based on their control of particular environments and products; Marx himself links this ability to command a premium on unique products to artistic and intellectual production, but Harvey extends Marx’s approach to explain how neoliberal urbanization projects extract value from the social life produced by their inhabitants, dispossessing these workers in the process: capital appropriates the social world produced by common labor as a marketable culture and experience, a process that encompasses urbanization projects and gentrification. The result, for Harvey, is that the right to the city is not a vague demand for spaces owned by others but rather a right to the common world that we produce. The corollary here is that organizing should take place at the social level as well as the economic, i.e. coalitions that cross economic and social spheres.

Motivated in part by Occupy Wall Street, Rebel Cities includes occasional pieces Harvey produced over the last year. These aren’t terribly interesting, but they do help situate an interesting turn in Harvey’s work: an explicit engagement with contemporary anarchist thought. Once we move outside the factory as the organizing space, we cannot avoid anarchist thought, and with OWS especially, not only because David Graeber receives a mention here, but because Harvey also responds to OWS’s more general use of anarchist thought. (For one prominent example, look at Chris Hedges’s use of Bakunin and Kropotkin in his TruthDig columns.)

So although were used to talking about Marx in academia, Harvey clearly sees that we have to address a broader question in the left about how power should be structured and used. As such, he argues against a kneejerk horizontalism that Verso authors are consistently worried about, (see Jameson’s Reading Capital for a similar turn). One can only imagine this fear as the result of being shouted down in the past┬áby an unswayed group. Harvey is most interested in Murray Bookchin’s work on libertarian municipalism and confederal assemblies, if only because they represent one of the instances of engaged thought on the issue. Harvey certainly doesn’t have a comparable set of solutions, but I’m amenable to his argument that pure horizontal organizations are impossible at certain scales. If nothing else, Rebel Cities is a more engaging work than much of what Marxist theory has produced in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (moreso, to my mind, than Harvey’s The enigma of capital, seemed more of a glum victory tour than anything else), and helps connect Harvey’s major and most well known works on economics and geography to contemporary work by Hardt and Negri, as well as explaining his relationship to more explicitly anarchist thought.

Also, unlike Harvey’s work in 1980s and 90s, it’s a fairly breezy read.