The City We Built and They Stole


Paris Commune, 1871

by Jonathan Moses

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution,
by David Harvey,
Verso, 206 pp.

It would be impossible to cover here the range of ideas in Harvey’s recent book, Rebel Cities, but it is worth considering one of its key themes: how might the city, rather than the workplace, be the key site of anti-capitalist struggle?

The Urban Proletariat

In prioritising the site of production and the industrial proletariat as the revolutionary class, traditional Marxism created a number of problems. To begin with, it excluded all those who did not, or could not work from possessing any kind of agency – with the result that the struggles of domestic labourers (women), the unemployed, the disabled were largely ignored.  It also left us blind to other forms of value creation outside of the sphere of ‘work’, or indeed forms of exploitation centred not around production but consumption, since, after all you might well win wage concessions at work only to find your gas bill has hiked at home.

For Harvey, it is the city which offers a way out – since everyone who lives in the city creates the city but only a minority take ownership of the value that is created. This is the tragedy of the urban commons – those who “create an interesting and stimulating everyday neighbourhood life lose it to the predatory practices of real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and upper class consumers bereft of any social imagination.” The better the common life a social group creates “the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit-maximizing interests.” In other words, we might not all be workers in the traditional sense, but so long as we are all engaged in the production and reproduction of social life in the city, we are all prey to a form of the exploitation Marx first identified as the fate of labour under capitalism.

It was this exploited urban class who were the key actors in the 1871 Paris Commune. It was claimed by Marx as a “proletarian uprising”.  Harvey suggests it was instead constituted by a more complex arrangement of workers characterised by “insecurity…episodic, temporary, and spatially diffuse employment” attempting to claim back control of the cities they themselves had produced. The significance? Since late-capitalist economies are increasingly marked by a decline in the industrial proletariat, a rise in precarious labour, and an increase in the exploitation of consumption, it is an urban politics, in the spirit of 1871, which provides the way forward for revolutionary movements today.

Social Life and Value Creation

In South Baltimore, “regeneration” meant the displacement of a lively street life where people “sat on their stoops on warm summer nights and conversed with neighbours” in exchange for “burglar-proofed houses with a BMW parked out front and a rooftop deck, but with no one to be seen on the street.” Unable to reproduce itself, the social life vanished and the communities became inchoate and disparate. Look no further than HBO’s The Wire for the result. As detective Bunk Morland puts: “As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you.” In the series, the drug money accumulated on the back of the misery of the city housing projects is routed through property developers, who in turn continue to buy out vast swathes of Baltimore’s land to be converted into luxury condominiums. Like much of The Wire, this picture is an accurate reflection of the reality of a city historically dogged by regeneration: its inner harbour was turned into typical blend of convention centres, hotels and a magnificent tourist attraction (an aquarium) in the 1970s, whilst the cheap land in the city centre was bought out by wealthy institutions like John Hopkins University. The city remains divided into clearly demarcated zones of wealth. Gated communities are prolific.

It is not just at the local level that the value created by the urban commons is extracted. Harvey introduces the idea of monopoly rent – the way hugely inflated market prices are justified on the back of the ‘uniqueness’ and ‘authenticity’ of the product. For cities, this is achieved through the appropriation of “historical narratives, interpretations and meanings of collective memories, significations of cultural practices” with the paradox that a backlash against the homogenisation driven by market globalisation is thereby recuperated by exactly the forces driving that homogenisation in the first place.

Barcelona’s “rise to prominence” for example was cultivated through an excavation of its Catalan history and traditions: its artistic and architectural heritage, edgy nightlife and conflicted past bound together as a packaged discourse to be fed through the blender of the tourist industry. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics was the catalyst, providing a crucible in which a new market-centred identity for the city could be forged and capitalised upon through tourism and booming property prices.

There is a stupid sadness to the whole self-defeating project. Nobody wins.  The slow tornado of gentrification ensures the destruction of the very appeal it markets, borne by a social life which can no longer exist in the conditions it creates. Another small bonanza for the developer; more dead space in cities emptied of all vitality from the centre outwards. Streets become graveyards haunted by their opulent, fleeting residents. Real communities are scattered and disseminated to the outer reaches. Harvey’s famous phrase ‘accumulation by dispossession’ proliferates through the corrupt monopoly of government and capital over the right to shape the city in their own lifeless image.

What Is to Be Done [1]

It is Harvey’s initial attempt to resolve this question dialectically which is the least convincing. In his formulation, to avoid the above scenario, capital will now be dependent on maintaining – even nurturing – “divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning” in order that it can use their particularity to extract monopoly rent. Additionally, the attempt to categorise the quality of place in order that it can be marketed and consumed will inevitably raise the question of whose history is being defined as ‘authentic’, thereby setting the ground for political opposition from those who are excluded from the narratives being created.

Yet surely such spaces are only tolerated so long as they fail to pose any serious threat to their benefactors, and Harvey is dubiously vague about what these spaces actually are. As he himself points out, ex-New York Mayor Giuliani’s “decency commission” shows how tightly curtailed and censored any such spaces backed with public and private capital can be. And Guiliani’s successor, multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg (9th richest man in the United States, making him not so much a member of the 1% as the 0.000003%) used police repression to shut down another alternative space in the form of the Occupy Movement.

You need only look at the London Olympics for an example about how narratives which include the radical legacies of the local environment simply serve to mask their material erasure. Consider the insult of the Westfield supermall’s kitsch industrial aesthetic, supposedly to chime with the working class history of the area, and the shameless exhibition of the 1888 matchgirls strike at the Olympic viewing platform (the Bryant and May factory where the strike started is now a gated community; its iconic water tower home to a surface-air missile launcher during the Olympics). Yes, there is a vacuous nod to local “uniqueness” here, but its a very inauthentic authenticity being cultivated, and hardly one that can be reclaimed or contested in any meaningful way.

Nor is it the dominant trend. Next door to Westfield and the Olympic stadium, the Carpenter’s estate is facing demolition, with the possibility the land will be bought by UCL and turned into a postgraduate research centre by the University’s un-democratic management, echoing the example of John Hopkins (and indeed Columbia in Harlem and Yale in New Haven). The estate is surrounded by new “luxury” apartments draped in glib corporate aesthetics, with maladroit names like ‘Aurora’ and, ‘Athena Tower’. Such hubris might simply be laughed off as corporate PR clichés, yet these celestial pretensions also scream the ideology of their indifferent and unaccountable creators. Designed as otherworldly spaces which consciously reject the particularity of their environment, their intent is a sort of spatial amnesia lifted out of history and time; to be inhabited by an imagined clientele of moneyed cosmopolitans for whom everywhere is anywhere anyway.

‘Pseudomodernism’, ‘Junkspace’, ‘finger in the dyke of post-industrial despair’, call it what you like. It defines urban redevelopment across Britain. The oppositional demand that it ‘remember’ the spaces it erases simply allows it to claim historical memory where its built reality denies one.

What Is To Be Done [2]

More promising is Harvey’s example from the global South, exploring how El Alto – a Bolivian plateau city incorporated in 1988 above the more prosperous La Paz – coalesced around a radical identity borne out of an erratic demographic of marginalised ex tin-mining proletariat, displaced rural peasantry, and once La Paz residents priced out from the capital. Mobilising through local committees originally created to self-manage the large informal workforce, the residents fought off attempts in 2000 to privatise the water supply, paving the way for the resignations of neoliberal presidents Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005.

Harvey concedes the difficulty of drawing universal conclusions from such a contingent example. El Alto’s success not only relied on somewhat unique geographical and political circumstances, but also held vital strategic benefits. 3 out of 4 of the main supply routes to La Paz run through El Alto, allowing the city’s residents to entirely cut off supply lines between La Paz and the West and South of the country through coordinated direct action. Yet El Alto is still instructive on two counts. First it reveals the potential of urban struggle centred around issues of consumption instead of production. Second, it escapes a certain “fetishisation of organisational form” that Harvey sees as an obstacle to the left making a shrewd evaluation of strategies for restoring its relevance.

Surely Harvey is right here. For a long time the left has been mired in a way of thinking and acting which is already precluded by the tacit admittance of defeat and the impossibility of its own success. The endless debates about the minutae of organisational form are almost certainly a symptom of this, and it is clear that the left will never mount a serious challenge without building the sort of urban cross-alliances Harvey celebrates. It seems a little odd then that Harvey devotes a fair proportion of the book taking issue with horizontalism, albeit in a constructive rather than sectarian manner.

The critique takes the following form:

  1. Whilst horizontal forms of direct democracy are effective at the small scale, they’re unable to ‘scale up’ to deal with the municipal, regional or global scale. The result is that wealth and resources could not be effectively redistributed across a city divided into autonomous localities, since no one community would consistently forsake their own wellbeing for the benefit of distant others.
  2. The ‘termite’ approach to revolution (the building of alternative societies within shell of the old) ends up leading to the self-management of your own exploitation: since any business, co-operatively owned or not, cannot isolate itself from the economy at large, it is forced to be competititive or go under, thereby succumbing to the same logic as any generic capitalist company. The same is true for ‘free communities’ who must likewise engage with society at large, diluting their principles in the process.

The problem with Harvey’s definition is that it appears to conflate an organisational approach based on consensus and a lack of leadership with a plethora of ideological offshoots, so that in the end “horizontalism” means occupy, means anarchism, means autonomism; all without any real discrimination between them. Consequently, what we get is a selective critique of elements of all three rather than a consistent critique of each in turn, resulting in an analysis based more on caricature than sustained engagement. “You wouldn’t want anarchists running a nuclear power station!” Harvey quipped at his LSE talk on the subject, as though anarchism meant sitting in a circle waving hands whilst the alarms go off. In the end, he wants urban networks that:

“may be heirarchical but not monocentric, corporatist but nevertheless democratic, egalitarian and horizontal, systemically nested and federated […] internally discordant and contested, but solidarious against capitalist class power […] deeply engaged in the struggle to undermine and eventually overthrow the power of capitalist laws of value on the world market to dictate the social relations under which we work and live.”

The question is how such an endlessly qualified wishlist can ever materalise around a clear proposal: can an organisation be both hierarchical and horizontal? What does all this look like? Harvey, generally laudable for the clarity of his style, nevertheless has the classic academic tendency to drown us in terminology when he’s less certain what he actually means.

Much clearer is Harvey’s clarion demand that it is “we”, not the developers, corporate planners, or political elites, who truly build the city, and only we who can seize back our right to its control. Our labour, our social relations, our creativity, our vitality are not commodities to be sold at profit from the social factory. The Right to the City means claiming back the cities we built, and they stole.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |Creative Commons

About the Author:

Jonathan Moses is a political activist and graduate of UCL. He currently teaches English Literature, History and Sociology in Kent.