Rebel Cities is Harvey’s response to the inspiring anti-capitalist movements we’ve seen around the world in the last few years. He argues that movements like Occupy have the potential to become a global struggle. As such the book is more than just an analysis of the urban nature of capitalist crisis; it is also a manifesto for urban struggles against the system. Harvey clearly lays out his analysis and frustrations, and his hopes for the future of the left.
Harvey accepts that the global crisis of 2007-9 had its roots in the housing market, but he argues that we need to theorise the relationship between capitalism and urbanisation more thoroughly. Marxist urban theory is enjoying a renaissance lately, as Harvey is not the only one arguing that urbanisation is a crucial mechanism of capitalist accumulation.
It is through building cities, infrastructure and housing that surplus capital is absorbed. Other Marxist geographers such as Neil Smith have been arguing recently that we need to focus on the production of cities – not just the consumption that goes on inside them – to understand the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Here Harvey takes up this line, also addressing the kind of resistance that is generated by these processes.
Drawing on Hardt and Negri’s theory of the “multitude” Harvey argues that we need to build bridges between the traditional working class and urban movements, as the two are inextricably connected and always have been. He also says (wrongly) that the precariat has replaced the proletariat, but doesn’t really expand on this theme – his point is to show the revolutionary potential of urban movements that have reformist demands (such as the right to housing and public services).
The most interesting argument is that we should see the city as the site of the production of urbanisation. Rather than seeing each factory, school or office as distinct, we should see the whole city as a factory, producing urban everyday life – and therefore we should organise resistance on a citywide scale.
He also tries to deal with the problem of the state, from a curious angle which seems to come out of his encounters with movements like Occupy. He rejects the idea that all organisation has to be horizontal, as this only works on a small scale. Instead, in our movements and in the future, we need to allow for both local autonomy and some sort of centralised decision making. He does not have a categorical answer, but it seems that the experience of the urban struggles we have witnessed recently has convinced Harvey of the need for organisation with accountability and structure.
This book presents a useful argument about cities and urbanisation, and clarifies some of Harvey’s previous arguments. I don’t agree with everything, but it is refreshing to see someone like Harvey grappling with the immediate questions thrown up by real struggles.
Rebel Cities is published by Verso, £12.99
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