Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution


Rebel Cities, From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey


In this ambitious and insightful book, veteran critical urban geographer David Harvey goes hunting for big game. He has two major targets in his sights: to consolidate his Marxian theory of urbanisation with historical trends of capital and second, to describe a set of strategies that will enable anti-capitalist movements to change urban spaces from places of exploitation to places of benefit for the exploited.

To realise these aims, the book is divided into two parts: “The Right to the City” and “Rebel Cities”. ‘The Right to the City’ lays out Harvey’s theoretical framework, and ‘Rebel Cities’ tries to describe those anti-capitalist strategies. The bulk of the content was originally published as journal essays (for The Socialist Register, mainly), and as such, the book sometimes feels patched together. Nevertheless, it manages to highlight some of Harvey’s most important thinking about the nature of urbanisation and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance in surprising and sometimes highly engaging ways.

He uses Henri Lefebvre’s slogan “right to the city” (the right for the collective, particularly the lower economic classes to radically reshape the city), as the foundation of his own engaging theory of the city. Harvey thinks that the city is an arena for lived class struggles. It is in the everyday interactions of its people, not intellectual theories that precipitate the movements necessary to demand the right to the city. Not “a bit of Heidegger here, Nietzsche there, Fourier somewhere else” (from the introduction).

Neither intellectual movements nor atomising social analyses have any great import for Harvey when it comes to understanding what happens in a city. It may seem an odd thing for a theorist to posit, but Harvey argues that these intellectual movements, and in particular traditional Marxist discourse, are limited by faulty conceptions of what a city is, and the ways in which urban dwellers live their lives. Indeed, he suggests that these theories merely address problems concerning the industrial classes within capitalist systems.  This, Harvey argues, does not sufficiently challenge the capitalist nature of the city. Rather, if the entire city is considered as the location of class struggles, then the pro-capitalist forces which engender them come under full analysis. In other words, traditional analysis stops at the factory. Harvey argues that when the worker clocks out, they only have the city to go into, and it’s here that the real struggles begin.

This is a well-argued revision and it becomes easy to see why Harvey thinks that urban social movements have a revolutionary character to them. If only, he wishes, there was a set of appropriate anti-capitalist strategies to make them truly effective. But before we get there, we have to understand how the city becomes the site of urbanisation and class struggle. In one of the book’s most engaging sections, Harvey argues that the city is itself the result of capitalism trying to resolve its inherent contradictions.

As the ultimate aim of capitalism is to create profit, it must produce surplus value. The creation of surplus value in turn necessitates the production of surplus product. Harvey notes that capitalism therefore perpetually produces the surplus product that urbanisation requires. But it also needs urbanisation to absorb the surplus products it produces. As such, urbanisation is not only the product of surplus product, but also the imperative for its absorption. This means urban expansion and economic growth are concomitant. However, space and resources are limited, and the pursuit of growth puts stress on the environment. It’s a familiar argument, but not really complete until Harvey makes the vital move of populating it. The limited nature of urban space means new localities and lifestyles must be created to accommodate this growth, which inevitably displaces those already living in scarce urban space. To put it simply, for someone to make a profit, a lot of people have to make a loss. Inner-city areas tend to be the first on the list for redevelopment. Gentrification is thus built into the capitalist urban dynamic. Harvey cites instances in New York and Berlin as areas where means people are still losing their homes in the name of profit and development.

Urbanisation becomes a class issue, then. Entire communities are set against an elite with the capital and usually, the political backing to make that profit at their expense. He paints a detailed and colourful portrait of Haussmann’s France to illustrate the point, where the entire city of Paris was urbanised to become the “city of light”. The workers were inevitably displaced by and excluded from the city’s reorganisation as a place of consumption and consumerism.  This situation is described for its poignancy as well as its relevance, as in 1868 the markets crashed, and in the ensuing political and economic vacuum, the Paris Commune arose. The Commune was a radical response to the displacement caused by Haussmann’s project, comprising of different radical left-wing movements experimenting in autonomous government. They were summarily quashed by the State, and in some instances, executed. A warning then to any would-be contrarian: the urbanised elite has suppressed opposition from the beginning.

An endearing facet of the book is Harvey’s greater concern with the plight of the exploited than simply upholding orthodox Marxist beliefs. Through chapters on the World Bank, the ways in which rent and work have pacified agitational politics and the creation of the Urban Commons, it becomes clear that Harvey sidesteps certain familiar Marxist notions to speak more candidly about oppression. What then can these oppressed classes do in the twenty-first century, Harvey asks? Sadly, this is where the book becomes much more uneven, and the second section, “Rebel Cities”, fails to live up to the rigorous analysis of the first.

Harvey is well aware of these shortcomings. He knows that there have not been many examples of single, unified anti-capitalist struggles that demand their right to the city in world history. His dichotomy of Shenzhen and Chongqing in China provides an interesting departure, however. Where Shenzhen rockets headlong towards free-market liberalism, Chongqing has numerous tax-funded initiatives to help redistribute wealth in the form of social housing. However, Harvey acknowledges here that this dichotomy is itself too steeped in the traditional Marxist discourse he earlier decried, chiefly between the state and the free market, and not in the terms of a grass-roots struggle.

The remainder of the section is even less convincing, unfortunately. The low point of the book comes in the form of a short article about the 2011 London Riots. Here Harvey tries to draw parallels between the Paris commune and the London rioters. He describes how the popular media in both situations likened the rioters to animals – something that understandably provokes righteous indignation. However, Harvey has little to say about the London rioters as a collective. Perhaps this is because the theft of televisions, mobile phones and even trainers from affluent London high streets is not a good advert for “anti-capitalist struggles”. Suffice it to say, Harvey only creases the scalp of his coveted trophy – the parallel simply doesn’t hold, and the reader is not better informed about how an anti-capitalist movement can be formed to withstand the imperilling forces of the market around us.

Despite its occasional hollow places, this is an important book for anyone interested in discovering more about the nature of urban resistance. Harvey is expert at analysing the biases in favour of capitalism: the city itself, and the massive challenges any resistance faces. Of course, it is difficult to remain hard-hearted in the face of Harvey’s humanity too. He is a constant champion of the marginalised and downtrodden – those considered the cost of running an effective capitalist machine. He is engaging also as someone who firmly believes that these people’s chance for resistance lies not in theory, but in their own capacity to organise through their own means.

This is why it is such a shame that the book’s greatest strength is in its analysis of post-’68 politics, theories and history, and not in the analysis of concrete movements. It challenges the primacy of theory in the urban space, but only with more theory. It champions grass roots movements, but has little to say about how they can go about conducting their struggles.  As such, the book’s insistence that theory will not deliver these people from marginalisation begins to look correct, but for the wrong reasons. However, Harvey’s argument against theory should not suggest that the book argues for its own irrelevance. Instead, through its analysis, Rebel Cities situates the urban struggle in a historical context, one whose ideas now await their manifestation in a real struggle somewhere in the world.