Urban Revolution: An Interview with David Harvey (Part 1)

David Harvey is one of the world’s leading Marxist theorists. He discussed the themes from his new book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, with NLP co-editors John Brissenden and Ed Lewis. 

From New Left Project

John: Would you say there’s a central argument to Rebel Cities, or is it more by way of bringing a range of arguments together?

David: I think it’s a bit of both. If there is a central argument, it’s really chapter 2 (‘The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crises’) and chapter 5 (‘Reclaiming the City for Anticapitalist Struggle’), chapter 2 essentially being about the relationship between capital and urbanisation, and chapter 5 really being about the opposition to capital and urbanisation. So class confict is directly addressed through chapters 2 and 5.

John: You talk about monopoly rent and the contradictions inherent in that process, and I wondered if you could explain those contradictions and their significance for your analysis.

David: We are told that capitalism is very much about competition and everyone goes on and on and on about competition, but if you ever talk to any individual capitalist, you’ll find that actually they would prefer monopoly, if they could possibly get it. So what you find is actually a long history of trying to get out of competitive situations by some monopoly trick.

For instance, just simply brand-naming your product is an attempt to put a monopoly stamp on it, so that you’ve got a Nike swoosh or something like that which makes it different from everything else. There is this perpetual tendency for monopoly to take over, and what I was interested in ’The Art of Rent’ piece was how that then is the way in which capitalists like something they can call original, authentic, unique – why they like the art market, anything like that. There’s a tendency therefore to treat history as a source of uniqueness, and place as unique, so there’s a tremendous flow of capital towards anything which you can easily monopolise.

John: But, once that process begins, of course –

David: Well, you have then to take something that is not really a commodity, and turn it into a commodity, then it’s a commodity like any other. So there’s always that tension that goes on. I think harbour development is a good example. The first one that happened was very good, and everybody said “how interesting”, and now you can go around the world and you go to all these cities and everybody says “have you seen the harbour?” And you say, “well I’ve seen one, and I’ve seen the lot.” So Barcelona doesn’t look as unique as it once did, because it’s got a harbour developoment that looks like every other harbour development. Rotterdam has one, Cardiff has one, it just goes on and on and on. Of course, here in London you have one. So it’s no longer a unique feature, it becomes just sort of standard urban fare.

John: You argue that there’s a space that opens up in that tension for oppositional groups…

Yeah, I think, for example, the quality of life in a city is often something that gets defined by its residents and their way of life, and their mode of being, and so on. To the degree that that becomes unique, it means that capital has to depend on the inventiveness of a population to do something, to make something different. Capital tends to be homogenising. People frequently make the differential, and that then becomes the unique feature, so there’s a kind of relationship there. What that means then, is that popular movements can have a space in which they can flourish, to try to define something that’s radically different.

John: Can you think of particular examples where this is happening?

David: In Hamburg there’s an area, the St Pauli district, which was occupied by squatters, and what the squatters did was to create a unique kind of environment. It’s a very mixed kind of environment – mixed ethnicity, mixed class, the street life is very vibrant, and the rest of it. The developers got much of the rest of Hamburg and turned it into something very homogeneous, and then they suddenly realised that there’s this wonderful district, so now they’re trying to get in and appropriate that, by buying up single houses and then renting them out at a premium rent because “isn’t it interesting to live in this vibrant district?”. This is the sort of thing that you see going on in cities all the time: people create a rather unique neighbourhood, and then it gets gentrified and it becomes boring.

John: Clearly we know that, within urban capitalism there are very strong countervailing forces, and I’d be interested to ask you about how we can engage with and overcome that logic.

David: Well, for example, the Occupy movement in New York City has drawn a very, very fierce and really over the top police response. You only have to go out on the street and go and march, or something like that, and you’ll find 5000 police officers surrounding you, and they’re very aggressive.

I try to ask why? Whereas when the Giants won the Superbowl, people went out there and did exactly the same thing, in fact far worse, than happened there and the police didn’t do anything. It was, “oh well, they’re just celebrating”, but Occupy, because of its political meaning, draws this very harsh response. And if you ask the question why, I get the sense that the Wall Street crowd is very nervous that this movement may actually start to catch on. And if it catches on, there will be clear demands for accountability for a lot of what’s happened on Wall Street, and those people on Wall Street know what they’ve done, and they know if they’re held accountable they’re likely to end up in jail. So I think, very simply, they’ve been telling the mayor and everybody else: “crush this movement before it goes very far.” Isolate it, make it seem like it’s very violent, and all the rest of it. So you get that kind of political response.

John: What other qualities of the Occupy movement generally that you think are particularly significant?

David: I was away all of last year, so I wasn’t actually around during the Occupy movement’s most active period in the US, but one of the things they’ve done is to draw great attention to the question of social inequality, and great attention to the huge bonuses and so on, and we see this now filtering out. Before they occupied, none of this was being discussed. Now the Democratic Party in the United States, and even Obama, is willing to talk about social inequality as an issue. Shareholders are beginning to vote against big pay packets, so I think that’s all coming out of what the Occupy movement put on the agenda. But as always happens with this, political powers of a certain sort co-opt part of what they’re talking about, and then kind of try and push it down. So we’re in a bit of a co-optation phase in that shareholders are co-opting some of the rhetoric, Obama is co-opting some of the rhetoric, and that’s where we’re at.

Ed: Going on from that, we’re interested in your discussions about strategy. As a starting-point, it’s clear that the traditional conception that the left had, of the industrial working class as a revolutionary subject, the agent of change, is not one that we can cling to in the West. So can you tell us about the way in which you re-conceive of the revolutionary subject, who might constitute that now, and how that’s related to the cities and urban identity?

David: The way I deal with this, is to ask the question: who is it that is producing and reproducing urban life? If you say that that is the kind of production we are looking at, then you find yourself defining the proletariat in a completely different way than if you just simply stick with the idea of factory labour.

So that’s the basic idea, and then you say what forms of organisation are possible in those populations? Precisely because they’re not in factories they’re very difficult to organise. For instance, delivery workers, all the trucks going around: how could you organise all of the delivery workers? The Teamsters have done some work with some of that in the States. Or taxi drivers for example: can you organise them? We have a very interesting organisation of taxi drivers in New York City and another one in Los Angeles now. Politically, they can’t be a trade union in the ordinary sense, they have to become a different form of organisation. Domestic workers: again, what you find is a good organisation of domestic workers in New York City and across the United States, and this is a big issue right now. What they fought for, and got, eventually, was New York State did pass a sort of domestic worker bill of rights, which starts to spell out how many hours you can expect, and tries to codify it.

Now again it’s very difficult to organise domestic workers, and particularly if they’re illegal, it becomes even harder. But they’re a very very significant workforce now in many cities. So part of what I’m saying is that all of these are forms of labour which are going on in the city, which seem vital to be vital to reproducing urban life, and therefore we should start to think about how to organise that labour force politically, so that they can start to exercise some power on the qualities and nature of urban life. So that’s the general idea. Some of it’s very difficult to organise and some are actually quite vigorously organised, but frequently it takes a different kind of organisation than the conventional trade union.

Ed: Do you think the left has been dragging its feet on that score, in terms of realising the challenges and the opportunities here?

David: I think historically, the left has always exercised some sort of division between what you might call workers’ organisations and class-based organisations, and social movements. I’ve been embattled for the last 30 or 40 years, saying actually you’ve got to look on these social movements as class movements – of a different sort than maybe is in the factories and the fields, but they’re class movements. I think there’s been a reluctance to accept that on many areas of the left.

I think right now however, there’s less reluctance because of the degree to which factory work has disappeared. When I arrived in Baltimore in 1969 there were something like 35,000 workers employed in the steel plant. 15 years later there’s about 10,000, by the year 2000 there’s 2,000. So if you want to do anything politically, in say 1970, you went and talked to the steelworkers’ union, because they have the big muscle. They’re kind of irrelevant now, so I think everybody would say if they’re not there, who are we going to organise, and how are we going to organise it? I think there’s a greater ability right now for the left to say the social movement stuff is actually significant.

Ed: In terms of the difficulties that come with organising some of the groups you’re talking about, obviously you’ve investigated a whole range of different movements around the world at different times. Are there some particular lessons that emerge from some of these investigations that you think should be generalised?

David: Most groups of this kind organise themselves as rights organisations. Certainly under that umbrella, they can create an organisational form, and as a rights organisation they’re not constrained in the way that conventional unions are. Now, one of the things that I experienced in Baltimore when I was there was that the conventional union movement could be rather hostile to these rights organisations. The conventional union movement was a bit divided, sometimes they’d support, but most of the time they regarded these forms of organisation as a challenge and a threat to themselves.

But now I think the conventional union movement is prepared to think about these organisations as being crucial to support the unions, so there’s more of a coalition beginning to build between these rights organisations on the one hand, and the conventional union movement. We saw that, I think, very much on the May Day march which occurred in New York just recently, where some conventional union people were part of that march and they were joined with the social movement people.

So there’s a coalition beginning to emerge, and I’m very much in favour of a different form of union organisation, which is geographical rather than by sector. I think the conventional unions should pay much more attention to the local trades councils and city council units, and interestingly, one of the consequences of that is that, as unions tend to be caught in a philosophy of only looking after the well-being of their members, a geographical organisation has to think about the proletariat in general, in the city, rather than simply about its particular members. So I think from that standpoint, there’s a different mode of organising which is, well, will we organise across the whole city, and will we bring together all of the people who are involved in all these different trades, and all these different things, into one kind of city union, or a city political organisation.

Ed: In chapter 5, you relate some of your discussion about urban organisation to some of the difficulties that traditional forms of left organisation have faced, not just with regard to the changing composition of the proletariat, but with regard to the problems both of  focusing on autonomous institutions such as worker cooperatives as well as the difficulties of operating at the state level. The implication seems to be that you think that the city is a particularly powerful site for organisation, and if we could organise a whole city, then we would presumably be in a really powerful position now. Why do you think cities are so important, and wouldn’t isolated radical cities suffer from some of the vulnerabalities of worker coops?

David: The reason I like to think about the city is that it’s a larger scale than simply the factory. So, if you look at the recuperated factories in Argentina which were taken over by the workers back in 2001-2, one of the difficulties with the cooperatives that would come out of that and the workers’ associations that run them is that at a certain point, because they’re embedded in a capitalist world, they find themselves involved in competition, and as a result of that they engage in practices of self-exploitation.

Marx has a very interesting set of passages where he says the first step towards revolutionary transformation is indeed workers taking over the means of production, but if it just stays at that level then this will not be enough. Now, if you start to think about organising a whole city, and you see this now beginning to happen a little bit in Argentina, factories need goods – you know, if you’re making shirts you need cloth. Now where does the cloth come from? Well, you start to have a network. So you have a network of cooperatives that are producing different things which are all interlinked to each other.

You can imagine, in a metropolitan area, that you could start to have economies of interlinkages of this sort, which then would take you beyond simply what is possible by taking over a particular factory. The other thing about the factories in Argentina is very interesting, that when they were taken over they didn’t simply remain factories. They became neighbourhood centres, and they actually integrated the surrounding neighbourhood into the life of the factory, so that they would have educational programmes, cultural programmes, so that when the bosses come back, as they did about five years later, and say ‘we want our factory back, or we’re going to take the machines out of it’, the population comes out and stops them. So that makes it much easier to defend.

Of course, if you try to create a total communistic city in the midst of capitalism, you’re likely to invite real, violent, repression, so you’ll get a situation like you see in Syria, in a place like Homs where there’s obviously an oppositional movement which is very strong in that city, and it is in a way a rebellious city, surrounded by the military and crushed, with people killed and blown away into submission.

So I think that that is a real danger of going too far and too fast. So this is where you look and ask how far a particular city can go in this form of organisation. You see examples of this – for instance when Porto Allegre set up its participatory budgeting form this caught on and now there’s participatory budgeting going in many cities around the world. This is not a revolutionary thing, this is just a transformative thing which deepens urban democracy.

That move I think becomes significant. There are innovations which have occurred environmentally: there’s another city in Brazil which is very interesting, Curitiba, which has really worked on environmental questions and has become rather well known for organising its mass transit systems on very environmentally sophisticated lines. Again, the innovations that come from there are now spreading to other cities. I think that we could look at the same things in terms of social cohesion and other issues, in which practices which would be developed in one city to develop a more politically-conscious, a more actively-engaged citizenry, start to spread to other places. You could imagine a situation like that in terms of what I call a termite theory of transformation: this city now has a different institutional structure, that one has, etc – and so you start to see this as something which is proceeding through the urban network.

Ed: You’re also critical of the termite theory though.

David: I always have to be careful. When I’m critical, I’m not being dismissive. I’m saying I think this is good, I think people should be doing that, but on the other hand we’ve got to see what its limitations are. At what point do you go from a termite kind of strategy to some other strategy? One of the things I was really trying to do in chapter 5 was to try to open up a sense that there’s a variety of strategies which are suited to a variety of situations and purposes, and that we should not therefore lock ourselves into “this is the only strategy that will work”. We should be adopting a variety of them, whichever’s possible. In some cases there’s no option except to engage in termite politics, in which case you can do sometimes a pretty good job.

John: You talk in the book about Chongqing, and it’s very interesting what’s been happening there recently, with Bo Xilai and all the rest of it. Would you see that as an example of “too far, too fast”?

David: Well, I’m no expert on China, and there is in my mind a question as to whether he was as brutal and as corrupt as he’s now portrayed to be, or whether he’s being portrayed that way because some people didn’t like the model he was developing, which was much more Maoist in its rhetoric, and was much more concerned with redistribution of wealth, and so on. So I don’t know which way to think about that, but it was very clear that his attempt to become powerful in the Central Committee was mediated by the development of this particular urban model, which was radically different from that which you saw in Shanghai and Shenzhen and places like that, so this I thought was really very interesting.

Now as far as I know, Central Committee has in fact adopted some of what Bo was doing in Chongqing as national policy. This is typical: you look and see what’s happening locally because there is a problem in China of getting the domestic market moving, and some concern about redistribution of wealth. I think they realise they’ve got to engage in that to some degree, and how are they going to do it? Are they going to do it through wages or are they going to do it through producing housing, as he was doing? So it may be that the Chinese model of urbanisation, which has been in my view pretty disastrous environmentally, and even economically, will shift in the coming years along the lines that this guy set out. I don’t know though – these are just purely speculative thoughts on my part.