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“Neither Fish nor Fowl”: David Harvey on the Right to the City

by Adam David Morton on November 20, 2015
Marxism Reading Group

FishBack in 2012, within the Marxism Reading Group in the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham we read David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. I started reading this book with great excitement. My expectation was that it might deliver the sort of intervention similar to The New Imperialism [2003]. That book was hugely successful in drawing new readers to the vast corpus of Harvey’s outstanding scholarship and opened up new political and intellectual agendas, not least linked to the political economy of accumulation by dispossession and its inner connection to the appropriation of spaces of exploitation. In Rebel Cities urban transformation is central to the endeavour to recover and understand alternative forms of spatial reorganisation in cityscapes from around the world. The book is a key contribution to rethinking urban social movements and anti-capitalist resistance today, albeit with some rough edges.

In David Harvey’s hands, the right to the city is defined as ‘some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanisation, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way’. It is this radical perspective that he brought to the UN-Habitat 5th World Urban Forum session in Rio de Janeiro (22-26 March 2010) and its subsequent report ‘The Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide’. Harvey’s inspiration, of course, is Henri Lefebvre’s seminal essay Le Droit à la Ville [1968] that articulates a cry and a demand to transform and renew the foundations of urban time-spaces, or the way of living in the city. Avoiding a reconstruction of a genealogy of ideas based on Henri Lefebvre, though, Harvey proposes switching the focus to the role played by the sensibility arising from the streets around us for an explanation of this cry and demand.

Rather than the intellectual legacy of Lefebvre, the power and significance of urban social movements in action is the primary preoccupation. While in accord with this emphasis on the relevance of grounding thinking in practice, the wisdom of opening the book with a preface on ‘Henri Lefebvre’s vision’ without delivering an interpretation of Lefebvre could be questioned. This is especially so given that the book rarely returns in explicit terms to the ideas of Henri Lefebvre in parts one and two, respectively on ‘The Right to the City’ and ‘Rebel Cities’. Instead, the focus in the first part of the book is more on the problem of absorbing capital surpluses through urban transformation shaping capitalist crises, drawing from Karl Marx’s views on the general laws of motion of capital; the credit system; fixed capital circulation; and monopoly rent. This is understandable in setting the context for the operation of capitalist value determination and the urban roots of capitalist crises. Yet, perhaps, more on Lefebvre could have been expected in a book on the right to the city, for example on spaces of difference (heterotopy) that provide revolutionary trajectories in tension with the spatial order of capitalism and the state (isotopy).

In the second part of the book, on ‘Rebel Cities’, the turn to assess practices of anti-capitalist struggle also merits some questioning. The strongest feature here is the analytical clarity Harvey gives to a consideration of anti-capitalist alternatives by asking ‘should anti-capitalist struggles explicitly focus on and organise on the broad terrain of the city and the urban?’ A number of essential points ensue including the need to recognise the class content in urban based social movements; the significance of linking workplaces and living spaces in connecting production and social reproduction; the extension of the concept of labour to include informal sectors characterised by temporary, insecure, and unorganised workers, or the precariat; and the need to revitalise the ‘right to the city’ slogan for anti-capitalist struggle through popular assemblies, neighbourhood associations, and community-based organisations. But often the commentary on urban-based political movements is too fleeting and diverse, stretching from quick reflections on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and Syntagma Square in Athens to Ramallah on the West Bank, Fallujah in Iraq, pacification programmes in Rio’s favelas such as Rocinho, the populist protests of the indignados in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to the Occupy movement in New York and London.

For that reason, it is salutary that Harvey pauses and undertakes analysis of what he defines and recognises as the importance of “singular examples” of urban political practices in revolutionary situations, by assessing recent events in Bolivia. For sure, this is not a fully detailed historical geographical analysis of state formation and spaces of uneven development in Bolivia linked to the tensions and possibilities opened up by the coming to power of the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS: Movement Towards Socialism) in 2006. But, nevertheless, an aspatial understanding of Santa Cruz, El Alto, and Cochabamba as “mere sites” of struggle is avoided, instead focusing on them as place-based struggles over space. Drawing from Sian Lazar’s El Alto, Rebel City [2010], attention is therefore drawn to neighbourhood associations and place-bound organisations; sectoral associations linked to precarious workers in the so-called informal sector mobilising the insurrectionary capacities of surrounding peasant and rural populations; and conventional unions in shaping the possibility of class and indigenous rebellion in contesting the right to the city.

My point is that more detailed historical geographical analysis of this sort could have been developed throughout the book. Harvey is brilliantly accurate when asserting that movements such as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN: Zapatista Army of National Liberation) in Mexico are often falsely represented as being totally non-hierarchical and “horizontalist”. This is something that my own book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico [2011] has gone at some length to establish in terms of the EZLN’s territorialisation strategy based on moving from, organising in, and dominating place to commanding space through (1) alternative economy organising; (2) self-sufficient educational projects; and (3) health care provision. But Harvey is worryingly inaccurate to state that the creation of such autonomous spaces ‘have not so far proved viable as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions’, when the EZLN have never claimed or aimed to establish that higher scale of generality.

Owen Hatherley has referred to the “very short, slightly hasty texts” that close Rebel Cities. These touch on the London riots in 2011 and Occupy Wall Street. With such short essays, the more detailed historical geographical analysis of struggles over the right to city is still to come. Meanwhile this book slips between the categories of theory and practice on right to the city debates without quite satisfying on either count. As one member of the Marxism Reading Group put it – in classic English idiom – the book is therefore “neither fish nor fowl” due to its slippage between such categories.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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