We’re supposed to be done with all that nonsense, but from Tunisia to Tahrir Square, from Athens to New York, people have been increasingly taking their anger to the streets, evoking the spectre of another big city: Paris, circa 1968, but also 1871. These demonstrations seem more and more to cohere not around established class identities – fellow workers, e.g. – but around the neighbourhoods they share, and what’s being done to them.
Rebel Cities is David Harvey’s attempt at deploying the insights he’s developed across a dozen-plus books to understand this global movement, and the forces of urban development that are increasingly inspiring defiance and rebellion. Harvey’s insights are a particularly useful tool for understanding redevelopment in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the demolition of the Cambie Projects, urban developers like Bob Rennie, even the so-called Stanley Cup riot.
As Harvey explains, urban (re)developments such as Sequel 138, the Little Mountain project, Woodward’s and Olympic Village aren’t just more, or less, desirable in and of themselves; they are desperately needed by capital to soak up all that surplus value created by the last round of profit-taking.
Harvey has gained a place as a leading contemporary Marxist thinker with his painstaking tracing of the movement of capital not just within the realm of production – the shop floor that produced much of the Old Left’s political economics – but on through the realms of circulation /finance, and of rent and consumption.
For the past couple of decades Harvey has been particularly occupied with urban redevelopment, the role that large urban projects play in the circulation of capital, and the reproduction of capitalism.
Harvey’s big contribution has been to talk about what Daddy Warbucks actually does with that pile of profit he’s extracted from his workers. He has to do something with it, or else the whole scheme collapses. What he does is, he turns around and reinvests it; or even better, he sticks it in the bank and directs the bank to make it worth his while, and the bank does the actual work of reinvesting.
Which brings us to our rebel cities of today, and their uprisings big and small. That’s where Rebel Cities runs out of steam. So, to be fair, do many of the urban uprisings themselves.
In old the blueprints, it says the industrial working class is supposed to be leading us over the top of the barricades. But the North American union movement has been relentlessly beaten back since the Thatcher and Reagan-era offensives.
Meanwhile, Harvey has long favoured the idea that urban community could form the basis of a social class with historical agency. In Rebel Cities he asserts that the role of just such a class has been written out of standard left accounts – of the Paris commune, in particular. The wave of urban protests, and the “right to the city” movement, have manifested the existence of such a formation, albeit with much less homogeneity than an industrial workplace-based proletariat.
What leadership there has been of many of these protests, especially in the West, has tended to come not from the mainstream left – unions, political parties – but from anarchists. They seem to have the most pertinent answer right now to the question that persists, What is to be done? “Let’s find out!”