Thoughts on David Harvey’s “Rebel Cities”

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”     –Warren Buffett

In Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey reminds us that cities have long been the central sites of revolutionary politics. Yet, as cities are also the centers of capital accumulation, a manifest tension arises over who gets to benefit from and maintain control of urban resources. In his opening chapter on “The Right to the City,” Harvey resoundingly declares that the people—not the developers or financiers—need to re-claim their right to the city, to assert “their right to change the world, to change life, and to reinvent the city more after their hearts’ desire” (Harvey 25).

New York City’s High Line park. According to Harvey, “the creation of this kind of public space radically diminishes rather than enhances the potentiality of commoning for all but the very rich.”

In his chapter on “The Creation of the Urban Commons,” Harvey describes a bit of a Catch-22 when the practice of “commoning,” one facet of reclaiming the right to the city, is played out within our current capitalist framework. Citing New York City’s sleek new High Line park as an example, Harvey observes that such development has had a “tremendous impact on nearby residential property values, thus denying access to affordable housing in the area for most of the citizens of New York City by virtue of rapidly rising rents” (75). Thus, he paradoxically asserts, “the creation of this kind of public space radically diminishes rather than enhances the potentiality of commoning for all but the very rich” (75). Though to some extent this has always been the story of gentrification, it is a narrative Harvey unwaveringly reads as tragic.

Indeed, the “true tragedy of the urban commons for our times,” writes Harvey, is the way in which the creation of an “interesting and stimulating everyday neighborhood life” has been co-opted by “the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and upper class consumers bereft of any social imagination” (78). Yet while he offers a refreshingly bold critique of the current “hegemonic radical theories” of the commons, I found myself wanting more from Harvey in the way of possible alternatives (88). It is difficult to imagine a viable alternative, a true or ‘non-commodified’ commons somehow exempt from the incessant demands of capitalist urbanization. For his part, Harvey seems to believe we are up for that challenge, and I suppose I can’t help but hope he’s right.

In “The Art of Rent,” Harvey switches gears a bit and lays bare two of the fundamental contradictions associated with the idea of monopoly rent. The first is that as cultural products become commodified, marketed, and mass-produced, the “less unique and special they appear” (92). Pointing to the “Disneyfication” of Europe as one example, Harvey asserts that the “bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages” (92). The second important contradiction mirrors the first, for within the very necessity for sacrosanct capitalist “competition” resides the inevitable tendency toward monopoly or oligopoly. This contradiction is inevitable, Harvey argues, because “the survival of the fittest in the war of all against all eliminates the weaker firms” (93).

This “war,” however, is more of a race to the bottom than anything else, and, here again, Harvey’s suggestions for constructive resistance are frustratingly ambiguous. Admitting how “no alternative to the contemporary form of globalization will be delivered to us from on high,” Harvey nonetheless anticipates the advent of a “broader movement” arising “from within multiple local spaces” (112). He hints that popular culture may be “one of the key spaces of hope” in the creation of “an alternative kind of globalization and a vibrant anti-commodification politics,” but if and only if it too can somehow be completely restructured in a way so that its “progressive forces of cultural production and transformation” will begin to “appropriate and undermine the forces of capital rather than the other way around” (112).

In “Reclaiming the City for Anti-Capitalist Struggle,” Harvey offers more in the way of concrete alternatives to the “central dialectical tension” within anti-capitalist movements, specifically the question of:

“How can the left fuse the need to actively engage with, but also create an alternative to, the capitalist laws of value determination on the world market, while facilitating the associated laborers’ ability democratically and collectively to manage and decide on what they will produce and how?”

Harvey asserts that “the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked.”

By way of wrestling with this dilemma, Harvey suggests any anti-capitalist movement must a) incorporate an “anti-wealth” politics within anti-poverty organizations; b) come to terms with and reverse the “clear and immanent dangers of out-of-control environmental degradations”; and c) challenge and abolish the “socially constructed” law of endless capital accumulation, reproduction, and growth (127-128). He then cites several resistance movements, perhaps most notably the recent Occupy Wall Street uprising, all of which hope to prove that the “collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (161-162). That is, “it is bodies on the streets and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter” (162).

In conclusion, what Rebel Cities lacks by way of solutions it more than makes up for with its incisive and persistent challenges to our broken and repressive capitalist machinery. Perhaps any frustration I felt while reading the text had more to do with my own impatience and the undeniable shortcomings—failures, really—of the Occupy Wall Street movement to bring about the type of change Harvey so gracefully envisions. That said, in Harvey’s words, there is indeed “one thing we do know for certain: we can only get to the right answers by asking the right questions” (157). Let’s just hope that our future journeys do not lead us back in the direction of proven dead-end, unimaginative, and morally bankrupt solutions like “building more homes and filling them with things” (50, 130).

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