BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Urban Revolution

From Canada, Egypt and Greece to Spain and the US, city dwellers, with jobs and without, in and out of schools, are rallying in the streets to demand better lives. The Occupy Wall Street movement stands as a kind of proxy for this global, grassroots tendency. It flowers amid slow/no growth after an historic financial crisis and governments’ near-uniform policy responses of frugality for the vast human majority, while pursuing taxpayer bailouts for large capitalists. Thus David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution arrives at a moment ripe with radical possibilities.

His preface builds on the views of Henri Lefebvre, a French thinker and writer who develops the concept of a “right to the city” for all who live and work there. For Lefebvre and Harvey, precarious laborers and ostentatious capitalists alike should enjoy free reign to city parks and streets. And not just to observe community activities. Rather, the demands of ordinary people can create new alliances and groups to produce humane alternatives to the status quo. One is democracy at the workplace.

There is a history of governing authorities pushing back against such efforts from the grassroots. Harvey, following Lefebvre, unpacks the efforts of French rulers to change the landscape of Paris following an 1848 popular uprising to aid the military’s rapid response to future threats of direct democracy. In an unintended consequence for rulers, Harvey writes, an urban consumer culture flourished in Paris.

Stateside, a century later, urban designers propelled by the imperatives of accumulation and urbanization, ringed city cores with freeways. That protected moneyed interests and facilitated so-called urban renewal (black removal) during a post-WW II era of white suburban sprawl. A trickle and then a flood of capital flight ensued, devastating industrial cities.

As urban areas began to lose blue-collar jobs, scores of uprisings unfolded against Jim Crow customs, laws and policies. Despite urban planners’ goals of containing democracy, rebellion flowered. But mass incarceration fueled by the War on Drugs proved more effective at containing such dissent.

A dramatic point in America’s urban class and race conflict was the 1975 fiscal crisis of New York City. There, ruling elites’ resolution to the Gotham City budget tumult, Harvey notes, was a dress rehearsal of sorts for what became decades of governing policies in the US and globally that redistributed capital from wages to profits.

What makes Harvey, an academic geographer by profession, a Marxist with a non-dogmatic pedigree, an author on a must-read list of thinkers? In Rebel Cities, he fleshes out the how and why of urbanization as a central arena for accumulation. Thus his conceptual approach situates cities as sites for periodic economic crises. We’re living through a particularly harsh example of one now.

At the root of this pattern of disruption is what Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” The driving force is surplus capital blocked from profitable investment outlets in the production of goods.

The mainstream ignores this recurring situation. Harvey doesn’t. He brings a critical thinking about theory to the space and time dynamics of surplus capital accumulation.

This crisis tendency, Harvey theorizes, drives the constant reforming of the capitalist and working classes. The rise of Wall Street’s growth is a current case, showcasing the impact of an urban-based and global hub of finance, real estate and insurance interests that occupiers are fighting by in large measure creating a public commons for people to debate and discuss their lives face-to-face.

Crucially, Harvey urges readers to rethink the changing character of the work in cities. That means seeing beyond the working class as blue-collar laborers on assembly lines. Harvey urges us to focus instead on workers, immigrant and native-born, who provide caring and cultural labor, whose rents are rising as their access to public services is falling.

Women play a big part in this evolving composition of the working class. Tacticians and strategists take note. Harvey writes: “The gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when relations outside of the conventional factory (in both workplaces and living spaces) are brought firmly into the picture.”

Harvey’s is not the final word on social shifts towards a post-capitalist future. Yet his new book can expand your horizons of the possible.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, California. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012

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