David Harvey, “Rebel Cities”
Guest Writer: Katherine Skwarczek

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On November 8, 2012 the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities hosted “Rebel Cities,” a lecture by David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics. His talk is reviewed below by guest writer, Katherine Skwarczek, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism in English.]

Katherine Skwarczek (English)

Harvey addresses a large audience in Foellinger
David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities, argues for the revolutionary potential of urban spaces, particularly as reflected in recent right-to-the-city movements. In his talk, Harvey explained the inherent—and under-theorized—relationship between capitalist growth and urbanization to which these movements implicitly react.

Because capitalism requires perpetual growth, it continually seeks opportunities for profitably investing its surplus and employing excess labor. Both now and in the past, Harvey explained, capital frequently locates these opportunities for investment in urban development and transformation. Harvey summarized the economic crises in the US by quoting a recent financial statement: to recover from recession, we build houses and then fill them with things.

Harvey emphasized the cyclical and repetitive nature of these historically intertwined processes of capital accumulation and urbanization, beginning with the 1848 revolution in France as an example. The uprising began as a crisis of capital, juxtaposing dire social needs with a capital surplus that refused to meet them. Such a crisis, Harvey claimed, is a revealing moment for capitalism, unmasking its inherent irrationality and absurdity. As conservative forces rallied to gain control over the new republic and suppress working class revolution, Louis Bonaparte, whose 1851 coup was immortalized in one of Karl Marx’s best-known essays, acted on the theories of contemporary radicals like Saint-Simon, by commissioning Baron Haussmann to re-build Paris. This vast urbanization project successfully absorbed surplus capital and labor, while also facilitating the overhaul of the French financial system. By creating new credit institutions that made debt-financing—and speculation—possible on an expanded scale, Bonaparte, who eventually styled himself as Napoleon III, was able to finance this massive urban project.

Haussmann’s renovations not only built new houses, parks, and boulevards, but also transformed the urban experience itself. According to Harvey, this new urban lifestyle, based on spectacle and commodity culture, was essential to the pacification of urban populations. Eventually, however, the property boom led to a speculative boom with an explosive finale: in the re-building of the city, the working class had been pushed toward Paris’s periphery. During the 1871 Paris Commune, workers sought to reclaim a Paris they had built but from which they had been excluded.

“The Paris Commune”
Harvey drew parallels between the crises of the Second French Empire and similar crises related to capital growth and urbanization in the United States. The Great Depression, he suggested, was preceded by a speculative boom closely tied to property markets. Recovery from the Depression in the late 1930s was spurred by housing and infrastructure projects, assisted by the re-organization of financial institutions and mortgage reform. Although World War II absorbed much surplus labor, anxieties about its return resulted in a vast postwar expansion in housing construction. The result was the suburbanization of America, and its attendant social, environmental and political effects (McCarthyism, for instance). These issues ultimately reached a crisis point in the urban riots of the 1960s and financial recession of 1973.

Harvey views the current recession as the most recent iteration of the cycle of surplus capital, urban development, and property speculation. China is perhaps the most recent example of a nation that has used immense urban development to spur economic growth, but this solution, Harvey cautioned, is temporary and fragile.
Chinese ghost city, from here

Though Harvey stressed the important impact of the capital growth “syndrome” on cities, by the end of his talk he encouraged us to see the reverse: the ways in which people can in turn make and re-make their own cities. Harvey’s working class is not the typical Marxist factory-worker but rather the city laborer, who produces the urban space, yet is often relegated to commuting in from its periphery. Urban dwellers can harness their considerable political and economic power to re-organize city life. Harvey cited as an example recent Miami organizations coming out of the right-to-the-city movements that were mobilized during the 2012 elections. An urban network, possibly on the scale of the worldwide anti-war protests of 2003, could potentially coalesce into a system of support and alliance for even greater re-organization of production and consumption.

The potential stakes of this re-organization are enormous. In seeking to radically alter the organization of city life and, thus, capital, these movements might ultimately halt the cycle of boom and crisis. Though the capitalist growth machine is embedded in urbanization, Harvey urged his audience to also see the potential power of urban life, and to consider the development of human capacity, and not the growth rate, as a true measure of social success.


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