Book Review: David Harvey – Rebel Cities

Last January 25, over 50,000 people occupied in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, in protest at the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Less than a week later, the number of protestors in the square and surrounding streets had swelled to more than one million. On February 11, Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

On May 15, thousands took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to campaign against corruption, bank bailouts and a proposed law restricting internet access. As in Cairo, the demonstrators were mainly young, well-educated and under-employed. Within two days ‘indignados’ had appropriated over 30 public spaces cities and towns across Spain, in a wave of occupations that was to inspire similar movements everywhere from Wall Street and Oakland to Dame Street and Lagos.

‘There is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’, David Harvey notes midway through this thoughtful, prescient collection of his recent essays and articles. Harvey, a British Marxist geographer based at the City University of New York, has spent a lifetime interrogating the nexus between capitalism and urbanism.

Rebel Cities sees Harvey bring the full force of his analytical mind to bear on the question of just what this inchoate ‘something’ might be, and why it is emerging most prominently in cities.

The slight collection is framed by Harvey’s twin interests in the urban: cities are pivotal sites for capital accumulation and investment, but yet are also, and increasingly so, the location of social and political struggles. This loose division of intellectual labour – between capital accumulation and class struggle – frames the book’s two halves. In the opening chapters (leaning heavily on his theoretical lodestars Karl Marx and French social theorist Henri Lefebrve) Harvey outlines why cities are so important for capitalism. The latter sections are devoted to identifying why cities often make the ideal incubators for ferment and, ultimately, rebellion against the status quo.

Harvey is a committed Marxist who was never seduced by New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ Third Way. From his 1973 work Social Justice and the City to 2010’s The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, Harvey has consistently exhibited a flexibility and innovation of thought conspicuous by its absence among many of his contemporaries, inside and outside the academy.

Indeed he is one of the few writers on economics to emerge with his reputation enhanced by the global meltdown. Commenting on the proliferation of mortgage debt in the United States in his 2003 work The New Imperialism, Harvey wrote, ‘what happens if and when this property bubble bursts is a matter for serious concern’.

In Rebel Cities, Harvey’s central tenet is that cities are integral to capitalism: it is only by construction and ‘creative destruction’ in urban centres that surpluses can be profitably deployed. Urbanisation solves – or at least appears to solve – the problem of over-accumulation. Constructing, say, airports or apartment blocks delays a crisis of over-accumulation by putting immediate surpluses to use and shifting returns into the future, in the form of expected profits.

It doesn’t take a distinguished scholar to appreciate the dangers of this ploy. As more and more ‘fictitious capital’ is submerged into speculative activity, the threat of an even greater crisis of over-accumulation grows: ‘Speculatively, the asset markets constituted by housing and land have a Ponzi character without a Bernie Madoff at the top.’

When the emperor is revealed to be naked all along – as in Ireland after the 2008 credit crunch – house values plummet amid rampant over-supply and crisis ensues.

The deepest economic crisis for 80 years has created the material conditions for urban tumult on a scale unparalleled in living memory. Meanwhile, the organized left, from trade unions to political parties, has struggled to articulate a creative route out of this impasse for the growing legion of jobless graduates and the unemployed.

One reason for this, as Harvey recognizes, is that an insecure, low paid workforce that is disorganized and predominantly urban has largely usurped the traditional industrial ‘proletariat’. Think of the twenty-somethings with their laptops camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York. This new ‘precariat’ have little time for hierarchical politics, but are forming new alliances around issues as diverse as working conditions and the environment.

Written in terse, economical prose, Rebel Cities is a readable (and timely) introduction to the work of one of the world’s most influential social thinkers. While the chapters on urbanization and monopoly rent had this reviewer reaching for his dusty copies of Marx’s Capital, anyone who has ever wondered why cities look increasingly similar will find the discussions on the role of cultural producers in, often unwittingly, aiding the homogenization of urban space engrossing.

Harvey acknowledges that ‘what we academics so often forget is the role played by the sensibility that arises out of the streets around us.’ It is an omission that Rebel Cities goes a long way to addressing.

This book review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.