David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: A Guide to the Vexed

Reviewed in this essay: Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, by David Harvey. Verso Press, 2012.

The scale and frequency of the urban protest movements of the last two years has overshadowed anything since the 1960’s. It was perhaps simpler then than it is now to conceive of what united movements as diverse as those that emerged in Chicago, Paris, Algiers and Santiago. The exploitation of an industrial working class at home and colonial exploitation abroad were easily identifiable cognates of a capitalist enemy common to working class Parisians and Chileans. But with the geographically diffuse and structurally diverse face of contemporary capitalism it is difficult to define what unites today’s protests in Madison or Cairo. Rebel Cities, Marxist geographer David Harvey’s new book, is a compact restatement of his long-held argument that the city itself is central to our understanding of how capital works today. Globally, cities are where citizens experience the most egregious of capital’s excesses, but so to are the solutions to these excesses immanent in the world’s urban fabric.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Photograph by Maged Helal

Harvey argues that cities have become the centre of global capital surplus production and absorption. Property speculation, private encroachment into public services, and the manipulation of masses of the now-dominant class of service workers have become some of the most lucrative ways in which to invest and expand capital. All these forms of economic exploitation, he argues, depend on capital’s ability to reshape the very bricks and mortar of the urban landscape. Harvey discusses the American housing bubble and subsequent crash to show that, outside the abstracted field of capital circulation, the city itself experiences the consequences of capital’s endless drive for new markets. Indeed, the consequences of a properly functioning capitalist system are no less destructive. Harvey details the degradation of common urban resources for capital expansion and the constant pursuit of the creation of value through gentrification.

Harvey then moves on to a speculative discussion of the alternatives to the current system. “The current wave of youth-led movements throughout the world” he writes “suggests that there is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed.” Here, Harvey adopts the tone of an avuncular guide, wise and supportive as he directs readers through different models of organized opposition. Harvey’s is the voice of someone who has seen it all – from the most hierarchical to the most anarchic – and of someone whose inheritance to youth is to assist them in overcoming the fractious debates and fissiparous tendencies of the left.

Harvey has become something of a public intellectual in recent years and has been an inspiration to Occupy Wall Street movement. The author of dense theoretical tomes in the past, Harvey has perhaps been persuaded by the heady mood to publish something that can fit more easily into a protestor’s back pocket. Rebel Cities overall consistency suffers as a result (it is compiled from previously published work) but will hopefully still help tether the revolution in the air to a firmer footing on the ground.