David Harvey is rare among Left academics: his work is as much appreciated by anarchists and the Occupy movement as it is by Leninist party organisers. This is partly due to the sheer scope of his interests.
He began his career as a Marxist geographer, and moved quickly towards writing on urbanisation and social justice. He has explored the global history of neoliberalism and the very practical issues of organising revolutionary politics in cities, in Social Justice and the City in 1973 to A Brief History of Neoliberalism in 2005. Perhaps most famously, he has engaged with the endless project of shedding light on Marx’s Capital, via a recorded lecture series on his website (which has this year expanded to include a course on Volume Two), and through works including The Enigma of Capital and A Companion to Marx’s Capital in 2010. In all, he has published over twenty books and shows no signs of slowing.
His latest is Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012), a collection of pieces mostly published elsewhere between 2002 and 2010. Though the focus is broader than a conventional academic text, the thread that runs through it (as runs through all of Harvey’s work) is social justice and the city. He addresses the way in which capitalism historically depended on urbanisation to prevent crashes and proposes an idea of the right to the city as an organising principle for a range of campaigns for political power in common life. Examining cases like El Alto in Bolivia and Chongqing in China, he attempts to pin down what might serve as the basis for understanding the city as a place of political power in its own right. The newest writing for the book consists of two very short chapters on recent uprisings; the London riots and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
During a brief trip to the UK in May 2012 to discuss Rebel Cities, we met in Soho in the attic archive of Verso, his publisher.
QThe White Review — Your Capital Volume One course was fantastic, and I’m looking forward to Volume Two. Did you work on it while you were in Argentina?
ADavid Harvey — Volume Two was quite a challenge. We did the recordings before I went, and while I was in Argentina I was working on the written version.
QThe White Review — What led you to take a sabbatical there and have a break from the city?
ADavid Harvey — It was partly family business, as my wife’s family is from there, and they have this small plot of land. They’re not very well, and so I thought I would go down there and help out. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Every year for about the last twenty five years, I’ve been down there for at least a month. It’s been a great retreat from city life. This was just a long version of it.
QThe White Review — Did you take a chance while you were in South America to go see what’s been going on in Chile?
ADavid Harvey — Yes, it was a very exciting visit. I got to know more about what was going on in the Chilean students’ movement than I did know about Occupy at that time. I think it’s a pity in some ways that the Chilean students’ movement isn’t better known. What they’ve done, how they’ve done it, the political consciousness arising out of it, and the forms of organisation strike me as, if not exemplary, then seriously worthy of looking at and emulating.
QThe White Review — In Rebel Cities, the way that you understand the right to the city campaigns in South America and in the US seems to boil down to the idea that we should have democratic control over processes of urbanisation.
ADavid Harvey — The right to the city argument was partly connected to the fact that a right to the city movement developed in the United States. It was me and others like Peter Marcuse who were getting into dialogue with those social movements. What they were recognising was that their individual concerns – whether they be homelessness or gentrification or police violence against youth –needed to have some umbrella form of organisation, and so they chose the right to the city. I’ve been trying to find the commonalities which existed between them.
QThe White Review — In your theorisation of the right to the city, why is it framed as a human right?
ADavid Harvey — Because the advantage of talking about the city – and there are some disadvantages – is that it does have an iconographic history, and an imaginary. It’s often a focus for utopian desires and utopian thinking. There’s been a long history of alternative city designs which are about utopias. So one of the advantages of talking about the city is that it’s always about trying to make something other than what exists. And then the question arises, why would you want to make something other than what currently exists? The simple answer, which I think the right to the city movement fully accepted, was that capital is making the city and it’s making it in its own image. That’s not the kind of city that is amenable for decent living conditions. So how can we take this ‘empty signifier’, as I call it, and fill it with meaning other than the meaning given to it by capital and capitalist developers who want to put up condominiums and office spaces?
In referring to the city, of course, we’re going to locate that against the background of the long history of alternative cities and utopian dreams. So if you like, that’s the big advantage of taking the right to the city and defining it as a very human right. What kind of city we want to make cannot be separated from what kind of people we want to be. Because actually, we really don’t like the kind of people we’ve become under this capitalist regime of urbanisation.
QThe White Review — Can the idea that we all should have a common ownership of what we produce in common, like city life, operate in the same way?
ADavid Harvey — The commons is part of what a city is about. I find that the idea of the city has a certain advantage, in that it’s about how a mass of very heterogeneous people can arrive at a common politics. I don’t think that challenge necessarily emerges out of the commons literature.
QThe White Review — It seems that you start from quite a heterogeneous understanding of what constitutes work, and what constitutes a proletariat, from the traditional conception of an industrialised factory worker.
ADavid Harvey — Yes. As the factories have disappeared, it seems to me that cities have become more and more the focus of struggle. The question is then, who produces the city? Who maintains the city? Who sustains the city? If you say all of those people who produce the city and sustain the city should have rights to the city, and should have a political voice, then you find the city as a focus of political struggle around a completely different conception of who is the working class. If you look historically – if you read a Dickens novel, for example – and look at the working characters, they’re not factory workers. They’re all those people who are sustaining urban life. And they are the majority, actually, even back in the nineteenth century. The domestic workers were hugely important, and they are now also.
How do you organise the domestic workers? Can they be part of a proletarian force that can be an agency of historical change? One of the organisations in the right to the city alliance was the domestic workers’ alliance. So the domestic workers in New York City are a very important part of what a right to the city struggle would be about.
QThe White Review — How far do you draw a distinction between work that directly produces value through labour and work that produces a commons in the city which has its value appropriated down the line?
ADavid Harvey — Marx argues that the activity of transportation produces value. All the delivery trucks that you see going around London are actually producing value, and therefore surplus value. Now, we don’t think of the delivery workers as a conventional proletariat. They’re something very different, but they’re producing as much value and surplus value as workers in factories. And the maintenance workers of fixed capital, all the people in London who are putting up scaffolding and taking it down again, are actually producing value. We would have to reassess who is actually a productive worker, even in the conventional Marxist sense.
QThe White Review — In an urban context there are forms of cultural production – I’m thinking of art workers in ex-industrial areas, say, but equally immigrant communities that produce a certain form of street life – where there’s no desire to produce value in that sense, but it’s always under threat of being appropriated.
ADavid Harvey — Yes, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the process of accumulation by dispossession, where things are taken away and commodified. We see a great deal of commodification of history, art objects and all the rest of it. People may create an urban neighbourhood that is extremely lively and then find suddenly that the developers start coming in and buying up houses and selling them at a premium because, well, isn’t it great to live in this lively neighbourhood that others have created? It’s an appropriation of the commons. I think that those acts of appropriation and accumulation by dispossession are widespread within the city.
A struggle against accumulation by dispossession should be as central to what a political movement is about as a struggle against appropriation of labour in production. That should be part and parcel of a much broader political struggle. The place where all that has to come together, where it does come together as a unity, is in city life. In the city we experience all those forms of exploitation and oppression, almost on a daily basis.
QThe White Review — It seems the way that people organise against dispossession is polarised as either a reactive defence of a community that’s directly under threat, like the Carpenter’s estate in Newham, or in a more speculative way like the Occupy movement.
ADavid Harvey — A more proactive way, yeah. One of the problems around many of the struggles in urban situations is that they are reacting to something that’s being done, something that’s being closed down. What began to emerge again around the right to the city movement was a recognition that it wasn’t sufficient to just be reactive to the situation. One of their missions was to create a platform for what an alternative urbanisation project might look like, and what sorts of strategies might follow. It was not sufficient, for example, simply to protect public spaces from being privatised. What we had to do was to have an aggressive campaign to open up more and more spaces to public action. And furthermore, not treat them as public space regulated by the state, but spaces that would be amenable to assemblies and common political activism.
Which is why I think the right to the city is a helpful beginning point for a lot of struggles that say we have a right to express ourselves politically. Then when you say, ‘Well, where can we do it? We can’t go into Paternoster Square, it’s privatised public space. Where can we go? Well, we’ll have to go to the steps of St Paul’s’. Then you realise that actually there are hardly any public spaces in which you can engage in political action without going through some rigmarole about getting a permit. I have to have permission to be a political being? I mean, this is somehow all wrong. I think the more people see that, the more we’re likely to see political activism going into this proactive mode instead of this reactive, defensive mode.
QThe White Review — What’s your take on how events like the Olympics accentuate these things, like the militarisation of the city and the control of pseudo-public space?
ADavid Harvey — Well, the Olympics have a long history of being huge projects for the developers. This then gives an excuse to remove populations. There’s a long history of the Rome Olympics, the Montreal Olympics, with a great deal of removals and displacement going on. But the other thing about the Olympics which is very interesting is that they’re always essentially debt-financed. It’s a great means to justify a huge expenditure, and it’s very interesting how many cities have gone into deep financial trouble as a result of that. There are some grounds for saying that it’s no accident that Greece is in the problem that it’s in right now, because it staged the Olympics. Part of its indebtedness has a lot to do with the fact that they built all these stadia which are empty now, and had no use beyond the two weeks or whatever it was that they were actively used.
QThe White Review — You’ve proposed the organisation of El Alto in Bolivia into a rebel city as an example of good practice. Is that example something that depends on the geographical specificity of that city and its control of trade routes?
ADavid Harvey — I think that whenever you look at a rebellion that occurs in a city, there’s always a lot of geographical specificity about it. El Alto certainly had the advantage there. It controlled three of the main four routes into La Paz, and so when it cut them it had that power to do it. But this is one of the paradoxes of neoliberalism. Essentially El Alto was left on its own, so you got a lot of informal governance occurring with the neighbourhood associations, and the municipal government was extremely weak. The bourgeoisie was ill-represented because El Alto was essentially a refuge of people who couldn’t afford to live in La Paz, or rural groups who had been expelled but couldn’t get into La Paz, or miners who’d lost their jobs and so on. It was very special, for all those kinds of reasons.
I think the organisation which it set up, which was partly horizontal, partly vertical, partly leadership, partly accountability, was a very interesting mix of forms. Not to say, well okay, I can replicate that in New York, but at least replicate the style of it in other places. And it is of course the case that these urban movements depend very much on cultural history and cultural tradition. The French can go out and do their demonstrations in a spirit that you would not see in Britain.
So there’s always specificity. One of the things that I’ve been arguing is that we haven’t studied those examples enough, to see how they actually came together and worked. What happened in a city like Homs in Syria? Now, there you get an example which is rather like the Paris Commune. Obviously Homs was a place which was fomenting a great deal of revolutionary spirit – oppositional spirit – but of course, once it’s surrounded by the military it can simply be shelled indiscriminately and just crushed, and very violently. Looking at that history is something that we should do much more.
QThe White Review — The movement that we do have more immediate access to the history of is the Occupy movement. You’re broadly supportive, but quite particular about what its successes are and where it’s lacking.
ADavid Harvey — Well, it’s a nascent movement. It’s a movement that is trying to create a permanent presence, and is struggling, I think, to find out how. In the United States, they certainly changed the conversation. Even the Democratic Party, now, is prepared to talk about social inequality. I think what we’re going to see in the coming election is Obama hitting the question of social inequality more fiercely. In a way, he’s co-opting part of what Occupy Wall Street has done.
So, that has happened. One of the problems I sense with the Occupy movement, having listened to many of them talk, is that they’re very wedded to certain organisational principles, in particular this notion of horizontality. They have a deep resistance to anything which is vertical, or hierarchical. There’s a deep resistance by a large proportion of them to any kind of idea of working with, or occupying, the state. I have problems with that.
Of course, it’s very easy to find yourself immediately called a Leninist, or something like that. And I say no, I’m not a Leninist, though I think actually Lenin had some pretty good ideas about some of this. I think we have to be more adaptable and not end up with what I call the fetishism of organisational form. I think we have a problem on the left on that question.
QThe White Review — I suppose that fetish of organisational form is equally a problem for Leninist parties?
ADavid Harvey — Oh yes, absolutely. The fetishism isn’t simply the horizontality of a lot of the anarchist folk but also applies to the democratic centralism of some of the left, as it’s equally rigid.
QThe White Review — You’ve mentioned that the question of how to produce a city against capitalism is something that would have to emerge through trying out ways to produce a political city, rather than as a first principle.
ADavid Harvey — Right now, we need to think of how to organise a whole city, politically, around an anti-capitalist project. An anti-capitalist urban project is going to take a long time to bring to fruition. The most you can do in a given year is change, say, three percent of the housing stock. We’re going to need a long-term strategy to build a different kind of city and a different kind of urbanisation. But to do that we need first to cultivate the political will to do it, and get a sense of the political necessity to do it. That is going to take a lot of work.
For example, I would argue that one of the most important problems we have to look at from the standpoint of global warming is excessive suburbanisation. You need therefore to get rid of the suburbs. A lot of people don’t want to give up that lifestyle. Well, until we can persuade everybody that this is a good thing to do, and that we should do it slowly and consciously, step-by-step, so that we reduce energy dependency and we reproduce the profligate energy consumption attached to the suburban lifestyle – until we do that, we’re not going to be able to crack that problem.
QThe White Review — So the first part of the project for the right to the city is effectively education?
ADavid Harvey — Education is very important, but also experience. There’s formal education, but I think that the experience of coming together and finding ways to develop collective projects is actually one of the most crucial things that can happen.
QThe White Review — You’ve suggested a confederation of socialist cities, to rival the Hanseatic League, as a possible ideal outcome for the right to the city campaigns. It sounds like a fantastic idea.
ADavid Harvey — You know, I still remain incredibly impressed by February 15th 2003, that simultaneous march against war in all those cities. I think it was something like 287 cities around the world. I thought to myself, was this an expression of a kind of political power that is always latent within the urban network? And if there is a political power latent in the urban network, why is the left not consciously pursuing it, and trying to push it further and mobilise it?
What we have seen are various spreads of practices from one city to another. For instance, the environmental practices in some cities have now spread to others, and we see the participatory budgeting idea percolating through the urban network, in various kinds of ways. The urban network is fertile ground for politicking, and we should go there.
QThe White Review — As in, they do make use of their networks, so we should use ours?
ADavid Harvey — I had this argument a while back. There’s a reluctance to do it. We had this living wage campaign in Baltimore. I think there’s something like a hundred-odd cities in the United States that have living wage ordinances, and there’s a big campaign on the living wage in New York now. I remember talking to living wage organisers in Baltimore, who I was working with, and I said, ‘Why don’t you go to the national mayors’ conference and stage a demonstration outside, saying to all of them: All you mayors should collectively have a project of the living wage?’ They said, ‘No, no, we’re not interested in doing that.’
QThe White Review — Could you explain participatory budgeting?
ADavid Harvey — Participatory budgeting is an idea that says that a certain amount of a city’s budget is released for democratic purposes. Local assemblies will get together and decide how that money should be spent. The idea is to have a certain proportion of the budget that’s open for democratic voting and assembly-style politics. It goes a little further than that in Puerto Alegre. It’s mandatory, I think, for the heads of the city councils to attend assembly meetings. People can actually grouse, and say what they’ve done wrong – like they don’t like what the parks department is doing or what the sewage department is doing. It’s a way of creating a much greater level of public participation in what is going on in your own backyard. Out of that comes a certain kind of politics which doesn’t necessarily rebound to the benefit of the party which introduces participatory budgeting. But it’s urban democracy at work.
I had the good fortune to be in Puerto Alegre, where they pioneered this, when they were starting, early on. The neighbourhood meeting had, I don’t know how many, somewhere between 500 and a thousand people. They were really going after the mayor of the whole city, and some of the agencies, for not doing this and not doing that.
QThe White Review — I suppose what it also does is create the kind of positive antagonisms that you talk about as essential to building this kind of campaign.
ADavid Harvey — It really strengthens urban democracy. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a radical transformation of the city. Typically what people want, particularly in low income areas, is the same as exists in the bourgeois areas. So it doesn’t lead exactly to saying well, ok, we’re going to do something radically different. It says, well, if they’ve got street lighting in the way that they’ve got, we want street lighting too. If they have public space and clean back alleys, we want public space and clean back alleys. So it doesn’t necessarily lead to a radical reconfiguration of urban life. But at least it institutes a very powerful form of local democracy.
QThe White Review — These types of conclusions you’re coming to seem to fit more with a kind of instrumentalist anarchist approach, than with the classical Marxist one. It appears to be about coming together around particular causes rather than around a theoretical outlook on how the world works.
ADavid Harvey — The radical tradition in geography is anarchist. Kropotkin was a geographer. One of my favourite characters in geographer’s history was Elisée Reclus, who fought in the Paris Commune and was close with people like Bakunin and Kropotkin. So I’m very much associated with that tradition. And of course, on the urban side, the tradition of urban analysis and urban planning has been very much influenced by the anarchists, whereas the Marxists haven’t taken that much notice of it. So we have people like Lewis Mumford and Murray Bookchin still talking about urban forms of organisation. And I’m very sympathetic to that, and always have been. But before 1872 and the bust-up between Bakunin and Marx, the distinction between Marxists and anarchists was not that great on a lot of issues.
If you’re interested in urban or environmental questions, you’re bound to depart a little from fundamentalist Marxists and find yourself in some sort of peculiar space in the middle. My experience with anarchists is that they actually look very much to Marx’s analysis of how capital works. Since much of my work has been in elucidating how Marx understood a capitalist economy to work, I think it gets a fair reading amongst anarchists, because it’s not seen as dogmatically anti-anarchist. So I’m in that kind of world.
Matt Mahon is a researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and a contributor to thethirdestate.net.