‘Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’ reviewed by Aaron Schneider

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

Verso, New York and London, 2012. 208pp., £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781844678822

Reviewed by Aaron Schneider

About the reviewer

Aaron Schneider is Leo Block Chair of International Studies at the University of Denver. He has …


David Harvey’s Rebel Cities is a call to arms. If Marx’s Communist Manifesto offered a call to arms for the uprisings of 1848, Rebel Cities coincides with a diversity of contemporary uprisings from Alto (in Bolivia) to Zuccotti Park (in New York). These diverse sites of uprising in developed and undeveloped, historical and contemporary sites offer lessons about urban movements with a principled commitment to democratic and anti-capitalist alternatives. Rebel Cities seeks to “engage with, but also create an alternative to, the capitalist laws of value determination,” through an “anti-wealth politics” and “construction of alternative social relations,” with a “material but also a spiritual and moral” shift to ecological sustainability and “the abolition of the dominant class relation that underpins and mandates the perpetual expansion of surplus value production and relation” (126-8). The following paragraphs will take up the core elements of Rebel Cities’ argument: urban, precariat, and democratic anti-capitalism, and end with some observations about the politics of struggle laid out in Rebel Cities.

The book begins with an explanation of the role of cities in capitalist accumulation. Urban concentrations serve the function of shrinking the time and space needed to gather human capacities, and city centrality to accumulation only increases as globalization positions them as nodes between multiple interconnected processes of accumulation. Further, cities provide that particularly attractive form of accumulation, rent, in which surplus can be extracted from the direct sale or indirect use of “some special quality resource, commodity, or location” (91). Harvey is at his best in describing the peculiar coalition of financial speculators, developers, and urban political elites who seek to “brand” cities with “marks of distinction” (99-100). They must face an inevitable contradiction in that the act of capturing surplus value from rent requires trading on what had been distinct, and in the process turning it into something homogeneous, as seen in the “disneyification” of culture and gentrification of neighborhoods.

Rebel Cities also notes that cities serve not just to generate surplus product, but also to dispose of it. Excess surpluses generated by capitalist competition have to be absorbed somewhere, and investment in urban renewal and speculation in urban property offers an outlet. Further, these uses possess the added advantage of delayed returns; capital invested at one period brings inflated returns later. “This means that capitalism is perpetually producing the surplus product that urbanization requires. The reverse relation also holds. Capitalism needs urbanization to absorb the surplus products it perpetually produces” (5-6). Yet, this too faces an inevitable contradiction, as the delayed realization of surplus only replicates and exaggerates at a later date the original problem of absorbing excess.

In identifying cities as critical sites of surplus generation and absorption, especially through speculative rents, Rebel Cities notes the increasingly precarious lives it produces for those who work and live in cities. They build cities with their labor and construct urban identities with their communities, yet both are alienated from them and accumulated privately. The product of their work and lives is appropriated through capitalist social relations of production and dispossession, shifting the focus to class struggle on a city-wide basis.

This analysis appears in other work by the same author, such as Limits to Capital, but Rebel Cities is the first explicit description of the political project implied by this analysis. In the urban setting, surplus exists in the two common property resources central to all accumulation processes – labor and land. As workers cooperate in the process of production and communities cooperate to produce the spaces in which they live, they collectively generate a commons that is available for accumulation. Capital both loves and hates the commons – loves the collective and communal processes that create the commons but hates the social relations implied by commons. “Urbanization is about the perpetual production of an urban commons (or its shadow-form of public spaces and public goods), and its perpetual appropriation and destruction by private interest” (80). Opposition to this agenda is the struggle of “commoning,” to construct social relations of “that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified – off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations” (73).

This is an important innovation, giving form and substance to arguments that emphasize the urban, and not just worker, component to revolutionary uprisings. Rebel Cities tells the story of multiple episodes of innovative urban class struggle, lingering and drawing especially on the Paris Commune of 1871, “I take it as symbolic that the first two acts of the Paris commune were to abolish night work in the bakeries (a labor question) and to impose a moratorium on rents (an urban question)” (120). The actors at the heart of struggle include workers but also many other categories of marginalized urban actors alienated from the commons both in the workplace and in the city.

The strategic implication is that class struggle has to be waged beyond the factory walls. In fact, argues Rebel Cities, much of labor struggle has always been waged outside the factory, as “organizing the neighborhoods has been just as important in prosecuting labor struggles as has organizing the workplace” (132). Rebel Cities argues first that “work-based struggles … are far more likely to succeed when there is strong and vibrant support from popular forces assembled at the surrounding neighborhood and community level” (138). Second, “the concept of work has to shift from a narrow definition attaching to industrial forms of labor to the far broader terrain of the work entailed in the production and reproduction of an increasingly urbanized daily life” (139). Finally, “while the exploitation of living labor in production … must remain central to the conception of any anti-capitalist movement, struggles against the recuperation and realization of surplus value from workers in their living spaces have to be given equal status” (140).

Attention to sources of surplus rooted in daily lives offers certain organizing advantages, as “distinctions based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and culture are frequently more deeply etched into the social fabric” (133). These dimensions of struggle over the commons intersect with workplace struggle, yet they significantly transform the revolutionary agent, “this ‘precariat’ is “fragmented and divided, multiple in its aims and needs, more often itinerant, disorganized and fluid… The so-called precariat has displaced the traditional proletariat” (xiii-xiv).

An anti-capitalist bridge across workplace and community “will work only if the forces of culture and of a politically radical tradition … can be mobilized in such a way as to animate citizen subjects … behind a radically different project of urbanization to that dominated by the class interests of developers and financiers” (151). Such an effort could be observed in Occupy Wall Street and similar mobilizations, “the movements took control of public space, and converted it into a political commons – a place for open discussion and debate over what power is doing and how best to oppose its reach… The collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (161-2). An open and democratic space drew on the lived experiences of oppression to weave a new commons out of multiple radical cultural and political traditions.

Further, Rebel Cities notes that while local places may be the most propitious sites of such bridges, localized resistance has to be scaled-up if it is to compete with a neoliberal agenda. “Any anti-capitalist drive mobilized through successive urban rebellions has to be consolidated at some point at a far higher scale of generality, lest it all lapse back at the state level into parliamentary and constitutional reformism that can little more than reconstitute neoliberalism within the interstices of continuing imperial domination” (151).

It is on the politics of these last two points that some time perhaps ought to be spent: the challenge of scale and the weaving together of multiple resistances. The question of scale is bound to enter any theory that begins in cities. Cities are the epicenter of the global economy, and they are deeply integrated with regional and national power. The strength of Rebel Cities is that it roots an analytical, ideological, and organizational logic in the character of cities, and extrapolating from cities is presented as a question of scale, rooted in an organizational structure of nested hierarchy. Yet, the politics of extrapolation entails more complicated issues. The social relations of surplus capture shift when scale increases to regions, nations, and the international economy, and will therefore require a different level of resistance. Further, the organizational challenges of nested or federal arrangements present possibilities of competition across units as well as difficult and strategic negotiations between higher-level and lower-level entities. Just as there will be democratic and anti-capitalist work to be done among individuals and identities at the urban level, there will be democratic and anti-capitalist work to be done among multiple urban areas, their rural hinterlands, and national and international neighborhoods. The history of radical local experiments is all too often a temporary and interesting phenomenon easily contained within localized boundaries and choked by higher level entities.

The second issue to address is the challenge of weaving multiple streams of resistance. Rebel Cities notes important examples in which popular forces find a way to weave together disparate and potentially conflicting forms of resistance. These are indeed possible and such examples deserve attention. Yet, history is peppered with just as many examples, perhaps more, of factional demobilization, internecine conflict, and elite cooptation, especially within the Left. Rebel Cities offers an important advance by suggesting that previous understandings of class formation, especially class consciousness and democratic centralism, are inadequate and convincingly argues for horizontal and open spaces in which popular actors can build a commons. Yet, even with this advance, Rebel Cities fails to explain how such a commons can emerge, and especially why mobilization and coalition-building occurs in some places and not others. This is the politics of the commons that will have to be considered. For example, some fractions of popular sectors, defined by ethnicity, race, and economic sector, have historically been incorporated and coopted. In addition, factions within popular sectors experience their workplace and community exploitation in different ways and to different degrees – some are accommodated to existing patterns of power and some face especially harsh treatment if they resist. Especially in cities, capital and state power have built architectures that incorporate key constituencies as allies and bulwarks of a social relation of wage exploitation and private appropriation of the commons. A politics of rebellion will have to construct a theory as sophisticated about overturning this power as it is about democratizing the control over surplus.

Rebel Cities is well aware of these challenges and is committed to an anti-capitalist and democratic core to any resistance. In articulating the nature of such resistance, why it is necessary given the nature of surplus generation, absorption and capture, and what are some of the successful examples of organizing and resistance, Rebel Cities is a masterful work. It is both a call to arms and a sharply analytical work. It offers a new way to understand capitalist accumulation and a new way to frame resistance. For these reasons, Rebel Cities will orient debates about radical politics for many years to come.

2 November 2013

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