After flirting with the Occupy movement in London, I found myself swerving into the Marxist school of thought.
Harvey’s book appealed because it examines the nature of the urban environment in relation to capital circulation processes and class struggle via the Marxist method, a twinning that neatly merges the latest two integers in my own political development.
Harvey begins by introducing the concept of “the right to the city”, building on the concepts of Henri Lefebvre and Robert Parks, a demand that he proposes should be central to the development of anti-capitalist struggle, and that is already shaping social movements in metropolises around the world.
The first key thread is Harvey’s analysis of the role of the urban environment in relation to the mechanics of capitalist crises and economic growth. He demonstrates that routinely, urban development has been used to overcome the problem of surplus disposal and to enable continued growth — so often entailing property bubbles, financial crashes, and human displacement.
The second thread is a review of the history of social movements that have sprung from urban settings. Harvey uncovers a plethora of historical examples, including The Paris Commune, France ‘68, Occupy Wall Street, and finally El Alto in Bolivia. Through a critique of these he coherently conveys his central argument: that the city as a whole should be thought of as the product of collective labour, and it is this, not simply the workplace, that should be in our sights as the locus of organising revolutionary movements.
Harvey also goes to some lengths to explore the cultural and social sphere, and points towards potential openings that communities could be galvanized around, and he systematically rouses the notion of class relations that dictate so many aspects of urban life.
The question of the commons is probed with Harvey’s geographical expertise, and he teases out traditional objections to collective ownership and suggests numerous strategies which could be grappled with.
Rebel Cities appeals as a highly relevant and contemporary work through which to view and engineer the currents of social change that leap from city to city across the globe. There are laborious moments where the technical detail can overwhelm the less critical lay reader, but they are usually augmented by a return to accessible prose and lucidly characterised real-world examples. Most rewarding are the thoroughly engaging final chapters, which provide a wealth of ideas that could offer a serious framework for harnessing the revolutionary potential of the urban realm.
Pleasingly, the text seems to veer starkly away from any hint of an accusation of dogmatism; I counted only one loose reference to Trotskyism. Harvey does take time to briefly justify the need for the revolutionary party, and of course the use of the general Marxist vernacular is inescapable, but this does not appear to create a barrier of accessibility to the dedicated reader.
Throughout, Harvey’s originality of thought is endearing and his arguments meticulously supported. Definitely recommended.