Book of the Day: Rebel Cities

Book: Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. By David Harvey. Verso, 2012

Manifesto on the Urban Commons:

“Long before the Occupy movement, modern cities had already become the central sites of revolutionary politics, where the deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface. Consequently, cities have been the subject of much utopian thinking. But at the same time they are also the centers of capital accumulation and the frontline for struggles over who controls access to urban resources and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life. Is it the financiers and developers, or the people?

Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, and from New York City to São Paulo. Drawing on the Paris Commune as well as Occupy Wall Street and the London Riots, Harvey asks how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways—and how they can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance.”


Neal Gorenflo:

“One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna” in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the world’s most livable city in 2011.

Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market, pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown. The Floridas andGlaesers of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode well for the future.

What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commonsis the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons.

Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums, rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.

Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.

Shareable has offered an alternative to a free-market vision of cities by publishing consistently about urban commons, but we’re no match for the flood of content from The Atlantic Cities and their ilk. And, frankly, we haven’t offered a deep or consistent enough analytical counter to influence the discourse. So, I’ve been looking for a tonic.

I eventually discovered David Harvey, the world’s most cited academic geographer and one of the most influential urban thinkers anywhere. At first, I resisted his work because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist. I’m allergic to ideologues of all political stripes. I find the clubbishness of Marxist discourse alienating. And we at Shareable don’t want to alienate readers.

However, Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities tempted me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from my eyes.

And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as American as apple pie — cities for the people, by the people. I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever you call them.”

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