Urban revolution is coming

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Occupy may mark the beginning of a new era of city-based uprisings. An expert explains why — and how
Interview with David Harvey By Max Rivlin-Nadler

From Paris in 1871 to Prague in 1968 to Cairo in 2011 and eventually the streets of New York City, cities have long been a hotbed of radical movements. Over the decades, urban protests have been spurred by everything from unemployment and food shortages to privatization and corruption. But were they also caused by the geography of the cities themselves? The question has particular resonance this week, as Occupy prepares for a series of large May 1 protests in cities around the country.

Geographer and social theorist David Harvey, the distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and one of the 20 most cited humanities scholars of all time, has spent his career exploring how cities organize themselves, and when they do, what their achievements are. His new book, “Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution,” dissects the effects of free-market financial policy on urban life, the crippling debt of middle- and low-income Americans and how runaway development has destroyed a common space for all city dwellers.

Beginning with the question, How do we organize a whole city? Harvey looks at how the current credit crisis had its root in urban development, and how this development has made any political organizing in American cities virtually impossible in the past 20 years. Harvey is at the forefront of the movement for “the right to the city,” the idea that citizens should have a say in how their cities are developed and organized. Drawing inspiration from the Paris Commune of 1871, where the entire city of Paris overthrew the aristocracy to seize power, Harvey outlines where cities have organized, or could or should organize, themselves in more sane, inclusive ways.

Salon spoke with Harvey about Occupy Wall Street, the destructiveness of Bloomberg’s development of New York City, and making the city more after our heart’s desire.

You describe “the right to the city” as an empty slogan. But what does it mean?

Everybody can claim a right to the city. Bloomberg has a right to the city. But different factions in the city have different capacities to exercise that right. So when I talk about the right to make the city more after our heart’s desire, and what we’ve seen in New York City over the last 20-30 years, it’s been the heart’s desire of the rich folk. Back in the ’70s it was the Rockefeller brothers for example, who were the big players. Now we have people like Bloomberg, and essentially, they make the city in a way that is convenient to them and their businesses. But the mass of the population has almost no influence over this process. There are nearly a million people in this city who are trying to get by on $10,000 a year. What influence do they have over the kind of city that is being built? None at all.

My concern about the right to the city is not to say that there’s some ethical right way to do things out there, but it’s something to be struggled over. Whose right? To make what kind of city? My concern is that those million people who are living on $10,000 a year should have at least as much an influence as the top 1 percent. I call it an empty signifier because it’s about who gets in there and says, “It’s my right that matters, and not your right.” It will always involve conflict.

Since the 1980s, there’s been a worldwide wave of privatizations of formerly public institutions (schools, rail travel, water). How has this affected unrest among lower-income people who live in cities? 

In a way that’s one of the questions I try to pose in the book: Why haven’t we done anything about it? Why haven’t we had our ’68? Why hasn’t there been more unrest, given the immense increase in inequalities in many U.S. cities and in the rest of the world? We’re beginning to see some response to it with Occupy Wall Street, and in other parts of the world, we’re seeing some big signs of it. In Chile students are occupying the universities, and we saw some signs of it in the 1960s against the inequalities that existed then.

I don’t quite know why there hasn’t been more unrest. I think it has to do with the tremendous power of money to command a police apparatus. I think we’re in a very dangerous situation right now because any form of unrest is likely to be treated as a form of terrorism, as part of the post-9/11 security apparatus. What we’ve seen in places like Tahrir Square and other urban uprisings, with echoes of it in Wisconsin last year, there are signs of resistance beginning to emerge. There’s a parallel here to what happened back in the 1930s. When the stock market crash occurred in 1929, the real big protests didn’t start until 1933, and then you really started to see a mass movement emerging. We may be coming to that stage right now, because the depression, recession, whatever you want to call it, is not over – there’s still mass unemployment, and people are losing their houses left and right, and people are realizing that this is not just a little blip. This is a permanent condition. So I think we’re more likely to see mass unrest emerging around now. It’s not like 1987, where we had a crash and then we got out of it in a couple of years. That’s not happening in this country.

There’s a difference between an outburst of spontaneous anger, which doesn’t have a political objective, and a more measured response that we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It had a message that it wished to convey, which was putting social inequality on the agenda, and I think they were very successful. At least the Democratic Party is talking about it, and it wasn’t talking about it a year ago. It wasn’t even mentioned. But now they’re talking about it, and you’re seeing it seep into Obama’s campaign, which kind of co-opts that rhetoric.

Why is the Paris Commune of 1871 important to today’s movements?

For two reasons: The first is that it’s one of the great revolts in history. In its own right it’s worthy of discussion and study. Another reason is that it’s part of the ideology in the pantheon of thinking on the left. It’s interesting that Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky all looked to the Paris Commune as an example that needed to be learned from and to some degree followed, as it was in Petrograd in 1905 and later on during the Russian Revolution itself. It needs to be questioned and learned from.

How has free-market urbanization destroyed the city as a social, political and livable commons?

Without romanticizing what the city was about in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a relatively compact concentration of urban population with governance by a political machine — a concentrated, effective political power. Over time we’ve been dispersed through suburbanization, so we have a spread city. You’ve dispersed what’s termed “the ghetto” more and more, so low-income communities are no longer highly concentrated enough to organize themselves. There’s been moments where they’ve been able to come together, like in Los  Angeles with Rodney King.

I think the spreading out of the city, and the creation of the suburbs, and the creation of gated communities, fragments the possibility of a coherent political life and this idea of a communal political project. It leads to a lot of Not in My Backyard politics. People don’t want to live near people who look different, don’t want migrants hanging around – so sociality has changed. I always think of the political subjectivity that has been created by the suburbs, the gated communities, and of course it’s a fragmented subjectivity in which no one is going to be able to take in the totality of the city, and the totality of the urban process as something that they should be concerned about. They’re just concerned with their piece of it. To reconstruct a body politic of the city on the ruins of this capitalization process is what I believe the political project needs to be about.

A term that keeps coming up in stories about OWS is the “precariat” (workers involved in either freelance or non-unionized labor). Why are they important to radical movements?

I’m not too fond of the term “precariat.” It’s always been the case that the people who produce and reproduce urban life look at their condition as being insecure, a lot of it is temporary labor, and have been different from factory workers. The left, historically, has always looked to the trade unions and the factory workers to engage its political base in the age of political change. The left has never thought of the people who are producing and reproducing urban life as being significant. This is where I think the Paris Commune comes in, because if you actually look at who made the Paris Commune, it wasn’t the factory workers. It was artisan workers, and a lot of the labor in Paris at that time was precarious.

What you have right now, with the disappearance of many factories, is that you don’t have an industrial working class of the same size and significance that existed in the 1960s and ’70s. So the question becomes, what is the political base of the left? And my argument is to make it all the people who produce and reproduce urban life. Most of those people are precarious, they’re often moving around, they’re not easily organized, hard to unionize, and they’re a shifting population, but nevertheless they have tremendous potential political power.

And the example I always use about that is the immigrant rights movement of 2006. A lot of the immigrant population refused to go to work for a day, and Los Angeles and Chicago had to close down, showing they had this tremendous power. We should be thinking about this group in the population. This doesn’t exclude organized labor, but organized labor in the private sector (as opposed to the public sector) is now down to 9 percent of the population. Precarious labor is huge. And if we can find a way of organizing them, and if they can find new means of political expression, I think they can be mobilized as a huge influence on how urban life is being lived and structured in a city like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or whatever.

You say, “The revolution in our times has to be urban.” Why is the left so resistant to that idea? 

I think this is part of the struggle over how you interpret the Paris Commune. Some people say it was an urban social movement and therefore was not a class movement. This comes back to the Marxist/leftist view that the only people who can create a revolutionary movement are factory workers. Well, if you don’t have any factories around, you can’t have a revolution. This is ridiculous.

I’m arguing that we have to look at the urban as a class phenomenon. After all, if finance capital is producing the city these days, and it builds the condominiums and it builds the offices, it is producing the city. If we want to resist the way they are doing it, then we have to wage a class struggle, in effect, against their power. I’m very concerned with asking a question like, How do we organize a whole city? The city is where our political future lies on the left.

How can public spaces be transformed into more accessible places?

I look at it in simple terms – there’s a lot of public space in New York City, but there’s very little public space in which you can engage in common activity. Athenian democracy had the agora. Where can we go in New York City, where we can have an agora, and really talk. And this is what the assemblies were trying to define, what the people in Zuccotti Park were trying to do. They made a space where we can have a political dialogue. So we need to take public space, which, it turns out, is a space in which the public is not allowed, and turn it into a political commons, where real decisions are going to be made, where we can decide if it’s a good idea to have another building project, another bunch of condominiums.

I was going through the parks the other day, Union Square, for example, where things used to be able to happen, but frequently they’re turned into flower beds. So now the tulips have a commons, but we don’t. Public spaces are now entirely controlled by political power in such a way that they are no longer commons.

Bloomberg’s policy has been described as  “Building like Moses with Jane Jacobs in mind.” [Robert Moses ruthlessly developed mid-century New York City, often destroying neighborhoods for the sake of speedier transportation to the suburbs. Jane Jacobs, a writer who was his biggest opponent, helped save Greenwich Village from having a highway put through it.] How does he reconcile the two? 

What it means is when you are building in a high-modernist style, and you do so pretty ruthlessly. The Bloomberg administration has launched more mega-projects than Moses did in the 1960s, but he tried to do it in such a way that he dresses it up as being about community with an aesthetic like Jane Jacobs’. That masks what the big project is about. It also has a little bit of an environmentalist tinge to it. Bloomberg is, genuinely to some degree, an environmentalist. He gets very happy if you can make a green building. We see him reengineering the streets into “friendlier” kinds of spaces for bicyclists — provided, of course, we don’t have a mass bicycle-in. Then he gets very unhappy.

Do you think there’s been a growing resistance movement to some of these free-market urban policies?

What is striking is that if you had a map of protests worldwide which are against aspects of what’s going wrong under capitalism, you would see a huge mass of protests. The difficulty is that a lot of it is fragmented. For example, today we are talking about student debt and all the protests around that. Tomorrow people might be out resisting foreclosures; somebody else might be organizing a protest about the closure of a hospital, or a protest about what’s going on in public education. The difficulty right now is to find some sort of way to connect all of them. There are some attempts to create alliances, like The Right to the City Alliance, and the Excluded Workers Congress, so increasingly people are thinking about how to pull it all together. But it’s in the early stages. If it does all get together, you will find a huge mass of people who are interested in changing the system, root and branch, because this is not satisfying anybody’s real needs or desires.

Occupy Wall Street seems to be a coalescence of some of the issues you mentioned, but it still lacks a cohesive message. Why has the left always been so resistant to the idea of leadership, of hierarchy?

I think the left has always had a problem, a fetishism of organization, a belief that one kind of organization is sufficient for a particular project. This was true of the communist project, where they followed a democratic-centralist model that they didn’t deviate from at all. And that model had some strengths and certain weaknesses. What we now see are many elements on the left who resist any form of hierarchy. They insist that everything has to be horizontal and openly democratic. Actually it’s not, in practice.

In effect Occupy Wall Street was operating as a vanguard movement [a political party at the forefront of a movement]. They’ll deny it, but they were. They were talking for the 99 percent and they were not the 99 percent. They were talking to the 99 percent. There has to be a lot more flexibility on the left in terms of building different organizational structures. I was very impressed by the model of El Alto in Bolivia, where there was a mix of horizontal and hierarchical structures that came together to create a very powerful political organization. I think that the sooner we get away from certain rules of discussion, the better.

The current rules of discussion that are currently in vogue are very good for small groups, because you can have an assembly. But if you want to create an assembly that includes the entire population of New York City, you can’t. You have to then think about whether there will be regional assemblies, or a mega-assembly. In fact, Occupy Wall Street does have a coordinating committee. They’re just very nervous about actually taking leadership and organizing.

I think the successful movements always have a mix of horizontality and hierarchy. The most impressive one I’ve come across were the Chilean student movements, where one of the leaders was a young communist woman [Camila Vallejo], who is fully open to being as horizontal as possible, rather than having a central committee decide things. But at the same time, when leadership is called for, it should be exercised. If we start to think in these terms, we’ll have a more flexible system of organization on the left. There are groups within Occupy that are trying to get people within the Democratic Party to sign support for Occupy’s demands, and if not, they’re going to run candidates against them. There’s a wing doing that sort of thing, but they’re not the majority at all.

At the end of your book, you don’t provide many answers, but you wish to open a dialogue for how to get out of this gross economic inequality and the multiple crises of capitalism. Do you see this coming out of Occupy?

It could possibly. If the union movement moves toward more geographical forms of organization, and not just based around workplaces, then the alliances between urban social movements and unions would be much, much stronger. What’s interesting is that there’s quite a good history of those types of collaborations that have been quite successful. I think that if you could just plant that seed, a huge change could be possible. If Occupy Wall Street can see their way to more collaboration with the union movement, then there will be a great deal of political action possible. My book is a groundwork for exploring all of these possibilities, and not dismissing anything, because we don’t know what the successful form of organization will be. But there’s a huge space at this moment for political activism.

Max Rivlin-Nadler is an editorial fellow at Salon.