Tuesday, May 8, 2012

David Harvey On the Modern City, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Social Revolution, and the Political Economy of Capitalism


"One of the definitions of 'urban' is a contested site where there is a war going on, and where there has been a war going on forever, over the future identity of the United States. When we talk about political economy and the global capitalist economic system that rules us all, what we're really talking about--when we talk about all these racial and sexual identities and the conflicts and problems between classes and between men and women--is the urban as a site for the attempted resolution of those questions."
--Kofi Natambu, "The Urban Context"
Black Popular Culture Conference, December 8-10, 1991
Studio Museum of Harlem & Dia Center for the Arts (SoHo) NYC


Great interview with David Harvey! I just purchased his new book last week. I have always been a huge fan of Harvey's work in general and I can't wait to read it...Check out the interview below and all of Harvey's outstanding published work if/when you get a chance...


David Harvey: Taking Back the Streets for Anti-Capitalist Struggles
Friday, 04 May 2012
By Aaron Leonard, Rabble | Interview

David Harvey's latest explores how to organize cities to create a more just world.

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution
by David Harvey (Verso Press, 2012; $21.00)

David Harvey, anthropology professor, geographer and authority on Karl Marx's work Capital, has just published Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. The book addresses the state of inequality in capitalist society, the role of the city as concentration point of struggle around that, and the prospects for a different world.

Aaron Leonard spoke with him recently in his office at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Aaron Leonard: Why do you call the book, Rebel Cities?

David Harvey: One of the questions I'm asking is what is the role of the city in anti-capitalist struggle. Clearly a lot of struggles against capitalism occur in the cities, but there is a lot of struggle going on about cities which are actually about the capitalist mode of urbanization. So it seemed to me, putting that all together, we ought to be rebelling against this through urban struggles as well as the struggles which we often hear talked, everything from peasant rebellions, to classical class-struggles around labor organizing and the like.

I am saying there is another terrain of struggle, which is over the city. In the same way there is a long history of peasant rebellions, there is a long history of rebellions going on in cities, general strikes and such. If you look at the American Revolution, while it ended up being fairly rural, it began in the port cites -- in the taverns where people would argue and debate -- that is where much of the thought of getting rid of the British came from. I thought that it would be a striking thing to insert that theme into the political dialogue right now.

AL: In the first part of your book, in discussing the concept of fictitious capital, you quote Karl Marx.

"All connection with the actual process of capital's valorization is lost, right down to the last trace, confirming the notion that capital is automatically valorized by its own powers." (Capital, Vol. III p. 597)

It seems that description gets at the nub of a number of points of confusion -- that somehow value, wealth, economic health, or whatever you wish to call it, gets ascribed to something other than what actually determines it. Could you talk about what this means and why Marx such an important reference in understanding our present circumstances?

DH: I have taught and written about Marx for many years and have a bit of a project to make Marx comprehensible to people. In my view Marx has one of the most sophisticated understandings of how capitalism works -- and the problems that are attached to the ways in which it works -- of any writer who has ever tried to really dissect capitalism.

You've got 11,000 economists in the United States and none of them saw the crisis coming. In Marx's theory you can see exactly where the tensions build up, in his words, where the contradictions come from. One thing I try to do is make it as comprehensible as I can while at the same time redirect people, to say you may want to go back and read Marx because he has these wonderful understandings.

For example, before the current [financial] mess, we would put our money in a savings bank and expect it to grow by three per cent. We put money in a pension fund and expect it to grow by four or five per cent per year. We don't ask, where did that four or five per cent come from? It seems magical, disconnected entirely from the people in the factories, fields and mines who made it. What Marx does is to connect the two and say look if there is an increase of some kind, then somebody's making it somewhere. Who's making it? Labour is making it down in the mine, out in the field and in the factories... and when you take it further in the home.

What then happens is in the financial system, banks lend to banks, they leverage on each other and magically they become incredibly richer. Hedge fund managers can get three billion dollars personal renumeration in one year. Where does that wealth come from? Marx is always asking that type of question. But we live in a world where this category of fictitious capital has really taken off, and much of Wall Street functions in a form of fictitious capital where nobody knows what really grounds it. It's magical, yet it produces this vast rate of return for all the people who are managing it. That is the kind of world that Marx is very good at penetrating and depicting. I am saying that we have to understand how that works, but by the way, Marx understood this very well. To the degree I understand it comes from my studies of Marx.

AL: You ask in the book: "Where is our '68?, or even more dramatically our version of the Commune?" [the Paris Commune of 1871]. What do you mean?

DH: I am struck by the enormous disparities and inequalities that exist in society. To give you a simple case study about New York City. The top one per cent earns on average something like $3.7 million dollars a year. That means that they are earning about $10,000 a day. There are a million people in New York City who are trying to live on $10,000 a year. Half of the population of the City are earning less than $30,000 a year. We haven't seen such disparities since the 1920s.

In the past, these inequalities have generated, at some point, a revolt and I have been looking for the last few years to see, where is the revolt? We saw some of it in the anti-globalization movement in Seattle and Montreal and now we have such things as Occupy Wall Street. But we haven't seen a mass of the population rising up and saying, "Enough is enough! Stop it." Part of the reason is politics is entirely ruled by money power. The top one percent dominate all political discourse, the media and [exercise control] through Congressional influence.

I think underneath it there is this sort of volcano waiting to explode. I am waiting for it to happen and am surprised it hasn't. Where is our '68, Where is our Paris Commune? It hasn't come. We are beginning to see signs of it coming in various parts of the world.

The place where it has really come big time, is in Chile. The Chilean student movement has occupied all the universities. They are attacking Pinochetism. Here we've got to get rid of Reaganism -- Reagan's gone, the Republican party however, now looks much worse than Reagan. The same is true in Britain, Thatcher is gone but Thatcherism remains. I think at some point there has to be a coherent counterattack upon the tremendous concentration of political and economic power that now exists all around the world.

It is going to have to be by using the only power that we have, which is to take back the streets and take back the cities. Which is why I get into the question of how can we organize whole cities to create a more just world, a different and alternative form of society? That is the question I am very interested in posing in the book. The answer is I don't really know quite how to do it, but let's talk about it and let's think about it
AL: Zbigniew Brzezinski -- a friend of U.S. global domination -- in his book, Strategic Vision writes, "If America continues to put off instituting a serious reform plan that simultaneously reduces spending and increases revenue, the United States will likely face a fate similar to previous fiscally crippled great powers, whether ancient Rome or 20th-century Great Britain."

How do you see the implications of the 2007-08 crisis in terms of its more far-reaching global ramifications?

DH: Look at the data. The United States has been stuck with massive unemployment, stuck with very low growth. What has China been doing? China lost 30 million jobs in the crash, but the end of the year they had recuperated 27 million of them and they were growing again at 10 per cent. There is a tremendous shift of wealth and power to the Far East. It used to be the West was draining the East now its the other way around. Giovannia Arrighi has this thesis about hegemonic shifts which occur and they usually occur after periods of rapid financialization.

The shift from Dutch hegemony to British hegemony was preceded by a certain financial expansion. The shift from British to U.S. hegemony was preceded by a financial expansion. The financial expansion of the United States in the last 30 years was complicitous in the deindustrialization of the United States and the shift of economic power in many ways toward the Far East. So yes we are seeing those shifts. Saying that, I don't belong to that particular group that would say this is the end of America at all. In fact one of the problems is the United States still has a preeminent military power, even as its economic power and moral influence and all the rest of its is considerably on the wane.

But look at the urban side of that. Go to a place like Shanghai or some of these new cities that are being entirely built in China, the urbanization of China is phenomenal. The urban dimension to it is very significant. Then the question rises, what urban model is being followed. For instance in the Chinese case, sadly in many ways, its a version of what happened in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The Chinese are building gated communities, they are building suburbs, the automobile is going everywhere. It's an environmental disaster, and social inequality is escalating. There is a real set of problems there that is creating a good deal of unrest. I wouldn't be at all surprised if people don't see urban rebellions going on in China. In other words there's much talk about what's happening differently between nation states, but to shift the conversation a bit, let's talk about what's going on in the cities.

AL: Is it enough to just be "anti-capitalist?" Isn't a different paradigm of organizing society going to require a much bigger break than we might imagine, at once, more audacious and more visionary -- with all the risk involved in that?

DH: Yes it will take a radical break. To be anti-capitalist is to talk about finding a way to displace the fundamental ways that breakfast gets put on your table; which is through the market system, through corporate power, corporate agriculture, advertising and all the rest of it. So to be anti-capitalist is to be anti all of that.

This then says we have to find an alternative way in which we can figure out how to feed the seven billion people on planet earth; how do they get housed, how do they have a reasonable standard of living without resort to capital accumulation, without resort to market processes of the sort we now utilize? I can't see that just being engineered by going on the barricades or storming the Winter Palace. We have to talk about a whole generation which is going to actually work through creating this entirely different configuration in the world economy.

We have reached this point in capitalist history, and I have argued elsewhere, I think we are at an inflection point where capital cannot continue to accumulate at its compounding rate of growth and be sustainable in a social or political way. There are a lot of stresses inside it and what we are seeing is now the last gasp of traditional capitalism going on in the Far East and stagnation effectively hitting North America and Europe. This means an alternative is going to have to be found. We have to collectively start to think about it.

The trouble right now is that we have universities dominated by neoliberal ideology, a managerial corporatist ideology, and most of the media is dominated by all of that. We cannot even have a conversation about what it would would mean to be anti-capitalist, or a broad discussion amongst intelligent people about how are we going to change this system so that seven billion people can have a reasonable lifestyle without the inequality I mentioned earlier, in New York and in fact every American [and other] city.

Yes it's going to be a radical break, but one that will take a whole generation to accomplish. We have to start thinking about organizational alternatives. There are many organizations out there who are trying to do such things; creating solidarity economies, communes... little bits and pieces of organization out there. The difficulty is to scale them up from local solutions to a mass global solution, which is going to be a real challenge.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.


Ahead of May Day, David Harvey Details Urban Uprisings From Occupy Wall Street to the Paris Commune
By Amy Goodman, Democracy NOW! | Video

On Tuesday, May 1st, known as May Day or International Workers' Day, Occupy Wall Street protesters hope to mobilize tens of thousands of people across the country under the slogan, "General Strike. No Work. No Shopping. Occupy Everywhere." Events are planned in 125 cities. We speak with leading social theorist David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about how Occupy Wall Street compares to other large-scale grassroots movements throughout modern history. "It's struck a chord," Harvey says of the Occupy movement. "I hope tomorrow there will be a situation in which many more people will say, 'Look, things have got to change. Something different has to happen.'" Harvey's most recent book is "Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution."

Rush Transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: Tuesday is May Day, May 1st, also known as International Workers' Day, a holiday that celebrates workers' rights and achievements of organized labor, such as the eight-hour workday. This year, the Occupy Wall Street campaign is hoping to mobilize tens of thousands of people across the country under the general slogan, "General Strike. No Work. No Shopping. Occupy Everywhere". Events are planned in 125 cities. The Occupy campaign plans to protest in 99 targets alone in Midtown Manhattan, including the offices of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Activists gathered last Thursday in New York City's Union Square to announce plans for the massive May Day protest that will include immigrant groups, workers' unions, members of Occupy Wall Street. Chris Silvera is Secretary-[Treasurer] of Teamsters Local 808.

CHRIS SILVERA: We want the immigrant community. We want Teamsters. We want laborers. We want the RSDWU. We want the United Food and Commercial Workers. This is a day that should be represented by hundreds of thousands marching like they did in 1886. We have to turn back the clock on Mr. Romney, on Mr. Obama, on the Congress, on Mario Cuomo, on Bloomberg. And the 99 percent has to get their share.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about May Day and the Occupy campaign, we're joined by leading social theorist, David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. He has been teaching Karl Marx's Capital for nearly 40 years, is the author of a number of books, including The Limits to Capital and A Brief History of Neoliberalism_. His most recent book is called Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution_ Explain, David Harvey.

DAVID HARVEY: I'm trying to look at the history of urban uprisings. And actually, if you look at the situation around the world right now, you see examples in Berlin. You see them in Cairo. You see them going on with the indignados movement in Spain, and of course in Greece. And you see them in Chile. And in recent years, we've seen uprisings in places like Los Angeles 20 years ago. And so, this—and I'm interested in the sort of political significance of these movements. And I think, in some ways, Occupy Wall Street is in that tradition.

And tomorrow's actions, which are going to be decentralized all over the city, in a way is saying, "Let's take back the city and call it our city, instead of being the city that belongs to the 1 percent." And so, it's a bit like saying, "Let's have our city, and we'll make it our city." And, of course, one of the instances where that happened most emphatically was back in the Paris Commune of 1871. And so, I wanted—

AMY GOODMAN: What was the Paris Commune of 1871?

DAVID HARVEY: The Paris Commune was an uprising against the government in an attempt to create an alternative form of urban governance in Paris in 1871 under conditions of war and the like. And, of course, it was ruthlessly suppressed, as we see going on in Syria right now, in Homs, in fact, so that—so these urban movements can sometimes work, and sometimes they get savagely repressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Moving forward from the Paris Commune, you talk about the right to the city. What does that mean?

DAVID HARVEY: The right to the city means—who has the right to New York City? Who can affect things here? Who can really change life here? And when we talk about the power of the 1 percent, we're talking about an extremely powerful group that actually dominates much of investment in the city, much of rebuilding of the city. We have a billionaire mayor who allies with them. But it's hardly a city that is run by Picture the Homeless or the impoverished population. So, in claiming the right—in reclaiming the right to the city, what we're really trying to talk about is the way in which ordinary people can affect urban life and define a different kind of urban environment in which they're going to live.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg compared the city council's living wage bill to communism. The bill would raise workers' wages at city-subsidized developments. Bloomberg made the comment in an interview on WOR radio.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: If you think about it, the last time you really had a big managed economy was the USSR, and that didn't work out so well. You cannot stop the tides from coming in. We need jobs in the city. It would be great if all jobs in the city paid a lot of money and had great benefits for the workers—not good for the employers—but if you force that, you will just drive businesses out of the city.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayor Bloomberg. David Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: That's the usual story. But look at the situation. The top 1 percent in New York City earns—on income tax returns, earns something like $3.75 million a year. That's what the top 1 percent earns, on average. There are 34,000 households, nearly 100,000 people, who are trying to live in the city on $10,000 a year. Half of the population of New York City is trying to live on $30,000 a year. This is—the levels of inequality in the city are absolutely stunning, and they've increased immensely since the 1970s.

And then [inaudible] say, who dominates urban life? Who dominates the decisions? Well, it's the 1 percent. And so, I think what Occupy Wall Street and the rest is saying is that we only have one form of power, which is people on the streets, actions in the streets. We don't have the power to dominate the media. We don't have the power, the money power, to dominate politics. And this is the situation we are in. So Occupy Wall Street is trying to give a different mode of political expression to politics as usual.

AMY GOODMAN: The Occupy movement has faced increasingly brutal police responses. In November, Democracy Now! spoke to Stephen Graham, who wrote Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, which looks at the increasing influence of military technology on domestic police forces.

STEPHEN GRAHAM: Well, there's been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That's been longstanding, fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there's been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Stephen Graham, who wrote Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. You know, we have a law, Posse Comitatus, that says soldiers can't march in the streets, but it seems the way authorities get around this is simply by militarizing the police. Professor Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: Yes, this is—but I take this as a sign of how nervous the 1 percent is. I mean, we've gone through this crisis, and effectively, the 1 percent has done very well out of this crisis. Nobody has gone to jail for all of the things that we know went wrong. And I think the 1 percent is rather terrified that actually people will start listening to the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street. And to some degree, people already have, because the conversation has shifted a little bit towards the question of social inequality and poverty. And I think that the repressive moves of the police are not just simply in New York City, but across the nation. It seems almost to be coordinated, seems to me to be almost a direct line of instruction from, you know, the JPMorgans of this world and all of the rich folk to kind of say, "You've got to keep these people quiet, you've got to squash it in the bud. In the bud."

AMY GOODMAN: And the police did end all of the encampments.

DAVID HARVEY: And the police have been doing it. And I think Occupy Wall Street is taking some inspiration, it seems to me, from the courage of the people in Tahrir Square or in Bahrain and all the rest of it, to say, "Look, things have to change. And we're going to try to make this change come about in a peaceful way." I mean, this is, again, one of the signal things it's about. This is a peaceful form of demonstration, and it has been ruthlessly sometimes turned into a police riot.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the creation of the urban commons.

DAVID HARVEY: Yes. Well, amazing thing about New York City, for example, is there are all these public spaces, but is there a public space where we can set up the equivalence of the Athenian Agora and have a political discussion? And the answer to that is no. You have to apply for, you know, all kinds of permits, and it's highly regulated. So the public space is not really open to the public. A lot of it is now, of course, turned into flower beds, and so we have a great place for the assemblage of tulips and so on, but we don't have a place where people can assemble. And so, one of the things we're going to try to do tomorrow is to set up places of assembly where we can talk about things. So there's a sort of a free university in Madison Square Park. I'm going to be participating in that. Then many other actions of that kind, one aim of which is to try to liberate spaces in the city where we can have political discussions and where we can have open political dialogue.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the party of Wall Street meeting its nemesis.

DAVID HARVEY: Well, I think Occupy Wall Street has really been onto something. It's struck a chord. And the big—and I talked about the repression of it, but—and I think the chord it struck is, in effect, measured by the speed and fierceness of the repressive moves that have been taken. So I think it's beginning to be listened to, and I hope tomorrow there will be a situation in which many more people will say, "Look, things have got to change. Something different has to happen."

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the art of rent. There is a big anti-foreclosure movement all over this country. In Minneapolis, there is a protest right now—


AMY GOODMAN: —happening to prevent another foreclosure. Why do refer to the "art of rent"?

DAVID HARVEY: Well, one of the things that's happened is the attempt to turn cultural activities into industries to try to commodify history, and you get a sort of commodified form of history. And that allows people to claim that this is a very unique configuration. So, there's an attempt to create something very, very special, to which tourists are drawn, and then that gives you what I call "monopoly rent," that the uniqueness of cultural configuration is being commodified. But as you know, with the environmental—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

DAVID HARVEY: —commons and everything else, the tendency is for the uniqueness actually to be destroyed by commercialization.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor David Harvey, thank you for joining us.

DAVID HARVEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We'll put part two on our website. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.