Rebel Cities & Urban Resistance

Interview with David Harvey


Emanuele: In the Preface to Rebel Cities, you begin by describing your experience in Paris during the 1970s, "Tall building-giants, highways, soulless public housing and monopolized commodification on the streets threatening to engulf the old-Paris… Paris from the 1960s on was plainly in the midst of an existential crisis. The old could not last. Further, it was also in this year of 1967 that Henry Lefebvre wrote his seminal essay On the Right to the City." Can you talk about this period of the 1960s and 1970s? How did you become interested in the urban landscape? And what was the impetus for writing Rebel Cities? 

Harvey: Worldwide, the 1960s is often looked at, historically, as a period of urban crisis. In the United States, for example, the 1960s was a time when many central cities went up in flames. There were riots and near revolutions in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and of course after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, over 120 American cities were inflicted with minor and massive social unrest and rebellious action. I mention this in the United States, because what was in-effect happening was that the city was being modernized. It was being modernized around the automobile; it was being modernized around the suburbs. Now, the Old City, or what had been the political, economic and cultural center of city throughout the 1940s and 50s, was now being left behind. Remember, these trends were taking place throughout the advanced capitalist world. So it wasn't just in the United States. There were serious problems in Britain and France where an older way of life was being dismantled—a way a life that I don't think anyone should be nostalgic about, but this old way of life was being pushed away and replaced by a new way of life based on commercialization, property, property speculation, building highways, the automobile, suburbanization, and with all these changes we saw increased inequality and social unrest. 

Depending on where you were at the time, these were strictly class-inequalities, or they were class-inequalities focused on specific minority groups. For example, obviously in the United States it was the African American community based in the inner cities, who had very little in terms of employment opportunities or resources. So, the 1960s period was a time that was referred to as an urban crisis. If you go back and look at all the commissions from the 1960s that were inquiring what to do about the urban crisis, there were government programs being implemented from Britain to France, and the Untied States. Similarly, they were all trying to address this 'urban crisis.' I found this a fascinating topic to study and a traumatic experience to live through. You know, these countries that were becoming more and more affluent were leaving people behind who were being secluded in urbanized-ghettos and treated as non-existent human beings. The crisis of the 1960s was a crucial one, and one I think Lefebvre understood quite well. He believed that people in these areas should have a voice to decide what these areas should look like, and what kind of urbanization process should take place. At the same time, those who resisted wished to roll back the wave of property speculation that was beginning to engulf urban areas right throughout the industrialized capitalist countries. 

Emanuele: In Chapter One, you write, "The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, or what aesthetic values we hold." However you prelude this notion by explicitly mentioning the neo-liberal context we're living within. Later in the chapter, you mention the Paris Commune as being an historical event to analyze and possibly help us conceptualize what the 'right to the city' might look like. Are there other historical examples, including the Paris Commune, that we can reflect upon? Can you talk about the challenges we face, specifically within the neo-liberal context? 

Harvey: I think the proposition that the kind of city we wish to build should reflect our personal wishes and needs is a very important proposition. You know, our social, cultural, economic, political and urban environment is very important. How do we develop these attitudes and trends? This is important. So, living in a city like New York, you have to travel around the city, transport yourself, and deal with other people in a very certain way. As everybody knows, New Yorker's tend to be cold and brisk with one another. That doesn't mean they don't help each other, but in order to deal with the daily rush of things, and the massive amounts of people on the streets and in the subways, you must negotiate the city in a certain way. By the same token, living in a gated community in the suburbs leads to certain ways of thinking about what daily life should consist of. And these things evolve into different political attitudes, which often includes keeping certain communities gated and exclusive, at the price of what takes place at the periphery. These social and political attitudes are created by the kind of environment we create. That's a very important idea for me: revolutionary responses to the urban environment have many historical precedents. For example, in Paris in 1871, there was a kind of attitude where people wanted a different kind of urbanization; they wanted different kinds of people living there; it was a reaction to the upper-class, speculative-consumer development taking place at the time. So, there was an uprising that demanded different kinds of relations: social relations, gender relations, and class relations. 

Accordingly, if you want to build a city, where say women feel comfortable, for example, you'd build a much different city than the ones we typically have. All of these questions are tied into the question of what kind of city we want to live in. We can't divorce it from the kind of people we want to be; what kind of gender relations, what kind of class relations, and the like. To me, the project of building the city in a different way, with a different philosophy, with different aims, is a very important idea. Occasionally that idea has been taken up in revolutionary movements, like the Paris Commune. And there are many more examples we could quote, such as the General Strike in Seattle circa 1919. The whole city was taken over by the people, and they started to set up communal structures. In Buenos Aires, 2001, these same things were happening. In El Alto, 2003, there was another kind of eruption. In France, we've seen the suburban areas dissolving into riots and revolutionary movements over the last 20-30 years. In Britain, we've seen these sorts of riots and uprisings now and again, which are really a protest against the way daily life is being lived. Now, revolutionary movements in urban areas develop quite slow. You can't change the whole city overnight. What we see, however, is a transformation in the style of urbanization in the neo-liberal period. Before, say during the mid-1970s, urbanization was characterized by many of these protests; there was a lot of segregation; and the answer to a lot of those protests was in effect to redesign the city according to these neo-liberal principles of self reliance, taking personal responsibility, competition, the fragmentation of the city into gated communities and privileged spaces. So, to me, the redesign of the city is a long-term project. Fortunately, people are forced to think about some form of revolutionary transformation, which occurs during a particular point in time, such as Buenos Aires in 2001 where there were movements that led factory takeovers and held assemblies. Indeed, they were able to dictate, in many ways, how the city was going to be organized and started to ask serious questions: Who do we want to be? How shall we relate to nature? What kind of urbanization do we want? 

Emanuele: Can you talk about some of these terms? For instance, can you discuss suburbanization as a result of "a way to absorb surplus product and thereby resolve the capital-surplus absorption problem?" In other words, why have our cities been hollowed out in this particular fashion? This question is particularly prescient for our local listeners in the rust belt region, which has been completely devastated over the last 30-40 years. Or, for example, it now costs you about $60 to park in downtown Chicago for the day, while the suburbs explode with heroin use, and the minority neighborhoods are plagued with violence, impoverishment and police oppression. Can you talk about these processes? 

Harvey: Again, this is a long, drawn-out process. Let me go back to the 1930s and the Great Depression. Let's ask the question: How did we get out of the Great Depression? And what was the problem during the Great Depression? One of the big problems that everyone identified was that there wasn't a strong market. Productive capacity was there. But there was not the income streams to mop up, if you like. So there was a surplus of capital around with nowhere to go. Now, right throughout the 1930s there were frantic attempts to try and find a way to spend that surplus-capital. You had things like the Roosevelt "Works Program." You know, building highways and things of that sort. Namely to try and mop-up surplus-capital and the surplus-labor that was around at the time. But there was no real solution found in the 1930s until World War II came along. Then, all the surplus was immediately absorbed into the war effort–producing munitions and so forth. A lot of people went into the military; a lot of labor was absorbed that way. So, World War II, on the surface, solved the problem of the Great Depression. Then you had the question after 1945: What would happen after the war is over? What was going to happen to all this extra capital? Well, you then have the suburbanization of the United States. Actually, the building of the suburbs, and at this time it was the building of affluent suburbs, became the way in which surplus-capital was mopped up. First they built the highway system; then everyone had to have an automobile; then the suburban house became a sort of 'castle' for the working-class population. All of this took place while leaving behind the impoverished communities in the inner cities. This was the pattern of urbanization that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The surpluses, which capital always produces, function as such: at the beginning of the day capitalists start with a certain amount of money, and at the end of the day they end up with more money. The question arises: What do they do with the money at the end of the day? Well, they have to find some place to invest it—expansion. 

Capitalists always have this problem: Where's the expansion and opportunities to make more money? One of the big expansionary opportunities after World War II was urbanization. There were other opportunities such as the Military-Industrial-Complex, and so forth. But it was mainly through suburbanization that the surpluses were absorbed. Now this created many problems, such as the urban crisis of the late-1960s. Then you have a situation where capital actually goes back to the central cities and subsequently re-occupies the inner-city. It then reverses the pattern. So more and more of the impoverished communities are expelled to the periphery as affluent populations move back to the center of the city. For example, in New York City, 1970, you could get a place right in mid-town for almost nothing because there was a tremendous surplus of property around, and nobody wanted to live in the city. But that's all changed: the city has become a center for consumerism and finance. As you mentioned, it costs as much to house your car as it does to house a person. This is the transformation that has occurred. In short, this process of urbanization takes place throughout the 1940s, stretching through the 1960s. Then, you have an re-urbanization taking place in the period following the 1970s. After the 1970s, the center of the city becomes extremely affluent. In fact, Manhattan went from an affordable place in the 1970s to, in effect, a vast gated community for the extremely wealthy and powerful. In the meantime, the impoverished, often minority communities, are expelled to the periphery of the city. Or, in the case of New York, people fled to small towns in upstate New York, or Pennsylvania. This general pattern of urbanization has to do with this question of where do you find profitable opportunities to invest capital? As we've seen, profitable opportunities have been lacking in the past fifteen years or so. During this time, a huge amount of money was poured into the housing market, housing construction and all the rest of it. Then we saw what happened in the autumn of 2008 when the housing bubble crashed. So you have to look at urbanization as a product of the search for ways in which to absorb the increasing productivity and output of a very dynamic capitalist society that must grow at a 3% rate of compound growth if it's going to survive. That's the question for me: How are we going to absorb this 3% compound growth over the coming years so as to avoid the urbanization/suburbanization dilemmas of the past? It's interesting to conceptualize what that might look like. 

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Director for The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous books, including his latest Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City, to the Urban Revolution (Verso 2012). He has been teaching Karl Marx's Capital for over 40 years.  

Vince Emanuele is the host of the Veterans Unplugged Radio program, which airs every Sunday, from 5-7pm(Central) in Michigan City, Indiana on 1420AM "WIMS Radio: Your Talk of the South Shore." (www.veteransunplugged.com) Vince is also a member of Veterans for Peace, and serves on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War.

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