[9 May 2012]
If we are asked to name two of the most significant global events of recent years, then the ongoing financial crisis and last year’s Arab Spring are among the obvious candidates. Arguing that these events are connected would require a substantial amount of evidence and analysis, but it seems fair to summarily state that both are symbolic of the serious mistakes made by those in power, and the oppression, whether it be political or financial, experienced by the populace.
David Harvey’s new book makes reference to both of these events: although he doesn’t explicitly link them, he raises them within the same context, drawing attention to their urban settings. The locations most associated with the financial crisis are Wall Street and London’s Square Mile, while the scene of the Arab Spring’s triumphant climax was Tahrir Square in Cairo. On a fundamental level, it’s no coincidence that these huge events are both city-based. The world is becoming increasingly urbanised; we have already passed the tipping point where more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, and we can expect the proportion of city dwellers worldwide to grow rapidly. As such, it’s unsurprising that major world events will take place in cities. However, the nature of these events will depend on how cities are organised and run.
The central topic that Harvey approaches in Rebel Cities concerns the question of the right to the city, and to whom this belongs. He takes in Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city, Garrett Hardin’s work on the commons, and Hausmann’s redesign of Paris, in order to assess how so many of us have come to reside in what he describes as ‘the disgusting mess of a globalizing, urbanizing capital run amok’. His target, as we might expect of a Marxist scholar, is capitalism; specifically, the way that it is manifest in urban areas.
As such, Harvey’s answer to the question of to whom the city belongs is, legitimately enough, its people, and it’s by strengthening the fight against capitalism that he believes the city can be improved. Essentially, he describes a reclamation of the city, and he’s keen to deploy events like Tahrir Square – which serve as potent symbols of such a reclamation – as fuel for his argument. Harvey’s strength is his ability to combine the economic with the sociological. Criticising the World Bank’s 2009 Development Report, he complains that it was ‘Written by economists (without consulting geographers, historians, or urban sociologists)’. What makes this book both enlightening and well-argued is the fact that Harvey might be described as any of and all of these three things.
Harvey is vehement, even vitriolic, in his condemnation of the city as a capitalist machine. Demolishing the World Bank’s report, he’s incredulous at the institution’s propounding of capital accumulation and mortgage lending: ‘[H]ow come they missed that the crisis of 1973 originated in a global property market crash that brought down several banks? Did they not notice that the commercial property-led Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s in the United States saw several hundred financial institutions go belly-up?’ And Harvey has many more rhetorical questions like these, which simultaneously crush the arguments of capitalism, and convey his disbelief that it can continue unchecked.
Closing the book are two very short chapters that deal with the London Riots of last summer, and the Occupy movement in Wall Street. Presumably, their brevity is a reflection of the fact that these are very recent events that might set precedents for more and similar occurrences. Harvey might not have the space to construct fully developed arguments here, but his impassioned commentary is almost sufficient in itself. Of the riots he says, ‘Get smart. Get easy profits. Defraud and steal! The odds of getting caught are low. And in any case there are plenty of ways to shield personal wealth from the costs of corporate malfeasance.’ What might sound like a more politicised revamp of the ‘Choose life’ speech from Trainspotting in fact has far greater weight when Harvey compares rioters dubbed ‘feral’ by the media with the politicians and bankers that he regards as equally feral in their capitalist pursuits.
His account of the Occupy movement is more measured, and more forward looking. Tahrir Square comes up again here: ‘What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter and Facebook, that really matter.’ These bodies are a powerful display of the physicality and corporeality of the city, and it is this that Harvey seems to be seeking to reclaim.