Review of David Harvey, ‘Rebel Cities’ (London: Verso Books, 2012)

First posted 10 August 2012 on 

There’s a hint of opportunism about this volume, a collection of essays on capitalism and the city dating from 2008. It gives Occupy something to feed on, and arrives nicely for the one-year anniversary of Britain’s riots, and the Olympic Games. No matter: we need people like Harvey to articulate an alternative to the capitalist city and its tendency to turn it into a relentless parade. There is much to like here: a critical introduction to the relationship between ‘fictional’ capital and real estate development; some commentary on the Left’s anxieties about social organisation, especially the problem of ‘horizontality’ (p. 70); a fascinating encounter with the ‘rebel city’ of El Alto, near La Paz. Much alludes to Harvey’s gloomy but compelling work on Baltimore, in which that small American city comes to represent the destructive power of capital, and the emptiness of its attempts at economic revival. ‘Revitalisation’ so often means ‘devitalisation’, he writes in a passage that strongly echoes his account of Baltimore’s regenerated inner harbour from Spaces of Hope (2004).

We need people like Harvey. But this is a scrappy book, seemingly rushed out to capitalise on  Occupy, no doubt, and as much consumer product as anything described. He and Verso are no doubt aware of the ironies – it’s not really worth dwelling on them. More troublesome for me is the argument itself. Harvey’s early work on Baltimore convinces because it derives an argument from detailed fieldwork – so the operations of capital, its tendency to spatial exclusion, and the contradictions in its Rouse-led regeneration of the 1980s are all shown, in minute detail, to be represented in the built environment. Spaces of Hope for example, uses photography to show how a wall here, a fence there, or a blind façade over there are conscious acts to reinforce (say) corporate power in relation to the poor. Rebel Cities by contrast begins with the argument, and proceeds by assertion, unintentionally in the style of Private Eye’s Dave Spart (‘Feral capitalism should be put on trial’, p. 157). It has a colourful, manifesto-like quality that was no doubt intended, but it’s unconvincing.

Why? Well, its full of the contradictions that in an earlier phase the author was so adept at exploring. Here are four examples: (1) The City and the Left. There’s a brave attempt here to recuperate the city for the Left. This is unfortunately fraught with difficulty, as the Left historically recognised (H G Wells, on leaving a socialist meeting in London, once pointed at the colossal buildings all around, and declared ‘all this’ was a measure of what had to be moved if socialism was to succeed). Very few cities are not in some way products of surplus capital. The Left’s response to this until the mid-1980s was to imagine a post-urban future in which cities would simply dissolve. That is the fantasy of William Morris’s News from Nowhere, as much as it is the planning policy of any number of municipal socialist cities until very recently, including my hometown of Manchester – until 1985 or so, its stated aim was ‘managed decline’. Without the profit motive, I very much doubt if cities would have any compelling reason to exist.

(2) Nostalgia. In common with several urban sociologists of his generation, Harvey’s nostalgic for the life of the street. This has a powerfully moralising dimension, now seen through the lens of ‘sustainability.’ So for Harvey, as it was for Jane Jacobs in 1962, or Richard Sennett in 1968, the suburb is an unnatural, inauthentic, and frankly immoral form. This nostalgia is again, I think, misplaced: lively streets are nice, but as much products of capital as anything else – in fact, as all these writers knew perfectly well, the high density of Manhattan/Barcelona/Paris/London’s East End, so conducive to community life, was a direct result of the profit motive. The appropriation of these streets for other purposes is a fine thing, but unless you’re an architectural determinist, doesn’t in itself mean anything.

(3) Disneyfication. This terrible cliché makes its appearance on p. 92 in a discussion about urban ‘spectacle’, itself anther cliché. These terms are now so over-used, I no longer really know what they mean. What I do know from experience however is that Disneyworld (and all the other theme parks, shopping malls, and gentrified tourist districts that ‘Disneyfication’ implies) are highly complex places that as much as they proscribe human behaviour, routinely fail. The consumption of urban space is never as straightforward as its authors would like. Furthermore, they rarely last. Disney’s success is unusual in a world full of ruined pleasure gardens and abandoned malls. But even Disney is vulnerable, as its Paris venture shows. I would – in the unlikely event I am still alive – be extremely surprised if Disney exists in any recognisable form in fifty years.

(4) The Beef. Or Rather, Where is It? There’s a detailed account here of El Alto, the one ‘rebel city’ described in any detail. But like the Paris Commune, which also makes an appearance, it’s a response to a temporary situation rather than a blueprint for anything longer term. I may be asking too much, but it would nice to have a clearer sense of where Rebel Cities was headed. The early 20th century left were quite clear about the city, and in England, a compelling, post-urban vision was set out, a vision with continuing global impact. It’s no more clear what a Harvey-designed future would look like than that proposed by Occupy. Perhaps the rebel city is a process rather than a lasting state, an act of resistance, not a building. Anyway, I’d like to know, and if someone could oblige, I’d also like a plan for a non-capitalist city.

Harvey’s far from alone in expressing these contradictions. It doesn’t help resolve them however, and I could only conclude that he (and Occupy) want it both ways: they want the more agreeable trappings of the capitalist city, but want to abolish the basis which makes them possible. I often think of  my own experience growing up in 1970s Manchester with capital in full flight, and along with it, people, buildings, and ideas. For 40 years the city literally shrank. Whatever the idiocies of the contemporary city, I never want to go back to the 1970s.  I’d love to read a contemporary alternative as compelling as ‘News from Nowhere’ or  ’Walden Two’. This sadly isn’t it.

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