Living for the City

David Harvey’s Rebel Cities – Published on Dissident Voice, by Ron Jacobs, May 21, 2012.

I live in the small city of Burlington Vermont in the United States. Most every day I walk through the city’s main public square known by its street name, Church Street. A public street that has been semi-privatized, the street is often the center of a struggle between citizens and private interests over the nature of the public square.   

Battles over the rights of street performers, political activists, panhandlers and regular citizens that want to hang out without shopping are frequent. Thanks to quick public reaction from these groups and others, most efforts by merchants and politicians to further privatize the street have been beaten back. Yet, the space is more tightly controlled than downtowns in other similar sized cities that I have visited … //

… It is from these shantytowns that we can gain inspiration. The people who live in such areas are considered surplus in the world of monopoly capitalism. They have no rights as far as the stock exchanges and bourses of the world are concerned. Yet, because they refuse to accede to this characterization, they will struggle to maintain their shelter, their communities and their human dignity. Like their historical predecessors in the Paris Commune of 1871, this population is determined to make the city a popular and democratic human organism. They are joined by those around the world who in the past couple of years have occupied city squares and parks and demanded a reconceptualization of the city, more democratic control of the urban space, and a reconsideration of who constitutes the working class and, subsequently, who will make the anti-capitalist revolution.

Harvey insists that the only genuine anticapitalist struggle is one with the goal of destroying the existing class relationship. Such a struggle cannot be waged by separating workplace issues from those of the community. Pointing to the classic film The Salt Of the Earth as an example of how the latter scenario might occur, Harvey suggests that the union must view the world of working people as an organic whole. Utility access and costs are workplace issues; childcare and education are too. Affordable housing and food costs are more than secondary concerns. Their role as a means for the capitalist system to take back wages describes their existence as a means for that system to maintain its control on working people. Debt peonage, whether incurred via education and vehicle loans in the advanced capitalist world or incurred via a micro-loan program in the developing nations, is still debt peonage. The increasing cost of post-secondary education throughout the world and the mortgage crisis are both tools of the neoliberal regime to continue the upward motion of capital.

This is a radical book. Its discussion ranges from the workings of the monopoly rent system and the nature of neoliberal capitalism to a call to take back the city. History is combined with economics and a call for serious struggle. With the Paris Commune as his inspiration, David Harvey discusses the positive and negative aspects of the Occupy movement, the squatters’ movements and allied struggles. He presents their historical precedents and he warns against essentially conservative attempts to manipulate such movements into supporting the existing economic reality. He further opines that cooptation by parliamentary elements are proof of these movements success, not their failure. Fundamental to all of this is Harvey’s radical definition of the city as the wellspring of capitalist oppression and also the foundation of resistance to that oppression. (full text).

(Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. Read other articles by Ron).

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