Geographer David Harvey on Urban Commons
One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna” in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the world’s most livable city in 2011.
Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market, pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown. The Floridas and Glaesers of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode well for the future.
What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commons is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons.
Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums, rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.
Cities hold great promise, but they are not yet the engines of transformations we need them to be. We need new ideas.
Shareable has offered an alternative to a free-market vision of cities by publishing consistently about urban commons, but we’re no match for the flood of content from The Atlantic Cities and their ilk. And, frankly, we haven’t offered a deep or consistent enough analytical counter to influence the discourse. So, I’ve been looking for a tonic.
I eventually discovered David Harvey, the world’s most cited academic geographer and one of the most influential urban thinkers anywhere. At first, I resisted his work because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist. I’m allergic to ideologues of all political stripes. I find the clubbishness of Marxist discourse alienating. And we at Shareable don't want to alienate readers.
However, Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities tempted me and I was richly rewarded. His analysis of the market’s role in creating social inequalities offered a more convincing view of urban processes than I’ve gotten anywhere. It was as if gum were cleared from my eyes.
And while Harvey is a Marxist, he’s no demagogue. Rebel Cities offers enlightening critiques of liberals, anarchists, and even commons advocates. When it comes down to it, Harvey stands for something as American as apple pie — cities for the people, by the people. I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who shares that idea, whatever you call them.
I asked my friend Chris Carlsson, a co-founder of Critical Mass, to interview Harvey as he explored similar themes in his book, Nowtopia. Below is a recent e-mail discussion between Carlsson and Harvey which I think you’ll find fascinating no matter your political persuasion. Alone, Harvey is not the complete tonic, but I hope the interview broadens your view of cities like Rebel Cities did for me.
Chris Carlsson: Who did you write Rebel Cities for?
My aim was to write a book for everyone who has serious questions about the qualities of the urban life to which they are exposed and the limited choices that arise, given the way in which political and economic power asserts a hegemonic right to build cities according to its own desires and needs (for profit and capital accumulation) rather than to satisfy the needs of people.
In so doing, I wanted to provide indications of the kind of theoretical framework to which I appeal and I, therefore, use seemingly abstract (often, but not exclusively, Marxist) concepts. But my aim is to use these concepts in such a way that anybody can grasp them. (I don’t always succeed, of course.) I then hope that people might become interested to seek a deeper knowledge of the sort of framework that I use. For example, in “The Art of Rent,” I use a seemingly arcane concept of monopoly rent, but I hope by the end of the chapter people can understand very well what it might mean and wonder how it is that a society that lauds competition as foundational to its functioning is populated by capitalists who will go to great lengths to secure monopoly power by any means and how they capture unearned rents by resorting to that power.
If people want a broader understanding of my framework, they can use many resources including my own Enigma of Capital, and A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and my website lectures (including those on Marx’s Capital) and the Companion to Marx’s Capital). I hope, however, that Rebel Cities is understandable enough without going through all of those materials first. In my view, one of the biggest problems for anti-capitalist social movements in our times is the lack of an agreed-upon framework to understand the dynamics of what is going on; if I can somehow incite activists to think more broadly about what they are doing and the general situation in which they are doing it (and how particular struggles relate to each other), then I would be very happy.
You write: “The chaotic processes of capitalist creative destruction have evidently reduced the collective left to a state of energetic but fragmented incoherence, even as periodic eruptions of mass movements of protest … suggest that the objective conditions for a more radical break with the capitalist law of value are more than ripe for the taking.”
For many people, targeting the “capitalist law of value” is terribly abstract. Can you rephrase that in terms that people can see and feel in their everyday lives?
I could substitute the phrase “capitalist law of value” with the phrase “the maximization of profit in a context of global competition” and then point to the devastating history of deindustrialization (more destruction than creation) from the 1980s across city after city, not only in North America, but also Europe and elsewhere (e.g. Mumbai and Northern China).
But I wanted to use the term “value” very explicitly to raise the question of what it is that capital values and how radically that contrasts with other ways of thinking about the values that might prevail in another kind of society. The capitalist law of value is what animates the activities of Bain Capital, etc. and we have to see that value system as profoundly opposed to human emancipation and well-being, that there is a distinctive “law of value” that capital internalizes and imposes that overrides all other values that stand in its path.
The values that capital internalizes do not contribute to the well-being of people and indeed may threaten our survival. The more people come to recognize the value system of capital the more we can mobilize “our” alternative values against it. To see the fight against capitalism as a fight over values is very important. It has, at various times, animated a theology of liberation that is profoundly anti-capitalist. It is for this reason that the capitalist class does not want to talk of or admit to the distinctive “law of value” that animates its actions. Apologists for capital claim they are for family values, for example, while capitalism promotes policies that destroy families. They claim they are in favor of freedom, but omit to say the freedom they favor is that of a few to exploit and live off the labor of the many, of the Wall Streeters to be free of regulation to gain their inordinate bonuses through predatory practices.
The gentrification blues at work on a Noah's Bagels in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Tedeytan. Used under Creative Commons license.
Most of the people reading this website are involved in various types of co-ops, collectives, and projects that are proudly based on values beyond mere monetary profit. But you don’t think this is enough. You argue: “… attempts to change the world by worker control and analogous movements — such as community-owned projects, so-called “moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which today would be that of the Zapatistas) — have not, so far, proved viable as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions … Indeed, it can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that which capital imposes …”
You properly point out that efforts to create socialism in one country, let alone one city, or one small enterprise, have always failed. Why do you think people ignore this overwhelming history and keep trying to make it work anyway?
This is one of the most difficult paradoxes embedded in the history of the left (its thinking, its project, and its activities). We can all understand the urge to control our own lives, to achieve some degree of autonomy at work, as well as in the neighborhoods we inhabit; and that basic urge which is, I believe, both widespread and broadly acceptable to many elements in society, can be the basis for a broader politics. When capital collapses as it periodically does, then workers frequently mobilize (as in Argentina in 2001-02) to save their jobs, and there are some long-lasting examples of cooperative systems and of worker control that are encouraging (e.g. Mondragon).
The problem is that these operations operate in a context where the capitalist law of value (Yes, that is why this is so important.) remains hegemonic such that producers are subject to the “coercive laws of competition” that eventually force such independent efforts towards autonomous forms of organization to behave like capitalist enterprises. This is why it is so important to eventually think and act in such a way as to challenge the hegemony of the “capitalist law of value”.
Lefebvre thus notes that heterotopic practices (spaces where something radically different happens) can only survive for a while before they are eventually re-absorbed into the dominant practices. This says that, at some point, we have to mount a challenge to the dominant practices and that means challenging the power of a deeply entrenched and thoroughly dominant capitalist class and the law of value to which it adheres (as represented by, for example, Bain Capital). You are right that this is a somewhat abstract idea; but if we cannot embrace it, then we will simply be ruled by other abstractions (such as those of “the market” or “globalization”).
You dismiss Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons with the point that he is studying cattle herders with privately owned herds, undercutting the very presumption of a commons in land and resources. But you also look critically at Elinor Ostrom’s ideas about the commons, mostly because of her relatively small samples of communities self-managing common resources. Though she short-circuits the banal opposition of state and market, she ducks (as do most anarchists and autonomists, as you argue) the problem of organizing complex, territorially dispersed economic relationships. “How can radical decentralization — surely a worthwhile objective — work without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and active enforcement.”
Do you think the state, currently a wholly-owned project of “the existing democracy of money power,” can be made to serve other interests than capital accumulation and economic growth?
The state is not a monolith, but a complicated ecosystem of administrative structures. At the core of the capitalist state lies what I call a “state-finance nexus” which, in our times, is best represented by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and I think it was deeply illustrative that these two institutions, in effect, took over the U.S. government entirely in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It is notoriously the case within the state that the Treasury has the final say over many projects in other departments.
In parallel with the state-finance nexus is the military industrial complex which is a bit of a misnomer because it is really about the concentration of military and police powers backed by a justice system that is shaped in support of capitalist class power. These make for a distinctively capitalist class state apparatus. Obviously, that form of state power has to be confronted and defeated if we are to liberate ourselves from submission to the capitalist law of value.
But, beyond that, there are many aspects of public administration providing essential public services — public health, housing, education, and the governance of common property resources. In our own society, these branches of government often become corrupted by capital, to be sure, but it is not beyond the power of political movements of the left at the local, national, even international levels to discipline these aspects of the state apparatus to emancipatory public purposes.
Ironically, neoliberalism, by turning the provision of much of this terrain of state action over to NGOs, has opened a potential path to socialize these aspects of the state to the will of the people if the limitations of the NGO form could be overcome. The frontal attack from the left against state power has to target the state-finance nexus and the military/police complex and not the sewage department or the organization of the Internet and air traffic control, even as it has to be alert to how all departments of the current state are likely to be used as vehicles for furthering capital accumulation. The current situation is that the capitalist class is heightening its powers of control through militarization and the state-finance nexus while not bothering with much else.
At the end of your book you write, “Alternative democratic vehicles such as popular assemblies need to be constructed if urban life is to be revitalized and reconstructed outside of dominant class relations.” How do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement evolving in the absence of public space?
It is clear that the vicious police response to Occupy Wall Street is an indication of the paranoid fear of Wall Street that a popular movement might arise to threaten the power of the state-finance nexus and, as has happened in Iceland and now in Ireland to indict and eventually jail the bankers.
Militarization is, for them, the necessary answer, and part of that militarization is the control over public space to deny that the Occupy movement has a public space for its operations. In that case, the liberation of public space for public political purposes becomes a preliminary battle that will have to be fought. The assemblies provided a brief whiff of what an alternative democracy might look like, but the small scales and limited arenas make it crucial to experiment with other democratic forms of popular governance capable of looking at the metropolitan region as a whole… how to organize a whole city like New York or Sao Paulo.
A street scene in Berlin's Schöneberg district showing the interplay between blight and gentrification. Credit: Sugar Ray Banister. Used under Creative Commons license.
Going beyond physical space, you helpfully point out that, “There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning…. At the heart of the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified — off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations.”
How do you see this logic of “commoning” emerging from the actual social movements of our time, which seem preoccupied with ethical shopping on one hand, or addressing racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and other identitarian questions on the other?
The essence of a great urban and civic life, for me, is the free intermingling of all manner of people opening up the possibilities of all manner of encounters. If, for often good reasons, women, LGBT youth, or other so-called “identitarian” groups cannot freely use the public and supposedly “common” spaces of the city, then it is critical that movements emerge to liberate those common spaces for their participation. Such movements can provide a vital opening for a broader common politics. The problem comes when that is the only preoccupation for that group and what begins as a demand for inclusion becomes a movement for exclusions. Alliances are needed and the more it becomes acceptable to liberate public spaces for all public purposes, the more open become the democratic possibilities to go a-commoning, to build a commons and achieve a politics of the commons throughout the city or metropolitan region as a whole. But there are counter-movements that have to be combated. Right now, exclusionary fascist movements (like Golden Dawn in Greece) are precisely occupying space by space urban neighborhoods (e.g. in Athens); they are occupying spaces in the name of an exclusionary politics. This is an extreme case, of course, but I think it critical that the relation between the commons and the balance between enclosures and exclusions, on the one hand, and openings and free uses, on the other, be perpetually open for discussion and political struggle. These are the sorts of battles in which we all have to be involved. There is no automatic harmony to be had and I actually think a certain level of perpetual conflict around urban life is a very positive feature.
Artists and “culture workers” have historically been leading voices of dissent, but we see a lot less of that now. Most people are beholden to one or another institution of the “nonprofit industrial complex” as the Incite! Collective put it in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. The types of dissent remain safely within boundaries that do not challenge the logic of markets and money.
You write, “It is one thing to be transgressive about sexuality, religion, social mores, and artistic and architectural conventions, but quite another to be transgressive in relation to the institutions and practices of capitalist domination that actually penetrate deeply into cultural institutions…. The problem for capital is to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate monopoly rents from them.”
How do highly individualized and competitive artists and culture producers find common ground to fight for a world beyond remuneration?
I don’t quite agree with the view that the cultural workers are passive. The context has changed (which is what I am pointing to as culture becomes an industry and a vehicle for capital accumulation and building asset values) which means that dissidence has to take a different form of expression. Subversion, rather than confrontation, has to become the main tactic and I see quite a lot of evidence of a willingness to do that. We have, incidentally, very much the same problem in academia. My colleagues have quite a lot to learn about how to go about that and, in the cultural world, that sentiment for subversion is far more widespread.
You write, “The struggle for the right to the city is against the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from the common life that others have produced…. Capitalist urbanization perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political, and livable commons.” Americans are fairly religious about the idea of private property. Even progressives don’t like to challenge the prerogatives of property ownership.
Do you think there can be any meaningful way to halt gentrification and the debasement of thriving urban neighborhoods that it brings, short of creating collective ownership of neighborhood properties?
The thing that often amazes me is the wide array of instruments already available for left experimentation in all manner of arenas of social life. This is very true of housing with all sorts of possible property arrangements that offer ways to secure housing for low-income populations. Yet these instruments are neglected and underutilized, in part, I suspect, because of ideological barriers but also due to lack of political and other forms of support for them.
Much can be done within existing structures, but, again, the problem is how, for example, limited equity co-ops might be reabsorbed into the dominant practices unless there is an active social movement to keep them in place and expand them. Otherwise, we are in the situation of winning a skirmish here or there (e.g. against gentrification) but losing most of the battles and having no impact on the anti-capitalist war. So when and how are we going to learn to fight the war against the dominant practices?
You point to the need to integrate an understanding of the process of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general theory of the laws of motion of capital. Other writers have analyzed the breakdown of Fordist mass production and the evolution of capitalism into a system based on a “social factory.”
I think we should get away from the imagery of the factory entirely. The issue of the urban is quite different because it is not only about production, but about realization of values through consumption, consumerism, spectacle (e.g. Olympic Games which have sent many cities into economic difficulties and played a key role in the Greek collapse of public finances). One of the things I get from Marx’s theories is the relation between production of values and the realization of values through exchange in the market and both are equally important and the urban is “where it all comes together”.
A public square in Helsinki offers plenty of space for activists to gather. Credit: La Citta Vita. Used under Creative Commons license.
You note, “Public spaces and public goods in the city have always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make.” How can public spaces become a commons?
Language is a commons and part of what political life is about is changing the languages we use to relate to each other and to understand the world around us (which is why I want to talk about the capitalist law of value). But the commons has to be materialized and objectified (e.g. in print) and discussed (e.g. in an assembly or a chat room). Commoning embraces all of these features. It is not only a physical space, but bodies on the street still have a political priority (as we saw in Tahrir Square) and this is particularly important to the degree that the capitalist class has almost total power over all other forms of political power (money, the repressive apparatus, key elements in the state apparatus, political elections, the law, etc.).
Finally, you argue that “Decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through neoliberalization.” How do social movements fight this trajectory while holding on to their own autonomist and egalitarian practices?
What is so odd in these times is that much of the left agrees with much of the right that decentralization and opposition to all forms of centralized power is the answer. This is why I talk of the “fetishism of organizational forms” that prevails on the contemporary left. The market is, of course, when individualized, the most decentralized decision-making system you can imagine and it is exactly the organization of such a competitive decentralized market that produces, as Marx so clearly proved, highly concentrated capitalist class power. It does so because “there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.”
If all the world were organized into a series of independent and totally autonomous anarchist communes, then how would the global commons (e.g. biodiversity) be preserved, and what would prevent some communes from becoming much more prosperous than others, and how would the free flow of people and goods and products from one place to another work (most communes have some principles for exclusion)? Interestingly, most corporations are into networked models of administration and there are all sorts of parallels between left and right which pass unrecognized, as well as overlaps between corporate practices and anarchist visions.
There is a lot to be said for a decentralized basis for political action. But, at some point, it has also to jump scales and organize at least at the metropolitan bioregional level to take on those wretched dominant class practices that seem to survive unscathed in the midst of the current plethora of oppositional social movements.
David Harvey (born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors in the humanities. In addition, he is the world's most cited academic geographer, and the author of many books and essays that have been prominent in the development of modern geography as a discipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate; most recently he has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism. He is a leading proponent of the idea of the right to the city, as well as a member of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.
Chris Carlsson, co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org), is a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer. He has written two books (After the Deluge, Nowtopia) edited six books, (Reclaiming San Francisco, The Political Edge, Bad Attitude, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration, Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-78, and SHIFT HAPPENS! Critical Mass at 20). He redesigned and co-authored an expanded Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay. He has produced Shaping San Francisco’s weekly public Talks and conducted its award-winning bicycle history tours since January 2006. He has given hundreds of public presentations based on Shaping San Francisco, Critical Mass, Nowtopia, Vanished Waters, and his “Reclaiming San Francisco” history anthologies since the late 1990s, and has appeared dozens of times in radio, television and on the Internet.