# POLITICS /// Reclaiming the Urbs: Rebel Cities by David Harvey


Construction Workers strike in Las Vegas (2008) / photo: Trent Ogle

In his new book, Rebel Cities, David Harvey (see previous post here and here) observes that the new forms of proletariat exploitation in the the Western World changed from the factory paradigm to the one of the city. The Marxist filter of reading, that he knows very well for having teaching it for a couple of decades , is still very much appropriate to interpret the creation of surplus value through urbanization:

But there is a seamless connection between those who mine the iron ore that goes into the steel that goes into the construction of the bridges across which the trucks carrying commodities travel to their final destinations of factories and homes for consumption. All of these activities (including spatial movement) are productive of value and of surplus value. If capitalism often recovers from crises, as we saw earlier by “building houses and filling them with things,” then clearly everyone engaged in that urbanizing activity has a central role to play in the macroeconomic dynamics of capital accumulation.
Harvey David. Rebel Cities. New  York: Verso, 2012. P130-131

Of course, D.Harvey invokes the recent examples of insurgencies and manifestation for what Henri Lefebvre was calling the right to the city; nevertheless he also bases his argument on historical example such as the 19th century Paris. The latter is indeed very illustrative as it was both subjected to an imperial transformation and several revolutions including the one that continues to fascinate me always more and more: the 1871 Paris Commune. D.Harvey’s reading is interesting in these two matters as his historical interpretation is slightly different from the one we usually give as architects. He address Haussmann’s transformation of Paris, not so much for its physicality but rather for its economy i.e. the implementation of a pure capitalist urbanism. As for the Commune he beautifully attribute this event to the reclaim of the city (what I would call the ‘urbs’ as both a physical environment and an assemblage of social interactions) by those who produced it. It is true that one of the fastest and most important decision of the Commune concerned the city itself as it consisted in canceling the rents:

Haussmann clearly understood that his mission was to help solve the surplus capital and unemployment problem by way of urbanization. The rebuilding of Paris absorbed huge quantities of labor and capital by the standards of the time and, coupled with authoritarian suppression of the aspirations of the Parisian labor force, was a primary vehicle of social stabilization. […] Haussmann thought of the city on a grander scale, annexed the suburbs and redesigned whole neighborhoods (such as Les Halles) rather than just bits and pieces of the urban fabric. He changed the city wholesale rather than piecemeal. To do this, he needed new financial institutions and debt instruments constructed on Saint-Simonian lines (The Credit Mobilier and Immobiliere). What he did in effect was to help resolve the capital surplus disposal problem by setting up a Keynesian system of debt-financed infrastructural urban improvements. P7-8

Secondly, urbanization is itself produced. Thousands of workers are engaged in its production, and their work is productive of value and of surplus value. Why not focus, therefore on the city rather than the factory as the prime site of surplus value production? The Paris Commune can then be reconceptualized as a struggle of that proletariat which produced the city to claim back the right to have and control which they had produced.
Harvey David. Rebel Cities. New  York: Verso, 2012. P129

The Proletariat is very precisely what is building the city as well as making it ‘work’ (the double meaning of work here is useful). Massive strikes, whether they are accomplished by the truck drivers or trash collectors in Europe (that would deserve another article!) or illegal workers in the USA, illustrate very well how precarious is the upper class’ domination. By suggesting the act of reclaiming the city by the same people who produce it, David Harvey implies another way of conceiving the urbs which blur the limits and categorization of  people who design, people who fabricate, people who build and people who live in it:

Distinctions between work-based and community based struggles start to fade away, as indeed does the idea that class and social reproduction in the household. Those who bring running water to our homes are just as important in the struggle for a better quality of life as those who make the pipes and the faucets in the factory. Those who deliver the food to the city (including the street vendors) are just as significant as those who grow it. Those who cook the food before it is eaten (the roasted-corn or hot-dog vendors on the streets, or those who slave away over the stoves in the households kitchens or over open fires) likewise add value to that food before it is digested.
Harvey David. Rebel Cities. New  York: Verso, 2012. P139

In this struggle, architects have the choice to either remain the servants of the dominant class or to embrace their proletarian characteristics and take their part within what D.Harvey himself calls the urban revolution. In the latter case, we will have to come down from the ivory tower that we designed for ourselves and remember that, like every proletarian worker, we have a body which can occupy space (see previous article) and allows us, as Judith Butler puts it, to come together as bodies in alliance in the street and in the square (see previous article)

If urbanization is so crucial in the history of capital accumulation, and if the forces of capital and its innumerable allies must relentlessly mobilize to periodically revolutionize urban life, then class struggles of some sort, no matter whether they are explicitly recognized as such, are inevitably involved. This is so if only because the forces of capital have to struggle mightily to impose their will on an urban process and whole populations that can never, even under the most favorable of circumstances, be under their total control. An important strategic political question then follows: To what degree should anti-capitalist struggles explicitly focus and organize on the broad terrain of the city and the urban? And if they should do so, then how and exactly why?
Harvey David. Rebel Cities. New  York: Verso, 2012. P115