In his new book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey successfully brings together decades of thinking on Marx, contemporary politics, and urbanization. We sat down with Professor Harvey in his office at CUNY and discussed how the ideas in his new book connect with both longstanding preoccupations and our own contemporary moment.
Schapira: One thing that stood out for me in Rebel Cities was your neologism “commoning” (which I might define as the creative appropriation of already existing public spaces, for new ways of understanding our common interests and laying claim to common resources). It is an interesting variation on other ways that the common has been brought up recently — for example, Commonwealth, or Communism, or the “digital commons.” Where does commoning fit into this broader picture?
Harvey: One of my favorite essays of Marx is from very early on, and is called “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” You kind of approach anything of this kind, the commons, with the notion: what’s it saying, and what are its problems? How can you rescue the concept in such a way that it doesn’t end up in a blind alley? For instance, in that essay [in Rebel Cities], a lot of the things I was reading about the commons — especially in Britain — [contained] a sort of nostalgia for something that never really existed.
The enclosure of the commons is generally seen as a very wicked thing, but actually when you look at it there are certain forms of enclosure that are very good. I see the point politically, that it’s trying to create a world in which we can define and express our common interests and act upon them. But then the common interests of the bourgeoisie aren’t necessarily the ones that we’d like to act upon, so the question of who gets to enclose something becomes rather critical. I’ve visited anarchist communes that have fences around them. There was one in Chile where they had a very strong fence around them because marauders would come and steal everything, otherwise. They had to protect their space. To say that all enclosures are bad is not the way to go. It becomes a political question of how you use the commons and who uses it for what purpose.
Schapira: Someone traced the idea of commoning to Hannah Arendt’s idea of public political action, which is premised on a securing of the public sphere. But you mentioned this nostalgia for a perhaps non-existing idea of the pure commons — as you just said, this idea of the loss of the commons comes up strongly in Occupy and other movements today — which seems to be a Romantic notion. Have figures like Wordsworth or William Morris influenced your understanding of this trend?
Well, early on I went through my Romantic phase and had great affection for these figures. I got immersed in Keats and Shelley, never took to Byron that much, but Wordsworth to some degree. I think there’s a strain of it in Marx; particularly in the early writings you see more of this Romanticist thinking. And it never really goes away. For instance, how can you really talk about notions of alienation without invoking some sense of dispossession and loss, and this search to regain an un-alienated existence? Now there is the big question of whether [such an existence] ever really existed. So if the political project from a Marxist standpoint is to recuperate some kind of un-alienated world of laboring and socializing and so on, then it seems to me that it’s very hard to do that without taking some threads from the Romantics as to what might be possible.
You mentioned humanism, which is very interesting. Everyone seems to be talking about humanism these days. I encountered it five times last week at different meetings and in different situations. I go away for a year and come back and suddenly everyone is talking about humanism, and I wonder, Where the fuck did that come from? What are they thinking, and why is it there? I was actually in a conference where I was supposed to talk about this relationship between China and the human. What would be we talking about if we said “between China and human nature”? What would we be talking about if we said “between China and — invoking Marx’s notion (I guess it’s Kant’s, too) — of species being”?
From Marx’s perspective, human nature is an unfinished project. The big question from Marx’s perspective is: what kind of human nature are we going to try and create, and how do we do that? It’s an evolutionary process. The problem with the concept of humanism is that it assumes that there is some sort of essentialism about what it means to be human. It becomes almost a normative concept towards which we strive, even though we usually fail to achieve it. I can see its function at all these conferences. It was a way of getting around the postmodern fragmentations, the poststructuralist deconstructions, and put in its place some kind of solid aspirational concept. It has a peculiar function, because it becomes essentialist, but you can embed other essentialisms in it. You can say feminism is in humanism, anti-racism is within humanism, to be queer is within humanism. It’s an umbrella concept under which you can merge a lot of the history of identity politics.
In the Right to the City chapter I try to do something different by asking very concrete questions, saying that what kinds of cities we want to make cannot be divorced from what kinds of people we want to be. Therefore, if we see human nature as an unfinished project, then one of the things that we have to think about is, What kinds of cities do we design and redesign? How do we redesign urbanization to achieve a different kind of notion of what it means to be human?
I’m old enough to remember that back in the ’60s the notion of what it meant to be human was radically different than what it is now. We’ve all become neoliberals to some degree. That’s very different from those worlds in which we were supposed to be solidarious with our union brothers and solidarious with some notion of community. We’re all individuals now, racing around provisioning for ourselves, accumulating as much wealth as we possibly can. Adam Smith supposedly tells us that that is a good thing to do, because it is how society grows and benefits. We’ve absorbed all of that.
Backer: I wanted to follow up a bit on the thread of alienation. I sometimes see this idea of alienation conceived of as a failure to be human. I hear people using that concept in that way, such that when we exist in an alienating structural context, what we are being is inhuman. But what’s interesting in this concept of human nature as an unfinished project is that you can ask concrete questions, like what cities we want to make. It doesn’t seem like you are saying that we’re failing to be human in an alienated context. It’s something else. We haven’t created the right project yet.
I would think of it that way. I don’t think of alienation as being alienated from some essentialist conception of what we should be. If we build cities the way we build them right now, we’re going to build a kind of consciousness. My particular bête noir has always been the suburbs. If you build suburbs, you get a suburban political consciousness; you get a suburban human being, with all that goes with it. And, frankly, that’s not the kind of human being that I admire. Now, I’m not going to say that they’re not human; they are very human, in fact. As human beings, we always adapt to our environments in certain ways; adapt our mental conceptions of the world according to the kinds of experiential world in which we exist. It is not inhuman to be that way in the suburbs. But what you have to do is build something completely different so that people end up being human in a completely different way. You can say I’d like to be human in that way, rather than this way. And therefore it’s a class conflict, it’s a cultural conflict, and so on.
Backer: I’ve been wondering about the state of the class struggle, specifically in terms of the influence of credit. How do we draw class lines now in a system of credit, where I can afford things that I can’t afford, or I can afford to buy my way into a class that traditionally I might not have been included in? I find it hard to draw the same lines that I might want to when reading Marx.
I’m not quite sure what you are saying there. You are focusing on consumption. I don’t think you can get at the question of class very easily through consumption. Marx has a very interesting way of putting this. He says that when the worker receives their wage, at that point they cease to be a worker. They become a consumer and buyer. The relationship that they then engage in is that between buyer and seller. He says that basically the worker in the marker has a great deal of freedom of choice, depending of course on how much their wage is and depending also on what their needs and desires happen to be. This gets into the question of whether there is a class of goods called wage goods that are absolute necessities. He says, well, necessities include things like tobacco, so if you started to define class by who smokes and who doesn’t you have a class of smokers and non-smokers, but that wouldn’t tell you anything about the dynamics of capitalism.
At the end of Volume 2 of Capital he says that the capitalist has a problem, because when the workers get out there with money in their pocket the capitalist will be concerned with how they spend their money. They will seek to influence the working class to what he calls “rational consumption,” which is rational from the standpoint of capital accumulation, not necessarily rational from the standpoint of their wants, their needs, their desires. The classic example is Henry Ford creating the equivalent of the Russell Sage Foundation to go in and tell workers how to spend. When he went to the $5, 8-hour day he was very concerned about the fact that the workers would go out and spend all that money on booze and women and all this stuff that wouldn’t be pieces of “rational consumption.” So he sent in all these social workers that told you how to organize your budget to make sure you didn’t spend it on drink and women. There was this incredible concern with rational consumption, which suggests that the worker at the point of consumption can do all kinds of things. And, of course, as soon as you extend credit to the worker, then the worker can do all kinds of things with it, as we saw in the housing bubble. Some people who couldn’t afford housing got a house because there was zero down payment and [they] lived in it basically free of charge — and if they got out in time, some people made out like bandits. And there is nothing in Marx to say that this can’t happen.
Actually, he has some very interesting passages that are very important to me, given my interests in urbanization. When you look at the capitalist class as a whole, and the question of where surplus value is produced and where it is realized, these are two different questions. This comes up in Rebel Cities. It may be produced in production, but the producer may not get much of it because they have to pay very high wages to the worker, and then the worker goes out and gets robbed by the landlords, the shopkeepers, and particularly by the credit merchants and the usurers. The capitalist class can be getting filthy rich, but it is mainly realized by getting all of its surplus value through rent and these other areas. This is one of the problems I have with all these people who try and study the falling rate of profit by measuring the profit rate of what’s going on in production. What I’m saying is that doesn’t tell you what surplus value is being produced at all, because you only know that when it’s realized, and it’s mainly realized somewhere else in the circulation process. Marx talks about that in Volume 3 and says that it is very extensive, particularly in Britain and the United States. This is a classic way that the bourgeoisie recaptures what it has yielded in the wage bargain. Since the 1970s, that is particularly what it has been doing — recapturing it through all these other secondary forms, which Marxists by and large don’t look at very carefully. One of the things that I try and do with Marx is say that you have to start looking at these other forms of where the surplus is realized.
Schapira: Has moving to New York helped you move along those lines, given the scarcity of land here, centralization of profit, and the history of the bankrupting of the city in the 1970s and the reorganization that followed?
I was always interested in that, but I could also see this kind of thing in Second Empire Paris, and also I saw it big time when I was involved in the rent control movement in Baltimore in the 1970s. You could see clearly how these appropriations were occurring in the city. It was the transition of the inner city of Baltimore into the territory of The Wire. But it becomes particularly obvious in Manhattan, where the rate of recuperation of the surplus through rent and property markets is just huge.
Schapira: That is certainly spilling over the bridge into Brooklyn, now. I’m not sure where Crown Heights is meant to be located, because Prospect Heights keeps pushing further and further to where it’s going to end up in the ocean at some point.
Exactly, this is a very important part of capital accumulation. Because Marx and the left were largely concentrating on factories and factory employment a lot of this stuff has not been looked at. But there is some data now that a group of people have been working on, from about 16th and the 17th century onward, and what it tends to show is that the British bourgeoisie got far more money out of land speculation than they ever got out of the Manchester factories. You can see that in terms of class configuration, because the aristocracy became the center of finance capital. So it was all the aristocrats that really formed the city of London. And they could form the city because of the wealth that they were getting out of the rents. There was this alliance between rent seeking on the one hand and finance capital on the other hand. And Marx actually mentions that, in a chapter on primitive accumulation where he talks about the formation of a “bankocracy” through landed wealth becoming converted into finance and forming that nexus.
Even in my youth, at Cambridge, this was visible. Were the wealthy people the kids of industrialists? No, they were the kids of landed families, finance, and city of London kind of stuff. That is where the real wealth was all along. You can look at something similar in New York, but this goes on globally. Many of the billionaires that have erupted in China made their money in property development, and now they are some of the richest people in the world.
Schapira: You talk about the odd political subject that gets developed in the suburban context. But I’ve been thinking about Britain and austerity, and the kind of subject and city that austerity produces. You’ve seen spasms against austerity measures in London and across Europe. In Britain it took the form of destruction of property, so a reaction was visible in the urban fabric itself. I’m wondering about the kind of political subject that austerity is meant to produce, and what hope you see in the resistances to it.
Well, to the second part, spontaneous outbreaks of rage — which I think are certainly understandable — I don’t think are helpful. I think that what differentiated, say, Occupy Wall Street from the London riots and the French riots is that Occupy Wall Street had an agenda of sorts and stuck with it. The permanence of it was very significant, and it did change the conversation, so that in this country there is now a significant conversation unfolding about questions of social inequality, which wasn’t there before.
But there is a question of the relationship between austerity politics and social inequality. Why is it that austerity politics actually deepen social inequality? And is austerity politics part of a class project that aims precisely to do that? In other words, is austerity a way of securing even more privileges and wealth for the very upper classes? And there is a lot of evidence in this country that the wealthy, by and large, survived the recession very well and have come out for the most part in an even stronger position than before. In a sense, what has been a sort of daylight robbery of much of the rest of the population has come through a process that I’ve called “accumulation by dispossession.” The accumulation of wealth in the upper classes has taken this particular trajectory, that needs to be addressed. The Democratic Party is playing a little bit out on the fringes on social inequality, but it’s not going too far.
Schapira: I don’t know if you’ve been reading about Quebec and the student protests there. The government is asking for a seemingly insignificant increase in tuition, if you look at things relative to the other Canadian provinces and the U.S., but the students are really drawing a line in the sand, saying that the government is trying to privatize this public good and offload their deficits onto individuals. They’ve been on strike for over six weeks now.
In Chile, some were on strike for a whole year. I was over there; it was kind of fantastic actually. There are things going on there that are not going on elsewhere, and the Chilean students movement was just phenomenal. Camilla Vallejo is a geographer actually, so I had a chance to meet her. They seem not to have some of the hang-ups that David Graeber and I were talking about . . . where everything has to be horizontal, which sometimes gets fetishized. I’ve been critical of what I call a fetishization of organizational form that exists in some areas of the Left. David Graeber’s position was that he believes in horizontality, but as a movement develops you almost invariably end up with some sort of nested hierarchy of configurations. But his line is basically that these should only be within structures of legitimate forms of authority. And as soon as a mass of the people considers the forms to be illegitimate then they have to be removed, so there is a kind of fluidity as opposed to fixity of a structure.
The question of organizational forms is very interesting. In Chile I was very impressed with it. It’s not that they don’t have divisions. The main division seems to be between people who really believe in street action and street violence and those who believe in a more Gandhian non-violent kind of thing. Of course the suspicion always is that those who are perusing violence are the provocateurs rather than the real participants. And I think that problem of infiltration and provacateurism is a real one . . . I’m sure the Occupy movement is now highly infiltrated by police informants.
Schapira: There is a call for a general strike on May 1st — at least in New York City. What do you think of taking up these forms of dissent and protest from the past? Occupation was very much in the political imagination of the 1960s, but it has come back into our discourse with new force as a protest tactic. Do you see this reiteration of old tactics as a productive way to move forward, or do you think some sort of innovation needs to occur?
I think some innovations need to occur. One of the things that David and I agreed on . . . was that we often formulate our organizational strategies in terms which are drawn from some past series of events. The anti-globalization movement was in large part informed by autonomista thinking, which came from Italy in the 1970s. We’re in danger right now of again appealing backwards to old forms.
I personally think that the call for a general strike was a mistake. It has a history, it has a meaning. First off, I don’t think it’s possible to have a general strike right now in the way you might have done in the 1920s and the days of the mass strike. If you are going to call for it, you better make sure it really happens. I think that they should have called it a day or action or something of that kind, and in effect that is what they are doing. Instead of saying that people shouldn’t show up for work, they are saying that you do something different. I think there is a recognition among some of the Occupy people that I’ve talked to that it was not the best strategy, but they can’t just call the strike off.
Schapira: They’ve already printed up the posters.
They’ve printed up the posters, they’ve got the rhetoric, and all of that. But I think if you read the fine print, it is “do whatever you can, there are all these different actions all over the place, let’s create as many possible points of activism and visibility that we can, and see what happens.”
I think the other question is what is going to happen after. I don’t think anybody really quite knows.
Backer: I’ve also been thinking about what happens after, given the kind of charged feelings that come from confrontations at places like Zuccotti Park. I wonder if this tension would be less present if a wider phenomenon were to occur.
One of the examples that I’ve found historically very important is the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. They really changed the course of Argentinian history. They went out there and just walked around. They got harassed by police, but they came back every week and they walked around. The authorities at some point couldn’t figure out what to do. They would pick people up and arrest them sometimes, but some of these people were grandmothers, so this wasn’t looking very well, with all these photos in the press.
I wonder whether Occupy might not think of something of that sort. If you are not allowed to have backpacks in Zuccotti Park, okay. Go down there without backpacks. Do they have a dress code there that says you can’t wear a certain kind of t-shirt? Are they going to do something like that? So suddenly if, I don’t know, every Thursday at 5:00 a few hundred people appear wearing t-shirts of some kind wander into the park and just walk around. It could be a silent kind of protest. What kind of world would we be in if people just wearing a t-shirt couldn’t do this? You press the legitimacy — this is the point about the legitimacy of authority. You press authority to behave in such a way that it loses its legitimacy entirely. The legitimacy of government in this country is at a pretty low point already. I think some tactics like that would be interesting. It seems to me that there are intermediate things between camping overnight and occupying a space for a long time.
Schapira: Michel Foucault writes at one point about the specific intellectual vs. the general intellectual. He says that Sartre is an example of the general intellectual, who speaks for the Left on all sorts of matters. Specific intellectuals, on the other hand, work and intervene within a more bounded context. If you are an expert in housing, for example, you participate in housing debates. Foucault talks about two dangers that arise for the specific intellectual. One is that you can be swallowed up or manipulated by a bigger group, like a political party. The other is the problem that you have raised, which is not finding a big enough audience or not making your strategy general enough to link up with other movements. I don’t know if this came up in your talk with David Graeber, but I’m wondering how you might see yourself as an intellectual in relation to a movement like Occupy. Are you specific in the way that you intervene?
Well, I don’t really see myself in this sense, because I don’t really think about my role as an intellectual. It’s just that certain things crop up. I am specifically interested in urbanization, but even though that sounds specific, it’s actually quite general.
Schapira: Is there a way that people tend to approach you, or specific things that they ask of you, whether it’s just to come speak to a group or whether it’s more concrete advice that they are asking for?
It varies a lot. I often talk to architects, and obviously in that case you get to talking about space and spatial organization. I’ve talked at law schools, and they are more interested in questions of how to articulate the right to the city, or something of that kind. Is there a legal aspect to it, and if so what might it be? How does that actually impinge upon the general question of the rights of the homeless, or housing rights, or if housing is a human right? If it were a group like that, then clearly they would want me to orient what I’m saying to their specific interests.
But, by and large, I would say that they know their specific interests better than I do, and if anything, what they are trying to do is to locate their specific interests in a more general picture. I suspect that what they are looking for is more for me to help generalize what they are doing into a broader understanding of how the world is working, how capitalism works. If you can explain how capitalism works in relation to, for instance, housing provisionment, or capital accumulation through housing markets, then the general theory becomes more comprehensible for people working in those fields. The general theory can illuminate something about what they are doing that maybe they hadn’t thought about before.
Schapira: One thing that has always bothered me is that when people are discussing your work they always go out of their way to say how clear it is, and how there is an analytic coolness to it. I always took this to be an implicit critique of a lot of leftist thinking and leftist social theory — that it has this obscurantist strain in it. Do you accept that critique, and is it in your mind when you are going about your work?
I don’t like a lot of the obscurantism that exists on the left. Part of my personal project over the last 10-15 years has been to make Marx much more comprehensible, which I’ve been trying to do with the online lectures and the companion to Volume 1 of Capital. I’m just finishing up a companion to Volume 2. I think a lot of people, when they are dealing with Marx, make him more complicated than he already is, and I don’t think that’s helpful at all. So part of my concern is to try to write as clearly as I can. I had this joking relationship with the publisher who did Enigma of Capital who said, “If you write in a way that is very obscure, then you will create a vast industry of graduate students who are trying to figure out what the fuck you were trying to say.” There are journals of Foucault Studies and Derrida Studies, but I hope that there won’t have to be journals of Harvey Studies, because hopefully readers can understand what I’m trying to talk about.
But that comes back to a general issue. The defense of Marx was very much located in the academy. And in the academy you have to show your paces, and there is a certain pressure to sound deeply intelligent. Therefore keeping Marx Studies alive — if you want to call it that — became very academist and affected by these sorts of things. But I think it did keep it alive. So the obscurantism came out of that and I understand it historically very much in those terms. To some degree I was caught up in that in the 1970s and 1980s.
Those of us who understand this literature have a political obligation right now to write things that are as clear as possible, without glossing over ideas and without patronizing by making it too simplistic. This is a difficult balance to strike. In the new book I get into some fairly complicated aspects of Marxist theory, about fictitious capital for example. I think this is a very interesting category, so I want to launch it out there so that people can think about it. But in doing that I realize people might say that this is hard going. It seems to me that there is some way in which it is very necessary in writing to try to challenge people to explore new concepts and new ideas and things that they haven’t really looked at before. At the same time you can’t be so into that that the work becomes downright incomprehensible. It’s a difficult line to have, but I’ve been vey conscious of it over the past 10-15 years. Now, it doesn’t always succeed; sometimes it goes too much this way and sometimes it goes too much that way.
I don’t think there are many people writing in the Marxist mode these days who try to do it. I think that this means that Marx’s thinking and Marx’s analysis and general framework is nowhere near as widely appreciated and understood as it should be, because we have not succeeded in doing that. I’ve been very happy in the response to the Marx lectures. I got an email from somebody who is 70 years old the other day saying “I always wanted to read Capital, but nobody ever helped me, and I’ve finally done it and it was such a good experience.” You realize that there is a potential audience out there who are interested in this, which is extremely rewarding.