I have long been a big fan of Saskia Sassen’s work. You can read my review of her latest book, Expulsions, here. Sassen gave us the concept of the global city, a place where global flows congregate and clash (as is reflected in the toon above), where the extreme power of the processes of global capitalism encounter the expelled elements of it.
It is also in Sassen’s sociology that one can read about how the nation-states have not disappeared under global conditions, but have reconfigured themselves as part of global assemblages that contribute to global processes, and do indeed process global mechanisms at the national level. The very concept of assemblage is one that is important in Sassen’s work as it brings together elements that are usually conceptualized separately. Again, it is something demonstrated in an accessible manner in Expulsions. I cannot recommend that book enough as, I think it is a highly readable entry point into Sassen’s work. Then, one can work one’s way into more complex work.
It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).
My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.
The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:
“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?
Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?
To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)
At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.
“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.
China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.
These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).
But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)
This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.
Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:
“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.
Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)
Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:
“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)
It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.
Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:
“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.
The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.
All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.
In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)
As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.
This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.
In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.
I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:
[This is a third repost of what I wrote about David Harvey’s important book, Rebel Cities.]
In chapter 5 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on the role of the cities in the anti-capitalist struggle. This is not new:
“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?
The history of urban-based class struggles is stunning. The successive revolutionary movements in Paris from 1789 through 1830 and 1848 to the Commune of 1871 constitute the most obvious nineteenth-century example. Later events included the Petrograd Soviet, the Shanghai Communes of 1927 and 1967, the Seattle General Strike of 1919, the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the uprising in Córdoba in 1969, and the more general urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s, the urban-based movements of 1968 (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City, Bangkok, and others including the so-called “Prague Spring,” and the rise of neighborhood associations in Madrid that fronted the anti-Franco movement in Spain around the same time). And in more recent times we have witnessed echoes of these older struggles in the Seattle anti-globalization protests of 1999 (followed by similar protests in Quebec City, Genoa, and many other cities as part of a widespread alternative globalization movement). Most recently we have seen mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Plazas del Sol in Madrid and Catalunya in Barcelona, and in Syntagma Square in Athens, as well as revolutionary movements and rebellions in Oaxaca in Mexico, in Cochabamba (2000 and 2007) and El Alto (2003 and 2005) in Bolivia, along with very different but equally important political eruptions in Buenos Aires in 2001–02, and in Santiago in Chile (2006 and 2011).” (115 – 6)
So, the city is where the battle lines are being drawn in the 21st century. The powers that be know this and they are taking population control into account in urban planning, pretty much the same way that Haussmann designed the Parisian “grands boulevards” to facilitate cavalry charges and make building barricades more difficult. The city is now a site of global political control but also of potential anti-systemic social movements that can disrupt urban economic activities.
However, Harvey argues that the centrality of the city has been relatively ignored on the left as it privileged a social class / industrial proletarian view rather than a specifically urban analysis. And this perspective has not led to massive success:
“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.” (121)
The alternative then turned out to be taking control of the state… not much success here either:
“The rather dismal historical experience of centrally planned Stalinism and communism as it was actually practiced, and the ultimate failure of social-democratic reformism and protectionism to resist the growing power of capital to control the state and to dictate its policies, has led much of the contemporary left to conclude either that the “smashing of the state” is a necessary precursor to revolutionary transformation or that organizing production autonomously from within the state is the only viable path towards revolutionary change. The burden of politics thus shifts back to some form of worker, community, or localized control. The assumption is that the oppressive power of the state can be “withered away” as oppositional movements of various sorts—factory occupations, solidarity economies, collective autonomous movements, agrarian cooperatives, and the like—gather momentum within civil society. This amounts to what one might call a “termite theory” of revolutionary change: eating away at the institutional and material supports of capital until they collapse. This is not a dismissive term. Termites can inflict terrible damage, often hidden from easy detection. The problem is not lack of potential effectiveness; it is that, as soon as the damage wrought becomes too obvious and threatening, then capital is both able and all too willing to call in the exterminators (state powers) to deal with it.” (123 – 4)
The problem, for Harvey is what he calls the left’s fetishism of organizational forms and right now, it is the horizontal, non-hierarchical organizational form that seems to be popular with the Occupy movement, for instance , as opposed to previous infatuation with communes or various local forms of collectivities.
So, what alternative does Harvey proposes? For him, these alternatives must have some core bases:
How to reduce the massive impoverishment of the world and give most a chance to develop their potentials, human capacities and creative powers. And there are no two ways around poverty reduction: anti-poverty also means anti-wealth politics. Obscene global stratification has to be confronted head on.
How to reduce environmental degradation.
How to abolish the power of the capitalist law of value to regulate the world market.
So, is there a specifically urban anti-capitalist movement capable of addressing all three dimensions? After all, dynamics of exploitation are not limited to the factories and the cities can be seen as centers of accumulation by dispossession.
“These secondary forms of exploitation are primarily organized by merchants, landlords, and the financiers; and their effects are primarily felt in the living space, not in the factory. These forms of exploitation are and always have been vital to the overall dynamics of capital accumulation and the perpetuation of class power. Wage concessions to workers can, for example, be stolen back and recuperated for the capitalist class as a whole by merchant capitalists and landlords and, in contemporary conditions, even more viciously by the credit-mongers, the bankers, and the financiers. Practices of accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and profit-gouging, lie at the heart of many of the discontents that attach to the qualities of daily life for the mass of the population. Urban social movements typically mobilize around such questions, and they derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is organized around living as well as around working. Urban social movements therefore always have a class content even when they are primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails of social reproduction.” (128)
In other words, the city, not the factory, is the locus of surplus value production across a variety of actors beyond the factory worker. For Harvey, we need to change how we defined the working class as well as how we organize it.
The city is also central because that is where the wealthy are vulnerable:
“It is in fact in the cities that the wealthy classes are most vulnerable, not necessarily as persons but in terms of the value of the assets they control. It is for this reason that the capitalist state is gearing up for militarized urban struggles as the front line of class struggle in years to come.
Consider the flows not only of food and other consumer goods, but also of energy, water, and other necessities, and their vulnerabilities to disruption too.
Organizing the neighborhoods has been just as important in prosecuting labor struggles, as has organizing the workplace. One of the strengths of the factory occupations in Argentina that followed on the collapse of 2001 is that the cooperatively managed factories also turned themselves into neighborhood cultural and educational centers. They built bridges between the community and the workplace.
To the degree that conventional workplaces are disappearing in many parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world (though not, of course, in China or Bangladesh), organizing around not only work but also around conditions in the living space, while building bridges between the two, becomes even more crucial.
As the lens is widened on the social milieu in which struggle is occurring, the sense of who the proletariat might be and what their aspirations and organizational strategies might be is transformed. The gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when relations outside of the conventional factory (in both workplaces and living spaces) are brought firmly into the picture.” (131 – 2)
They key question, then, for Harvey, is how one organizes a city. This gets us back to the initial question of the right to the city as basic social demand and central organizing slogan. Why?
“The right to the city is not an exclusive individual right, but a focused collective right. It is inclusive not only of construction workers but also of all those who facilitate the reproduction of daily life: the caregivers and teachers, the sewer and subway repair men, the plumbers and electricians, the scaffold erectors and crane operators, the hospital workers and the truck, bus, and taxi drivers, the restaurant workers and the entertainers, the bank clerks and the city administrators. It seeks a unity from within an incredible diversity of fragmented social spaces and locations within innumerable divisions of labor. And there are many putative forms of organization.” (136 – 7)
And we already have a few examples of how one organizes a city through the case of the water wars in Cochabamba and El Alto in Bolivia.
Is this the future?
“Imagine in New York City, for example, the revival of the now largely somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization. What the story of El Alto suggests is that such a coalition will work only if the forces of culture and of a politically radical tradition (which most certainly exists in New York, as it also does in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) can be mobilized in such a way as to animate citizen-subjects (however fractious, as indeed is always the case in New York) behind a radically different project of urbanization to that dominated by the class interests of developers and financiers.” (150)
This is the second one of my re-post on David Harvey’s Rebel Cities.
In chapter 4 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on what he takes to be the essence of capitalism: the establishment of monopoly rent.
“All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners over certain assets. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. ” (90)
There are two types of situation where monopoly rent arises: (1) when one exclusively controls some special quality resource, commodity, or location and can therefore extract rent from others. If you are the only one who has a specific Picasso, you can charge people to take a look at it. The same goes if you have a London apartment with an exclusive view over a great Olympic location. Uniqueness is key here long with particularity and tradability. But one has to be careful that one’s product or location or resource is too unique so as to lose tradability. At the same time, using marketing and advertising to increase tradability might reduce uniqueness. So, tradability must never turn into commodification, which involves homogeneity and mass consumption.
On the other hand, marketing and advertising may be used to generate a false sense of uniqueness for mass produced goods and define them as particular enough that monopoly rent can be extracted out of them.
But there is a contradiction here:
“Why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated, let alone seen as desirable?
The fiercer the competition, the faster the trend towards oligopoly, if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years have produced incredible centralization of capital.
This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing, and hence stabilize their business environment to allow for rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence.
Market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production, including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of some crucial asset, such as land or a patent. The monopoly power of private property is therefore both the beginning-point and the end-point of all capitalist activity.
Pure market competition, free commodity exchange, and perfect market rationality are therefore rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions.” (92-4)
However, for Harvey, the left often makes the mistake of associating monopoly rent with large corporations. If location can be a source of monopoly rent, then, small business may very well have a local monopoly out of which they extract rent. Such a monopoly then would be challenged by the opening of the local market to foreign corporations. Here again, the nostalgia for the local, rooted, small business is misplaced.
“In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker, and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure, small-scale nineteenth-century capitalism was far less competitive than now. It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for “the annihilation of space through time,” many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.” (94)
No doubt though, that these locally-based monopolies were the big losers of globalization (as annihilation of time and space). One can then see the concentration of capital and the political neoliberal push for liberalization at the heart of global governance as the current means to regain the means of monopoly rents on a different scale. Another attempt to recompose monopoly privileges may be over culture by adding originality and authenticity in the definition of what can provide monopoly rent. Arts and culture would fall into that category. Harvey goes at some length over the struggle in the field of wine between French and Australian producers over what makes a wine more authentic and unique than other products. As capitalists look for other way to recreate monopoly powers, they will also create discursive constructs to highlight authenticity and exclusivity (“appellation d’origine contrôlée” in the case of wine, references to “terroir”, etc.).
It is in this context that traditions may be reinvented (as traditions are always invented in the first place) in urban locales, with neighborhood renovation to attract tourists in search of authenticity:
“The most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization.” (99)
Although that is a fine line to walk as one might want tourists from all over the world to come experience urban local tradition and culture. Sometimes, it might even mean paying tours of slums as happened after the worldwide success of the movie City of God. One could even choose the level of danger to be exposed to. I suspect the success of Slumdog Millionaire might have had a similar effect.
“Urban entrepreneurialism has become important both nationally and internationally in recent decades. By this I mean that pattern of behavior within urban governance that mixes together state powers (local, metropolitan, regional, national, or supranational) with a wide array of organizational forms in civil society (chambers of commerce, unions, churches, educational and research institutions, community groups, NGOs, and so on) and private interests (corporate and individual) to form coalitions to promote or manage urban or regional development of one sort or another.” (100)
In this case, these different actors all look to generate what Harvey calls collective symbolic capital (using Bourdieu’s concept but extending it beyond individuals):
“The collective symbolic capital which attaches to names and places like Paris, Athens, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Rome is of great import and gives such places great economic advantages relative to, say, Baltimore, Liverpool, Essen, Lille, and Glasgow. The problem for these latter places is to raise their quotient of symbolic capital and to increase their marks of distinction so as to better ground their claims to the uniqueness that yields monopoly rent. The “branding” of cities becomes big business.16 Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents. How else can we explain the splash made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its signature Gehry architecture? And how else can we explain the willingness of major financial institutions, with considerable international interests, to finance such a signature project?
The rise to prominence of Barcelona within the European system of cities, to take another example, has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulation of marks of distinction.” (103 – 4)
But Harvey considers that there is, in this process, space for contestation of the logic of capitalism:
“The struggle is on to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world. But this brings in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized. Neighborhood movements in Barcelona make claims for recognition and empowerment on the basis of symbolic capital, and can assert a political presence in the city as a result. It is their urban commons that are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade. But the selective nature of such appropriations can mobilize further new avenues of political struggle.” (105)
But there is also the potential for reactionary nationalism which is equally anti-globalization as some localist movements can be. The risk then is for communities to advocate turning inwards and retreat into imaginary nostalgia and advocate exclusionary politics (see all these movements at work in Europe right now). At the same time, the branding of a city, as that’s what it is, might require the exclusion and evacuation of any category of people that does not fit with the new local environment (see the cleaning up of the slums in Rio in anticipation of the Olympic Games, or as was done in Beijing, the muzzling of political opponents during the same events, and London might not have enough security forces to ensure perfect conformity with the branding). And in all cases, all actors have to navigate the double risk of too much commercialization or too much specificity that is no longer tradable. But for Harvey, this is where there is a weapon for class struggle (which can swing both ways).
“But monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive local initiatives—indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production. And if capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents (and there are many circumstances where it has done just that and been roundly condemned for so doing), then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning. It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices precisely because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.
It is within such spaces that oppositional movements can form, even presupposing, as is often the case, that oppositional movements are not already firmly entrenched there. 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. In so doing, capital often produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments for the economic benefit of others, in much the same way that whole populations can resent having their histories and cultures exploited through commodification. The problem for oppositional movements is to speak to this widespread appropriation of their cultural commons and to use the validation of particularity, uniqueness, authenticity, culture, and aesthetic meanings in ways that open up new possibilities and alternatives.” (109 – 10)
But again, the warning against local, traditionalist fetishism:
“This does not mean that attachment to “pure” values of authenticity, originality, and an aesthetic of particularity of culture is an adequate foundation for a progressive oppositional politics. It can all too easily veer into local, regional, or nationalist identity politics of the neofascist sort, of which there are already far too many troubling signs throughout much of Europe, as well as elsewhere.” (111)
So, it is important to never forget that a great deal of what capitalists do is to look for ways to recompose monopoly privileges out of which they can extract monopoly rents. There is a lot that makes sense right now if one keeps this basic principle in mind.
Or, as Lambert Strether would say, “it’s all about the rents.”
Since I mentioned David Harvey, I thought I’d repost some of the stuff I wrote when I reviewed his now-obviously relevant book.
In chapter 3 of Rebel Cities, David Harvey discusses the commons in the context of the right to the city for marginalized populations. In the process, he challenges the left for its fetishism of the local (a pet peeve of mine) and the horizontal (the deliberate absence of hierarchy, much cherished, for instance, by the Occupy movement) as he reviews Elinor Ostrom‘s arguments on the tragedy of the commons.
“The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life. The commonality of that life has long been a matter of commentary by urbanists of all stripes, and the compelling subject of a wide range of evocative writings and representations (in novels, films, painting, videos, and the like) that attempt to pin down the character of that life (or the particular character of life in a particular city in a given place and time) and its deeper meanings. And in the long history of urban utopianism, we have a record of all manner of human aspirations to make the city in a different image, more “after our heart’s desire” as Park would put it. The recent revival of emphasis upon the supposed loss of urban commonalities reflects the seemingly profound impacts of the recent wave of privatizations, enclosures, spatial controls, policing, and surveillance upon the qualities of urban life in general, and in particular upon the potentiality to build or inhibit new forms of social relations (a new commons) within an urban process influenced if not dominated by capitalist class interests.” (67)
For instance, as she debunks arguments in favor of privatization and enclosure as a response to the tragedy of the commons (the orthodox view), the counter-examples she uses always involve relatively small-scale solutions and projects. How does one scale the argument for megalopolis? For Harvey, no one has provided adequate arguments for this:
“This implies that nested, and therefore in some sense “hierarchical” forms of organization are needed to address large-scale problems such as global warming. Unfortunately the term “hierarchy” is anathema in conventional thinking (Ostrom avoids it), and virulently unpopular with much of the left these days. The only politically correct form of organization in many radical circles is non-state, non-hierarchical, and horizontal. To avoid the implication that some sorts of nested hierarchical arrangements might be necessary, the question of how to manage the commons at large as opposed to small and local scales (for example, the global population problem that was Hardin’s concern) tends to be evaded. There is, clearly, an analytically difficult “scale problem” at work here that needs (but does not receive) careful evaluation. The possibilities for sensible management of common property resources that exist at one scale (such as shared water rights between one hundred farmers in a small river basin) do not and cannot carry over to problems such as global warming, or even to the regional diffusion of acid deposition from power stations. As we “jump scales” (as geographers like to put it), so the whole nature of the commons problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically. What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, patently good solutions at one scale (the “local,” say) do not necessarily aggregate up (or cascade down) to make for good solutions at another scale (the global, for example). This is why Hardin’s metaphor is so misleading: he uses a small-scale example of private capital operating on a common pasture to explicate a global problem, as if there is no problem whatsoever in shifting scales. This is also, incidentally, why the valuable lessons gained from the collective organization of small-scale solidarity economies along common-property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to “nested” and therefore hierarchical organizational forms. Unfortunately, as already noted, the idea of hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days. A fetishism of organizational preference (pure horizontality, for example) all too often stands in the way of exploring appropriate and effective solutions. Just to be clear, I am not saying horizontality is bad—indeed, I think it an excellent objective—but that we should acknowledge its limits as a hegemonic organizational principle, and be prepared to go far beyond it when necessary.
In the grander scheme of things (and particularly at the global level), some sort of enclosure is often the best way to preserve certain kinds of valued commons. That sounds like, and is, a contradictory statement, but it reflects a truly contradictory situation. It will take a draconian act of enclosure in Amazonia, for example, to protect both biodiversity and the cultures of indigenous populations as part of our global natural and cultural commons. It will almost certainly require state authority to protect those commons against the philistine democracy of short-term moneyed interests ravaging the land with soy bean plantations and cattle ranching. So not all forms of enclosure can be dismissed as bad by definition. The production and enclosure of non-commodified spaces in a ruthlessly commodifying world is surely a good thing.
The idea of protecting the commons through enclosures is not always easily broached, however, when it needs to be actively explored as an anti-capitalist strategy. In fact a common demand on the left for “local autonomy” is actually a demand for some kind of enclosure.” (68 – 70)
Part of the issue, for Harvey, also has to do with a conceptual confusion between public goods / public spaces on the one hand and commons on the other.
“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. Throughout the history of urbanization, the provision of public spaces and public goods (such as sanitation, public health, education, and the like) by either public or private means has been crucial for capitalist development. To the degree that cities have been sites of vigorous class conflicts and struggles, so urban administrations have often been forced to supply public goods (such as affordable public housing, health care, education, paved streets, sanitation, and water) to an urbanized working class.
Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona were public spaces that became an urban commons as people assembled there to express their political views and make demands. The street is a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression. There is always a struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests. The struggle to appropriate the public spaces and public goods in the city for a common purpose is ongoing. But in order to protect the common it is often vital to protect the flow of public goods that underpin the qualities of the common. As neoliberal politics diminishes the financing of public goods, so it diminishes the available common, forcing social groups to find other ways to support that common (education, for example).
The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood.” (72 – 3)
The process of “commoning” (as Harvey puts it) then consists in the extraction of this relation from market mechanisms and valuation. But as it stands, commons are constantly being enclosed and reintegrated with markets, commodified and monetized by private interests.
How does this relate to the right to the city?
“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. This reminds us that the real problem lies with the private character of property rights and the power these rights confer to appropriate not only the labor but also the collective products of others. Put another way, the problem is not the common per se, but the relations between those who produce or capture it at a variety of scales and those who appropriate it for private gain. Much of the corruption that attaches to urban politics relates to how public investments are allocated to produce something that looks like a common but which promotes gains in private asset values for privileged property owners. The distinction between urban public goods and urban commons is both fluid and dangerously porous. How often are developmental projects subsidized by the state in the name of the common interest when the true beneficiaries are a few landholders, financiers, and developers?” (78)
By definition, capitalist urbanization destroys the commons by raiding and appropriating them through predatory practices.
And again, for Harvey, the problem is that the left only offer local fetishism as alternative.
“Traditionally, questions of the commons at the metropolitan level have been handled through mechanisms of state regional and urban planning, in recognition of the fact that the common resources required for urban populations to function effectively, such as water provision, transportation, sewage disposal, and open space for recreation, have to be provided at a metropolitan, regional scale. But when it comes to bundling together issues of this kind, left-analysis typically becomes vague, gesturing hopefully towards some magical concordance of local actions that will be effective at a regional or global level, or simply noting this as an important problem before moving back to that scale—usually the micro and the local—at which they feel most comfortable.” (80)
Why is this problematic?
“Decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through neoliberalization. Thus, in New York State, the unequal provision of public education services across jurisdictions with radically different financial resources has been deemed by the courts as unconstitutional, and the state is under court order to move towards greater equalization of educational provision. It has failed to do so, and now uses the fiscal emergency as a further excuse to delay action. But note well, it is the higher-order and hierarchically determined mandate of the state courts that is crucial in mandating greater equality of treatment as a constitutional right.
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. Much of the radical left—particularly of an anarchist and autonomist persuasion—has no answer to this problem. State interventions (to say nothing of state enforcement and policing) are unacceptable, and the legitimacy of bourgeois constitutionality is generally denied. Instead there is the vague and naïve hope that social groups who have organized their relations to their local commons satisfactorily will do the right thing or converge upon some satisfactory inter-group practices through negotiation and interaction. For this to occur, local groups would have to be untroubled by any externality effects that their actions might have on the rest of the world, and to give up accrued advantages, democratically distributed within the social group, in order to rescue or supplement the well-being of near (let alone distant) others, who as a result of either bad decisions or misfortune have fallen into a state of starvation and misery. History provides us with very little evidence that such redistributions can work on anything other than an occasional or one-off basis. There is, therefore, nothing whatsoever to prevent escalating social inequalities between communities. This accords all too well with the neoliberal project of not only protecting but further privileging structures of class power.” (83 – 4)
There is urgency though, for Harvey, in the process of commoning and in finding solutions to the scale problem because of the culmination of thirty years of neoliberal assault that resulted in a crisis that is triggering more raiding and dispossession.
“Capital has long preferred to treat the costs of social reproduction as an externality—a cost for which it bears no market responsibility—but the social-democratic movement and the active threat of a communist alternative forced capital to internalize some of those costs, along with some of the externality costs attributable to environmental degradation, up until the 1970s in the advanced capitalist world. The aim of neoliberal policies since 1980 or so has been to dump these costs into the global commons of social reproduction and the environment, creating, as it were, a negative commons in which whole populations are forced now to dwell. Questions of social reproduction, gender, and the commons are interlinked.
The response on the part of capital to the global crisis conditions after 2007 has been to implement a draconian global austerity plan that diminishes the supply of public goods to support both social reproduction and environmental amelioration, thereby diminishing the qualities of the commons in both instances. It has also used the crisis to facilitate even more predatory activity in the private appropriation of the commons as a necessary precondition for the revival of growth.
From California to Greece, the crisis produced losses in urban asset values, rights, and entitlements for the mass of the population, coupled with the extension of predatory capitalist power over low-income and hitherto marginalized populations. It was, in short, a wholesale attack upon the reproductive and environmental commons. Living on less than $2 a day, a global population of more than 2 billion or so is now being taken in by microfinance as the “subprime of all subprime forms of lending,” so as to extract wealth from them (as happened in US housing markets through sub-prime predatory lending followed by foreclosures) to gild the MacMansions of the rich. The environmental commons are no less threatened, while the proposed answers (such as carbon trading and new environmental technologies) merely propose that we seek to exit the impasse using the same tools of capital accumulation and speculative market exchange that got us into the difficulties in the first place. It is unsurprising, therefore, not only that the poor are still with us, but that their numbers grow rather than diminish over time. While India has been racking up a respectable record of growth throughout this crisis, for example, the number of billionaires has leapt from 26 to 69 in the last three years, while the number of slum-dwellers has nearly doubled over the last decade. The urban impacts are quite stunning, as luxurious air-conditioned condominiums arise in the midst of uncared-for urban squalor, out of which impoverished people struggle mightily to make some sort of acceptable existence for themselves.” (84 – 5)
So, the solutions are going to have to be hierarchical to some extent and avoid the local fetishism I have been railing against before, whether it is called localism, local democracy or resilient communities (which looks often like right-wing survivalism to me).
For Harvey, time for new commons.
“The political recognition that the commons can be produced, protected, and used for social benefit becomes a framework for resisting capitalist power and rethinking the politics of an anti-capitalist transition.” (86)
What has been happening (and is still happening) in Stockholm and Istanbul perfectly illustrates what two major sociologists have been writing about for quite some time.
There is Manuel Castells, of course, whose latest book I reviewed a few days ago and in which he analyzes in details the various social movements that we have witnessed around the world over the past few years. One of the things that Castells emphasizes is the starting points of such movement: social injustice, crisis of legitimacy, and anger.
“You probably haven’t seen much about it in the papers, but for the past week Sweden has been racked by rioting. The violence began in a suburb of Stockholm, Husby, and spread around the capital’s edge before other cities went up in flames. Police have been pelted with stones; neighbourhoods have turned into no-go areas, even for ambulances. Such prolonged unrest is remarkable for Stockholm, as those few reporters sent to cover it have observed. Naturally enough, each article has wound up asking: why here?
The first thing to observe about Sweden is how rapidly a gulf is opening up between rich and poor. Between 1985 and the late 2000s, according to the OECD thinktank, Sweden saw the biggest growth in inequality of all the 31 most industrialised countries. It’s important not to overstate this: the country remains one of the most egalitarian in the world – but it is taking big steps in the wrong direction.
The second observation to make about Sweden is that parties of all persuasions have drifted rightwards over the past few years. It was the left that, in 2005, abolished inheritance tax, so that a Swede will now pay no duty on being left a million kronor, but will face a tax of 67% for starting their own business. And when it comes to privatising public services, Stockholm is way out in front of Westminster. Which is why Michael Gove adores their free school and voucher system; and why George Osborne enjoys being photographed alongside his Swedish counterpart Anders Borg. The Economist, that inflight magazine for the autodidactic plutocrat, recently wrote: “The streets of Stockholm are awash with the blood of sacred cows.” It then went on to praise its school system as in the image of Milton Friedman. Except that as social-policy academic Joakim Palme observes, the school system has got worse on the Pisa international rankings.”
It is funny (and by funny, I mean maddeningly infuriating) that over and over, the same policies create the same effects, and yet kept being applied the world over with the same consequences.
“Four days ago a group of people who did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees. Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.
They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.
No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.
But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray. They chased the crowds out of the park.”
This is the trigger, in the larger context of a crisis of legitimacy faced by an authoritarian regime. But Castells also emphasized the recurring demands for dignity from protestors outside of programmatic politics, and here again:
“They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:
The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.”
There is also the connection between virtual networking through Twitter (much to the chagrin of the Erdogan government) and the physical occupation of urban space, which creates a hybrid space of flows that facilitates community-building and overcoming fear despite state violence. Or, as I visualized it:
But there is something else as well involved in Istanbul, something defined by sociologist David Harvey as the right to the city, against the accumulation by dispossession involved in the privatization of public space and developed in details here:
“The entire plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn that Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are central to. Istanbul’s city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Tophane, andFener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma. The goal of this so-called “urban renewal” is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—“clean up” the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.
Some outlets have linked the Gezi Park protests to the AKP’s recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol.Journalists doing so are attempting to portray the Gezi Park occupation as a conflict between Erdoğan’s Islamism and the country’s secular ethos. The secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has also taken this stance, and has tried to coopt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between a secular youth and an older Islamist generation. Attractive as that framing may be to Western media, it could not be further from the truth. While many protesters are without a doubt staunch secularists who are motivated by opposition to the AKP’s increasing social conservatism, there is no indication that this is what ultimately brought thousands of people out into the streets. In fact, when CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard. It is clear that the movement thus far is about a conflict in visions for urban space between ruling elites and the people who actually live, work, and play in the city. In this regard it is telling that #DirenGeziParkı emerged as the original hashtag on Twitter. This connects to protests held in 2009 in Istanbul against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which took place under the banner of “Diren Istanbul”—“Resist Istanbul”—cleverly shortened in translation to “ResIstanbul.”
At the same time, and as the protests appear to spread and take on a more generally anti-government tone, it is not unlikely that general dissatisfaction with Erdoğan will eventually win out as the primary message of the movement. In that case, we can expect to see a rift between the liberal secularist opposition who joined the protest on 31 May and after and the radical protesters who spawned the movement in the first place.
Throughout the Arab uprisings, Turkey remained ostensibly stable. Some commentators proposed Turkey as a model for post-uprising Arab states, most especially Egypt. The mixture of a “moderate” Islamist prime minister and a “secular” constitution made NATO-member Turkey an attractive prototype for a new Middle East in the eyes of Western pundits. Others, along with myself, have pointed out that Turkey is a poor choice of role model, given its ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority population as well as myriad other dynamics.
Today, it seems as though Turkey’s internal divisions are surfacing in a way not seen for some time. What we are seeing in the Gezi Park occupation is the sudden explosion of this Right to the City movement, with some general anti-government sentiment mixed in. For now, an Istanbul court has temporarily suspended construction of the park, pending a hearing on the matter. As time goes on, and if this movement continues to grow, rifts are likely to occur and the meaning of the protests will become as contested as the physical space of Taksim Square. But for the time being, between the massive May Day protest and now this nationwide movement less than a month later, we may finally be in for a summer of uprising in Turkey.”
Interestingly enough, a few days before the riots started in Istanbul, Der Spiegel published an interview with David Harvey, precisely on the role of the city in social movements”
“Today’s working class is part of a wider configuration of classes in which the struggle centers on the city itself. I replace the traditional concept of class struggle with the struggle of all those who produce and reproduce urban life. Unions must look at the urban everyday existence — a key for the social conflicts to come. In the United States, for example, this has prompted the AFL-CIO federation of labor organizations to start collaborating with domestic workers and migrants.
A report from the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco recently put it that way, saying that the United States has historically always surmounted recessions by building houses and filling them with things. Urbanization can solve crises — but, more than anything, it is a way to get out of crises.
Where are economies currently growing the fastest? In China and Turkey. What do we see in Istanbul? Cranes, everywhere. And when the crisis broke out in 2008, China lost 30 million jobs within six months owing to drops in US imports of consumer goods. But then the Chinese government created 27 million new jobs. How? The Chinese used their enormous trade surpluses to mount a gigantic urban-development and infrastructure program.
Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class. It is a powerful process that newly defines what cities are about, as well as who can live there and who can’t. And it determines the quality of life in cities according to the stipulations of capital rather than those of people.”
And then, this:
“SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time, in Istanbul, the state housing association Toki has built several large housing estates for the poor. Does this contradict your thesis?
Harvey: No, because the residents of the so-called Geçekondus, the informal settlements lying at least on the city’s outskirts, were summarily transplanted into developing areas 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the downtown area — a massive expulsion.”
That is, by the way, the way cities do it and as Rio is currently doing in preparation for the World Cup of soccer and the Olympics. and finally, this:
“A lot revolves around the definition of “urban commons.” The fact that central squares are public is significant in terms of the right to the city, as the Occupy movements in New York and London demonstrated when they took over privatized parks. In this context, I like the historical model of the Paris Commune: People who lived on the outskirts returned to the city center in order to reclaim the city they had been excluded from.”
You should also check out this report (pdf) on the persistence of residential segregation in US metropolises.
“In this report we look for clues about how the growing diversity is being managed at the level of neighborhoods. How diverse is the average person’s neighborhood becoming, and how are historic patterns of segregation changing? The Census Bureau has now released tract-level data from Census 2010 that allow us to identify these trends:
Declines in residential segregation between blacks and whites since 2000 continued at about the same pace as in the 1990s. Segregation peaked around 1960 or 1970. Between 1980 and 2000 it declined at a very slow pace, but there were reasons to expect a potential breakthrough since then. The new data show another decade of steady but slow decline.
Hispanics and Asians are considerably less segregated than African Americans, and their segregation levels have remained steady since 1980. In addition, since both these groups are growing, there is a tendency for their ethnic enclaves to become more homogeneous. As a result these groups live in more isolated settings now than they did in 2000, continuing a trend seen since 1980.
The average non-Hispanic white person continued to live in a neighborhood that is very different racially from those neighborhoods where the average black, Hispanic, and Asian live. The average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white. Despite a substantial shift of minorities from cities to suburbs, these groups have often not gained access to largely white neighborhoods. For example a typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is only 35% white (not much different from 1940) and as much as 45% black. Diversity is experienced very differently in the daily lives of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.”
However, the persistence of racial homogeneity in the context of greater diversity also means this:
As the report notes,
“Stark contrasts are readily apparent between the typical experiences of whites versus that of each minority group. In 367 metropolitan areas across the U.S., the typical white lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white, 8% black, 11% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. This represents a notable change since 1980, when the average whites’ neighborhood was 88% white, but it is very different from the makeup of the metropolis as a whole.
The experience of minorities is very different. For example, the typical black lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black, 35% white, 15% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. The typical Hispanic lives in a neighborhood that is 46% Hispanic, 35% white, 11% black and 7% Asian. The typical Asian lives in a neighborhood that is 22% Asian, 49% white, 9% black, and 19% Hispanic.”
The persistence of these patterns of residential segregation should surprise no one. The creation of racial enclaves was by design, as was explained in the documentary The House I Live In, and simply explained here:
But also in this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates where he explains the depth and breadth of institutional discrimination as illustrated in the ghetto as public policy:
“But the most affecting aspect of the book is the demonstration of the ghetto not as a product of a violent music, super-predators, or declining respect for marriage, but of policy and power. In Chicago, the ghetto was intentional. Black people were pariahs whom no one wanted to live around. The FHA turned that prejudice into full-blown racism by refusing to insure loans taken out by people who live near blacks.
Contract-sellers reacted to this policy and “sold” homes to black people desperate for housing at four to five times its value. I say “sold” because the contract-seller kept the deed, while the “buyer” remained responsible for any repairs to the home. If the “buyer” missed one payment they could be evicted, and all of their equity would be kept by the contract-seller. This is not merely a matter of “Of.” Contract-sellers turned eviction into a racket and would structure contracts so that sudden expenses guaranteed eviction. Then the seller would fish for another black family desperate for housing, rinse and repeat. In Chicago during the early 60s, some 85 percent of African-Americans who purchased home did it on contract.
These were not broken families in need of a lecture on work ethic. These were black people playing by the rules. And for their troubles they were effectively declared outside the law and thus preyed upon.”
Go read the whole thing. It’s well worth it.
Where Americans live is often not a matter of choice but of public policy, based individually, but more importantly, institutionally on racial considerations. Individuals may have become less racist but the policies, practices and structures created by race-based institutional discrimination are hard to dismantle because they are often invisible, or interpreted, mistakenly, as reflections of individual choices.
I think this is a very important film to understand fully the War on Drugs. For many years, I used the PBS Frontline documentary Snitch to discuss the war on drugs in the US, but that movie has gotten old and a bit outdated. THILI can comfortably take its place because things have not gotten any less messy than they were when Snitch was made.
The film itself is about 1h40 long and the first half felt a bit disorganized to me as Jarecki jumped from one thing to another, from one case, one city, one person to another. I don’t really care for personal, tearing-at-your-heartstrings stories. But as the second half rolled around, it became gripping, and, to me, at least, way more interesting because it was less about individual cases, and more about the sociological aspects of the war on drugs.
I was especially glad to see a whole group of excellent contributors such as the great William Julius Wilson, Michelle Alexander, David Simon, of The Wire fame, Marc Mauer, Charles Ogletree, and Lincoln historian Richard Miller.
And, I won’t have to do my usual song and dance in class anymore, explaining how drug policy in the US is guided by racist considerations. There is a great short segment on just that. The film also does a great job of explaining how urban policy, by creating ghettos through redlining, fostering white flight to the suburbs, and the loss of inner-city jobs, also created the conditions for the emergence of an underground, informal economy based on drugs. And then, how the war on drugs policies unleashed the whole criminal justice system on disadvantaged, impoverished and precarized groups. And in inner cities, drug dealing is the only company in a company town. The film also shows the web of contradictory constraints that drug offenders face when they get released.
Interestingly as well, Jarecki interviews a lot of people from law enforcement and courts and demonstrates how the war on drugs distorted the functioning of these organizations by creating new systems of incentives based on mass arrests, mass conviction, and mass incarcerations, and how it distorted relationship between law enforcement and low-income communities. And how it has made a lot of private industries very profitable. And it only all cost $1 trillion dollars and 45 million arrests to get there.
“Nobody respects good police work more than me. As well as being a police reporter, my first book was about good police work. And there are a lot of detectives who I admire for their professionalism, for their craft, for their skill, for their nuance. The problem is that the drug war created an environment in which none of that was rewarded.
In a city like Baltimore, you can sit in your radio car and make a drug arrest without understanding or requiring probable cause [reasonable suspicion], without worrying about how you’re going to testify in court without perjuring yourself, without learning how to use and not be used by an informant, without learning how to write a search and seizure warrant, without doing any of the requisite things that makes a good cop into a great cop, somebody that can solve a murder, a rape, a robbery, a burglary. These are crimes that require police work. A drug arrest does not require anything other than getting out of your radio car and jacking people up against the side of the liquor store.
The problem is that that cop that made that cheap drug arrest, he’s going to get paid. He’s going to get the hours of overtime for taking the drugs down to ECU [the evidence control unit]. He’s going to get paid for processing the prisoner down at central booking. He’s going to get paid for sitting back at his desk and writing the paperwork for a couple hours. Then the case is going to get called to court and a prosecutor’s going to sign his overtime slip for two, three hours to show up for a case that’s probably going to be stetted [dropped] because it’s unconstitutional. And he’s going to do that 40, 50, 60 times a month. So his base pay might end up being half of what he’s actually paid as a police officer.
Meanwhile, nobody is learning the rudiments of police work that might make a patrolman into a good detective. In Baltimore, the clearance rates – our percentage of arrests for felonies – for rape, murder, robbery, auto theft, for the things that make a city unlivable – are half of what they once were.
Our drug arrest stats are twice what they once were. That makes a city unlivable. It creates a criminal atmosphere that has no deterrent. It makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime.”
As the film progresses, the contributors’ words get harsher, as they take in the broader and broader picture of what has happened for the past 40 years (40 years!). David Simon, especially, explains how this policy – the war on drugs – is a way of disposing of the bottom 15% of society, considered to useless and disposable, and get rich (for some) while doing it. Ultimately, he calls the war on drugs a holocaust in slow motion.
In that sense, the war on drugs is a success. Not a success in terms of its publicly stated goals, but a success in terms of social control of the precarized classes. There is especially a very good segment on how methamphetamine is the new crack, except, this time, it is the displaced white, blue-collar workers who are targeted, and increasingly going to prison. The connection between economic deterioration for the working class, informal illegal economy and drug policy is a direct one. It is the social control of this potentially volatile population that mass incarceration successfully accomplishes.
So, again, with some qualification regarding the first half of the film, this is a great documentary with a lot of different, shorter segments that can be used separately. And, if my students are representative, they love to talk about drugs, so, this film has many segments that should provoke good discussions.