Right to the Olympic Village: a review of David Harvey's 'Rebel Cities'

The Marxist geographer's new book on modern cities as central sites of revolutionary politics becomes a lens through which to decode London and the Olympic Games.

Lewis Beardmore
27 May 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban RevolutionDavid Harvey, Verso, April 2012.

Product design, like advertising, is a vainglorious industry. In coming to terms with their professional compromise, the failed writers and artists of the “creative” industries often seek to legitimise their endeavours. Design consultant Robert L. Peters exalts his profession's methods as “the application of intent... an antidote to accident”.

In this light, London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville resemble less a blunder – in the Olympic tradition that brought us Atlanta 1996's characterless, amorphous “Izzy” – than a knowing nod to the sinister securitisation and spatial control surrounding the emplacement of the Olympic games in East London. With their cyclopean camera eye – a telescreen mounted atop a teletubby – the day-glo duo manage to embody both the congenital myopia of the Olympic Delivery Authority and the pervasive surveillance and militarisation that looks set to swamp the capital this summer.


The ArcelorMittal Orbit

The recent fuss over diplomatic fast-lanes, rooftop missiles and amphibious military exercises (replete with Bond-villain jetboats and anatomically-correct amputees) is indicative of the unprecedented control over public space emerging around the Olympic project. In the same month, the unveiling of public-private vanity project the ArcelorMittal Orbit stands as a monolithic reminder that the London games sit at the apogee of the decade-long private sector land-grab that has worked to segregate and fragment urban Britain. Where other privatised developments have remained as wasteland in the wake of the economic downturn, the Olympics has endured – propped up by public finance as the one project deemed 'too big to fail'.

In the Olympic borough of Newham – as in Conservative-controlled Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Chelsea and Kensington – plans to relocate housing benefit claimants to parts of the Midlands and the North smack of social cleansing, and look to be a mirror of the failed compulsory dispersal schemes of the 1990s that resulted in social disintegration, crippling strains on public services and increased local support for the British National Party.

In the wake of savage housing benefit cuts, poor boroughs are in dire need of a reversal of the Thatcherite policy of underinvestment in social housing. 1,500 “affordable” homes were promised on the site of the Olympic village, but changes brought in by the coalition that allow housing associations to charge up to 80% of market rent will place these beyond the means of the majority of London boroughs. As public financing of the Olympics triples and private-sector contributions fall below 2% a harsh arithmetic emerges: the coalition may bail out the privileged, but not the poorest.

There has rarely seemed a more apposite time for the revival of the Right To The City, a concept which Kent-born, New York-based geographer David Harvey has persistently engaged with since his flight from quantitative geography in the late 1960s. Taking its cue from the Henri Lefebrve broadside that preceded the événements of May '68, the Right To The City is summarised by Harvey as “the exercise of a collective power to reshape our processes of urbanisation”. Rebel Cities, a collection of recent missives alongside previously published articles from the Socialist Register and New Left Review, is his latest foray into this realm, and his first to connect since the urban protests of the Occupy and M15 movements (see the video below from Verso's launch of Rebel Cities, in which David Harvey discusses the book and David Graeber discusses his new book Debt: The First 5,000 years). 

The papers collected here position the Right To The City as a counterblast to the “political and economic elite who are in a position to shape cities more and more after their own ideas.” For Harvey, the “creative destruction” at the heart of the modern city is central to capitalism's continued survival. As finance capital immerses itself deeper into speculation, processes of urbanisation defer a crisis of over-accumulation by displacing returns further into the future, in the form of expected profits.

In his previous collection Spaces of Global Capitalism, Harvey wrote at length on these suburban origins of the present financial crisis; of the systemic failures of a capitalism ever-deferring its collapse through the endless construction of great swathes of sub-prime tract homes. In Rebel Cities he opens with an historical approach to urbanisation and its discontents, charting the urban restructuring processes of liberal capitalism from their origins in Haussmann's reshaping of Second Empire Paris, through Robert Moses's eviceration of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to the sub-prime lending that worked to foment the current global financial crisis.

In doing so, he highlights the longue durée that sits beneath the economic cycles and recurrent structural crises – the process he names 'accumulation by dispossession': the progressive capture of public space by private political and financial elites seeking to ever-improve capital returns under unfavourable market conditions.

Long on wit and reasoned analysis, Harvey's prose is playful in engaging with subject matter that could easily provoke a descent into rancour. He makes the geographer's characteristic leaps of scale, nestling analysis of regional trade agreements alongside a consideration of dwelling as what Marx and Engels named “the secondary forms of exploitation visited upon the working classes”. A long chapter devoted to an analysis of art, culture and monopoly rents explains the persistence of a Château La Tour Figeac in a Hoxton bar, alongside the economics of the parasitic gentrification working to displace the organic urban cultures that brought the bottle there in the first place.

At all points, he is at pains to forge the connections between urban development and macroeconomic policy that he claims are are often ignored by 'bourgeois economic theory'.

It is wise to note that Harvey was warning of the inevitability of the sub-prime bubble as long ago as 2003, several years before the bourgeois economists who furthered their careers with apocalyptic predictions. Here, his historical analysis of property crashes, and their links to global and regional crashes throughout the 20th century, gives the lie to geographically-ignorant economic analysis of market fluctuations, arguing forcefully for a causal link between property market crashes and flows of speculative capital.

Like Zizek, Harvey is ardent in his condemnation of the fetishised, small-scale actions that all too often substitute real social movements for a twee, nostalgic environmentalism. His frequent returns to the Paris Commune might appear to betray his nostalgia for mass socialist self-organisation, but are in fact reassertions of Lefebvre's belief that contemporary revolution must be structured, urban and global.

The two short essays that conclude this collection discuss the 2011 riots and the Occupy movement. Concerning the latter, his support is unequivocal. We have, he claims, “no option but to struggle for the collective right to decide how [the] system shall be reconstructed, and in whose image”. Against the backdrop of neoliberalism's excesses, the global urban movements are framed as the justified assertion of public rights; as the long-overdue reification of 40 years of urban theory.



Model of Tatlin's Tower, 1919

Tatlin's Tower – the most barefaced inspiration for the ArcelorMittal Orbit – is said to have been aborted due to (variously): impending revolution, resource shortages, and the absence of political will in the face of a deep housing crisis. Our own property crisis has consistently failed to reverse the hardened political convictions that equate exclusive foreign investments with economic growth, and it is difficult to see what – aside from impending revolution – will overturn this dogma.

In bringing theory, quantitative analysis and well-aimed invective to bear against “destructive forms of urbanisation”, Harvey presents a timely restating of the roots of our current crisis. Through his endorsement of democratic and hierarchical collective action as a model for sustainable political change, he aims to set the foundations for a workable alternative.

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