Reclaiming the city for anti-capitalist struggle

David HARVEY, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

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 Cordoba 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 ).

And it is not, this history demonstrates, only singular urban centers that are involved. On several occasions the spirit of protest and revolt has spread contagiously through urban networks in remarkable ways.

The revolutionary movement of 1848 may have started in Paris, but the spirit of revolt spread to Vienna, Berlin, Milan, Budapest, Frankfurt, and many other European cities. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was accompanied by the formation of worker’s councils and « soviets » in Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, Riga, Munich and Turin, just as in 1968 it was Paris, Berlin, London, Mexico City, Bangkok, Chicago, and innumerable other cities that experienced « days of rage;’ and in some instances violent repressions. Th e unfolding urban crisis of the 1960s in the United States affected m any cities simultaneously. And in an astonishing but much underestimated moment in world history, on February 15, 2003 , several million people simultaneously appeared on the streets of Rome (with around 3 million, considered the largest anti-war rally ever in human history) , Madrid, London, Barcelona, Berlin , and Athens, with lesser but still substantial numb ers (though impossible to count because of police repression) in New York and Melbourne, and thousands more in nearly 200 cities in Asia (except China), Africa, and Latin America in a worldwide demonstration against the threat of war with Iraq. Described at the time as perhaps one of the first expressions of global public opinion, the movement quickly faded, but leaves behind the sense that the global urban network is replete with political possibilities that remain untapped by progressive movements. Th e current wave of youth-led movements throughout the world, from Cairo to Madrid to Santiago-to say nothing of a street revolt in London, followed by an « Occupy Wall Street » movement that began in New York City before spreading to innumerable cities in the US and now around the world-suggests there is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed1.

Two questions derive from this brief account of urban-based political movements. Is the city (or a system of cities) merely a passive site (or pre-existing network)-the place of appearance-where deeper currents of political struggle are expressed? On the surface it might seem so. Yet it is also clear that certain urban environmental characteristics are more conducive to rebellious protests than others-such as the centrality of squares like Tahrir, Tiananmen, and Syntagma, the more easily barrcaded streets of Paris compared to London or Los A ngeles, or El Alto’s position commanding the main supply routes into La Paz.

Political power therefore often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye to the control of restive populations. This was most famously the case with Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris, wh ich were viewed even at the time as a means of military control of rebellious citizens. This case is not unique. Th e re- engineering of inner cities in the United States in the wake of the urban uprisings of the 1960s just happened to create major physical highway barriers- moats, in effect between the citadels of high-value downtown property and impoverished inner- city neighborhoods. The violent struggles that occurred in the drive to subdue oppositional movements in Ramallah on the West Bank (pursued by the Israeli IDF) and Fallujah in Iraq (pursued by the US military) have played a crucial role in forcing a re- think of military strategies to pacify, police, and control urban populations. Oppositional movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, in their turn, increasingly pursue urbanized strategies of revolt. Militarization is not, of course, the only solution (and, as Fallujah demonstrated, it may be far from the best).

The planned pacification programs in Rio’s favelas entail an urbanized approach to social and class warfare through the application of a range of different public policies to troubled neighborhoods. For their part, Hezbollah and Ham as both combine military operations from within the dense networks of urban environments with the construction of alternative urban governance structures, incorporating everything from garbage removal to social support payments and neighborhood administrations.

The urban obviously functions, then, as an important site of political action and revolt. The actual site characteristics are important, and the physical and social re-engineering and territorial organization of these sites is a weapon in political struggles. In the same way that, in military operations, the choice and shaping of the terrain of action plays an important role in determining who wins, so it is with popular protests and political movements in urban settings2.

The second major point is that political protests frequently gauge their effectiveness in terms of their ability to disrupt urban economies. In the spring of 2006, for example, widespread agitation developed in the United States within immigrant populations over a proposal before Congress to criminalize undocumented immigrants (some of whom had been in the country for decades. The massive protests amounted to what was in effect an immigrant workers’ strike that effectively closed down economic activity in Los Angeles and Chicago, and had serious impacts on other cities as well. This impressive demonstration of the political and economic power of unorganized immigrants (both legal and illegal) to disrupt the flows of production as well as the flows of goods and services in major urban centers played an important role in stopping the proposed legislation.

The immigrants’ rights movement arose out of nowhere, and was marked by a good deal of spontaneity. But it then fell off rapidly, leaving behind two minor but perhaps significant achievements, in addition to blocking the proposed legislation: the formation of a permanent immigrant workers’ alliance and a new tradition in the United States of celebrating May Day as a day to march in support of the aspirations of labor. While this last achievement appears purely symbolic, it nevertheless reminds the unorganized as well as the organized workers in the United States of their collective potentiality. One of the main barriers to the realization of this potentiality also be came clear in the rapid decline of the movement. Largely Hispanic-based, it failed to negotiate effectively with the leadership of the African-American population. This opened the way for an intense barrage of propaganda orchestrated by the right-wing media, which suddenly shed crocodile tears for how African-American jobs were being taken away by illegal Hispanic immigrants3.

The rapidity and volatility with which massive protest movements have risen and fallen over the last few decades calls for some commentary. In addition to the global anti-war demonstration of 2003 and the rise and fall of the immigrant workers’ rights movement in the United States in 2006, there are innumerable examples of the erratic track and uneven geographical expression of oppositional movements; they include the rapidity with which the revolts in the French suburbs in 2005 and the revolutionary bursts in much of Latin America, from Argentina in 2001 -02 to Bolivia in 2000-05, were controlled and reabsorbed into dominant capitalist practices. Will the populist protests of the indignados throughout southern Europe in 2011, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement, have staying power? Understanding the politics and revolutionary potential of such movements is a serious challenge. The fluctuating history and fortunes of the anti- or alternative globalization movement since the late 1990s also suggests that we are in a very particular and perhaps radically different phase of anti-capitalist struggle. Formalized through the World Social Forum and its regional offshoots, and increasingly ritualized as periodic demonstrations against the World Bank, the IMF, the G7 (now the G20), or at almost any international meeting on any issue (from climate change to racism and gender equality), this movement is hard to pin down because it is « a movement of movements » rather than a single-minded organization4. It is not that traditional forms of left organizing (left political parties and militant sects, labor unions and militant environmental or social movements such as the Maoists in India or the landless peasants movement in Brazil) have disappeared. But they now all seem to swim within an ocean of more diffuse oppositional movements that lack overall political coherence.

1 The saying « city air makes one free » comes from medieval times, when incorporated towns with charters could function as « non feudal islands in a feudal sea ». The classic account is Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities, Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1925.F

2 Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege : The New Military Urbanism, London : Verso, 2010.

3 Kevin Jonson and Hill Ong Hing, « The Immigrants Rights Marches of 2006 and the Prospects for a New Civil Rights Movement », Harvard Civil Rights-Liberties Law Review 42:99-138.

4 Thomas Mertes (ed.), A Movement of Movements, Londres, Verso, 2004; Sara Motta y Alf Gunvald Nilson (eds.), Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance, Basingstoke, Hants, Pal grave Macmillan, 2 0 1 1