"Why aren’t the Left thinking about what the hell’s going on?"—David Harvey meets Icon magazine

The radical geographer David Harvey spoke with Fatema Ahmed for Icon magazine about his latest book Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, the "right to the city" and ways in which people around the world can reclaim urban spaces. This is a longer version of an interview that was published in the September issue, 'Restless Cities'. 


Icon: You talk about how Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has reshaped the city, Manhattan most of all. He uses the positive-sounding slogan: “Building like Moses, with Jane Jacobs in mind.” But you ask: “What do you do with the people who have to be moved on? Are you arguing for more static cities? Part of the dynamism of cities is that people move in and out.

David Harvey: But who is moved and who is priced out? I don’t see Eminent Domain [compulsory purchase being used on Park Avenue or Mayfair. I see Eminent Domain being used usually in relationship to vulnerable populations who are advantageously located and the land is considered high value and it should go into its highest and best uses, which means office spaces, or high-rise condominiums, instead of living spaces for ordinary folk. So there is a class bias – an inherent class bias – in the way in which spaces in the city are allocated and that class bias is most easily analysed through the notion of property prices and rental structures, and the rest of it culminating in simple physical displacement through Eminent Domain.

People do move on but why should we accept a system where the people who move on are the most vulnerable, and the people who stay wherever they like are the one percenters, if there’s class inequality in that moving around? 

Icon: What does “the right to the city” mean in this context, and who are you talking about in New York?

David Harvey: I’ve tried to think in very simple terms, which is that those people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they’ve spent their time building and sustaining: simple as that. And I think that the people who come into New York City at 6 o’clock in the morning to wake the city up and who live on $30,000 a year have a right to the city they’re waking up. I want a much more egalitarian right to the city than currently exists and not just a right to the existing city but a right to actually transform the city in a different kind of way. So that we don’t end up with consumer palaces for the rich and high-end condominiums with vast spaces in the centre of the city and we sell them for $30m and we end up with something different. 

It ends up with the immigrant workers way out, or in inner city locations so you’ll find them one family to a room. The inequalities that are built into this system are chronic: the city needs a low-income labour force and it procures it from immigrants and from people who are forced to live in the residual housing that the bourgeoisie doesn’t want. A lot of minority groups are moving out of the New York metropolitan region entirely, to upstate New York or out to small towns in Pennsylvania because they can’t afford the metropolitan region any more. 

Icon: You use El Alto in Bolivia as an example of an engaged city, where different groups have had to work out how to live together. But when you say, “You have to show up to things or otherwise you get shafted,” this implies a friction that people in older cities are no longer used to, and don’t much like. Is it possible to reintroduce it? 

David Harvey: In the last 30 years we’ve been through this process of – I use Sharon Zukin’s phrase – “pacification by cappuccino”. It’s perfectly true that people have a non-conflictual life and, to the degree that they have a non-conflictual life, they avoid conflict. They disengage with a lot of what’s going round them and get very upset when conflicts do arise but it would be my observation that everyone’s been through this. Everyone gets agitated and people start talking to each other who didn’t talk to each other before and new socialities start to emerge, then things settle down and everyone goes back into their lives again and somehow there’s then a nostalgia for those moments when everyone was together and we had this great togetherness but nobody can really think of a reason to do it. That’s why a conflictual city is always a much more engaging kind of thing.

The big problem is to have a conflictual city where people are not killing each other. There are levels of conflict, which can turn into sheer horror. You don’t want to find decapitated bodies outside the front door when you go out in the morning so the conflict that goes on in some Mexican cities is just horrendous. But on the other hand Mexico City is an incredible city – in part because of the perpetual sense of explosive conflict. There are lot of people I know who just won’t move out. I say, “But isn’t it dangerous?” They say: “Yes, but it’s so great, you know.” Urban life of that sort is perpetually engaged along those lines. What was clear from the ethnographies done in El Alto was that the solidarities, which were constructed, were around conflictual forms of engagement – and that’s what kept everybody talking to each other.

Icon: What about the rate at which urbanisation is speeding up? What kinds of stresses are being applied to these new urban populations, and what questions does this raise?

David Harvey: The situation in El Alto was very special. I think we can still draw some universal lessons from it but the situation in New York was very different and also in Mumbai – I hesitate to make big judgements without knowing the specificities.

For instance, here we are sitting in the offices of New Left Review. During the period of the New Left Review’s lifetime we’ve moved from a situation where about a quarter of the world’s population is urbanised, to one where fifty percent or more is urbanised. It’s been a dramatic, dramatic reorganisation of global populations, including the sudden growth of these massive cities – São Paulo, anything up to 20 million, up to the urbanisation of China. During those years, up until maybe 15 to 20 years ago, there was hardly a single mention of urbanisation in this leading Marxist journal – and when there was it was around cultural questions surrounding postmodernity. There was the lone voice of Mike Davis who was constantly writing about these things but nobody took it seriously. And I’m kind of going, why in the face of this massive transformation of daily life, why aren’t the Left thinking about what the hell’s going on and what kind of politics is likely to come out of this – and what kinds of mechanisms of government and repression are going to be constructed around these massive populations? How is this all going to work? The Left hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to this history and this radical transformation. 

These huge populations which are suddenly appearing – and this is very disruptive – they’re trying to establish a daily life under radically different circumstances to those they’ve been used to. They’ve been shunted off the countryside, they’ve been pushed in from elsewhere and the government structures aren’t there. It’s not as if the government sets up structures and then welcomes the migrants. Governments are perpetually trying to catch up. So you’re coming up with things like participatory governing, in Porto Alegre, to try to do something that’s a little bit different.

How to think about the politics and the management of infrastructures over these massive areas is a key question, which is not being looked at. The powers that be are struggling with how to set up reasonable governmental structures to deal with a city like Mumbai? How are we going to do that? The Left has not much to say about this as far as I can tell. 

Icon: China is making cities on a scale we’ve never seen before. You point out that in the 20th century the United States built homes to get the economy out of slumps, but it can’t do that any more – there are just too many empty houses. Are you worried about China ending up with empty cities?

David Harvey: The Chinese are building whole cities and they’re looking for people to live in them – it’s a sort of pre-emptive urbanisation they’ve engaged in. Then again, there are a lot of struggles going on. Even the official reports show a doubling of incidents of various kinds and a lot of those incidents are over displacements, particularly the displacements of people who are living on the edges of cities who get shunted out. I don’t know the situation on the ground in China, but to the extent that I get reports about it, they suggests that there’s a great deal of instability and agitation among the population about urbanisation, as there is in the factories: Foxconn and the rest of it. There are movements in China, agitations and unrest, which are very hard for the Communist Party to tamp down. 

At the same time, they’re also absorbing vast amounts of surplus capital and labour through this huge infrastructural investment and urban project, which is likely to produce overproduction. On the other hand, the Chinese also have a surplus in their budget so they can recapitalise a lot of this. However a lot of the municipalities are very indebted so you may see a debt crisis at the municipal level in China in the next few years.

Icon: How are older cities changing? How successful are their attempts to reinvent themselves?

David Harvey: A lot of older cities have effectively gone under. We see “shrinking cities” in Detroit and Buffalo and you see these in eastern Germany, and some Japanese cities are also in trouble. The older cities are undergoing a peculiar conversion process so that Detroit, for instance, no longer has the industrial base it once had. So they have housing that is no longer needed. One of the things they’re doing in Detroit is bulldozing housing and in some places you’re getting urban gardening and parks. 

Then of course you have the management of traditional cities like London, where if you’re going to do redevelopment projects you’re going to have to knock a lot down. Or you see a city in the UK like Manchester, which is reinventing itself. It’s not a shrinking city like Detroit; it’s been radically transformed by de-industrialisation in the 1980s and 1990s and it’s being reinvented in a different kind of way. Sheffield lost 40,000 jobs in steel in about 3 years in the mid-80s so it’s had to reinvent itself entirely around an entirely different model of urban life.

So what do you do: you get the Commonwealth Games, you start to create an atmosphere of urban entrepreneurialism… The entrepreneurial city suddenly emerges, and throughout Europe this model of entrepreneurial cities, trying to turn themselves into growth poles for their region and then attracting investment from outside, has spread.

I was in Spain, maybe four years ago, and I rode the high-speed train. I was going through these cities and counting the construction cranes, in Madrid and Valencia and Seville … At the time I said, “But this is crazy,” and everyone laughed and said, “Yes it’s crazy, but we can’t do anything about it.” Now we’ve got the problem. 

Icon: You point out that the history of the urbanisation is the history of indebtedness (and particularly, since Haussmann in the 19th century, the history of new financial instruments). But you’ve also said that it took you a surprisingly long time to make the link between property crises and fiscal crises, such as New York’s in the 1970s. Why was that? 

David Harvey: It’s all very strange to me: why did it take me so long to figure it out? For example, the New York fiscal crisis of 1975 always assumed a great significance in my mind. It was a significance that seemed to be confined to a few people with an interest in urban questions but, if you look back at it, New York City had one of the twenty largest public budgets in the world at the time – much as California now has. So why was the bankruptcy of this entity treated in such a cavalier fashion – to the extent that, I think, the German chancellor and the French president called the White House and said, “You can’t let this happen because it will just tear down the world’s financial markets.” Why was that not registered more widely? I always took it seriously but when I took it seriously and wrote about it, people didn’t take me seriously. Part of the answer is that if you’re not taken seriously, you write about something else. I keep on coming back to the urban stuff but I’m now more confident in the argument. The evidence is overwhelming and people should be prepared to listen to it now. 

Icon: What’s the most pressing thing for urbanists to be thinking about now?

David Harvey: My view of what people should be thinking about is to think about a new form of urbanisation, which is consistent with the logic of anticapitalist struggle. Capitalism is in a great deal of trouble, which means that the models of urbanisation are either in a great deal of trouble as we can see, or they will be in a great deal of trouble. We have to think about an alternative model of urbanisation that is going to take us away from the accumulation for accumulation’s sake and production for production’s sake that capital is about. One that gets us away from the kind of urbanisation that is realising the compound-growth dreams of capitalism.

Icon: How does global warming affect urbanisation? What kind of cities should we be living in? 

David Harvey: If there is a serious problem, as I believe there is, with global warming and that’s it’s connected to greenhouse gases caused partly by cheap fossil fuels, which are necessary for the suburban lifestyle, we cannot diminish the use of them without actually transforming the suburbs and the suburban lifestyle. If the suburbs were poor, we’d simply say, “Get out of here; we’re going to remodel all of this.” But we’re not; we’re dealing with an entrenched interest that doesn’t want to change the suburban lifestyle even if it’s sympathetic to the question of global warming. And, to the degree that we’re told that because of global warming we’re going to have to change, when someone comes along and says global warming is a hoax and science is rubbish you’re more likely to listen to them. So you’re getting this incredible irrationality in American political life over these things. 

If you want to see all the problems I’m talking about in exaggerated form, go to China. There’s no question whatsoever of the significance of urbanisation to China’s macroeconomic project right now and there’s no question about the environmental consequences of the form of urbanisation they’ve taken hitherto. I mean, people remember that they had to stop the traffic going to Beijing for 2 weeks before the Olympics. The Chinese are very aware of it, so they’re taking up the question of air quality and water quality. What in Britain is a slow creeping set of problems, in China is dramatically posed. The Chinese also have the possibility of saying, “Well, we’re going to find an anticapitalist version of this.” I doubt they’re going to do it, but they still have the possibility of doing it.

Visit Icon to read the interview as originally published. 

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