Blog post

Metropolitan resistance: David Harvey reviewed

Huw Lemmey12 April 2012

Despite their divergent starting points, Owen Hatherley, writing for the Guardian, and Edwin Heathcote, architecture editor for the Financial Times, find common ground in their appreciation of David Harvey's new book on the politics of the urban environment, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

Tracing Harvey's book through its rich essays on historical examples of the control of dissent through urban planning, right up to the contemporary contestations of urban space in movements such as Occupy Wall St, Heathcote disputes Harvey's avowedly Marxist critique, but maintains his analysis "is good, though, on the changing nature of that proletariat, which he argues is no longer composed of Marx's factory workers but of low-paid, insecure immigrants."

These everyday conditions of labour bear much in common with those of the nascent proletarians who fought for, and built, the Paris Commune of 1871, an attempt at building "socialism, communism or anarchism in one city", according to Hatherley. This attempt was inherently flawed, allowing a city to be besieged or starved into submission, but the Commune also raises more interesting questions about how contemporary social movements, based very much in the urban environment in the West, are to organise in such atomised and insecure conditions. Whilst mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone attempts to make electoral gains by tackling London's enormous, overlooked housing and rent crisis, grassroots movements have risen up attempting local or decentralised attacks on the neo-liberal city without engaging in electoral politics.

Harvey, like Hatherley, is supremely cautious about lionising many of these more recent social movements, especially Occupy, because their intimate scale and "horizonalist" decision-making processes defy scaling: that is, as Hatherley says, radical political form

too often remains at small-is-beautiful, an almost narcissistic concern with process and personal interaction over wide-scale action, something that "can work for small groups but (is) impossible at a scale of a metropolitan region, let alone for the 7 billion people who now inhabit planet Earth".

Harvey follows up this position with "some sharp remarks" and analysis on localism, both in historical form through the neo-Prussian reconfiguration of Berlin, as well as having a "refreshing willingness here to take post-68 urban politics to task; the urban conservation movements of that era are described as eventual handmaidens of gentrification...but which proceeds through urban traditionalism, small-scale and unobtrusive." Hatherley finds much to praise in Harvey's book; notably, a shared concern that while the modern, urban world is very big, the vision, ambition and concerns of the left are currently rather small.

Visit the Guardian to read Hatherley's review in full.

Visit the Financial Times to read Heathcote's review in full.