Between trying to take a day off and teaching overload (at the same time), I have been speed-reading David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, bought on a day out in Bath. I know, this is the sort of book you are meant to buy at Booksmarks or somewhere like that, but Bath is the closest place to where I live with decent book shops (Oxford doesn’t count, because it doesn’t actually have great bookshops, apart from Blackwell’s, and the OUP bookshop, both of which are more like academic libraries where you can buy the books, if you see what I mean).
The book is a collection of mainly recent pieces on urban politics, including a long essay on The Right to the City from New Left Review; the long, written-out-in-neat story of the ongoing urbanization of capital that underwrites the financial meltdown of 2007/8 which Harvey’s viral RSA animation lecture covered; and a set of pieces at the end reflecting on recent events such as the Occupy movement, London riots in 2011, and more interestingly, urban politics in Latin America.
It has some familiar limits, shall we say – an aversion to rights-talk when thought of as anything more than a convenient strategic fiction, and a simplistic contrast between ‘individual rights’ (not to be trusted), and ‘collective’ rights (more of these, please). And a tendency to defer the most pressing problems of political analysis to the field of concrete struggle (the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t feature in the index of this new book, which I thought was telling, until I noticed that the index only lists proper names of people and places and movements, which is a shame).
The two most interesting pieces in this new book are in the middle. A neglected essay, from more than a decade ago, analyses cultural commodities from the perspective of the Marxist conceptualization of monopoly rent. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this sort of approach, or at least I used to, when I thought more about these things (I think Nicholas Garnham had a similar line once), though it inevitably runs aground on the limits of an account of commodities that still invests heavily in the manly notion of value being derived from living labour in the production process (come in, Carolyn Steedman).
The other piece, perhaps the most interesting in fact, is on the concept of the urban commons. It’s a critical engagement with a notion that has become quite central to certain strands of contemporary left theory and politics, as both a ‘slogan’ and ‘ideal’ we might say. Philosophically, the commons has emerged as a kind of ontological security blanket for the revival of discussions of communism, a sort of immanent presence that just needs to be recognised and embraced – it is a weirdly post-political idea. Harvey suggests that the commons is always likely to be a construct of struggle and conflict, an effect of one form or another of exclusion or enclosure – he proposes the notion of ‘commoning’ as a practice to be analysed and encouraged. He also points out the degree to which the anarcho-inflection of this concept in contemporary thought systematically evades problems related to variations of ‘scale’ (a criticism which could be read, if one wished, as a surrogate for a much broader evasion of the problem of democracy in this style of leftist political romanticism). Harvey is rather sheepish in his suggestion that a little bit of hierarchy might be OK, although this is really just another way of saying that democracy is an art of governing, amongst other things.
Harvey makes use of the ‘conventional’ thinking of Elinor Ostrom in his discussion of the contradictions surrounding issues of commons, which is also refreshing, and another departure from the constrictions of the hegemonic account of this idea that draw on Hardt and Negri and others (he does not, however, go very far down the line of thinking about institutional analysis and institutional design that this reference point might open up). And there remains something rigid about Harvey’s understanding of ‘public’ attributes – public goods and public space are understood as gifts dragged out of ‘the state’ by class and other struggles, a sort of grudging background that might be actively, creatively appropriated by practices of genuine commoning (what Harvey describes as commoning in this respect looks a lot like authentic public action as described by Arendt, which is only to suggest that it might also suffer from some of the same problems as that description, not least a hint of an image of pure action freed of instrumental concerns).
[The baby’s just been sick, I have to pause].
In this account of commoning as the appropriation of already constructed background environments, Harvey’s critical reconstruction of the notion of the commons ends up, then, looking quite ‘conventional’ itself, although not necessarily in a bad way – whisper it, but there is a minor theme in Harvey’s work I think, behind the rhetoric of revolution, that sees left politics primarily in terms of seeking after more just, more equitable distribution of surplus in the here and now (and there’s no reason that this need not encompass more just relations of surplus production). The rhetoric of unified revolutionary transformation is in abundance in this book, certainly, but it is not really supported by an analysis of politics, culture and economics that has so relentlessly, over many years now, demonstrated the dynamics of fracturing, differentiation and contradiction that inhabit any and all forms of human action (the idea of revolutionary transformation might, it seems to me, if you’ve read enough of David Harvey as a geographer, be deeply antithetical to a geographical imagination). The ambivalent nostalgia for social democratic settlements, for failed Swedish promises of surplus transfer from capital to labour and the like, are testament to a radical politics of redistribution that seems unable to speak its own name – it’s present in Harvey’s book about the New Imperialism, and goes all the way back to Social Justice and the City. This minor key is that of a Polanyian radicalism, not a Marxist one.