Harvey on Urbanising Struggles

I found the following video lecture (delivered by David Harvey at the recent Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times festival) insightful into strategising actions in the city.

 

Harvey explains how volume one of Marx’s Capital deals with production of value, whereas volume two deals with realisation of value. Drawing on this Marxian distinction can bring crucial insights that explain how production and realisation of value can occur in two completely different geographical regions, or in apparently disjointed domains of urban life. For example, an enormous amount of value is produced in Chinese factories, but is not realised in China as such, rather it is realised in places such as Wal-Mart stores in the USA.

In another example Harvey details how the Urban is often the field of value realisation: while a struggle completely limited to the workplace (place of value production) may lead to higher wages for the workers, if when they get home they find that their rents have significantly increased as well then it becomes obvious that the struggle has been too limited to the sphere of value production and needs to also take place in the sphere of value realisation, i.e. the Urban. While Marx and Engels did not spend much time on ‘secondary’ forms of exploitation such as Merchant Capitalism (which today would mean phone bills, utilities, rent, medical insurance etc.) these forms have proved themselves adept at extracting and ‘taking back’ what capitalism has conceded in the workplace.

Struggles in the city should not therefore limit themselves to the site of production (workplace), yet unfortunately unions are very much sectorised. In additions, unions cannot organise temporary workers, immigrant and precarious workers, such as domestic workers. Only human rights organisations with workers’ charters have been able to, somewhat problematically, stand for the interests of such workers.

Harvey maintains that in strategising political actions questions about what kind of social relations, environmental conditions, transport facilities, education, healthcare, etc. urban life requires should be posed together with specific or sectoral struggles to create a mass agenda. This integration of wider questions about how urban life is produced and reproduced then geographicalises and urbanises the struggle, making it far more likely to succeed.

I also found interesting the discussion of how the upper-middle class is increasingly segregating itself, no longer participating in city life, forming gated communities, etc. This very much conforms to the thesis, held by one of the founding Autonomists, Tronti, that the post-Fordist production and neoliberal phase of capitalism represents an accelerated and heightened attempt of the capitalist class to ’emancipate itself’ from the working class—while nonetheless basing its own perpetuation on the extraction of value from labour expropriated from the working class and the capitalisation (often these days financialisation) of all the means by which the working class has to exist. Certainly we see all this in the way that cities are subject to ‘social cleansing’ in which the poor are evicted and forcibly relocated outside the urban centres which are increasingly the residential preserve of the mega-rich. Then we have the intensified (and militarised) policing of urban public space and the systematic privatisation of public services. Finally there is the withering-away of the social fabric which used to be reproduced by social security. All these factors combine to create a society in which the capitalist class has ring-fenced its own assets in the city and lives off the labour of those with none. The general thrust of all this is that we need to take back our cities, assert strong claims to collectivised ownership of the Urban, and to advance a general demand for ‘the kind of cities’ we want, which will also be a demand for the kind of lives we want for ourselves and for future dwellers.

Another important phenomenon Harvey casts light on is the skew of the mainstream media away from representing the tribulations of vulnerable groups (which is to say, really, a massive bias in favour of the capitalist class), citing how the foreclosure crisis of 2008 had really already been going on for some time before it hit the headlines. In Colorado whole communities of African-Americans had already been affected adversely, but the crisis only became a properly mediated crisis, reported by the mainstream media, when it began to hit those ‘special’ representatives the white middle class. This to me sums up a great deal about our current mainstream media—exactly where its ‘nerves’ lie exposed in the social whole—and brings us back to the 2010 student protests and the summer riots that followed: it was only with the (fairly insignificant, in perspective) damage to petty-bourgeoisie shop-windows (or the Tory HQ window in the case of the Milwall protests) that the press showed any interest or deigned to register events.

Harvey’s tactical suggestion is that we should hit the city in its other nerve-centers, transport, delivery, everyday Urban life involving as many local people as possible, when taking specific actions. This seems to me to be an important lesson; rather than just poking at the media’s soft-spots and rattling its love story with ‘hardworking shopkeepers’ the means to involve and get onside urban infrastructure should be considered.

Needless to say I found much of this material so fascinating I’ve used some of it as the basis for a new wiki entry on realisation of value.

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