Urban Class Warfare: Are Cities Built for the Rich?

Interview with social theorist David Harvey, published on Spiegel Online International, by Christoph Twickel, May 21, 2013;
(13 Photos in the Gallery).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why should a Marxist be concerned about major cities instead of the working class these days?

  • Harvey : Traditional Marxists admittedly see the avant-garde of the revolution in the industrial working class. However, since this is disappearing in the wake of Western deindustrialization, people are starting to grasp that urban conflicts will probably be decisive.  

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Over the course of the debt crisis, wages have decreased and social benefits have been slashed in Greece. Meanwhile, general strikes haven’t generated enough pressure to reverse the changes. Can this be viewed as evidence to support your theory that the traditional proletariat can no longer paralyze a state?

  • Harvey : Yes. Today’s working class is part of a wider configuration of classes in which the struggle centers on the city itself. I replace the traditional concept of class struggle with the struggle of all those who produce and reproduce urban life. Unions must look at the urban everyday existence — a key for the social conflicts to come. In the United States, for example, this has prompted the AFL-CIO federation of labor organizations to start collaborating with domestic workers and migrants.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the basic theses of your book “Rebel Cities” is that urban development solves the problem of surplus capital. One builds streets and develops property on credit — and thereby attempts to escape recession.

  • Harvey : A report from the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco recently put it that way, saying that the United States has historically always surmounted recessions by building houses and filling them with things. Urbanization can solve crises — but, more than anything, it is a way to get out of crises.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there current examples of this strategy?

  • Harvey : Where are economies currently growing the fastest? In China and Turkey. What do we see in Istanbul? Cranes, everywhere. And when the crisis broke out in 2008, China lost 30 million jobs within six months owing to drops in US imports of consumer goods. But then the Chinese government created 27 million new jobs. How? The Chinese used their enormous trade surpluses to mount a gigantic urban-development and infrastructure program.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn’t such a short-notice crisis strategy aided by having an authoritarian regime like China’s?

  • Harvey : Just imagine Obama ordering Goldman Sachs to give money to developers — good luck! But when a Chinese bank gets an order from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it lends as much money as is desired. The Chinese government forced the banks to furnish development projects with large amounts of money.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this kind of urbanization necessarily a bad thing?

  • Harvey : Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class. It is a powerful process that newly defines what cities are about, as well as who can live there and who can’t. And it determines the quality of life in cities according to the stipulations of capital rather than those of people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time, in Istanbul, the state housing association Toki has built several large housing estates for the poor. Does this contradict your thesis? … //

… SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a Marxist and social theorist. In your latest book, you refer to the “art of rent,” that is, when capital makes extra profits from local discrepancies. What exactly do you mean?

  • Harvey : Simply put, a monopolist can demand a premium for a sought-after commodity. These days, cities try demanding premiums by advertising themselves as culturally unique. After the Guggenheim Museum was built in Bilbao in 1997, cities all over the world followed its example and began developing landmark projects. The goal is to be able to say: “This city is unique, and that’s why you need to pay a special price to be here.”

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But if every city had a Guggenheim Museum or a philharmonic like the one currently being built in Hamburg, wouldn’t there be a sort of inflationary effect when it comes to such flagship projects that would lead them to fail?

  • Harvey : The bubble has already burst in Spain, and many of the huge projects remain only half-finished. Incidentally, major events like the Olympic Games, the soccer World Cup and music festivals serve the same purpose. Cities try to secure themselves a prime position on the market — like a rare wine of an exceptionally good vintage.

(full interview text).

some Links related to this article’s Photo Gallery:

Gentrification on en.wikipedia … is a dynamic that emerges in poor urban areas when residential shifts, urban planning, and other phenomena affect the composition of a neighborhood.[1] Urban gentrification often involves population migration as poor residents of a neighborhood are displaced. In a community undergoing gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases. This generally results in the displacement of the poorer, pre-gentrification residents, who are unable to pay increased rents, and property taxes, or afford real estate. Often old industrial buildings are converted to residences and shops. New businesses, which can afford increased commercial rent, cater to a more affluent base of consumers—further increasing the appeal to higher income migrants and decreasing the accessibility to the poor. Often, resident owners unable to pay the taxes are forced to sell their residences and move to a cheaper community.[2][3]
Political action, either to promote or oppose the gentrification, is often the community’s response against unintended economic eviction.[4] However, local governments may favor gentrification because of the increased tax base associated with the new high-income residents, as well as because of other perceived benefits of moving poor people and rehabilitating deteriorated areas …;
Gentrification’s Further reading;

Condominium (incl. US Property law in the right column) on en.wikipedia: A condominium, or condo, is the form of housing tenure and other real property where a specified part of a piece of real estate (usually of an apartment house) is individually owned, while use of and access to common facilities in the piece such as hallways, heating system, elevators, exterior areas is executed under legal rights associated with the individual ownership and controlled by the association of owners that jointly represent ownership of the whole piece. Colloquially, the term is often used to refer to the unit itself in place of the word “apartment”. A condominium may be simply defined as an “apartment” that the resident owns as opposed to rents …;

David Harvey on en.wikipedia, (geographer, born 31 October 1935, Gillingham, Kent, England) is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he received his PhD in Geography from University of Cambridge in 1961. Widely influential, he is among the top 20 most cited authors in the humanities.[1] In addition, he is the world’s most cited academic geographer,[2] and the author of many books and essays that have been prominent in the development of modern geography as a discipline. His work has contributed greatly to broad social and political debate; most recently he has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism.[3] He is a leading proponent of the idea of the right to the city, as well as a member of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.[4]
In 2007, Harvey was listed as the 18th most-cited intellectual of all time in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide[5] …;

David Harvey’s book: Rebel Cities, on amazon;

Upcoming Speaking Events in London and Galway, on David Harvey.org – Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey, by blog owner, May 3, 2013;

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