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The Right to the City

[David Harvey – New Left Review 53, 2008] We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expended in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights. I here want to explore another type of human right, that of the right to the city.

Has the astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years contributed to human well-being? The city, in the words of urban sociologist Robert Park, is:

man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. [1]

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

From their inception, cities have arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon, since surpluses are extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while the control over their disbursement typically lies in a few hands. This general situation persists under capitalism, of course; but since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product, an intimate connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. Capitalists have to produce a surplus product in order to produce surplus value; this in turn must be reinvested in order to generate more surplus value. The result of continued reinvestment is the expansion of surplus production at a compound rate—hence the logistic curves (money, output and population) attached to the history of capital accumulation, paralleled by the growth path of urbanization under capitalism.

The perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital-surplus production and absorption shapes the politics of capitalism. It also presents the capitalist with a number of barriers to continuous and trouble-free expansion. If labour is scarce and wages are high, either existing labour has to be disciplined—technologically induced unemployment or an assault on organized working-class power are two prime methods—or fresh labour forces must be found by immigration, export of capital or proletarianization of hitherto independent elements of the population. Capitalists must also discover new means of production in general and natural resources in particular, which puts increasing pressure on the natural environment to yield up necessary raw materials and absorb the inevitable waste. They need to open up terrains for raw-material extraction—often the objective of imperialist and neo-colonial endeavours.

The coercive laws of competition also force the continuous implementation of new technologies and organizational forms, since these enable capitalists to out-compete those using inferior methods. Innovations define new wants and needs, reduce the turnover time of capital and lessen the friction of distance, which limits the geographical range within which the capitalist can search for expanded labour supplies, raw materials, and so on. If there is not enough purchasing power in the market, then new markets must be found by expanding foreign trade, promoting novel products and lifestyles, creating new credit instruments, and debt-financing state and private expenditures. If, finally, the profit rate is too low, then state regulation of ‘ruinous competition’, monopolization (mergers and acquisitions) and capital exports provide ways out.

If any of the above barriers cannot be circumvented, capitalists are unable profitably to reinvest their surplus product. Capital accumulation is blocked, leaving them facing a crisis, in which their capital can be devalued and in some instances even physically wiped out. Surplus commodities can lose value or be destroyed, while productive capacity and assets can be written down and left unused; money itself can be devalued through inflation, and labour through massive unemployment. How, then, has the need to circumvent these barriers and to expand the terrain of profitable activity driven capitalist urbanization? I argue here that urbanization has played a particularly active role, alongside such phenomena as military expenditures, in absorbing the surplus product that capitalists perpetually produce in their search for profits

Link to full article in New Left Review

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