Tuesday, 23 October 2012

David Harvey on Capitalism and the Urban Form

One of the many advantages of living among Boston and Cambridge's vast collection of respected higher education institutions is that there is no shortage of talks to attend given by celebrated intellectuals. We were able to attend one such event last week when the prominent Marxist and critic of neoliberalism David Harvey came to talk at Boston University. David Harvey is particularly special to Martin and I due to his position as the most cited academic geographer of all time, and indeed as one of the few geographers whose renown extends well beyond the confines of his home discipline. I am pretty sure that Harvey's 'Condition of Postmodernity' was the first academic geography book that I was ever charged with reading, which gives you some idea of how significant his oeuvre is in undergraduate geography courses. I came to the talk with some trepidation: whilst I have much sympathy politically and intellectually for Marxian analyses of the world economy and the urban form, I am also concerned to distance myself from what I consider to be deterministic or overly structural accounts of social processes, a flaw I see in much Marxist thought. I was concerned that this encounter with an early academic hero would clash against the backdrop of my more recently acquired commitments to constructivist and post-structuralist approaches in geography and STS. I needn't have worried.

The purpose of his lecture, Harvey outlined, was to explore connectivities between the three major themes he has covered in his work: the dynamics of capital accumulation; the study of urbanisation; and the class struggle and anti-capitalist struggles. Harvey explained that expansion and therefore surpluses of capital are an essential part of the capitalist system; furthermore, one potential use of such surpluses is urbanisation, or the expansion of the urban form. Cities are both infrastructures incorporating much capital value, and projects which are almost uniquely time-consuming. Thus there is a complex relationship between the formation and resolution of the crises capitalism is prone to, and the urban form itself.

He used the example of Paris. There was a financial crisis centred around Paris in 1848, characterised as such crises always are by a vast surplus of capital and a vast surplus of labour (unemployment). Civil unrest about this state of affairs led to a revolution, which was swiftly followed by a counter revolution which eventually resulted in the ascension of Napoleon's nephew Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to the status of Emperor of France. Napoleon III soon put the surpluses of capital and labour to work through investment in major infrastructure projects and changes to built environment of the city overseen by Baron Haussmann, and also initiated broader urban lifestyle changes aimed at promoting a more consumptive urban lifestyle of cafes, new clothing fashions, street-lighting and more. Crucially he also created new banks, recognising the need for new institutions to debt-finance this expansion of Paris. The 1860s brought a new financial crisis caused by this debt and declining support for Bonaparte and Haussmann's projects. People responded with attempts to rebuild Paris again, this time with the needs of the workers in mind, resulting in the Paris Commune.
Barricades in the Paris Commune
Another key argument that Harvey made was to suggest a causal link between urban housing and property market bubbles to macro economic conditions, for example suggesting that a housing market crash triggered the Great Depression. The material urban form is not just crisis forming though, it can also be crisis resolving, for example, Roosevelt's attempts to revive urbanisation through reforms to mortgage-lending amongst other initiatives. Harvey sees this development as resulting in the vast movement towards suburbanisation of American cities during the 1950s and 60s, like the case of nineteenth century Paris leading to transformations in people's ways of life. The 1960s also saw the reoccupation of the abandoned centres of American cities, and the corresponding gentrification of these areas - excluding certain sections of the population from enjoying the benefits of urbanisation. It was a Clinton initiative to try to help low-income families become home-owners which Harvey sees as leading to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, alongside decline in American manufacturing industries like electronics. Harvey held up China as the only country in the world which hasn't been completely hobbled by the current financial crisis, and attributed this to immense Chinese investment in urbanisation and urban infrastructure, which absorbed 27 million of the 30 million jobs lost initially in the crisis.

But Harvey did not only stress the importance of material and financial elements in this complex set of relationships between capital crises and the urban form. He also strongly emphasised that urban developments occur in the context of particular imaginaries about how cities should be built. This shows how certain powerful actors are able to be so clearly dominant in the form and uses of cities. Harvey's particular concern is how the enaction of these imaginaries - which see little role for  public spaces or affordable housing projects - effectively excludes the people who work to produce and reproduce the urban form - here he means the domestic workers, the delivery men and the taxi drivers, as much as he is referring to those in the construction industry. He sees these imaginative, material and financial elements as combining to produce entirely segregated urban environments, and more recently, the increasing disaggregation and fragmentation of the urban form.

Harvey is an academic deeply concerned with praxis, and thus actively caught up in the urban struggles he writes about. A practical problem he encounters in trying to encourage the formation of alliances and movements between the people of the city, is the declining availability of public spaces for assembling large groups - in this regard, he saw the occupy movement as achieving success in its relative permanence and stability. He draws inspiration in his visions of the potential to create cities for the people in the ruins of capitalist urbanisation from the rebuilding of the Paris Commune, reclaimed by the people involved in the production and reproduction of urban life. He ended by discussing the 'technologies of the city', highlighting the value-laden and highly political choices which are made in the selection of different urban technologies, and the need to consider who they are for and what we want them to do.
It may strike you that the account I have laid out has structuralist overtones. Yet in common with STS scholars Harvey is also keen to highlight the constructedness of the status quo, the contingency of the processes which led us to where we are now, and therefore the potential for previously un-anticipated material and political forms in future. By highlighting the political nature of the urban form, the importance of institutions and the role of particular imaginaries amongst powerful groups which have literally shaped the city and its uses, Harvey offers an account which bridges many key debates and concerns in STS. For example, it would be fairly easy to recast this account as one of the coproduction the capitalist urban form and modes of social ordering, or an analysis of the role of sociotechnical imaginaries in bringing about certain economic and urban orders. Often when we look outside of our safe disciplinary spaces it seems that we can encounter work which has productive synergies with our own.


  1. Interesting. I have never heard David Harvey speak, but read various of his stuff over the years. My introduction to him was also as a geograohy student in the late 1970s, when we were given his 1967 tome 'Explanation in geography' to read, in order to understand the 1960s quant and modelling turn in geography. By 1973 of course he had written social justice and the city, which also featured on our reading lists. It is interesting to see how people's intellectual positions change during their career - as has mine with climate change.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Yes indeed it might be difficult for us to find a prominent geographer or even STS scholar who hasn't undergone some radical shift in thinking and affiliations in their career - though perhaps Harvey has been fairly consistent since 'Social Justice and the City'? It's interesting to think about disciplinary and institutional apparatuses can both enable and constrain such movements, as they too are to an extent reshaped from time to time by pioneers like Harvey.