Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A critical assessment of David Harvey's suggestion that we should "adopt the right to the city as both working slogan and political ideal"

by Jane Hoffe, 2012

Around the globe urbanisation has increased at an alarming rate with more people occupying cities today than the entire world population in 1960 (Davis, 2004:5). However, the process of urbanisation has brought success and prosperity to only a select few. Grounded in the development of the capitalist system, Harvey (2008; 2012) argues that cities developed out of a notion of individual monetary gain with little recognition of the collective will. Through an analysis of the context and structure of today’s modern city it becomes evident that many who occupy the capitalist urban centre are left on the periphery of political and social influence of the cities in which they inhabit. Harvey (2008; 2012) therefore suggests the adoption of what he terms “the right to the city” as both a working slogan and political ideal in addressing the problems faced by city dwellers. By first assessing what the “right to the city” truly means and how it fits into the context of the modern city structure, one is then able to discuss in what shape the adoption of such a right will take and the challenges faced by those adopting it.

The city, according to Mathivet (2010), “is a political space where the expression of a collective will is possible.” (Mathivet, 2010:21). Furthermore the right to the city is the focus “on restoring the city’s significance to its inhabitants” (Mathivet, 2010:21) through mobilisation and collectivisation in the pursuit of a better quality of life than the current status quo. According to Marcuse (2010), adopting the right to the city as a political slogan is to focus on broadening the scope of demand for social change. Therefore implementing the right to the city as a working slogan and political ideal would require a political and social shift in focus back to the interests of the majority of people living in the city. This is essentially a shift in focus towards those who are currently socially excluded by the “spatial segregation generated by neoliberalism.” (Mathivet, 2010:25). For Harvey (2008), the right to the city “is a right to change ourselves by changing the city” (Harvey, 2008:23) – essentially finding place and identity within the city. Therefore the right requires granting the inhabitants of cities the ownership of their living space that they are, in general, being denied as a result of capitalism and the privatisation of city spaces.

In understanding the right to the city it becomes paramount to understand the context in which the right is to exist; therefore, understanding the construction and context of the city. According to Harvey (2008) the source of city building and the move from predominantly rural to urban living is found in capitalism. Capitalism, as defined by Bernstein (2000), is “a system of production of goods and services for market exchange … in order to make a profit.” (Bernstein, 2000:442). Therefore the greater the production and exchange of goods generally the higher the profit made. Harvey (2008) argues that in order for capitalism to be successful it is necessary to reinvest surplus capital or profit to make more profit. Furthermore, such a process required a terrain which allowed for the continued search for new means of production and a concentrated labour force. Hence cities become the means by which to establish an environment necessary for profit investment as cities promote a concentrated labour force for industry. It may therefore be perceived that cities and the continued increase of urbanisation would be a source of economic prosperity, progress and a better life (Harvey, 2008:26). However, the perceived prosperity of cities has never been seen by a vast majority of city inhabitants largely as a result of the inequality inherent in the capitalist system.

The development of capitalism finds its roots in the exploitative structures of colonialism. According to Preston (1996), colonialism is characterised by the expropriation of resources for production. It is through this characteristic that the capitalist system is said to have developed (Preston, 1996:145). The exploitation of the many by the few which occurred in colonialism imbedded itself in the capitalist system and particularly in the development of the cities. According to Harvey (2012), the capitalist system is dependent on the establishment of classes which divide society into those who own the means of production and capital and those who do not. Furthermore, the development of the colonial city to increase production resulted in dispossession of local owned land for colonial capitalist ventures (van Olsen, 1984). For most colonised peoples the land was their livelihood and means of production, without it they were forced to move to the urban cities to become migrant labourers – inhabiting the lower class (van Olsen, 1984). However, as Davis (2004) points out the influx of people into the bright lights of the city was not adequately catered for and thousands of poor migrants found themselves in informal settlements on the outskirts of the city.

As a consequence, extreme poverty has become problematic to the modern city (Davis, 2004:6). The result of bad planning and the incredible rate at which the cities grew, is mass poverty in illegal settlements (Davis, 2004:7). Over the years as capitalism has developed, corporations or capital investors have grown in influence within the city space – establishing strong ties to governing authority. As a result more and more public space has become privatised – owned by the wealthy few to be used for more profit gain. The privatisation of space in the city for profit gain has further alienated those without the financial capabilities from the full use of the city (Harvey, 2008:32). Therefore, those who find themselves living outside the economic means demanded by life in the city are cast as outsiders with no claim to city property or access to city amenities. Davis (2004) notes how it is not uncommon for land occupied by the urban poor in the form of peripheral slums to be mercilessly cleared away for the use of private capitalists. This has been evident in India’s Mumbai (Ahmed Khan, 2012), Brazil (Assentamento Manoel Neto and Brasília, 2007) and South Africa (Selmeczi, 2012:498) to name a few examples. Thus there has been a move in recent times towards collectivising and mobilising people at a grass roots level to take ownership of the city and to assert their “right to the city” or ownership of the space in which they find identity.

However, how is this right to be achieved and adopted as a working slogan or political ideal? In answering this question it is necessary to establish in what situations has the right already been adopted and what form that adoption took or will take.

For Harvey (2012), as a Marxist, the process of adopting “the right to the city” as a working slogan and political ideal is a radical one and one which is, in its essence, anti-capitalist. Such a process of adopting the right would require the restructuring of the city from the bottom up, that is: based on the political subjectivisation of those currently on the outskirts of city participation (Selmeczi, 2012: 499). Furthermore, to reconstruct the city in order for it to become a place accessible to all, there needs to be a focus on the collective will of the people and not on the will of any single individual. Harvey (2012) therefore argues that “reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation.” (Harvey, 2012:4).

It may be argued that to reconstruct the city in such a way would be to follow the historical example of the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune offers an example of how the collectivisation of the people from below eventually led to the establishment of a new governmental structure or order in which the previously marginalised incurred power over the urban space. According to James (1946) the “Paris Commune was first and foremost a democracy.” (James, 1946). Furthermore, according to Marx (1871) the Commune focused on the “tendency of a government of the people by the people.” (Marx, 1871). Such a tendency was made possible through the use or granting of universal suffrage – that is the right for everyone to vote in political elections (Soanes et al., 2010:758). For its time, the democracy of the Paris commune was significant because it gave a fairly loud political voice to those who historically had had none. It is this notion of a political shift toward radically granting those who do not have a political voice in the city currently, a say in the shaping of the future of the city and therefore a shaping of themselves.

The means through which the city’s marginalised may organise themselves to eventually produce a new governmental order is argued to be through the social movement. According to Selmeczi (2012), those currently marginalised by the city structure are required to view themselves as political agents – capable of vocalising their experience in the political arena. Social movements may be shown to provide the necessary platform and space for the city’s marginalised to collectivise around social issues and place necessary pressure on the state for change or eventually become the change they wish to see (Selmeczi, 2012:508). The “exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation” (Harvey, 2012:4) which is often expressed through social movements, may be labelled as what Zibechi (2010) has termed: an “epistemological earthquake.” (Zibechi, 2010:83).

Zibechi’s (2010) idea of the “epistemological earthquake” refers to “when those who have occupied the depths of society for centuries … emerge as subjects, which calls into question the subject/object relationship on of the most pernicious legacies of colonialism.” (Zibechi, 2010:83). That is to say: an epistemological earthquake occurs when the marginalised in society step forward and make their voice heard – challenging or threatening the status quo on how knowledge is produced. Zibechi (2010) puts forward the notion that the rising up of the previously unheard puts in place a creative power form which emerges from the bottom, from the people. This creative power subsequently poses a challenge to the constituted power or power from the state above. Zibechi (2010) argues how social movements which focus on the subjectivization of the people at the bottom in society in the political arena, enable the use of the people’s experience to develop knowledge about power in society.

That being said, there is much being done through the use of social movements to place significant pressure on current city governance for a change in the status quo with regard to city structuring. Through the use of an example in New York it may be suggested that social movements are bringing about necessary awareness and action on the part of the state without completely radicalising power structures as promoted by Harvey (2012).

The fight of social movements or organisations to give the right to the city back to the socially and economically excluded has had some success in New York. According to Marcuse (2010) The Right to the City Alliance in New York has enabled the representation of a large number of urban groups and their interests at a national level. For example: Community Voices Heard (CVH) is an organisation which unifies low-income people in New York, most of whom have had experience with the public welfare systems, with the focus of improving the lives of families and communities in New York City and State (Marcuse, 2010:95). According to Marcuse (2010) the organisation has had some success and currently works to bring about: welfare reform, job creation, affordable low-income housing, public housing preservation and improvement, workforce development, and other issues relating to economic justice. Organisations like CVH have been successful in making the right to the city a slogan and political ideal – enabling the urban alienated to once again find identity and ownership in the city by striving for a better life for all.

However, social movements in their bid against the city structure do not come without challenges, particularly in regard to the establishment of a new government. These challenges therefore need to be addressed.

Concerns regarding the implementation of a suggested radical change in governance through social movements find their roots in the notion of grass-roots collective community action which forms social movements. As Friedman (2010), points out, with governance comes a range of responsibilities and tasks with regard to the organisation of labour, defence against counter-revolution and general restructuring of society. The need to address such responsibilities essentially negates the new leadership from the ‘people from below’ who they represented initially because less time is able to be spent on the continuing those close relationships.  It is far too common that those initially leading social movements on the ground become absorbed into the bureaucracy of the governance of those before them – often entering into even more authoritarian exercise of power (Friedman, 2010:148). Such was the case in the Communist revolution in Russia during the early 1900s. The new governance began to find it easier to exercise power-from-above rather than continue the dialogue between the state and the people required of power-from-below (Friedman, 2010:147).

Furthermore, the necessary skills required to enable social movements’ success in adopting the right to the city demand a certain education of the population involved in the movement (Selmeczi, 2010:313). To develop a social movement in which the marginalised become successfully aware of their political capabilities an extensive educational programme to change the mind sets of these people ensues (Selmeczi, 2010:313). As Selmeczi (2010) points out, such a large project to educate so many in itself develops a power inequality between those deemed educated and those in need of educating. The power dynamics of such a relationship threaten the new governmental order envisioned through the adoption of the right to the city in that it has the potential to segregate the educated into a new form of power-from-above over those in need of educating (Selmeczi, 2010:312). The radical development of a new governance through the work of social movements to collectivise therefore has the potential to “put in place dynamics of power that would incommensurate with the kind of subject such resistances produces.” (Selmeczi, 2010:311).

There are movements, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, who have recognised such power dynamics and have done well to counter act them; perhaps it is these social movements whose model should be followed in adopting the right to the city as a working slogan and political ideal. According to Selmeczi (2012), Abahlali baseMjondolo is a social movement operating in the shack settlements of Kwa-Zulu Natal with the purpose of providing a space for shack dwellers to speak out and have their experiences heard. Selmeczi (2012) describes this process as bringing about the disruption of “the order of urban government.” (Selmeczi, 2012:499).

According to Selmeczi (2012), Abahlali has enabled those on the periphery of the city who are perceived to be without political capacity to become political subjects. The movement enables this subjectivization by encouraging the sharing of stories and experience of shack dwellers in a process which recognises “that their suffering is unjust.” (Selmeczi, 2012:510). This process of shared suffering invokes a notion of ‘living politics’ – that is the existence of the political in a person’s everyday life and suffering (Selmeczi, 2010:312). Abahlali have been shown to recognise that central to living politics is that “everyone must be able to understand it.” (Selmeczi, 2010:312). Such recognition encouraged those fortunate enough to gain further education to create forums in which to decide how to utilize their knowledge and share it with the community. In doing so Abahlali sought to “avoid the forgetful distancing of those who leave behind the shanty towns” (Selmeczi, 2010:312) and essentially break the “hierarchy of teacher student.” (Selmeczi, 2010:312). Should those in the position of the educated continue to maintain the mind set they currently hold, it is plausible that the success of Abahlali as a social movement will continue to have rippling effects on the state. Furthermore, it is the kind of mentality which could save such a movement from repeating the government structures which produced the movement initially.

In conclusion, it is evident through analysis that the current city structure under capitalism segregates the majority of the population from the city in which they reside. In doing so, the structure further segregates residents from their humanity as political subjects in the shaping of the city. Therefore, in order to adopt the “right to the city” as both a working slogan and political ideal Harvey (2012) suggests the use of social movements to bring about a collective repossession of the city by the currently marginalised. Such a process would entail an “epistemological earthquake” – a challenge to the status quo and a restructuring of the political arena of the city to be more inclusive. Through the education and assertion of political capability of those on the periphery of the cities, as in the case of Abahlali, ownership of the city space and the adoption of the right to the city might be possible. Much like in the case of the Paris Commune, Harvey (2012) envisions a radical overturn of the current system of government to be replaced by a more representative government. Although not a completely farfetched notion, the adoption of the right to the city as both a working slogan and political ideal has some challenges which need to be addressed before it can successfully bring about the radical change sought by Harvey. Harvey’s vision is threatened by the potential for the new governance to merely reproduce the political hierarchy against which the movement initially developed. Certain measures should therefore be taken within the very essence of the social movement structuring to foster an inclusive power structuring environment, as is the case with Abahlali in South Africa. However, in the context of the current capitalist city, Harvey’s suggestion to adopt the right to the city as a working slogan and political ideal is being realised in small ways through social movements around the world.


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