Follow Us

RSS Feed    Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

On Why Struggles over Urban Space Matter: An Interview with David Harvey

[David Harvey] [David Harvey]

Why do urban struggles matter in projects of social change? What is the importance of reclaiming public space in social movements? And at this gloomy global moment of extreme urban disparities and social inequalities, how do we re-think what is possible? For insights on these questions, we interviewed David Harvey on 24 October 2013. Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology & Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Director of The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous groundbreaking books including Social Justice and the City (1973), The Limits to Capital (1982), Spaces of Hope (2000), A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), and Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012). In this interview, Harvey illustrates how struggles over urban space and the quality of daily life in neighborhoods are intrinsic to understanding the dynamics of class struggle. He highlights the importance of joining struggles in projects of social change and calls for re-conceptualizing of the working class to include all “those people who produce and reproduce urban life.” The original interview was recorded, and subsequently transcribed by Duncan Wane.

Hiba Bou Akar and Nada Moumtaz (HB & NM): Professor Harvey, we are very honored and grateful for this opportunity to conduct an interview with you for Jadaliyya. Our first question is the following: for people and movements interested in social and political change, why is the struggle over urban space (or space and its production in general) significant in bringing about social change?

David Harvey (DH): I will give you a simple theoretical background, which comes out of my readings and writings on Volume Two of Capital. The simple general argument that Marx makes is that surplus value, profit, is produced in the act of production. Of course Volume One of Capital, which is the one that everyone reads, is all about production. But even in Volume One, Marx makes it clear that there can be no value in what has been produced until that value is realized in the market. Therefore, as he says in the Grundrisse, it is contradictory unity between production and realization that actually defines what capital is about.

Now, if you think about this, you can see that production creates surplus value, but you can also see that the value is not necessarily realized at the point where it is produced–the value is realized somewhere else. For example, value can be produced in a Chinese factory, and then realized by Wal-Mart in Columbus, Ohio. So, urbanization is, in many ways, a field of realization of surplus value. There is an inner connectivity in the circulation of capital between production and realization, and struggles in the urban sphere are just as important to value production and realization as are struggles in the workplace.

Now, the workers can struggle for higher wages and better working conditions, and perhaps they succeed in the production process. But, from their standpoint, they then take their extra money, they return home, and they find that they suddenly have to pay it back to the bourgeoisie in the form of higher rents, credit card charges, telephone bills, and so on. So, from the standpoint of the worker, there is a concern not simply with what happens at the point of production, but also with how much housing costs, and how much you pay for goods and services, commodities in the shops, hidden charges from paying interest on mortgages, and all the rest of it.

So, I construe these two forms of class struggle, which in a lot of theories are kept strictly apart, as being a contradictory unity. Therefore, the struggles that go on in cities over daily life are just as important as the struggles going on in workplaces. That unity has always been very important to me, although a lot of people prefer not to acknowledge it.
This, then, affects how cities are shaped, what the costs of living are, how rent sorts income streams to spaces, and how ghettoization occurs. Here, we should talk about ghettoization, historically of the poor, but now of the rich, who are forming ghettos for themselves and closing themselves off from the world.

So, I see this as a single unitary problem, albeit there is what I call contradictory unity between what happens at the point of production and what happens in the living space.  Now, my point is that you could have actually immense victories at the point of production, and then it would all be lost back in the living space. Workers are agitated by rising rents–and, we can see this right now, actually, if we look at capital in general–extracting surpluses back from workers through high rent accommodations, telephone charges, and so on.

This is important for me when teaching students. I can teach them theoretically about the workplace, but most students are not in the workplace. But, if you start talking about the rents they pay, then they understand exactly what you are talking about. You tell them they are fighting about the same things, and thereby playing the game of class struggle.

For me, the struggles over urban space and the quality of daily life in the neighborhood are just as vital to understanding the dynamics of what class struggle is all about. The incredible thing about capital, of course, is its extreme flexibility: if it loses here, it gains there. We had a period under social democracy when it lost some power in the workplace, and it tried to suck back as much of the surplus as it could through these other mechanisms. I think it is unfortunate that in many modes of thinking, including the Marxist tradition, what happens in the living space is considered a secondary issue. Capital is very happy if everyone thinks it is a secondary point, because then that realm is not approached as part of the dynamic of class struggle. For me, that contradictory unity between production and realization is significant in how you think about the relationship between the production of value, and surplus value, and its realization.

Of course, one of the problems of Marxist theory is that no one reads Volume Two of Capital about the realization process. Everyone will tell you about the production process, but nobody discusses the realization process. Volume Two is a very difficult book to read, but missing that piece is the reason, I think, that there is a serious shortcoming in radical analyses that do not see the unity between production and realization.

HB & NM: While in Istanbul the urban roots of the Gezi Park uprisings were more highlighted, those of the Arab uprisings are less evident–even though in Egypt, for instance, the housing crisis and the impossibility of young adults to secure housing to start families have been rampant problems. How would you characterize the difference in locating the urban crisis in these two uprisings?

DH: Well, I am not an expert on Istanbul or on Cairo, so I have to say it is very embarrassing being the world’s expert on things I know nothing about. Having said that, I was in Istanbul just before the uprising and, of course, I knew enough about Istanbul to see that it was undergoing an astonishing process of urban redevelopment. There were construction cranes everywhere! The Turkish economy is the second-fastest growing economy in the world, and construction and urbanization, of course, play a part in how it grows. But, this is a bubble and, in the course of a bubble, people get displaced. I became very unpopular because I went on the radio there, and told them it reminded me of Madrid in 2005 before the crash. There were a lot of struggles against displacement going on in Istanbul. I was very fortunate to have some colleagues there who took me to various parts of the city, showing me where the gentrification and the evictions were happening.

It seemed to me that, in this situation, the urban-social movements were clearly distressed.  There was a lot of agitation against these mega-projects, which the government had designed for the city. When they announced the plans for the square, I was not surprised at all that there was some sort of reaction to it. But, as far as I could tell, the reaction did not possess the same kind of center as in Egypt and in North Africa generally. In North Africa, the background to many of the struggles had been recurring food riots that have taken place over the last fifteen to twenty years. The high cost of food has been a serious question, but the populations also see massive increases in inequality emerging around them; there is clearly a great deal of corruption.

My first thought when the Arab uprisings occurred in Cairo was how similar it was to Paris during the French Revolution of 1848. Paris 1848 and Cairo now have interesting parallels. In Paris in 1848, the people decided to get rid of the king, Louis Philippe. They got rid of the king, but that was the easy part. These were called the February Days of the 1848. The equivalent would the 25 January (2011) uprisings in Egypt, which ended with the overthrow of Mubarak. In Paris, a few months later, during the June Days of 1848, facing workers’ rebellion, order was restored by a military apparatus, and the rebellion was crushed. In the Parisian case, this knowledge of how to handle people was brought back to France from Algeria, which was a French colony. The military apparatus treated the people on the boulevards as colonial subjects and shot them down. That was the end of that uprising. What happened after 30 June 2013, on 3 July in Egypt, bore an uncanny resemblance to the June Days, with repression imposed by the military. In Cairo, however, it was not a socialist revolution; it was more of a bourgeois republican revolution with the aim of getting rid of corruption and inequality, trying to create a more democratic society. I am not sure how useful the parallel is, how far I could push it.

There was also a clear alliance of forces, which emerged in Cairo, and this might have some parallels with Istanbul. Workers’ movements turned out in Cairo–they had also been agitating for some time. So, there was a workers’ movement which joined in, there was the obvious discontented youth movement, and there was the city population who was discontented with inequality, high food prices, and corruption. But, the alliance in Cairo was quite disparate, and I think the same thing applied to Istanbul. For instance, in Istanbul, soccer fans of the working class club [Beşiktaş] joined in. They were chanting sexist slogans, which the feminists objected to. They told them they should change their slogans, and they actually did. So, in both cases, there was a disparate alliance with the focus of discontent on a regime that operates in a very autocratic way, and will not stand for any kind of consultation. I would not say that either of these were socialist revolutions. They are urban uprisings around discontent.

Within Istanbul–and this is a classic case where the parallel with Paris is significant–the Turkish central government does not like Istanbul. Istanbul is the center of opposition, as are the other major urban centers. So, while the government itself is not really anti-urban because they favor this sort of urban developmentalism, they are certainly not in favor of the populations who predominate in those areas.

HB & NM: But, one cannot put the discontent with Erdoğan on par with the discontent with Mubarak?

DH: Well, in both cases, it is authoritarianism that people are standing up against, and so are levels of corruption extremely high in both instances. These are regimes founded on some level of corruption. I am not saying corruption does not exist in places like the United States, the only difference is that, in the United States, it is legal [referring to the legally sanctioned financing of political campaigns by corporations, associations, and political action committees].

HB & NM: The parallels (or the lack of) between the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and the Arab uprisings are still being debated. While some participants of the OSW claim the movement was inspired by the Arab uprisings, others saw the conditions of the two movements different and hence incomparable. How do you see the difference between OWS and the Arab uprisings in terms of the disparities and social inequalities that exist in each context?

DH: My impression of the “Arab Spring” is a broadly populist movement bringing together all kinds of discontents against a ruling regime that was seen as insensitive. I am not deeply familiar with OWS because I was on sabbatical that year. I left and, ten days later, they occupied Wall Street.

If you look at the composition of the people who were involved in the OWS movement, it was nowhere near the same as diverse as the composition of the population that appeared in Tahrir Square or even in Gezi Park. It was a small group, ideologically very strongly driven by anarchist and autonomist thinking. It was people who had a radical agenda, who wanted to put that radical agenda on the table. It was a very small group who then took upon itself to claim to speak for “the 99%.”

OWS is theoretically interesting because they would never agree to the idea that they were a vanguard movement, but in fact they were, and that was the central contradiction for them. They had a lot of internal problems about how to turn this movement into something different. Certain rules were set up. Everything had to be horizontal. I think some inspiration came from the “Arab Spring,” in the sense that it was possible to go out and achieve something. Centrality was important in all of these movements. Of course, Henri Lefebvre argues that centrality is crucial for political activism. And, in both instances, the “Arab Spring” and the OWS, you have an occupation of a central symbolic space. But, I think if you took a census of the people who were there in OWS and the people who were there in Tahrir Square or Gezi Park, you would not find any real mass parallels at all.

Yet, they both articulated something about social inequality. Although it was a small radical group in Occupy, I think they altered the political conversation in the United States. They raised the issue of social inequality to the level where it had to be addressed. Before Occupy, it was not addressed at all and, I think to some degree, Obama’s reelection came about because of the social inequality question. In New York, we are about to elect a mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is no longer of the billionaire class, who talks about the existence of two cities, one for the rich and one for the poor, and who wants to do something about social inequality. [On November 5, after the interview was conducted, de Blasio was elected]. So, yes, by putting the question of social inequality in the forefront of everybody’s thinking, OWS has had a big impact.

HB & NM: So, our next question was going to be about whether you think that the OWS had under-achieved as a movement and if its impact has ended, but it seems like you would argue the opposite, that OWS brought to the fore some important debates that were not discussed before.

DH: Yes, I think it had a significant impact, but not on its own terms. Its own terms were more about radicalizing the city and installing autonomist-anarchist communes everywhere.  The interesting thing is that the Occupy movement is not over. It is fairly active in the boroughs, and provided a mass of people who reacted quickly and effectively to Hurricane Sandy. They got a lot of very good press for that, because they were actually faster than either the Red Cross or FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency.]

I do not think it is fair to say that everything is over. They lost their political saliency when they were ejected from the symbolic central space. If you disperse into the boroughs nobody notices what you do there, but there is still a lot of work going on within the boroughs of NYC.

HB & NM: Is this related to how we visualize social movements? There is this idea maybe that once the people are no longer on the streets, the movement has ended, but you are saying that despite the OWS dispersal, their work has re-shaped the political arena in cities like NYC.

DH: A lot of politics is symbolic. They did achieve something at a symbolic level, which they failed to achieve at an organizational level, and that symbolic achievement is actually rather significant. The new mayor has promised that the first thing he will do is to put a surtax on the rich in order to provide universal pre-school care for the whole city. I do not believe a mayoral candidate would have dared to say that, were it not for the fact that Occupy had put social inequality firmly on the agenda.

HB & NM: Both the Occupy movement and the various protests in the Middle East have used occupation of public space (parks, squares) as a key element in their tactics. How do you think these spatial tactics shaped the sort of movements that emerged, and what kind of politics and possibilities do you think these tactic opens, and what are their limitations?

DH: Well, I think the centrality of the spaces that these movements occupied is significant.  You get attention if you occupy a central space that you would miss if you did something else. To the degree that much of politics is symbolic, these symbolic movements are important to really achieve something. 

One of the things that arose around the Occupy movement is the degree to which the public spaces are political commons. For us, there was recognition that there is a lot of public space around, but none of it is available for the public to do what it likes. Public space is regulated space, which is not there for a common purpose. Here is a new emphasis now in the city on the question of the commons: are there common spaces where we can actually assemble?

The other thing that was remarkable about Occupy was how quickly the police repression came. We have an analogous movement on the right wing, the Tea Party. Last week, the Tea Party pulled down the barriers around the World War II monument in Washington, took the rails, and dumped them in front of the White House. The police did not do a single thing. But, if you move one inch in Zuccotti Park [the privately-owned public space that was the center of the OWS protests in New York City] you get immediately arrested. I think that this disparity in who gets arrested by the police is now coming to public attention. I think that the struggles over these symbolic spaces are an important part of the tactics of the left.

HB & NM: For Marxist geographers, changes in the production of the urban condition (capitalist, neoliberal, etc.) are necessary for social justice. Yet, many other theorists and activists remain focused on struggles in the workplace. Did the Occupy or the Arab uprisings refocus the attention of class struggle on the urban condition?

DH: You have to put the two together. If you change the workplaces and not the city, at some point you have to wonder what the aim is. If people are living in appalling housing conditions, without affordable accommodation, if people are homeless even if they have jobs, then fighting, and even winning battles in the workplace will get you nowhere if the city is a declining mess. These issues are now coming up, for example, in the bankruptcy of Detroit. This is a key aspect of what our struggles should be about, and it is very strange to me that few people think about this as a unity of struggles.

Ideologically, the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain, which is one of the stronger left parties in Europe, is worker- and factory-based, yet one of its most successful actions was over the poll tax, which was an urban issue. That was the issue that got rid of Margaret Thatcher. To the degree that the Party were effective in politics, it was actually through an urban issue – the reform of local government financing– that they made a huge difference.

I found a wonderful old statement from Gramsci that goes back to 1918, who was of course very militant in favor of workers’ councils, which states that the workers’ councils are just interested in what happens in that particular line of work. It is very important that the workers’ councils be supplemented by neighborhood organizations because neighborhood organizations, insofar as they incorporate the street cleaners, the transport workers, and the bank clerks, and everybody else, have a better understanding of the conditions of the working class as a whole, than do the workers’ councils that only have some ideas about their own particular lines of industrial production. Gramsci said: “Let’s put these two forms of organization together.” I think that has basically been my politics all along, but I keep on emphasizing the urban because most of my leftist colleagues in the Marxist and Socialist movements just want to emphasize production and workers movement, rather than look at the conditions of the working class in the city as a whole.

HB & NM: Henri Lefebvre, you, and other Marxist geographers have discussed how cities and the built environment in general are sites of capital accumulation, mostly by dispossession, with soaring land and housing prices that are increasingly pushing the working class and poor people in many cities of the world out of the way–out to the peripheries, or into ghettos and slums. What are some conceptual possibilities that could help us move forward in social struggles over the built environment?

DH: Yes, but even without the way in which the city is a field for the accumulation of capital, it is also a field for the realization of capital, and you need to put these struggles together.  Although, like you are saying, Lefebvre, myself, and others have been saying that there is this secondary circuit of capital where money flows into city-building. Making the city is as important as making widgets in a factory. We do not look enough at who makes the city and how it is made. In these days, the work forces are often casual and temporary –they move around, they are hard to organize. Because of the degree to which factory labor has been decimated, many people wonder “Where is the working class?” The response to that is we should conceptualize the working class as all those people who produce and reproduce urban life.

HB & NM: Any other comments or questions to all the activists out there?

DH: No, I have a rule, which is to never give advice to local activists about their local situation, because they know what they are doing far more than I do!

If you prefer, email your comments to

Jad Navigation

View Full Map, Topics, and Countries »
You need to upgrade your Flash Player

Jadaliyya Features