Another City is Possible!: An Interview with David Harvey

David Harvey was ranked as one of the twenty-most cited authors of books in the humanities in 2007 by the business information company Thomson Reuters, but he might be more proud of having introduced his concept of “accumulation by dispossession” throughout the academic and activist worlds. Accumulation by dispossession is a key conceptual tool for understanding the implementation of contemporary neoliberal policies. Although the internationally published Library Journal called him “one of the most influential geographers of the later twentieth century,” seated in El Revolucionario Bar, in front of the Argentinean Congress Square, he looks like one of many Buenos Aires´s bohemians. He is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and was invited to Argentina to attend the International Encounter of Political Economy organized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In his last book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, the author of The Condition of Postmodernity, The New Imperialism and Paris, Capital of Modernity proposes to reconsider the city as a field of tensions in which to develop alternatives to a self-destructive capitalism.

Lucas Palero.: In Rebel Cities, you say “The Party of Wall Street has one universal principle of rule: that there shall be no serious challenge to the absolute power of money to rule absolutely.” The elections are coming. What is the interaction between this Party of Wall Street and the traditional parties, Republican and Democrat?

David Harvey: The Party of Wall Street owns a big piece of both political parties. Usually they spread that money between the two parties so they keep total political control, no matter which party comes to power. This time they are nervous that Obama may stay in power, so they are [supporting] Republicans more now than usual. But I think that is for a very specific reason: that they know now what they have done wrong and they know that legally they could probably all be thrown in jail. And while Obama will not do that, if a social movement arose, like Occupy Wall Street, that pushed him, he would do it more easily than Romney. This also explains why there is such a fierce police reaction to Occupy Wall Street, which is quite a small and in some ways innocent movement.

L.P.: How can the Occupy movement accomplish your ideas of Rebel Cities?

D.H.: They can contribute, but one of the weaknesses of the Occupy movement was that only in certain circumstances did it established good links with existing organizations, homeless organizations, various social movements in the city. In some ways Occupy has, in joining those movements, now become part of them, rather than a separate kind of movement. I think there is much more going on in American cities and in cities generally than Occupy was concerned with. And, for instance, say, The Right to the City Alliance in Los Angeles is very vigorous and they have associations with groups like the Bus Riders Union, they have associations with workers groups like domestic workers and so on and so on…a configuration of social movements is beginning to emerge in many cities that could possibly start to exercise power over the whole city, but it’s in a very early stage of doing that.

L.P.: But how can these movements be so influential as to change the general dynamic of a city? If you think of Buenos Aires, for example, in the same city where the popular assemblies were working, most of the people later elected a right wing mayor. In Madrid, of the indignados movement, the Partido Popular won the elections…

D.H.: Well, you have to recognize that a lot of the indignados and a lot of the social movement people in neighborhoods are inspired more by an anarchist vision and do not vote. They don’t participate in the electoral process. What I think you saw in Greece was that the threat of fascism became so strong that a lot of people in the neighborhood movements who normally don’t vote went out and voted and that’s why you saw the Syriza vote go from 4% to 27%. Part of the issue is to what degree the social movements think that electoral politics is of any significance. A good number of them, I assume here in Buenos Aires too, are the anarchist inspired or the autonomista inspired groups, and they almost certainly would not participate in elections, which means that the electoral victory of the right does not represent a popular mandate because a good part of the populace is not voting. If they did vote, then the right would have been defeated. But then you would have the social democrats back in power and of course the social movements have a very bitter experience of what happens when social democrats are in power. It doesn’t change anything. So, that is a problem.

L.P.: Is this answer also related to your tradition, closer to Marxism?

D.H.: Yes, I work obviously with Marxian political economy but, as a geographer, I’m very sympathetic to the anarchist tradition. Kropotkin was a geographer. Many of the radical geographers of the nineteenth century were anarchists, I think for a very good reason, which is that they took notions of locality, notions of culture, and notions of the environment much more seriously than conventional Marxists did. I have been trying to influence conventional Marxism into taking those issues much more seriously, but also I still appreciate a lot of what the anarchists are about. I argue with them about, well, if you allow the state to be completely controlled by forces of reaction then, you know, you are going to suffer as a consequence. I have arguments with them, but I’m not totally critical of anarchism at all.

L.P.: You link the Occupy Wall Street struggle with the Tahrir Square struggle, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral struggle as an international movement that challenges the power of money. How can this movement build an international organization without falling into the same mistakes that anarchism and the so-called “real communism” have committed before?

D.H.: If I had an easy answer to that, obviously I would not be sitting here and talking to you. I mean, we would have a revolution and everything would be going. There is always a risk with adopting certain forms of organization. I talked, in the Rebel Cities book, about what I call a fetishism of organizational form: that many groups have exclusionary definitions of what an optimal form of organization should be, irrespective of the nature of problem they are addressing. If you think you can organize the whole world on an assembly model, well, obviously that’s crazy. So, you have to think about hierarchies of some kind, or “nested” structures of decision making. You have to think about forms of organization at different scales. Some of the left disempowers itself by staying only at the local level and not trying to move at all, and the communist international left makes problems for itself the other way around, by imagining that a top-down strategy would work.

It seems, somehow or another, that we have to construct forms of organization that have a fluid relationship between specific popular bases with different cultural desires, needs, and wants. But there is a relationship between all of that and intermediate forms of organization and, ultimately, a global set of strategies. One of the reasons that I take on the question of how to organize the whole city is because, it seems to me, it’s not as huge and ungraspable as “The World.” It is not even as huge and ungraspable as, say, organizing the whole of the United States, but is organizing something which has a territorial kind of area that is possible to imagine: a political force which dominates urban life, and in the name of the citizens, rather than in the name of capital. So the reason I think that the urban territory is a very significant target and point of struggle is because it isn’t totally local, and also because interurban links and interurban relations have a long history of being significant and important. And so, I think the left should be thinking about organizing at that level, but that hasn’t really been tried very much…

L.P.:-Like a network of rebel cities?

D.H.:-A network of rebel cities, yes.


Lucas Palero is journalist and lives in Mendoza, Argentina.