Originally posted on citythreepointzero:
There’s a hint of opportunism about this volume, a collection of essays on capitalism and the city dating from 2008. It gives Occupy something to feed on, and arrives nicely for the one-year anniversary of Britain’s riots, and the Olympic Games. No matter: we need people like Harvey to articulate an alternative to the capitalist city and its tendency to turn it into a relentless parade. There is much to like here: a critical introduction to the relationship between ‘fictional’ capital and real estate development; some commentary on the Left’s anxieties about social organisation, especially the problem of ‘horizontality’ (p. 70); a fascinating encounter with the ‘rebel city’ of El Alto, near La Paz. Much alludes to Harvey’s gloomy but compelling work on Baltimore, in which that small American city comes to represent the destructive power of capital, and the emptiness of its attempts at economic revival. ‘Revitalisation’ so often means ‘devitalisation’, he writes in a passage that strongly echoes his account of Baltimore’s regenerated inner harbour from Spaces of Hope (2004).
We need people like Harvey. But this is a scrappy book, seemingly rushed out to capitalise on Occupy, no doubt, and as much consumer product as anything described. He and Verso are no doubt aware of the ironies – it’s not really worth dwelling on them. More troublesome for me is the argument itself. Harvey’s early work on Baltimore convinces because it derives an argument from detailed fieldwork – so the operations of capital, its tendency to spatial exclusion, and the contradictions in its Rouse-led regeneration of the 1980s are all shown, in minute detail, to be represented in the built environment. Spaces of Hope for example, uses photography to show how a wall here, a fence there, or a blind façade over there are conscious acts to reinforce (say) corporate power in relation to the poor. Rebel Cities by contrast begins with the argument, and proceeds by assertion, unintentionally in the style of Private Eye’s Dave Spart (‘Feral capitalism should be put on trial’, p. 157). It has a colourful, manifesto-like quality that was no doubt intended, but it’s unconvincing.