top of page

Harvey, David; 2012; REBEL CITIES: From the Right to City to the Urban Revolution, Verso: Brooklyn

David Harvey is one of the most innovative urban sociologists of our times, along with Manuel Castells and Henry Lefebvre. He analyses the tension between city formation and capitalism. He tries to look for an alternative approach to explain how capitalism transforms urban spaces. Harvey draws extensively from the Marxist approach and builds further on spatial explanations of urban changes and market expansion. The book Rebel Cities by David Harvey addresses the theme of urban chaos. Rebel cities contribute to a larger analysis of urban phenomena. It is a book loaded with rich analysis and unpredicted humour contribution to Harvey’s remarkable compositions. He shows how capitalism has used urban development for its own end and how neoliberal politics have led to greater polarization of wealth and power accumulated into spatial forms of our cities.

The book aims to address two different and yet connected sets of agendas. One is to integrate Marxist theory of urbanization into ‘general laws of motion’ of capital while analysing current crisis and neoliberal development trends in globalization. The other is to build an anti-capitalist movement that can alter urban spaces to profit those that are currently exploited by the class-nature of urbanization. According to Harvey urbanization is both the driving force and product of absorption of ‘surplus product’ in the process of capital accumulation. It is also sometimes considered too ambitious of Harvey to cover such broad themes in a short book like Rebel Cities which have disproportion in the sense that the theoretical framework does not relate to the strategy completely in a convincing manner.

Right to the City

Liberal theories of ‘globalization’ and ‘development’ are disseminated by Harvey’s persistent centre on capital accumulation as the foremost mover for urban development. Another side of this is that his strategic disagreement come into sight directly from his theoretical focus on urbanization in particular as resistance to and from valuation of consciousness. He does not desire to be distinguished as a ‘specialist’ but his political arguments conform too strongly to his academic field of urban geography for his defiance to be utterly persuasive.

This is evident in Harvey arguing ‘right to city’ as one of the key themes of the book. This slogan was invented by Marxist intellectual Henry Lefebvre in 1968 in response to expansion of urban struggle that detonated in France. Harvey argues that cities play a crucial role as capital accumulation as they absorb capital and labour surplus. However, the result of these anarchic processes is impoverishment and alienation for a vast number of city dwellers. Like Lefebvre, Harvey aims to return to the idea of urban analysis and questions pillars of Marxism while identifying the importance of the city as a site for revolution against capitalism. Author begins by Lefebvre’s work of fundamentals of The Right to the City. For Harvey, the city as a social, political phenomenon is under direct long-lasting attack from commodification and privatisation.

The right to the city has been forfeited by economic and political elites when it was supposed to be reserved for the working class. Harvey begins by arguing that cities arise from social absorption of surplus product and thus urbanization being a class phenomenon to some extent. Capitalism boosts urbanization and reciprocally urbanization has been a crucial process in maintaining capitalism. The role of urbanization is to absorb the infinite surplus produced in this system. That is so because as Marx also explained in his capitalism theories that not only generation of profits but its reinvestment is necessary to replicate the process.

Harvey explains how neoliberal urbanization has created conditions for greater exploitation under capitalism. He shows just like in Communist Manifesto, that workers no sooner will receive income as set upon by the bourgeoisie, workers are similarly stripped of what is technically theirs. Individuals are shoved out of their publicly granted rented accommodations by privatisation. Higher prices and ‘gentrification’ of houses forces workers to move to the outskirts/countryside of the city. Harvey vindicates visibly the mechanisms by which property booms, regardless of the ideology about enhanced urban living, constantly serve the capitalist class. He draws analysis from the 1848 revolution in France built by Haussmann to absorb surplus capital and labour with enormous urban reconfiguration which amongst other things served to suppress the workers in movements in Paris. In Rebel cities he compares using these movements the existing drive for urbanization.

Marxist Analysis of City & Capital

Urbanization under capitalism imparts an apparent instance of how different sorts of capital work in arrangements. Harvey shows, with precision, how financial speculation in property, a form of fabricated capital, merges with productive capital and how it is intrinsically bound up with the general capitalist mode of production. Capital seems to manage the unattainable, controlling both demand and supply and finding a way out of the cycle of economic crisis. Harvey explains that this demand and supply relationship is also sometimes asymmetrical because of the time intervals between selling and buying in comparison to other commodities being sold and purchased. Harvey also focuses on the ideological aspects of this uninterrupted development of fictitious capital in the reconstruction of cities. In Marxists terms, urban growth feeds the myth that the capital can be “automatically valorised by its own power”. Capital in the form of land and property emerges to construct its own value.

Harvey identifies capital absorption as a major obstacle in capital. Not only profit but rates of profitability also possess a problem in capitalism because capital is tending to move to different financial markets for investment. Harvey refers to Marxist’s ideas to show where value is generated in the labour process and service sectors' dependency on surplus value. Harvey attaches greater significance to land, rent and speculation in capitalism, rather than production, with the consequence that the exploitation of real capital in urbanisation appears to be the central dynamic of the system itself. This directs him to downplay production and workplaces as core sites for class struggles. Harvey portrays the city as rather an undifferentiated producer of capital accumulation, and spends little time looking at social composition of those dispossessed by it.

The political situations he emphasizes are valuable. He highlights urban-based class struggles escorted with attempts to overthrow capitalism. The Paris Commune, the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the urban-based movements of 1968, all involved people taking over the city. Central squares in cities such as Madison, Tahrir square, City Hall and many more became the centre of attention of resistance to capitalism. The link between what these urban revolts were able to do internationally illustrates what capitalism has been doing to urban life both, materially and culturally- finding global-echo in city-based resistance. Secondly, he says that urban based social movements can become the vehicle to join up the struggles. The struggles of the Paris Commune and 1968 remain Harvey’s points of reference. He repeatedly tells us that the Communards’ first demand was to abolish night work in the bakeries but the second was to impose a moratorium on rents, which shows how the first workers’ uprising understood fully well the significance of connection of work-based and community-based struggles. Thirdly, he presents a strong evaluation of autonomist practices in current urban movements. He is intolerant towards encouragement of ‘horizontality’ and ‘non-hierarchy’ which he perceives as a symbolism with organisational structure that is almost ‘narcissistic in its concern for personal interaction over wider social movements’.

Rebel Cities

Rebel Cities is largely elusive when connected with questions of Marxist methodology. Harvey’s flexible approach to Marxist studies suggests that he escapes some of the drawbacks of orthodoxy. Another thing is that he doesn’t take the question of state power seriously. Harvey also represents the relationship between ‘gentrification’ and rising rent prices. His observation of development of parklands relatable to rising rents is an important tool to help us understand the menacing effects of ‘gentrification’. To see this phenomenon in action one can, glance at the regeneration program rolled out in east London for the Olympics games.

By situating data on financialization and debt creation along with property booms an implausible connection between urbanization and crisis emerges. Because of momentous time setbacks between investment and construction, new builds have a tendency to surface at the similar time that crashes occur. This produces a crisis of overproduction which eventually feeds into market volatility (illustrated by charts on pp 33-34). Harvey locates a foreseeable paradox in Marx’s theory. Marx was consciously generalising the key characteristics of capitalism and crisis to give an insight into the ‘laws of motion’ of capital in general. Relating the specific to general laws he made a necessary act of theoretical abstraction. That in one of the reasons Marxists theories are still relevant in contemporary times.

However, this theoretical contribution is dual edged. Harvey explains, the role of Marxists today is to transmit the explicit and specific character of capital to our times and connect it to the general understanding of capital that Marx provided. The problem arises because Marxists continue to provide a generalized abstraction which fails to provide concrete explanation to contemporary crisis. Harvey looks for the assimilation of ‘credit into the general theory’ in such a way that preserves ‘albeit in a transformed state, the theoretical insights already gained’. We cannot perceive the credit system as a free-floating unit distinct from real economic activity.


Harvey claims one of the main hindrances to understanding the city is developed along anti-capitalistic lines due to lack of data. Exceptions like The Paris Commune and early days of Russian socialism serve as actual examples of ‘rebel cities’. Harvey explains this philosophical argument with great length in chapter 3 and 5. Rebel cities are a strong call established on principles of struggle and resistance to capital to gain power over the cities which have now been hegemonies of powerful capitalistic elite. The book raises essential theoretical questions about the role of the city in capitalism and begins the discussion around the tactical lessons we can draw from recent urban struggles across the globe. While in Harvey’s description of the city in capitalist mode, the agency of change is not always clear, the focus on the anti-capitalist potential of those dispossessed by capital coming together in a city-based struggle remains a powerful message.

Lavanya Dahiya

MSc. in Digital Humanities

IIT Jodhpur

123 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page