Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Reform: Where Do We Want to Go, What Is Possible, and How to Proceed

Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Reform: Where Do We Want to Go, What Is Possible, and How to Proceed

GSD senior research fellow Susan Fainstein provocatively launched a midday conversation with 2016 Loeb Senior Scholar David Harvey, renowned theorist on the work of Karl Marx and capital's role in the formation of urban spaces and consciousness. Pointedly highlighting the lack of "luxury" her position as an urban planning professor affords vis à vis the discipline of geography in the practical management and development of cities–acknowledged with amusement among attendees–Fainstein queried Harvey on the possibilities of reform versus revolution in the transformation of current and future cities under the capitalist system. Planning students will likely have to take jobs in public agencies, she said, "How might they do good rather than harm in the world?"

In his response, Harvey expounded on the nature of capital itself, "a bit of an obsession of mine," he later allowed. "I'm always trying to get people to understand what capital is"; namely a process, not a discrete event or a thing. "It's a flow." As such, reform can be "part and parcel" of revolutionary transformation. Rather than a question of reformism versus revolution, the critical matter for Harvey is one of intention. "Where are we trying to go in the long run?"

He dismissed the current vogue toward redeeming capitalism–proposals for a "green" capitalism or an "ethical" capitalism, as well as critiques that the present system is not, in fact, a "true" capitalism–as a ruse to "dress up the predatory practices of capitalism behind a mask of bourgeois virtue." Reform, he allowed, may have been possible in the 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps even as late as 1945, but now an alternative political economy is imperative. Housing, education, health care–as many features of contemporary life as possible must be "de-commodified," like the Scandinavian social democracies of the 1960s. He acknowledged the challenge, especially with the immense inventory of houses under private ownership. Marx foresaw this necessary evolution in which exchange value (monetary value) is "abolished, entirely." "True freedom," Harvey quoted directly from Marx, "begins when the realm of necessity is left behind."

David HarveyFor Marx, true freedom is disposable time, but Harvey noted the paradox that the time saving innovations of contemporary society preoccupy us to distraction. "We are so unaccustomed to disposable time, it makes us nervous. We don't know what to do with it." In his critique of society in which one part of the population produces disposable time for the other, Marx proposed shortening the working day from twelve hours to ten. "A very reformist demand," Harvey commented, "but why stop there?" Why not a two hour work week? His provocative question demonstrates how reformist initiatives (i.e., a two hour trim of the work day) might advance us along the greater trajectory of revolutionary transformation (toward a two hour work week).

Attention to "where we are trying to go," offers some safeguard against counterrevolutionary efforts to suppress or pervert reform. Harvey highlighted, by examples, the impact of decentralization on the workforce, a seemingly progressive (less authoritarian) move toward democratization, championed by the anarchist. In fact, greater decentralization, the "flexible specialization" of labor promoted by Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel in The Second Industrial Divide, facilitated a greater capital accumulation–"the flexibility of accumulation," quipped Harvey–championed by the capitalist. Decentralization weakened labor's ability to organize, undermining its leverage against capital ("a divided opposition is easier to manage," Harvey observed). If the intention of decentralization was reform, industrial reorganization achieved that aim; however, if empowering labor was the goal, what appeared to promise revolutionary reform did the opposite. "Workers have not gained anything from the increase in productivity since the 1970s," he critiqued, highlighting real wage stagnation.

The circulation process of capital, Harvey emphasized, "is a totality, a totality of movement," from production to value realization to wealth distribution (in the form of interest rates, rent, and taxation) to valorization (returning capital to production). Noteworthy now, however, is the disconnect between "where value is realized" and "where production is based." Harvey cited the example of Foxon, where Apple computers are made in China. Foxon's profit rate is 3 percent; Apple profits, 27 percent.

The moment of realization is especially pertinent in the urbanization process, "where a lot of capital is realized." Looking down the street in NYC, Harvey recounted, you see a lot of trucks making deliveries, "Transportation is a productive value." Restaurants produce value, "even MacDonald's." Verizon, ConEdison "digging up the street," produce value. But, he asked, where does value go at the moment of realization? To the rentiers, the financiers–to the banks.

The conditions of flexible specialization and the spatial disconnect of production and value realization diminish labor's effective opposition to the ever-strengthening power of capital. Rather than traditional labor unions organized at the level of the factory, where division from decentralization and, increasingly, deindustrialization, have compromised union clout, Harvey commends the operating strategy of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who advocated organization at the scale of the neighborhood. British Trade Councils, city scale, citywide organizations comprising a cross section of the entire working class, have proved more effective than the local level organization of trade unions, whose membership is sector specific.

Fainstein challenged Harvey to consider social movements organized not by class, in economic terms, but by exclusionary practices based on race, religion, identity, whose communities seek "what philosophers call 'recognition.'" She cited examples of Black Lives Matter and the segregation of Paris banlieues.

"Movements are embedded in economic conditions," that determine economic wellbeing through access to opportunity and education, Harvey countered. He acknowledged long-standing patterns of discrimination that predate the capitalist system, which capital nonetheless leverages to its advantage. Gender and racial or ethnic biases, he noted, can have root in historical conditions. Industry opposition to women in the workforce, for instance, has origin in Second Empire Paris in the definition of skilled labor as "jobs women couldn't do." When women were introduced to the workshop their work was reclassified as "nonskilled," constituting a loss of half the male wage-earner's income. An immigrant workforce was also judged by labor to depress wages, baiting resentment. Capital doesn't discriminate on the consumer side, Harvey commented trenchantly, "capital enjoys these captive markets." Popular representations of a multicultural society have nothing to do with creating a more just society.

Technological advances in artificial intelligence and deindustrialization, now encroaching on the service sector, have lowered overall participation in the workforce. Increasingly, he observed, opportunities for meaningful employment are "fewer and fewer and harder and harder to get." A 2011 study reported that 70 percent of workers are indifferent to or hate their jobs. Whole populations, Harvey warned, "are being made disposable."

It is important that planning and design professionals are aware of what capital is, Harvey reiterated, and the role it plays in social formation. He regrets the loss of real public space, noting that the London Occupy movement had to camp out on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, "tolerated by the Church," for lack of public space in the capital city. Places of freedom, he cautioned, are not free from conflict, "Daily life in the city cannot remain static."

Harvey likened capital accumulation to the engine of an ocean liner: if the engine stops, "and gets cranky, as it's doing now," the ocean liner stalls. "Everyone's going to have a rough time."

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