Senior Loeb Scholar David Harvey: Toward an Alternative Urbanization

Senior Loeb Scholar David Harvey: Toward an Alternative Urbanization

"There's always an inflection point in exponential curves," 2016 Senior Loeb Scholar David Harvey explains, characterizing the ferocious rate of global-scale development as a mathematical principle. Exponential curves "dawdle along pretty mildly; they go up, go up, go up, then -- voom!" In Harvey's analysis, as a global economy, we've now hit "voom." The enormity of the consequences to unchecked, compounding expansion in the built environment, he contends–ecologically, politically, socially–are "deeply troubling." Identifying historical precedent and exposing root causes endemic to the capitalist system, Harvey's hourlong address tracked trajectories of growth driven by capital flows. Complicated, but he is adamant, "You've got to deal with the complications."

In her introduction, GSD senior research fellow Susan Fainstein celebrated Harvey's revolutionary impact on the disciplines of geography and urban studies. Widely regarded as the foremost scholar and theorist on the work of Karl Marx (Harvey has famously taught an annual graduate seminar on Capital, Vol. 1, for over three decades) and a distinguished professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York, Harvey was deeply influenced by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre and his 1968 book The Right to the City. Linking social justice to urban development, Harvey pioneered a spatial theory of the social, examining and reflecting on major themes and concepts of environmental justice, neoliberalism, the modernization of Paris, urban consciousness, Marx's Capital, and the development of cities.

Harvey opened the evening lecture with a simple fact vividly exemplifying the current inflection point: between 2011-13, China consumed an immense 6.5 gigatons of cement, exceeding by 50 percent the amount of cement consumed in the US during the entire 20th century. This scale of magnitude of "spreading cement around" is without precedent. Cement–a key ingredient in the production of concrete–and steel are the primary materials used in the construction industry. Tracking cement consumption, he demonstrates, reveals that China has also consumed half the world's supply of steel, along with 60 percent to 70 percent of the world's copper, causing the cost of raw materials to escalate and fueling a frenzy of mining activity for their extraction. In this process, Harvey notes, "Whole mountains are being shifted. All sorts of consequences are huge."

Harvey poses the question "why?" insistently: "Why did this happen?" "Why is all that cement being spread around?" "Why is China involved in such a huge, huge expansion of its urbanization infrastructural investment?" "And what," he asks, directly challenging the design community of the GSD, "what do we want to say about it?"

Harvey locates the origin of China's built environment expansionism in the economic collapse of 2007-08, which can be traced to the 2000-01 bust of the 1990s US dot-com "new economy" boom. Tugging these frayed strands of economic rupture begins to reveal how urbanization becomes proxy for the economic, political, and social problems deeply embedded in the structure of capitalism, what Harvey labels the "spatial fix." His lecture surveyed a swathe of international players in the "urbanization game" from Latin America to the Mideast and eastern Africa. Even limiting discussion to the main protagonists of the recent "fix" illustrates Harvey's proposition that crises in the capitalist system tend to move, not only geographically, but sector to sector.

The domino effect of the 2007-08 US market collapse on the manufacturing sector in China, primary supplier to the US consumer economy, resulted in 30 million unemployed Chinese workers. "People being foreclosed on and about to lose their jobs do not buy," commented Harvey in a curt aside. According to a 2009 report released by the International Monetary Fund and the International Labor Organization, the US suffered the highest job losses. Remarkably, China recorded a loss of only 3 million jobs, indicating that in just one year, it had managed to absorb 27 million unemployed. "Nearly as astounding as the cement," Harvey noted wryly.

China's high employment and rapid recovery was made possible by extraordinary debt-fuelled financing of massive government investment in urbanization and infrastructure, strategically initiated to pull the country back from the brink of potential unrest caused by the threat of widespread unemployment. Harvey underscores capital's flight, crisis to crisis, from the US dot-com blow-out to the US housing industry to financial markets to Chinese manufacturing to sovereign wealth financed expansionism that doubled China's GDP in just five years. China's prodigious growth has had a catalyzing effect on markets throughout the world; namely, in countries feeding China's voracious appetite for raw materials. Latin America, Harvey reports, shifted allegiance to the Asia Pacific trade, supplying copper, iron ore, and turning itself into "one vast soy bean plantation" to meet Chinese demand. Other nations like Turkey and Greece attempted similar Keynesian-style stimulus for economic development. However, unlike China, which benefited from low debt before its urbanization free-for-all, these countries lacked capital reserves and were forced to borrow dollars, and thus have been stymied as foreign investors doubt their ability to repay. The world, he observes, has split roughly into two camps, debt-financed expansionism and austerity-constricted stasis and contraction.

There are historical antecedents for China's sovereign wealth funded spatial fix in the transformation of 19th century Paris by Baron von Haussmann, commissioned by Napoleon following the 1848 riots over unemployment that had reached 56 percent. By 1855, with massive urbanization absorbing surplus labor and capital, full employment in Paris was restored and political stability achieved. The great post-World War II suburbanization in the US, abetted by a new interstate highway system, put surplus capital and labor developed under war conditions to productive use, staving off a return to 1930s economic depression and issuing in a golden era of US capital accumulation.

A healthy capitalist economy has to grow, Harvey explains, "All capitalists are increasing value." Since roughly 1780, economic growth has compounded annually at a rate of 2.25 percent. In the 1700s, this wasn't a problem,. In the 1900s, he warrants, still not a problem, as the rest of the world beyond Europe and America had not yet been incorporated into capitalist expansionism. By 1970, however, with China entering the system and the Soviet block disbanded, an additional 3 percent compounding growth overlaid the base rate. Exponential growth is reflected in the increasing magnitude of scale of urban development, from the city scale of Haussmann's nineteenth-century Paris to the metropolitan scale of Robert Moses in the US 1960s and 70s to the current scale of global urbanization. Harvey warns of a "bad infinity," a concept of spiraling, out-of-control growth, which Marx borrowed from Hegel. "If you double or triple the amount of cement we have to pour in 30-year's time, which is implicit in what compound growth is about, your kids will be up to here in cement. This is not a feasible project."

Unsustainable growth is not all that threatens our future cities and fragile ecosystems, he argues, but the nature of capital itself in the global marketplace poses a tremendous risk to the quality of urban life. Uprisings in Gezi Park, Istanbul, and Brazil in 2013 and in indigenous struggles against Chinese development in Ecuador speak to alienation in the urban experience. Cities are increasingly created and developed as debt-financed investment vehicles, fueled by massive flows of international capital, not as places to be lived in. The realization process of capital, Harvey observes, is occurring in neighborhoods and on the streets of the city. Resistance will require different strategies from the class-based struggles of the production process; in the realization process, it's capital versus everyone else: the one-percenters versus the ninety-nine percent.

The rate of growth of global development must be tempered, Harvey urges. Systems that deliver cities fit for people to live in must be devised, not investment vehicles exercising capital's fundamental logic of "accumulation for accumulation's sake." Rampant, debt-fueled development must be challenged; the anonymous high-rise apartments in Ramallah; the shoddy construction of Brazil's one million affordable homes "Mi casa, mi vida" campaign; the empty rhetoric of Eucador's "Buen vivir," indigenous-inspired alternative to Western-style development. By analyzing why this growth is happening, planners and designers can redress exploitative, degrading indifference to the qualities of urban life. We can begin to conceive an alternative urbanization based on an economy of sustainable management and distribution of the world's fragile resources. We need to operate locally and globally, Harvey counsels. We need to ask, "What do the people need?" "What do they want?" "How can it be done?" Discontent expressed on both ends of the political spectrum should not be dismissed.

Harvey offers a metaphor for future practice:

A circle is a kind of mathematical version of a good infinity. A good infinity continues to reproduce itself over time forever and ever and ever. Marx was very strong on the reproduction of the social order. We've got to get ourselves back to actually thinking about the good infinity as opposed to the bad infinity spiraling out of control.

This is a "huge macroeconomic problem," he concedes, but "no amount of tinkering on the edges will make a difference" until we sort it out.

Circling back, we're now at the inflection point. Asking "why" nurtures our understanding, confronts our preconceptions, and informs our imperative, "how?"

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