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Part 2: David Harvey on Rebel Cities, Occupy Wall Street, and the Benefits of Class Struggle

Web ExclusiveMay 01, 2012
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In part two of our interview with social theorist David Harvey, he notes the “urban center” of Occupy Wall Street has been key to its success. “We have a global plutocracy now, which essentially rules the world,” Harvey says. “The only way you can challenge that power is by the mass movements.” He also discusses Karl Marx, the lack of evidence that austerity stimulates economic growth, and how many of the social benefits that exist today were brought about through class struggle. Harvey’s most recent book is Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by leading social theorist, David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. His most recent book is called Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

Do you think the Occupy movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, is an urban revolution, Professor Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: I think that it’s using the city as a site—you know, some of it is also going on in the countryside, but it’s using the city as a site to try to mobilize people. And what we see, what was, in a sense, a common feature between, say, Tahrir Square and Madison, was the taking of a central space and the utilization of that central space to organize political expression. And this has a long, long history. And when that happens, things tend to change. And so, I think that the urban center of a lot of the Occupy Wall Street is actually a very, very significant piece of the puzzle.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting that this movement has emerged, sort of exploded on the scene, under President Obama—not under President Bush, but under President Obama.

DAVID HARVEY: Well, I’m sorry to say, but I think most people are beginning to see that the party of Wall Street, as I call it, dominates both the Republican and the Democratic parties. So no matter what President Obama wanted to do, he was still faced with a Democratic party that was not willing to really go against the big financial interests. And so, what we see is a kind of corruption of politics by big money power. I mean, I think it was Mark Twain who kind of said, you know, Congress is the best Congress that money can buy. And it’s really become absolutely, I think, the case, given all the recent Supreme Court decisions that money now dominates conventional politics. So both political parties are actually caught up in this money-raising game. And so, I think the Occupy Wall Street just kind of say, we’ve got to stop that, and we have to find a different mode of political expression to that which is set up through all of the super PACs and all the rest of it. And the only mode of expression that exists for low-income populations, given they don’t have money power, is of course to be on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, we spoke with Paul Mason, who’s the economics editor of BBC Newsnight. His latest book is called Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. And I asked him why Greeks themselves are falling through the social safety net, why many no longer have access to healthcare. This is what he said about the Greek healthcare system.

PAUL MASON: You pay a little bit into the healthcare, and you pay a bit for your medicines, and you pay a little bit for your treatment. But what’s happened is, of course, the solutions imposed on Greece by the IMF and the European Union have involved raising taxes very dramatically. So they had an austerity tax that they collected through the electricity bill. Somebody showed me their electricity bill: 350 euros per month. Per month. So, what is that in dollars? Four hundred? But most of that is tax. And if you don’t pay it, your electricity stops. Now, this person earned 500 euros per month. So, the money you have to pay for your healthcare, it’s just no—well, it’s food first, then healthcare, and so people just can’t afford it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was BBC’s Paul Mason. Your response to this, Professor Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: Well, this has been going on for the last 30 years. It’s what I kind of call the neoliberal counterrevolution, began in the 1970s, which is to have the state increasingly withdraw from any forms of social provision, and also, of course, have the state less and less responsible for environmental degradation. So there’s been a political movement of that sort, which began under Reagan and continued, even under Clinton, right the way through to the present situation, where you have a Republican party that is essentially saying, “Get rid of all of these supports.” And this is going on in Europe, with Cameron in Britain. I mean, it’s interesting to me. I mean, Reagan is long gone, and Thatcher is long gone, but Reaganism is still here. They’ve doubled down on Reaganism, and they’ve doubled down on Thatcherism.

And I think the time is ripe for a counterrevolution to that revolution, which is to say, we have to actually get a society in which people’s healthcare is taken care of, the education is no longer privatized and is public and free, and come up with a kind of a different kind of social order to the one which is now constructed, which is purely constructed around the benefit of that 1 percent that earns, in this city, $3.57 million a year. And I point out that they earn in one day what 100,000 people are trying to live on in one year. And how does somebody who’s trying to live $10,000 a year actually have money for healthcare, have money to send their kids to college? How can you possibly do that? So, this is the situation in which the 99 percent have, I think, to mobilize a big protest. But since they have no political power, since they don’t have the money, like I say, you have to take back the streets. That’s the only way you can do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Fox is the leading cable channel on the so-called news networks. Recently, Bill O’Reilly slammed President Obama’s policies on poverty. This is a part of what he said.

BILL O’REILLY: In a free society, people have a right to be a moron, and no government can stop irresponsible parenting. So, what is the solution? President Obama believes that the federal government should give money to the poor, hand it right to them, in a variety of ways. Problem with that is that many of the poor will use the money irresponsibly. The high rate of alcohol and drug addiction and other social problems assure a massive amount of waste in the entitlement arena. Americans are the most generous people on earth, but the truth is that income redistribution doesn’t work. For what this Feds spend now on entitlements, every single poor person in America could be handed almost $21,000 a year.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bill O’Reilly on Fox. Professor David Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: Between 1945 and 1982, the top tax rate in this country never fell below much below 70 percent. Reagan reduced it to 30 percent, and of course we keep on seeing it being reduced and reduced and reduced. Economic growth, 1945 to 1982, was twice the rate of economic growth since. So this idea that, somehow or other, redistribution of income to low-income populations is inconsistent with economic growth is totally false. There is no evidence for it whatsoever. The only evidence that exists is that since 1972 we’ve seen an immense increase in the inequalities of income. That’s what we’ve been in. That’s what Reaganism has been about.

And by the way, I’d like to mention something about this, that Reagan went to war, you know, launched into an arms race, cut tax rates for the rich, ran up the deficit. Cheney later on would kind of say, “Reaganism taught us that deficits do not matter.” And then when the deficit was high enough and the debt was high enough, they turned around and said, “We’ve got to cut all the social programs.” What did Bush Jr. do? He fought two unfounded wars, he cut the tax rates for the rich, and he gave a big deal to Big Pharma, and they ran up the debt. And now they say, “We’ve got to cut all the social programs, and we’ve got to cut also sort of environmental protections.” So, there’s a game being played here, and it’s been played consistently since the early 1980s. And that game is about trying to actually create a world in which the rich have all of the power, with immense concentrations. It’s not only going on in the United States; it’s going on globally. I mean, we have a global plutocracy now, which essentially rules the world.

And like I say, the only way you can challenge that power is by the mass movements, which are occurring all over the place. So we’ve seen mass movements in Bolivia. We’ve seen mass movements in Chile. We’ve seen mass movements in the Middle East. We’ve seen mass movements emerging throughout Europe and beginning to see them here. This is the only way we can change it.

AMY GOODMAN: Spain now—


AMY GOODMAN: —going into a deep recession.

DAVID HARVEY: Absolutely. Well, that’s, again, austerity. There’s no evidence that austerity actually stimulates growth. What you see is Britain is going back into a double recession. Spain has gone back in a double recession. Ireland, which has—was vicious in its austerity, is now in recession. The only part of the world that’s been growing is—are, of course, places like Argentina, which have been using exactly what Bill O’Reilly talks about, which is redistributing income to low-income populations. And they’ve been growing at 8 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Argentina, which refused to pay its IMF loan—

DAVID HARVEY: Pay its debt, and—

AMY GOODMAN: Pay its debt, overall.

DAVID HARVEY: Yeah, it basically defaulted on its debt. And, of course, everybody said to Argentina, “If you default on your debt, nobody will invest in you again.” But surplus capital has to go somewhere, and Argentina is potentially a very rich country, so a couple of years after defaulting on the debt, suddenly money starts to pour back into Argentina.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the idea of rebel cities, speaking to Stephen Graham, who wrote Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, talking about how so-called undesirable people have been cleared out of urban spaces.

STEPHEN GRAHAM: And cities in the last 20 or 30 years, particularly in North America, have become much more sanitized, much more controlled by questions of zero tolerance, by questions of really aggressive policing, to clear out those that are deemed to be sort of not fitting a model of urban life, which centers on consumption, which centers on business. So there’s been a really powerful shift in cities to sort of criminalize homelessness, to criminalize panhandlers, to criminalize those not seen to belong in this—what Neil Smith in New York has called the “revanchist city,” the city taking back spaces for the wealthy, effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor David Harvey?

DAVID HARVEY: Again, this has been going on a long time. You expel populations. You do it in a variety of ways. I mean, one of the ways, of course, is just simply raising rents, so the costs become so high that people cannot live here. So there’s an out-migration of low-income populations from New York City, for example, because they can’t afford to live here anymore. So they go out into small towns in Pennsylvania or upper New York state. They’re just forced out by cost of living concerns. I mean, that’s one of the big ways. And then, of course, there’s planned gentrification, and then there’s redevelopment. So, you know, NYU will redevelop some area and use eminent domain for private purposes. And again, eminent domain was meant for public purposes, but public—eminent domain is being used to expel populations. Columbia University is doing the same sort of thing. So you gentrify the whole city, so that Manhattan has now become, if you like, one vast gated community for the rich. And hardly surprisingly, you know, most low-income populations cannot afford to live here, so they’re living way, way out in the suburbs.

And I came into Kennedy Airport the other day at 6:00 in the morning. I got on the A train, and the A train from Jamaica was absolutely packed. And it was packed with mainly women, mainly women of color, obviously exhausted, coming in at 6:30 in the morning to try to wake the city up so the suits could come in at 9:00 and their coffee was ready and everything was good. Now those are the people who are trying to live on $30,000 a year, and they have to live way, way out in Jamaica. They cannot live close to their place of work at all. And, of course, the transport cost is also a significant burden on their lives. And so, this is the kind of city which we’ve been creating in New York. And when I talk about the right to the city, I think about the rights of those people on the A train at 6:30 in the morning to create a different kind of city where they could live close to work, where they could actually do the things they need to do to have a decent life for themselves and their kids.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been teaching Karl Marx’s Kapital, Capital, for a very long time.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Karl Marx was and why you think it’s important to read this book.

DAVID HARVEY: He’s a really—a really, really intelligent, smart guy, begin with that, and incredibly learned, one of the most learned people I’ve ever read. I mean, he knew Greek philosophy, and, you know, he’s just—just amazingly erudite. But he’s also a revolutionary thinker, and he has a very, very strong, critical eye on how capitalism works. And I was not born to admire Karl Marx. I was just troubled by the fact that none of the social theories I was working with in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to work. And I started reading Marx, and I was thinking, “Oh, here, this works. Yeah, this is what’s happening.” So he has a fantastic, I think, insight into how capital works.

And it’s—and actually, it’s become even more relevant now, particularly since the neoliberal surge since the 1970s, when we’ve been told that the market has to settle everything, the market has to—you know, has to be. So, reading him, he’s talking about the logic of what happens in a free market society. And one of the propositions he says, the closer you get to a purely free market society, the greater the wealth becomes of the very upper classes, and the lower—the worse the standard of living of the lower classes. And, of course, over the last 30 years, that’s exactly what’s happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is that true?

DAVID HARVEY: Well, what he does—I guess the only way I can—best way I can explain it is, one of the principles he really enunciates: there’s nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals. The egalitarian principle of the market is very important, but equality, when it—put in a situation where you have people with different endowments, actually allows more and more wealth to go up, trickle up to the affluent classes. I mean, it’s a wonderful examination of how that principle works.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, continue on that thought, why you think it’s so relevant. How did he end up writing this book?

DAVID HARVEY: He had the idea—well, one of the things he saw was that there were a group of people around who had been writing since the 17th century onwards trying to explain what was going on under capitalism. And so, the field of political economy was being—you know, was being developed, people like Adam Smith and Ricardo and many other figures. So what I think he saw was that they were genuinely concerned to explain what was going on, but they missed some things. So he decided he wanted to, if you like, critique their political economy and to, out of that critique, develop and alternative understanding of how capitalism works. So his raw materials, if you like, are all the writings of the political economists from the 16th century onwards. And then what he does is to sort of create this alternative logic of—so you see how the system works.

And there’s some wonderful stuff in there also about the craziness of finance, so if you want to understand finance capital, you can go to the stuff in volume three, which is—he talks about the financiers of the time. He said, “They have the charming character of swindler and prophet.”

And so, he really appreciates what capitalism is about. And he appreciates strengths. I mean, he admires in many ways what it’s done, but then kind of says, “But I can see the social costs of this,” to which we would now add the environmental costs of this. And if we’re not willing to pay those social costs and those environmental costs, then we have to invent some alternative system. What Marx was not very good at was defining what the alternative system would look like. So when Marx gets attacked, it’s always because he invented something called communism, which he never did, and that failed. So he never really clearly defined what the alternative would look like. He gives some ideas about it. But what he did do also was to suggest that if there’s going to be a change, it has to be some sort of change out of the present situation, so that we don’t imagine something. So he was anti-utopian. He’s saying, “Look, we have to take what is going on right now and use what is going on right now to try to create some alternative.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in Europe—unlike Europe, here in this country, “socialism,” let alone “Marxism,” is a dirty word.


AMY GOODMAN: How did that happen? How did that come to be? I mean, we’re about to go into May Day, into May 1st. Some are calling for a general strike.

DAVID HARVEY: Yes, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: People talk—and those who say, “Just let the free market work.” What organized labor brought us—for example, the eight-hour day—


AMY GOODMAN: Forty-hour work week.

DAVID HARVEY: Well, many of the good things we have and which we rely on crucially were actually brought through the processes of class struggle, where labor got together and really started to force governments to act. So, Social Security, Medicare, all of those things, which, you know, the Republicans are trying to destroy, but they have a very hard time, because most of the people see them as being crucial to their lives, they came about because of the labor movement. And to some degree, they came about, I think, after 1945, for example, in this country. Some reform—it was very anti-communist in one level, but on another level, they had to move to respond to the rise of the Soviet Union and the rise of an alternative, so you get a reformist kind of capitalism that is, to some degree, fairer, to a certain level, relative to what it was in the 19—what it was in the 1930s. So, we would not have the standard of living we have right now, had it not been for organized labor and its allies actually changing the political agenda.

Their power to affect the political agenda has been severely curtailed since the 1970s, 1980s onwards, by all these transformations in what’s going on. And the result is, we now need an alternative power source, because most of the labor now is precarious, it’s temporary, it’s itinerant and so on. And that’s why I say organizing cities is a good—is a way to start to think about it. If everybody who’s involved in producing and reproducing urban life got together and said, “We want to define a different kind of urban life and a different standard of living for the mass of the population,” we would have a very different politics. And we need that politics desperately right now to get away from all of this free market kind of ideology and all that it does, which is make the rich richer and poor poorer.

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