Shareable.net has published a terrific interview with Marxist geographer David Harvey on the future of cities as a place for commoning. It’s a timely conversation now that many people believe that cities, not nation-states, will be the focus for economic and political renewal.
Harvey, the author of such insightful books as A Short Introduction to Neoliberalism, The Enigma of Capital and Rebel Cities, spoke with San Francisco activist Chris Carlsson, who is co-director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco (a wiki-based digital archive at foundsf.org). Carlsson is also a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer.
Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo introduces the interview by noting that so much of the conversation about renewing cities ignores a basic reality: "The commons is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons."
Here are a few excerpts from Carlsson's interview with Harvey. Consider these passages a tease designed to get you to wander over to Shareable to read the entire thing.
Carlsson asks about the limitations of Elinor Ostrom’s focus on small-scale commons, citing a short passage by Harvey: “How can radical decentralization — surely a worthwhile objective — work without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and active enforcement.” Carlsson asks: “Do you think the state, currently a wholly-owned project of “the existing democracy of money power,” can be made to serve other interests than capital accumulation and economic growth?”
Harvey: “The state is not a monolith, but a complicated ecosystem of administrative structures. At the core of the capitalist state lies what I call a “state-finance nexus” which, in our times, is best represented by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and I think it was deeply illustrative that these two institutions, in effect, took over the U.S. government entirely in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It is notoriously the case within the state that the Treasury has the final say over many projects in other departments.
“In parallel with the state-finance nexus is the military industrial complex which is a bit of a misnomer because it is really about the concentration of military and police powers backed by a justice system that is shaped in support of capitalist class power. These make for a distinctively capitalist class state apparatus. Obviously, that form of state power has to be confronted and defeated if we are to liberate ourselves from submission to the capitalist law of value.
“But, beyond that, there are many aspects of public administration providing essential public services — public health, housing, education, and the governance of common property resources. In our own society, these branches of government often become corrupted by capital, to be sure, but it is not beyond the power of political movements of the left at the local, national, even international levels to discipline these aspects of the state apparatus to emancipatory public purposes.”
* * *
Carlsson: “How do you see this logic of 'commoning' emerging from the actual social movements of our time, which seem preoccupied with ethical shopping on one hand, or addressing racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and other identitarian questions on the other?”
Harvey: “The essence of a great urban and civic life, for me, is the free intermingling of all manner of people opening up the possibilities of all manner of encounters. If, for often good reasons, women, LGBT youth, or other so-called “identitarian” groups cannot freely use the public and supposedly “common” spaces of the city, then it is critical that movements emerge to liberate those common spaces for their participation. Such movements can provide a vital opening for a broader common politics. The problem comes when that is the only preoccupation for that group and what begins as a demand for inclusion becomes a movement for exclusions. Alliances are needed and the more it becomes acceptable to liberate public spaces for all public purposes, the more open become the democratic possibilities to go a-commoning, to build a commons and achieve a politics of the commons throughout the city or metropolitan region as a whole. But there are counter-movements that have to be combated. Right now, exclusionary fascist movements (like Golden Dawn in Greece) are precisely occupying space by space urban neighborhoods (e.g. in Athens); they are occupying spaces in the name of an exclusionary politics. This is an extreme case, of course, but I think it critical that the relation between the commons and the balance between enclosures and exclusions, on the one hand, and openings and free uses, on the other, be perpetually open for discussion and political struggle. These are the sorts of battles in which we all have to be involved. There is no automatic harmony to be had and I actually think a certain level of perpetual conflict around urban life is a very positive feature.
* * *
Carlsson: “You [Harvey] argue: “… attempts to change the world by worker control and analogous movements — such as community-owned projects, so-called “moral” or “solidarity” economies, local economic trading systems and barter, the creation of autonomous spaces (the most famous of which today would be that of the Zapatistas) — have not, so far, proved viable as templates for more global anti-capitalist solutions, in spite of the noble efforts and sacrifices that have often kept these efforts going in the face of fierce hostilities and active repressions … Indeed, it can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that which capital imposes …”
You properly point out that efforts to create socialism in one country, let alone one city, or one small enterprise, have always failed. Why do you think people ignore this overwhelming history and keep trying to make it work anyway?
Harvey: “This is one of the most difficult paradoxes embedded in the history of the left (its thinking, its project, and its activities). We can all understand the urge to control our own lives, to achieve some degree of autonomy at work, as well as in the neighborhoods we inhabit; and that basic urge which is, I believe, both widespread and broadly acceptable to many elements in society, can be the basis for a broader politics. When capital collapses as it periodically does, then workers frequently mobilize (as in Argentina in 2001-02) to save their jobs, and there are some long-lasting examples of cooperative systems and of worker control that are encouraging (e.g. Mondragon).
"The problem is that these operations operate in a context where the capitalist law of value (Yes, that is why this is so important) remains hegemonic such that producers are subject to the 'coercive laws of competition' that eventually force such independent efforts towards autonomous forms of organization to behave like capitalist enterprises. This is why it is so important to eventually think and act in such a way as to challenge the hegemony of the 'capitalist law of value'."
The entire Carlsson/Harvey interview can be found here.