David Harvey: Middle Path Between Autonomism and Statism

Here is a selection from David Harvey on the shortcomings of autonomist and statist approaches, and his view of a “middle path” that could work as an “antidote to the power of capital”. (“The Urban Roots of the Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for the Anti-Capitalist Struggle” in SOCIALIST REGISTER 2012):

The city is a terrain where anti-capitalist struggles have always flourished. The history of such struggles, from the Paris Commune through the Shanghai
Commune, the Seattle General Strike, The Tucuman uprising and the Prague Spring to the more general urban-based movements of 1968 (which we now see faintly echoed in Cairo and Madison) is stunning. But it is a history that is also troubled by political and tactical complications that have led many on the left to underestimate and misunderstand the potential and the potency of urban-based movements, to often see them as separate from class struggle and therefore devoid of revolutionary potential. And when such events do take on iconic status, as in the case of the Paris Commune, they are typically claimed as one of ‘the greatest proletarian uprisings’ in world history, even as they were as much about reclaiming the right to the city as they were about revolutionizing class relations in production.

Anti-capitalist struggle is about the abolition of that class relation between capital and labour in production that permits the production and appropriation of surplus value by capital. The ultimate aim of anti-capitalist struggle is, quite simply, the abolition of that class relation. Even and particularly when this struggle has to be seen, as it invariably does, through the prisms of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender, it must eventually reach into the very guts of what a capitalist system is about and wrench out the cancerous tumour of class relations at its very centre.

It would be a truthful caricature to say that the Marxist left has long privileged the industrial workers of the world as the vanguard agent that leads class struggle through the dictatorship of the proletariat to a world where state and class whither away. It is also a truthful caricature to say that things have never worked out that way. Marx argued that the class relation of domination had to be displaced by the associated workers controlling their own production processes and protocols. From this derives a long history of political pursuit of worker control, autogestion, worker cooperatives and the like.39 Most attempts of this sort have not proven viable in the long run, in spite of the noble efforts and sacrifices that kept them going in the face of often fierce hostilities and active repressions.40 The main reason for the long-run failure of these initiatives is simple enough. As Marx shows in the second volume of Capital, the circulation of capital comprises three distinctive circulatory processes, those of money, productive and commodity capitals. No one circulatory process can survive or even exist without the others: they intermingle and co-determine each other. By the same token, no one circulation process can be changed without changing the others. Workers control in relatively isolated production units can rarely survive, in spite of all the hopeful autonomista and autogestion rhetoric, in the face of a hostile credit system and the predatory practices of merchant capital. The
power of merchant capital (the Wal-Mart phenomena) has been particularly resurgent in recent years (another arena of much neglected analysis in Marxist theory).

Recognizing this difficulty, much of the left came to the view that struggle for proletarian command over the state apparatus was the only other path to communism. The state would be the agent to control the three circuits of capital and to tame the institutions, powers and class agents that managed the flows that supported the perpetuation of the class relation in production. The problem has always been, of course, that the lifeblood of the state comes from facilitating and tapping into the very flows that the state is supposed to control. That is as true for the socialist state as for the capitalist state. Centralized and top-down management does not work except by way of some liberation of the flows (as the Chinese have proven so expert at doing). And once the flows are liberated, all hell breaks loose because the capitalist genie is out of the bottle. So what are the political prospects for finding a middle path between autogestion and centralized state control when neither of them on their own work effectively as antidotes to the power of capital?

The problem with worker control has been that the focus of struggle has been the factory as a privileged site of production of surplus value and the privileging of the industrial working class as the vanguard of the proletariat, the main revolutionary agent. But it was not factory workers who produced the Paris Commune. So there is a dissident view of that event that says it was not a proletarian uprising or a class-based movement but an urban social movement that was reclaiming the right to the city rather than seeking a revolutionary path towards the building of an anti-capitalist alternative.41 But why could it not be both? Urbanization is itself produced. Thousands of workers are engaged in its production and their work is productive of value and of surplus value. Why not reconceptualize the site of surplus value production as the city rather than as the factory? The Paris Commune can then be reconceptualized in terms of that proletariat that produced the city seeking to claim back the right to have and control that which they had produced. This is (and in the Paris Commune case was) a very different kind of proletariat to that which Marxists have typically favoured. But at this point in the history of those parts of the world characterized as advanced capitalism, the factory proletariat has been radically diminished. So we have a choice: mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution or change our conception of the proletariat to that of the hordes of unorganized urbanization producers and explore their distinctive revolutionary capacities and powers.

So who are these workers who produce the city? The city builders, the construction workers in particular, are the most obvious candidate, even as they are not the only nor the largest labour force involved. As a political force the construction workers have in recent times in the United States (and possibly elsewhere) all too often been supportive of the large-scale and class-biased developmentalism that keeps them employed. They do not have to be so. The masons and builders played an important role in the Paris Commune. The ‘Green Ban’ construction union movement in New South Wales in the early 1970s banned working on projects they deemed environmentally unsound and were successful in much of what they did. They were ultimately destroyed by a combination of concerted state power and their own Maoist national leadership who considered environmental issues a manifestation of flabby bourgeois sentimentality.42

But there is a seamless connection between those who mine the iron ore that goes into the steel that goes into the construction of the bridges across which the trucks carrying commodities travel to their final destinations of factories and homes for consumption. All of these activities (including spatial movement) are, according to Marx, productive of value and of surplus value. And if, again as Marx argues, maintenance, repairs and replacements (often difficult to distinguish in practice) are all part of the value producing stream, then the vast army of workers involved in these activities in our cities is also contributing to value and surplus value producing investment in the physical infrastructures that make our cities what they are. If the flow of commodities from place of origin to final destination is productive of value, then so are the workers who are employed on the food chain that links rural producers to urban consumers. Organized, those workers would have the power to strangle the metabolism of the city. Strikes of transport workers (e.g. France over the last twenty years and now in Shanghai) are extremely effective political weapons (used negatively in Chile in the coup year of 1973). The
Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles and the organization of taxi drivers in New York and LA are other examples.43

Consider the flows not only of food and other consumer goods, but also of energy, water and other necessities and their vulnerabilities to disruption too. The production and reproduction of urban life, while some of it can be ‘dismissed’ (an unfortunate word) as ‘unproductive’ in the Marxist canon, is nevertheless socially necessary, part of the ‘faux frais’ of the reproduction of the class relations between capital and labour. Much of this labour has always been temporary, insecure, itinerant and precarious. New forms of organizing are absolutely essential for this labour force that produces and sustains the city. The newly fledged Excluded Workers Congress in the United States is an example the forms that are emerging – an alliance of workers bedevilled by temporary and insecure conditions of employment who are often, as with domestic workers, spatially scattered throughout the urban system.44

It is in this light too that the history of the politics of conventional labour struggles requires a re-write. Most struggles that are depicted as focused solely on the factory-based worker turn out, on inspection, to have had a much broader base. Margaret Kohn complains, for example, how left historians of labour laud the Turin Factory Councils in the early twentieth century while totally ignoring the fact that it was in the ‘Houses of the People’ in the community that much of the politics was shaped and from which much of the logistical support flowed.45 E.P. Thompson depicts how the making of the English working class depended as much upon what happened in chapels and in neighbourhoods as in the work place. How successful would the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 have been were it not for the mass of unemployed people and the neighbourhood organizations outside the gates that unfailingly delivered their support, moral and material? And is it not interesting that in the British miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, the miners that lived in diffuse urbanized areas such as Nottingham were the first to cave in while the tightly-knit communities of Northumbria remained solidarious to the end? Organizing the community has been just as important in prosecuting labour struggles as has organizing the workplace. And to the degree that conventional workplaces are disappearing in many parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world (though not, of course, in China or
Bangladesh), then organizing around work in the community appears to be even more important.

In all these instances, as we alter the lens on the social milieu in which struggle is occurring, then the sense of who the proletariat might be and what their aspirations might be gets transformed. The gender composition of oppositional politics looks very different when relations outside of the factory are placed firmly in the picture. The social dynamics of the workplace are not homologous with those in the living space. In the latter space distinctions based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion are frequently more deeply etched into the social fabric while issues of social reproduction play a more prominent, even dominant role, in the shaping of political subjectivities and consciousness. From this perspective the dynamics of class struggles along with the nature of political demands appear very different. But then when we look backward and reassess, we see that they always were rather different from how the Marxist imaginary wishfully depicted them.

Fletcher and Gapasin thus argue that the labour movement should pay more attention to geographical rather than sectoral forms of organization, that the movement should empower the central labour councils in cities in addition to organizing sectorally.

To the extent that labor speaks about matters of class, it should not see itself as separate from the community. The term labor
should denote forms of organization with roots in the working class and with agendas that explicitly advance the class demands of
the working class. In that sense, a community-based organization rooted in the working class (such as a workers’ centre) that addresses
class-specific issues is a labor organization in the same way that a trade union is. To push the envelope a bit more, a trade union
that addresses the interests of only one section of the working class (such as a white supremacist craft union) deserves the label labor
organization less than does a community-based organization that assists the unemployed or the homeless.46

They therefore propose a new approach to labour organizing that

essentially defies current trade union practices in forming alliances and taking political action. Indeed, it has the following central premise: if class struggle is not restricted to the workplace, then neither should unions be. The strategic conclusion is that unions must think in terms of organizing cities rather than simply organizing workplaces (or industries). And organizing cities is possible only if unions work with allies in metropolitan social blocks.47

‘How then’, they go on to ask, ‘does one organize a city?’ This, it seems to me, is one of the key questions that the left will have to answer if anti-
capitalist struggle is to be revitalized in the years to come. And actually such struggles have a distinguished history. The inspiration drawn from ‘Red
Bologna’ in the 1970s is a case in point. And it is one of those curious ironies of history that the French Communist Party distinguished itself far more
in municipal administration (in part because it had no dogmatic theory or instructions from Moscow to guide it) than it did in other arenas of political
life from the 1960s even up until the present day. The struggles fought by the municipalities in Britain against Thatcherism in the early 1980s were not
only rearguard but, as in the case of the Greater London Council, potentially innovative until Thatcher abolished that whole layer of governance.48 Even
in the United States, Milwaukee for many years had a socialist administration and it is worth remembering that the only socialist ever elected to the US
Senate began his career and earned the people’s trust as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

If the Parisian producers in the Commune were reclaiming their right to the city they had produced, then in what sense might we look to a slogan such
as ‘the right to city’ as a ‘cry and a demand’ (as Lefebvre put it) around which political forces might rally as a key slogan for anti-capitalist struggle? The slogan is, of course, an empty signifier full of immanent but not transcendent possibilities. This does not mean it is irrelevant or politically impotent. Everything depends on who gets to fill the signifier with revolutionary as opposed to reformist immanent meaning. That is bound to be contested and then, as Marx once put it, ‘between equal rights force decides’.49

It is indeed often difficult to distinguish between reformist and revolutionary initiatives in urban settings. Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, ecologically sensitive programmes in Curitiba or living wage campaigns in many US cities, appear on the surface to be merely reformist (and rather marginal at that). The Chongqing initiative may, despite the Maoist rhetoric, more resemble redistributive Nordic social democracy than a revolutionary movement. But as their influence spreads, so the initiatives reveal other deeper layers of possibility for more radical conceptions and actions at the metropolitan scale. A spreading rhetoric (from Zagreb to Hamburg to Los Angeles) over the right to the city, for example, seems to suggest something more revolutionary might be at stake.50 The measure of that possibility appears in the desperate attempts of existing political powers (e.g. the NGOs and international institutions, including the World Bank, assembled at the Rio World Urban Forum in 2010) to co-opt that language to their own purposes.

There is no point in complaining at the attempt to co-opt. The left should take it as a compliment and battle for our distinctive immanent meaning, which is simply that all those whose labours are engaged in producing and reproducing the city have a collective right not only to that which they produce but also to decide on what is to be produced where and how. Democratic vehicles (other than the existing democracy of money power) need to be constructed to decide how to revitalize urban life outside of dominant class relations and more after ‘our’ (the producers of urbanization and urbanism) heart’s desire.

One objection that immediately arises, of course, is why concentrate on the city when there are multiple rural, peasant and indigenous movements in motion that can also claim their own distinctive rights? In any case, has not the city as a physical object lost its meaning as an object of struggle? There is of course an obvious truth to these objections. Urbanization has produced a highly differentiated mosaic of communities and interactive spaces which are hard to bring together around any kind of coherent political project. Indeed, there is plenty of rivalry and conflict between the spaces that constitute the city. It was, I suspect, for this reason that Lefebvre changed his focus from the urban revolution to the broader terrain of the production of space, or as I might formulate it, to the production of uneven geographical development as the focus of theoretical analysis and political struggle.

In the pedestrian imaginations of literally-minded academics, such objections sometimes produce the conclusion that the city has disappeared and that pursuit of the right to the city is therefore the pursuit of a chimera. But political struggles are animated by visions as much as by practicalities. And the term ‘city’ has an iconic and symbolic history that is deeply embedded in the pursuit of political meanings. The city of God, the city on a hill, the city as an object of utopian desire, the relationship between city and citizenship, of a distinctive place of belonging within a perpetually shifting spatio-temporal order, all give it a political meaning that mobilizes a political imaginary that is lost in a slogan such as ‘the right to produce space’ or ‘the right to uneven geographical development’!

The right to the city is not an exclusive right but a focused right.51 It is inclusive not only of construction workers but also of all those who facilitate the reproduction of daily life: the care givers and teachers, the sewer and subway repair men, the plumbers and electricians, the hospital workers and the truck bus and taxi drivers, the restaurant workers and the entertainers, the bank clerks and the city administrators. It seeks a unity from within an incredible diversity of fragmented social spaces. And there are many putative forms of organization – from workers’ centres and regional worker’s assemblies (such as that of Toronto) to alliances (such as the Right to the City alliances and the Excluded Workers Congress and other forms of organization of precarious labour) that have this objective upon their political radar. This is the proletarian force that must be organized if the world is to change. This is how and where we have to begin if we wish to organize the whole city. The urban producers must rise up and reclaim their right to the city they collectively produce. The transformation of urban life and above all the abolition of the class relations in the production of urbanization will have to be one, if not the, path towards an anti-capitalist transition. This is what the left has to imagine as constituting the core of its political strategy in years to come.


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