Reading David Harvey: urbanization as an anti-capitalist crisis syndrome

Posted on September 12, 2011 by


Since the last months, book stores tables (understood as a relevant tool of defining the global interest) propose a newly centered topic on economics whereas they were until now focused on lifestyle. Symbol of a new era, the popular attention is reoriented toward “capitalism”, word nowadays associated with “end of”, “failure”, “obsolete”, while we can observe dramatically the fall of trade charts on mass medias. “Black monday”.

For David Harvey in a lecture given at the Dickinson College on the 1st of February of 2007, “capitalism is a very complicated system but its essence is very simple: in the morning, capitalists start with a certain amount of money. By the end of the day, they end up with more of it. Then the next morning, they wake up, and they think to themselves “what am I gonna do with that extra money I had yesterday?” … and they have a choice, they can consume it away, in pleasure, or they can reinvest, and try to make even more money. What happens on the capitalism is: that’s not a real choice, because if they don’t reinvest, somebody else will. And in order to remain a capitalist, you have to reinvest a part of that money which you got yesterday in expansion.”

Through history, the capitalist system had been in danger several times, and crisis – understood as what is happening when there is nowhere to invest on – were the symptoms of the possible coming failure. So, to avoid to reshape the whole system, the goal was to avoid crisis… by simply creating a place to invest… and the solution was found toward urbanization. In 1848, a crisis of the capitalist system and a raise of the unemployment rate led logically to a revolutionary movement inspired by the utopian ideas of the 1830 and 1840’s. But their attempt was crashed and a new authoritarian government, a dictatorship, led by an auto proclaimed emperor, Napoleon 3rd, began to  govern France. Convinced that to keep his leading position Napoleon 3rd had to solve the double problem of investment of surplus capitals and of unemployment rates, he declared in 1952 “we have to put the country to work, and the capital to work”. To do so, he chose a man as a new prefect for Paris, who started with radical ideas to reshape Paris. This man, Haussman started a series of huge works and massive re-structuration transforming definitely the face of Paris, inspired by the utopian plans of the 1830’s and the 1840’s but changing the scale from one to three. By doing so, Haussman absorbed the suburbs into the city and solve the problem of both investment and unemployment, bringing back labour to workers. As long as the credit system was growing, Haussman’s plan for the city of Paris could go on, but as the credit system paused, the system broke, and with it another crisis followed in 1868… until a popular revolution in 1871.

History shown afterwards other solutions to create places for investments in order to avoid crisis: US got involved into World War II transferring labour power in the military industry, Robert Moses used Haussman’s theories to reshape New York city investing on infrastructure and considering the city no longer as a city but as a metropolis, introducing the notion of creative destruction and renewing the city center by shifting the production industrial space into a public institutional space based on services, transporting labour outside the city center and expanding the fragmented territory.

In this lecture, David Harvey starts to submit some hypothesis on how to build a city: “Look… you cannot divorce what happened in our urbanizing world without attaching it to the capital surplus absorption problem. And if we wish to create an alternative kind of city, not like a contemporary Sao Paulo, Chennai, Shanghai, Mumbai… If you wanna do something different, then one of the things we have to do is to address straight on that capitalist surplus absorption problem and that dynamic which lies at the heart of the urban process.”

*for further information, the really well made blog about David Harvey:

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