Urban Revolution: An Interview with David Harvey (Part 2)

by David Harvey, John Brissenden, Ed Lewis

David Harvey addresses the debates surrounding horizontalism, centralism and anarchism.

First published: 31 May, 2012 | Category: Activism, Housing, Vision/Strategy

Discussing his new book, Rebel Cities, David Harvey addresses the debates surrounding horizontalism, centralism and anarchism. Part 1 of this interview can be found here.

Ed: I want to come back to what you touched upon about embracing a plurality of strategies, and linked to that you talk about the need for a variety of organisational forms. You’ve waded into an enduring and sometimes pretty hostile debate that’s been going on for a long time but which has been quite acute in the last few years, between ‘horizontalists’ and ‘centralists’ or ‘verticalists’. Can you expand on that, and how it relates to your analysis of capitalism and the city?

David: I think there is a great attachment right now to horizontality. I try to say to the students that I like to spend much of my life horizontal, but I also like to stand upright every now and again and walk around! Because I think this is not helpful. But again, I’m not against being as horizontal as you possibly can. There is what I call in the book a sort of fetishism of organisational form, and that was as bad in the democratic centralist forms of organisation, the Leninist parties and Communist parties.

I think again, the question for me is what kind of organisation is able to confront and address what kind of problem, at what scale? And I think that horizontality can work with certain problems at certain scales, but it soon runs out of possibilities. We live in a world where there are a lot of tightly coupled systems around, tightly coupled in such a way that you need command and control structures immediately to deal with them. For example, a nuclear power station is a tightly coupled system. When something goes wrong in it, you need to react immediately because otherwise it will go very fast through the whole thing and explode. The university is not a tightly coupled system. If something goes wrong in it, say somebody doesn’t turn up for a lecture, it doesn’t matter. The university survives perfectly well. But in tightly coupled systems you need very quick decision making.

So I say to all the people who are horizontalists, do you want to organise air traffic control on a horizontalist principle? Do you want to have assemblies all the time in the air traffic control tower? Would this work? How would you feel if you were half way across the Atlantic, and they suddenly said “well, actually the air traffic controllers have just gone into assembly mode, and they’ll let us know tomorrow what they’ll do”? There are many things like that that need a completely different sort of organisational form, and I think it’s good that people are talking about horizontality, but it’s bad that they kind of say it has to be horizontal or nothing.

Ed: It comes from at least a quasi-anarchism, and a deep suspicion of any form of authority. Are you saying that, basically, to be a radical, to be anti-capitalist, you still need to recognise that authority has its place at times?

David: Yes, of course. I think authority has its place. The problem that is posed by this, and it’s a very important one, is how do you hold authority accountable? What are the mechanisms of recall, and what are the mechanisms of control, because a hierarchical structure can indeed become top-down and authoritarian. But there’s a big difference between authoritarianism and authority. I think that at certain points you need somebody to have the authority.

The famous example that a lot of people quote would be the Zapatistas. But the Zapatistas, militarily, are not horizontal. The only reason they have survived is precisely because if you try to mess with them militarily, they have very good command and control structures in which they can actually resist. And if you don’t have that, you’re very vulnerable. One of the criticisms that was always made of the Paris Commune was that, because a large part of it was brought up in a sort of philosophical anarchism, there was no central authority to defend the whole city. People were defending their arrondissement, but not the whole city, so the forces of reaction could easily get through because there was no command and control structure to resist militarily the invasion that came.

John: You talk in the book about Murray Bookchin, and his approach as maybe a way out of this problem of scale. Tell us about that.

David: Being a geographer, the traditional radicalism in geography was always anarchist, and the anarchists have a long history, particularly the social anarchists, of being much more interested in environmental and urban issues than the marxists [I use a capital ‘M’ but there’s obviously no agreed spelling for ‘marxist’] have ever been. And of course they’ve exercised quite a lot of influence over the years on planning practices and in other respects, and you have figures like Lewis Mumford coming out of that tradition who I think have been very influential and very influential with me, obviously. And Bookchin continues that tradition, and I am therefore interested in his essays on libertarian municipalism, where he talks about horizontal forms of organisation that are decentralised, but then talks about the confederation of regional assemblies, if you like, which can then speak to the needs of the bio-region rather than speaking to the needs of the particular commune, or whatever you want to call it.

So he was certainly more than willing to think of a hierarchical structure of some kind, and then try to talk about the way in which powers were allocated and what they should be about. He used a Saint-Simonian little trick, which is to say the upper levels should be about the management of things not of people. That they should be concerned about managing, say, the water supply for the whole region, or the sewerage disposal for the whole region, but not about managing what people do. It’s a hard divide to actually police, but the idea I think is interesting. So I find Bookchin’s ideas very interesting.

I had a session in New York a couple of weeks back with David Graeber, and Murray Bookchin came up in the discussion. It turned out that Murray Bookchin’s daughter was in the audience, and we talked afterwards about getting a whole selection of some of Bookchin’s writings on this question, and putting it together in a little book. I think it’s a very good moment to reintroduce that anarchist tradition, which is prepared to talk about some of these broader questions, like how do you take all these municipal assemblies and not put yourself in the difficult position that those with a lot of resources become ultra-rich, and those with no resources become ultra-poor? Is there a way of equalising between the municipal assemblies, and if so, by what mechanism can you look at the higher level of confederations and so on?

Ed: Your view of that seems to be that ultimately you’ll need a state, and it seems that you think that Bookchin might ultimately accept that but can’t admit it.

David: Yes. You know, if it looks like a state, and feels like a state, and quacks like a state, then it’s a state. I could see that there’s something which you might call a capitalist state, which one would want to smash and get rid of, but there is some form of organisation which is going to have to be about the relations between different assemblies and different groups. And on a worldwide basis, you also have to think at some point about certain issues like global warming, which would have to be addressed and understood at a global level, and therefore certain ideas about what to do about it would have to emanate from global concerns.

John: This goes back to something you were talking about earlier, about organising geographically. There is a distinction, I don’t know whether it’s an opposition, between the urban and the non-urban.

David: A lot of people ask me this question. They say “the city doesn’t really exist any more, so why are you talking about a right to something that doesn’t really exist?”, and then “you’re talking about the city, why aren’t you talking about the countryside, why aren’t you talking about the rural?”. My answer to that is that we, in effect, over the last 50 years, have become a wholly urbanising world, and what might have been true at one point in time, that there was an urban life and then a peasant life which was largely self-sustaining, independent, and so on – that has largely disappeared. What you see is a continuum between the fields right the way into the cities, so they become systemically involved with each other, and my observation is in many parts of the world, in Latin America for example, if you’re out in the rural areas, they’re watching the same TV, and they’re driving the same cars, and it’s what I call uneven geographical development within an urbanising process.

And from that standpoint you say the differences within the city are just as significant as are the differences between the city and the suburbs, and the suburbs and the peri-urban areas. So there’s a lot of differentiation occurring within that urbanisation process, so the difference between high-income areas and impoverished slums is just as dramatic, in fact in some ways more dramatic, than that between what’s going on in the city and what’s going on out there.

There are forms of organisation now that reflect this – if you look at the landless peasant movement in Brazil, it is very conscious of its urban connections. It doesn’t see itself as somehow out there in an autonomous world, it sees itself as part of this general urbanising process. That’s the way in which I would want to look at this, which means that it’s then very important to organise across all of these elements. There is an attempt going on now in some places to organise a food chain into a city, in which you start in the fields and then you go right the way through the different steps - wholesaling right the way through to the supermarket - and I think that’s a very interesting idea. In El Alto, which is one of my favourite examples, the connectivity between the people who are living in the city and the people living out there is very, very strong, and it’s been strengthened over the last 10 or 15 years because of agri-business and the way the countryside has been turned into a capitalist landscape.

Ed: So a revolutionary urbanism is a kind of universal form of revolutionary politics? 

David: Yes, I would argue that it is. The only reason I stick with the word “city” is the city has a kind of iconic meaning, and it’s the focus of dreams and utopias, and so on, so you’re calling up an imaginary about the beautiful city, the city on the hill, all of those sorts of things. So I stick with the term “city”, but I understand perfectly well that a city in a kind of compact sense, which is differentiated from everything else, has essentially disappeared.

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