Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

Merrifield and Harvey discussion, 22 November


The group had a fascinating discussion in the quintessentially “rurban” setting of Aberystwyth Arts Centre bar on Thursday night about rebel cities and urban revolutions. We covered Marxism and post-Marxism, Kafka, Rushdie, the nature of power, surburbia mortgages and discipline, professionalism and living alternatively. As well as a lot else. Which made for a busy evening.

I found the discussion of Harvey’s ‘urban psychology’ and the mindset of living in an urban setting particularly interesting – and those who have a rural mindset in a hyper-urban environment and vice versa. The power of Kafka’s fable about The Castle was also very strikingly used by Merrifield, I thought, and opens up a very important discussion about how we conceptualise power in modern society.

Coming away from the meeting, I found myself thinking (again) about the rural/urban space and geography of the university in all of this. As within, and yet also outside, the city; as the locus of revolution (in Nanterre in 1968 and occupy in 2010) but also as the ivory tower where we can discuss our theorists and texts in safe isolation from much that is at the grassroots rural, and concrete urban, in contemporary politics. And because I’ve been teaching about social movements and 1968 is on my mind, I’ll finish with this: Sous les pavés, la plage. (Under the paving stones, the beach.)

Author: carldeath

I teach and research international politics in Manchester.

3 thoughts on “Merrifield and Harvey discussion, 22 November

  1. Thanks Carl, I’m struck that those of us working in the university are typically great examples of the castle within … I will add a link to communifesto for fuller geographies project, a geography research group charter for resisting the neoliberlisation of the university, including its infiltration of our minds and bodies.

    On the readings: Though they are still struggling to go beyond the present and come up with a credible theory of the future, what Andy Merrifield dubs ‘the enigma of revolt’, i.e. no direct correlation between analysis and action, modern Marxist scholars now ritually claim that a Marxist analysis yields our current economic and political condition perfectly – see Harvey, Merrifield, Callinicos and especially Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. Though we have become used to just as ritually ceding them this claim, in preparation for our reading group discussion I thought that perhaps we need to be more critical and see if their claim really stacks up? Especially beyond a Eurocentric perspective. Of course this would mean engaging in the kind of mind graunching scholarship which even the prospect of induces a headache and has me reaching for a beer and another graphic novel. But why isn’t there a correlation between this analysis and action?

    No economist, I’m always impressed with the simplest of ‘truths’. David Harvey tells us that credit is foundational to the capitalist system; that wealth and debt have to coexist. He then goes on to talk about urban growth in those contexts, getting into some of the themes of Rebel Cities. The US, Harvey claims, get out of economic trouble via urban growth, building houses and filling them with things, which means offering credit facilities – mortgages and other loans. He goes onto explain housing bubbles and how they burst: The same financier funds both the developers and the buyers; when there aren’t enough buyers the financier offer loans to people who don’t really have the income to pay back, paradoxically at higher interest rates as if to ensure they will struggle and default. When they do, in sufficient numbers, the bubble bursts. I think I got that, though for some reason the term subprime always conjures images of the butchers shop (prime cuts, sirloin… who knows).

    Where Harvey’s lecture got really interesting, for me, was when he gets onto the new class politics of the city. ‘The right to the city’, a term adopted from Henri Lefebvre I think, is an empty signifier waiting to be filled with meaning, Harvey proposes. The new proletariat are exploited urban workers, those servicing the machine of the city, the 99% keeping the energy, transport, water, sewage, coffee etc flowing while the 1% do capital accumulation. Service workers and not just production workers produce value. Asking how do you organise a whole city? Harvey ponders the role of trade union councils able to cut across the interests of single unions. The heterogeneity of the urban workers is central to the struggle of this new class. To challenge the capitalist system we must ask how do the workers reproduce urban life and use the answers as a principle around which to organise resistance. Breaking the flow of the urban food chain is a potentially powerful tactic, Harvey proposes. Most interestingly for me, Harvey raises the prospect of creating a more political city by remaking it spatially, remaking the urbanisation that maintains the flow of service workers while desensitizing them to their exploitation. There are examples such as squatting and social centres, eco-villages in the city, like the LILAC project in Leeds; tactics such as graffiti and subvertising… Most of all I think of the Situationists and how the materiality of the city can itself be subverted (détourned), and beyond that how it might be constructed differently so that its very architecture conjured a politics of collective liberation, not to mention sustainable living. That, I guess, is the power of community spaces in projects such as LILAC, in the freetown of Christiania in Denmark… But though, Harvey concedes that revolutionary change may be necessarily incremental – any wholesale resistance would be brutally suppressed (think Occupy in the US, the COP15 demos in Copenhagen…) – it is hard for me to imagine these increments, these hard won but peripheral spaces, adding up a critical mass.

    Just a note that David Harvey’s response to the first question he was asked after his lecture, where he mocked the capacity of anarchists to organise and advocated the necessity of hierarchical relations via the most facile of examples, left me fuming and served to undermine my trust in the connectedness of the rest of his analysis.

    To counter – or rather bring to life – all Harvey’s talk of an urban class, Andy Merrifield’s evocation of Kafka and ‘the castle within’ much more satisfyingly began to explain why all of us are so deeply implicated in capitalism and why it is therefore so hard to construct meaningful resistance: how do we resist ourselves? In truth, Harvey touched on the construction of the capitalist subject: the worker who is struggling to meet mortgage payments is not going to take industrial action and maybe risk losing her/his job or get arrested on a demo and imprisoned… There’s much to say about Merrifield’s article – which is a pleasure to read, and I’m looking forward to the longer version. (I will post my review of Magical Marxism on acdemia.edu) I was left pondering the contrast between the castle within analysis and its counterpoint which runs something like the people destroying the earth have faces and we know where you live.

    After the group discussion, I was left wondering why we all – particularly academics and the media, but also activists – turn away from spectacular manifestations of resistance when we perceive they have failed to achieve system change. If Harvey is right and revolution will be incremental, we should maybe follow the residue of Occupy, climate camps… Somewhere, some people, on some scale continue that work.

    • This was a really interesting synopsis and discussion! To pick up on just one or two points, when listening to Harvey, and in our discussion I found the notion that ‘debt-incumbent suburban home owners’ would not revolt (and that therefore credit was a means of social control) very convincing. It’s easy to conclude that people with a lot to lose will be less likely to kick up a fuss because of fearing the loss of it. But isn’t it equally possible to think that people with a lot to lose are less likely to kick up a fuss because they feel they have got it pretty good and shouldn’t complain? I wondered about this with relation to academia as well. How many times have I heard stories of (particularly new) academics spending 12-14 hours a day, and part of the weekend as well, frantically trying to keep up with all the work. On top of which, job security in academia is hard to come by, research is often dependent on grants, which are by no means assured and in any case may come with strings attached… and yet, in spite of all the quiet grumbling and venting to other academics, not much is actually done about it this situation, which seems to be getting progressively worse. Perhaps the reason is that because at the end of the day, academics know and feel that they are doing it for the love of it, at least some part of it. And it’s hard to complain and kick up a fuss – particularly if your work puts you in contact with people in much more desperate situations whose struggles somehow seem more legitimate – when ultimately you recognize that you do love the core of your job and are willing to make sacrifices for it.

      But, by accepting the situation, as you’ve already noted, perhaps academics are indeed complicit in not only reproducing and exacerbating the issues with academia, but also doing a disservice to larger goals of critiquing the capitalist/neoliberalizing system? The enigma is within… are we producing it outside of ourselves through accepting it internally as a personal struggle? Certainly, the emotional security that comes with, for some, the house in suburbia, and for others, the academic job (of any sort!), may be the personal tipping point over into the ‘mustn’t grumble’ mode of thinking and thus responsible for perpetuating continued shrinking of the space for genuine, thoughtful engagement with the world, through any form of resistance, intellectual/academic, or physical/tangible. Conversely, isn’t the argument that those with more to lose are less likely to revolt a bit dismissive of the fact that people often revolt because their situations are extremely bad and obviously so? I realize it’s perhaps a matter of different sides of the same coin. People revolt when they have little to lose, but perhaps they revolt not because they have little to lose per se, as the fact that they have little to start with! A niggly point perhaps, but it may explain some lack of revolutionary spirit within the academe. In this sense perhaps Marxism does in fact offer a road in, since according to this neo-Marxist interpretation of Occupy, academics too are part of the 99%, maybe even part of the proletariat, and therefore need to fight for rights! Still, doesn’t it sound a bit ludicrous?

      • Katherine, on academics and academia, I recommend you check out the communifesto for fuller geographes, the responses to it from other geographers, and – coming soon – the participatory geographies research group respnse to the responses! it’s all on th Antipode Foundation website and really does get into some of the issues you raise – especially the forthcoming response (I’ll send you a draft)

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