by James D. Hoff
“The Party of Wall Street has had its day, and has failed miserably. The construction of an alternative on its ruins is both an opportunity and an inescapable obligation that none of us can or would ever want to avoid.”
—David Harvey, Rebel Cities
“Overcoming the crises that are endemic to capitalism requires changing more than the form of capitalism. It requires changing the internal organization of capitalist production itself.”
—Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work
In some ways it already seems like another time. The crowds are gone, the library destroyed, the hand-made signs and banners trashed or stored away. Zucotti Park is empty, occupied only by a handful of police officers who continue to anxiously patrol the sunken plaza at the feet of the new Freedom Tower. Just a year ago, Occupy Wall Street was brimming with possibility; today the movement seems to have moved on from itself, branching off into a collection of more focused, but seemingly less ambitious movements and organizations. All that remained of the once glorious occupation were a handful of die-hards left over from the first anniversary gathering— camped out in front of Trinity Church—who no doubt have been washed away by the hurricane winds and rain that have menaced the city. This is the world that Slovenian Philosopher and intellectual troublemaker Slavoj Zizek warned against when he came to speak at Zucotti Park on October 9, 2011. “The only thing I’m afraid of,” said Zizek,
is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering what a nice time we had here. Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire.
Precisely what that desire was (economic equality? human dignity? an end to capitalism?) and how it will manifest itself again, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Occupy opened up a popular and very public space, where critique of capitalism and the discussion of alternatives are once again possible. The intellectual hegemony of capitalism as the only right way of life is over. “Remember, our basic message is ‘we are allowed to think about alternatives,’” said Zizek. “But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?”
This difficult, in many ways impossible, question: “what does the Left want?” has been taken up by a number of leftist intellectuals. Two of the most salient and certainly most accessible responses to this question are Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, and David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Neither book is coming out of the Occupy movement—Harvey and Wolff are respected professors, after all, not activists. But, as their subtitles indicate, both authors are tapping into the radical sense of possibility that Occupy—in response to the crisis of capitalism—has made manifest. Although neither spends much time analyzing the Occupy movement, both look to it as representative of specific revolutionary tendencies. For each, OWS represents a different way of thinking and organizing from the ground up. In the case of Harvey’s Rebel Cities, the Occupy movement (following the Arab uprisings) was a tentative first step toward the political reclamation of public space. “The current wave of youth-led movements throughout the world, from Cairo to Madrid to Santiago—to say nothing of a street revolt in London followed by an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that began in New York City before spreading to innumerable cities in the US and now around the world—suggests there is something in the city air struggling to be expressed.” (117) For Wolff, Occupy represented not only a much needed political attack upon the traders and speculators on Wall Street, but a new found sense of hope for the Left. “The Occupy movement broke through decades of left resignation about the possibility and potential mass support for challenging the resurgence of private capitalism.” (177).
Although both books provide sweeping condemnations of global capitalism, they also offer refreshingly specific suggestions for how to begin to overthrow, or at least undermine, the dominance of that economic system. Democracy at Work, for instance, proposes a method for radically democratizing and liberating the workplace from the control of capital. Rebel Cities, meanwhile, argues that the only way to subvert capitalism’s unique ability to continually transform and adapt itself, often subsuming its own critics in the process, is to capture (much in the spirit, if not the fact, of the Paris Commune) the very spaces of capitalism’s power: the urban centers of production and consumption.
Wolff’s Democracy at Work makes a strong case for a renewed focus on the revolutionary potential of worker-controlled enterprises. For Wolff, any liberatory response to the crisis of capitalism must be truly democratic and include a clear program for regaining control of the surplus wealth created by labor. Though grounded in Marx’s theory of surplus appropriation, such a program is not only about economic justice; it is also about social well being. That is, the goal for Wolff is not just greater income equality and fairer distribution of wealth, but also greater democratic control over all aspects of our lives. Indeed, Wolff sees such worker-controlled enterprises as not only an immediate way to begin to undermine the foundations of capitalism, but as the very completion of “modern society’s limited democratization.”
Richard D. Wolff
Like many books of its kind, Democracy at Work is divided into three parts: introduction, analysis of the problem, and solution. The first half of the book effectively, and at times quite ingeniously, illustrates the failure of both private and state-run forms of capitalism (with special attention given to the 2007 housing market crisis) while the second half proposes a solution to the endemic crashes of free market capitalism through the creation of what Wolff calls Workers’ Self Directed Enterprises (WSDEs). Towards this end, Democracy at Work is an intentionally accessible book aimed at a wide audience, and while little of Wolff’s critique of capitalism is especially original, the simplicity and lucidity of the argument more than make up for the lack of theoretical or academic rigor. Indeed, despite the deceptively simple prose, there is real knowledge and insight to be gleaned from the first chapters, even for those well versed in the subject of capitalist crisis. Most insightful, perhaps is Wolff’s crystalline discussion of the systemic similarities between what he calls private and state-run forms of capitalism. One of the greatest failures of twentieth century manifestations of so-called socialism is that they largely continued to mimic capitalist forms of production at a state level. Indeed, the very concept of socialism itself has become intractably linked, argues Wolff, to the idea of state-regulated capitalism.
Soviet socialism—and increasingly socialism in general—came to be redefined in terms of what actually existed inside Soviet industrial enterprises. There, hired workers produced surpluses that were appropriated and distributed by others: the council of ministers, state officials who functioned as employers. Thus Soviet industry was actually an example of state capitalism in its class structure. However, by describing itself increasingly as socialist, it prompted the redefinition of socialism to mean state capitalism.
The solution to this dilemma is to recognize the fact that both private and state-run forms of capitalism are exploitative and that the only way to circumvent such exploitation is to directly democratize control of the surplus wealth generated by labor.
This brings us to the idea of WSDEs. Though Wolff does not advocate in favor of any one form of worker-controlled enterprise, he does spend nearly seventy pages detailing the ways in which such enterprises, if properly conceived, would be both economically and socially superior to capitalism. In fact, this defense of WSDEs is perhaps the most original contribution of the book, and Wolff does a fine job of countering some of the most pernicious critiques of cooperative enterprises. WSDEs, Wolff argues, would face some of the same challenges as corporate or privately owned enterprises. However, because of their democratic and political nature, they would be uniquely situated to more effectively and creatively respond to those issues. The problem of layoffs, for instance, which has plagued American labor for decades, could be reduced and ameliorated by the creation of a government administered fund to support workers at full pay while helping them find work within the larger system of WSDEs. Furthermore, since decisions about such issues as layoffs would be decided directly by the workers themselves, and all of the collateral damage of such decisions taken into account, layoffs would occur less frequently and in far smaller numbers.
This ability to do what’s right for the worker is what makes WSDEs strong, and potentially quite popular; however, it might also be their greatest weakness. While WSDEs would be constrained by virtue of the democratic process from maximizing profit by reducing safety standards, cutting labor costs, speeding up production, or outsourcing; private and corporate-owned enterprises would still function with the same kind of ruthless ingenuity that they do now. Wolff’s response to such a critique is two-fold: first he argues that WSDEs would, like corporations, eventually be able to influence and affect public policy in much the same way that corporations do, securing tax breaks and subsidies that would make them able to compete on an even playing field. More powerfully, WSDEs and the workers who own them, would be able to make real sacrifices that other workers would not and thereby potentially gain significant strategic advantages. When a privately owned company reduces wages in order to reinvest, there is no guarantee that future profits will be distributed back to the workers. In a WSDE, however, “the workers who collectively lowered their individual wages would be the same workers who received and used the enlarged surplus to solve the problem. In contrast, workers in a capitalist enterprise would more likely resist such a solution since other people—the capitalists who exploit them—would receive and decide what to do with any extra surplus realized by lowering individual wages.”
WSDEs then, subvert both private and state forms of capitalism, and as such offer a solution to what Wolff sees as the central problem of the Left in the twentieth century: it’s tendency to vacillate between reforms of private capitalism and strident calls for state control of production. Of course, Wolff recognizes that WSDEs are not a silver bullet. Like private capital, they too will face their share of hurdles and setbacks. “However, the struggles over WSDEs will differ from those over capitalist (or other exploitative) organizations of production because they will no longer involve the tensions between those people who produce and those who appropriate the surpluses.”
Like Wolff, Harvey is also concerned with how to take control of the surplus. But instead of focusing only on workers and the workplace, Harvey argues that we must expand our concept of a revolutionary class to include all exploited members of the polis, whether formally employed or not. This turn, from the factory floor to the homes and streets of the metropolis, is an important one, and it is what sets Rebel Cities apart from other critiques of capitalism. Considered from this new perspective, seen from the vantage point of the city street, the limits of resistance, the limits of the possible are greatly expanded.
Inspired by the work of the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre and social uprisings in cities like Shanghai, New York, London, and El Alto, Bolivia; Harvey’s Rebel Cities is nothing less than a call for radically reimagining what the city can and should be as a permanent locus of resistance to capitalism. Harvey’s argument is grounded in an interpretation and appreciation of Lefebvre’s idea of “the right to the city.” “The right to the city” is, as Harvey explains quite well in a 2008 piece for the New Left Review,
far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
In other words, the right to the city includes not only the right to access the city’s services and spaces, but to help shape it, to make it conform to our collective desires and not merely the whims, impositions, or exploitations of capital. For Harvey, this right to the city also includes a right to the wealth and value that the city generates. Just as Wolff argues that the products of a factory should be owned by those who produce them, the city should and must be owned and controlled by the people who make it.
The need for this right to the city has rarely been clearer than today, when the “creative destruction” of capitalism continues to make and remake the city in its own image, wiping out whole populations as gentrification and privatization sweep across the avenues and streets of urban centers like New York, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Berlin. Such transformations can be seen clearly in the creation of spaces like New York’s Zucotti Park—a privately owned “public” square—which is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the birthplace of the global Occupy movement. For Harvey, contested spaces such as Zucotti—which was at least temporarily reclaimed by Occupy as Liberty Plaza—and the struggles they engender are potential sites of innovative resistance and urban revolution.
One step, though by no means final, towards unification of these struggles is to focus sharply on those moments of creative destruction where the economy of wealth-accumulation piggy-backs violently on the economy of dispossession, and there proclaim on behalf of the dispossessed their right to the city—their right to change the world, to change life, and to reinvent the city more after their heart’s desire. That collective right, as both a working slogan and a political ideal, brings us back to the age-old question of who it is that commands the inner connection between urbanization and surplus production and use. (25)
These struggles, however, to be successful on a broader scale, to truly reshape the life of the city, must do more than merely excoriate Wall Street and call for economic reform. They must also begin to advocate for a right to the city as a model for economic and social justice.
Part of the reason why Harvey sees the right to the city as so important, is that it comprises the front lines of any serious confrontation with capitalism, for the city has always been the center of capitalist wealth accumulation, exploitation, and crisis. Indeed, the current economic crisis is, in large part, rooted in this exploitation of urban conditions of life. Real estate speculators—or entrepreneurs as they like to call themselves—are, Harvey claims, largely responsible for the 2007 global housing market crash. In fact such crashes are a regular part of global capitalist urban development. As more and more people (now more than 50% of the world’s population) live in urban centers, the land upon which those cities are built has become what Harvey calls “unreal estate:” a fictitious form of capital “that derives from expectations of future rents.” This speculation has not only forced out large populations from the center of such cities as London, New York, and Mumbai, but inevitably leads to perpetual housing market crashes. “There have been hundreds of financial crises since 1973 (compared to very few prior to that), and quite a few of them have been property-or urban development-led,” writes Harvey.
But property speculation is not the only form of urban exploitation. Underpinning this speculation—built into the very system of renting, lending, and property ownership—is a vast process of surplus appropriation, in which the city has, in effect, become the battlefield of a brutal war against the working class and the poor. From exorbitant rents, driven by wildly optimistic speculation, to outright property theft, the legal dimensions of predatory mortgage lending and urban development have allowed the capitalist class to pillage urban areas such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo, which have become what Harvey calls “centers for a growing wave of accumulation by dispossession.”
Predatory practices that hit the poor, the vulnerable, and the already underprivileged are legion. Any small unpaid bill (a license fee or water bill, for example) can become a lien on property about which a property owner may remain mysteriously (and illegally) unnotified until after it has been bought up by a lawyer who expenses it so that an original unpaid bill of, say $100 requires, say, $2,500 to redeem. For most poor people this means the loss of the property. At the last round of lien sales in Baltimore, some $6 million worth of liens on property were purchased from the city by a small group of lawyers.
Such homes bought at auction are then frequently, indeed almost always, spruced up and “flipped” for a large profit, or simply destroyed to make way for larger, more profitable luxury housing. One need only look at the now still largely-empty luxury condominiums lining McCarren Park in Williamsburg to understand the eventual end of such adventurous speculation—commoditized neighborhoods full of empty houses. Such commoditization is, in fact, one of the most intractable and nefarious aspects of private urban development, for “those who create an interesting and stimulating everyday neighborhood life lose it to the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs,” whose development eventually destroys the very street life and community that made the neighborhood so appealing to them in the first place.
The ultimate goal of Harvey’s book is, in part, to try to figure out a way to undermine or short circuit the process of capitalist expropriation of urban life and return the city to its inhabitants. To accomplish this, Harvey proposes a
double-pronged political attack, through which the state is forced to supply more and more in the way of public goods for public purposes, along with the self-organization of whole populations to appropriate, use, and supplement those goods in ways that extend and enhance the qualities of the non-commodified reproductive and environmental commons.
One of the first steps toward building a movement actually capable of challenging capitalism’s ability to continually appropriate the culture of its own critics, is to recognize first that “the conception of worker control that has hitherto dominated alterative left political thinking is problematic.” Such thinking misses the important point that it is not, nor has it ever been the case, that workers are only exploited through the unfair use of their labor. As the first half of the book takes pains to show, the owners of unproductive capital, such as housing and property, in alliance with the political classes, are capable of easily taking back any gains made in the workplace. The fact that it now frequently takes two full-time workers to adequately support a family, is perhaps the most salient example of how labor has historically been exploited both within and outside of the workplace. Instead Harvey argues that we must think about organizing neighborhoods and cities as well as factories, to take back the surplus created by production as well as the value added by the city. Indeed, organizing factories and workplaces—as Wolff suggests—is, it turns out, much easier to do when neighborhoods are already organized.
Harvey looks to the example of Cochabamba and El Alto, Bolivia, as a model for the revolutionary potential of urban spaces. “It was in the streets and squares of Cochabamba,” says Harvey,
That a rebellion against neoliberal privatization was fought out in the famous ‘Water Wars’ of 2000….and it was from El Alto…that rebellious movements arose to force the resignation of the pro-neoliberal president, Sanchez de Lozada, in October, 2003, and to do the same to his successor, Carlos Mesa, in 2005. All of this paved the way for the national electoral victory of the progressive Evo Morales in December, 2005.
Much of the success of these several rebellions depended, in part, upon the deep tradition of local democratic control in El Alto, which was exemplified by the presence of popular assemblies and neighborhood and sectorial associations, which worked together with more formal unions to organize militant acts of resistance. The bonds between these organizations and unions were especially strong, in part because of the social and “cultural solidarities” made possible by popular, locally constructed cultural activities such as “fiestas, religious festivals, dance events,” etc. Though their actions were certainly motivated by larger political goals, the residents of El Alto do not only identify themselves with such politics. Instead the Alteños, as they are called, primarily identify with their city, and their resistance was in part a way of protecting and conserving what they had made.
The lesson of El Alto—which managed to resist a reactionary coup against Morales, oust two presidents from office, and toss out two powerful global corporations, all in the course of a decade—is that there is power in a city well organized. Such organization, however, to be truly successful on a global scale must be more consciously and carefully conceived. While the revolution in El Alto was the “outcome of contingent circumstances that just happened to come together, why cannot we imagine consciously building a city-wide anti-capitalist movement along such lines?”
Imagine in New York City, for example, the revival of the now largely somnolent community boards as neighborhood assemblies with budget-allocation powers, along with a merged Right to the City Alliance and Excluded Workers Congress agitating for greater equality in incomes and access to health care and housing provision, all coupled with a revitalized local Labor Council to try to rebuild the city and the sense of citizenship and social and environmental justice out of the wreckage being wrought by neoliberal corporatist urbanization.
But, as always, the devil is in the details, and how best to organize other cities, and then bring them together in solidarity, is the question Harvey urges us to consider.
And this is where Rebel Cities parts ways with OWS. Each occupy encampment was fiercely independent, and many of them functioned on a model of rigorous non-hierarchical horizontality. Although different camps frequently coordinated with one another for major marches and days of action, there was no central democratic decision making body to make quick tactical decisions or even to help organize communication between encampments. Thus, once the powers that be realized that Occupy was a real threat, it was not too difficult to take out the public face of the movement one encampment at a time. In similar fashion, the Paris Commune was, with a bit more force and resilience, eventually destroyed by the state. For Harvey, such horizontality, though a virtuous goal is not always realistic. In place of the fetishization of horizontality, Harvey argues for a nested hierarchical structure that would allow for democratic decisions to be made at larger scales. Unfortunately:
“The idea of hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days. A fetishism of organizational preference (pure horizontality, for example) all too often stands in the way of exploring appropriate and effective solutions.”
In other words, any urban movement must eventually come to terms with the fact that no number of local struggles will be able to succeed without coordinating amongst themselves to tackle the larger dominance of capital. “Any anti-capitalist drive mobilized through successive urban rebellions has to be consolidated at some point at a far higher scale of generality, lest, it all lapse back at the state level into parliamentary and constitutional neoliberalism within the interstices of continuing imperial domination.”
Although the encampments have been cleared, OWS and its many offshoots remain surprisingly resilient and effective. Their continued actions against foreclosure and debt, and the extraordinary response to hurricane Sandy suggest that, though the name may change, we have not seen the last of this movement. Indeed, if such actions are any indication of its future direction, OWS could very well play an important role in helping to build the kinds of democratic community structures central to challenging capitalism. But any movement capable of revolutionary change must at some point move beyond merely ameliorative local actions, accept the hard fact that it is capitalism and not greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, or corporate CEOs that are to blame for our current crisis, and—as Harvey and Wolff both urge—begin to take back control of our neighborhoods and our workplaces. Towards that end, both books offer a solid foundation for such a struggle.