Friday, March 10, 2017

Class Struggle, the City, and the Willing Worker

David Harvey presents a lovely picture of the unique framework that cities present to enact a recreation of ourselves through our cities, a rebirth that reflects who we are in terms of our interactions and our values. This rebirth, he holds, is a right, a “common rather than individual right,” and  “one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”1,2
Harvey holds that cities are predicated on the “concentrations of surplus product,” a dead giveaway to his Marxist underpinnings, and to a point I agree with him. I certainly stand with his identification of urbanization as a “class phenomenon.”3 But I’m not certain I can join him when he identifies the mechanism of classist interactions and control to be that of control of distribution of that surplus. While he is right that control lies in the hands of the few and affects the lives of many, there is something else going on here, and it’s not only about urbanization, though -- we have brought this forward since medieval times: control of access to avenues of power.
The focus on control over the distribution of surplus as the hallmark of class issues misses the mark a bit and is, to my mind, a bit short-sighted in that it focuses specifically on the more modern human collective expression of urbanization. I find that control of distribution is but one piece, and a relatively new one given that there is a surplus, but that since the Middle Ages we have, as a Western Society certainly, held control of inclusion, of access to avenues of power, as the hallmark of class struggle. As Western society has become cash-based and production-oriented over the last half-millennium, the tools that bestow power and legitimacy have shifted, but the desire to control access to them has gotten fiercer than ever.
By limiting and controlling access, the class itself is protected and nurtured, insulated from the shock of social change that seems to explode on the scene more frequently than ever before. This insulation also protects the ruling class from having to worry about competition, at least in the near term, as exclusion has long been used to mitigate the pressures that competition or scarcity of resources -- natural, labor, or production -- can create for production and management of wealth, with as money or as social capital.
Harvey does identify the role of the state in promoting an unlevel playing field in the realm of competition, certainly.  But he doesn’t seem to identify the role that we, the workers, are having in shaping a corporate reality through working for what are more and more often corporate cities. Corporations are creating and maintaining their bottom line through the creation of corporate cities -- controlling the labor force and the municipality in which they operate in order to reap the mega-profits that are available in the twenty-first century economy, whether mining diamonds or data.
Class organization as a social justice tool is only as good as the pressures workers feel; it has been said by more than one labor attorney that the way to prevent workers from organizing is to treat them well. If the current workforce isn’t desperate for better wages and conditions, then organization and the change that Harvey identifies all die on the vine. We of the white collar, no less yoked and caged, are willingly eschewing organization in trade for coffee bars and game-stocked employee lounges, ignoring the social ills that are perpetuated outside the halls of our air-conditioned, gym-sporting office complexes. Our youth-driven greed is being stoked by corporate America, a small price for producers to pay to avoid the costs of really dealing with the inequality that persists and grows, largely in direct proportion to the white-collar, high-tech workforce and what it produces.

1. Harvey, David, “The Right to City,” New Left Review 53, Sept-Oct 2008, p. 23.
2. Please note: I am a utilitarian. I do not discuss rights this way, but I certainly allow others to do so and can follow the line of reasoning from this point of origin. For more on my perspective of responsibilities instead of rights, contact me and we will hold a symposium; there just aren’t enough symposia these days. 3. Harvey, David, “The Right to City,” New Left Review 53, Sept-Oct 2008, p. 24.