Producing the City, Producing Dissent

Radicals, said David Graeber, while holding a plastic Roman legion helmet (he just returned from an action protesting student debt), radicals have had a long unspoken pact with liberals: we incite, provoke, ask controversial questions, and liberals, now regarded as holding a more reasonable alternative to us, gain political power and enforce change. This, he went on to explain, is how political progress occurs: the Haymarket Affair was what pushed legislators to enact 8-hour workdays, it was factory occupations in the early 20th century which led to the rise of unions, and it is radical direct action which will turn the wheel of change now, in 2012.

The talk, titled Rebel Cities: Occupation, the Commons, and Urban Democracy, was given by two very different Leftist thinkers: David Graeber, a lifelong radical anarchist activist and current lecturer of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and David Harvey, a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The latter David, rising to academic prominence a few decades ago for his ingenious application of Marxist social thought to the seemingly-neutral discipline of geography, can be described as the theoretical counterpart to the prolific activism and nonviolent propaganda of the deed espoused by David Graeber.

Standing outside the CUNY Graduate Center before the talk, the sidewalk covered with chalk drawings announcing that the May First General Strike was just a few days away, I became very aware of this dichotomy between ivory-tower academia and on-the-ground activism: indeed, developments in Marxist theory have been all but confined to universities for the past forty years, in casual political discussions, calling oneself an “anarchist” or a “communist” seems like some ironic pun or else just a vulgarity, much as the label “feminist” might have been a hundred years ago. The fact that reactionary news outlets describe Obama as a communist (which he’s not, though I rather wish he was), is quite evidently the last rotting corpse of McCarthyist propaganda; but the necessity in replying to this not only with our own news outlets, but with actual, physical, nonviolent action, seems to me absolutely critical. We, the liberals, radicals, anarchists, greens, have been talking ourselves in circles for decades; given the current state of American politics and geopolitics, one can reasonably assume that it might be worthwhile to try something different.

David Harvey’s just-published book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, establishes urban centers as the starting point for revolution; it is the proletariat, the illegal immigrants, the transit workers, who ensure the flow of capital and effectively produce the city, and it is they who are most exploited by it. Harvey cited a personal experience: flying back from Argentina, he landed in JFK and took the E train into Manhattan around 6:00am only to find it absolutely packed, before the sun had even risen, with women of color on their way to minimum-wage jobs, where they would turn on coffee machines, wash floors, clean hotel rooms, and wake the city up. All of these women, he added, looked utterly exhausted. This is by no means an isolated event: half of the population of New York City is trying to get by on $30,000 per year, most of their backs already broken under the weight of debts upon debts which they will most likely never pay off. This, dear reader, is capitalist exploitation of the working class at its most brutal: self-justifying, self-fulfilling, and terrifyingly ironic: these working women of color produce what we know to be the city, but they are also destroyed by the behemoth they labor towards.

When a Rick Santorum-type goon, and we can really only call them goons at this point, dangles his fat jaw at me and demands how I dare call myself a communist, I find myself replying to him, How can you not be a communist when you see all of this?

This, however, is precisely the problem: many of the bourgeois don’t see; the media doesn’t report this downer-type news, and alternative media outlets are pre-labeled by the mainstream media and shrugged off (how many times have I seen smirks and sneers as I share something I read on AlJazeera!). We can discuss and write and post and tweet all we want, but somehow stories about the NYPD groping women or harassing transgender individuals get lost in the fold. When we accuse others of fascist or bigoted speech, they cite freedom of speech as if it entailed freedom from criticism and even intelligent political discourse seems to collapse. Talking has left us tongue-tied and tired, and we might consider breaking down this border between theory and practice, between talking and analyzing and raising awareness and directly doing. Because isn’t holding open subway gates and refusing tolls already a commentary on public transit and fare hikes? We, the liberals, the radicals, the left-over from mainstream politics, we might take well to look to the Chileans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Spanish Indignacios, we might take to the streets until the media and the pathetic political class can no longer avoid our grievances, and grievances we have quite a few.