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Metropolis now

Don Flynn examines the role of the city as the driver of social change.

Sometime during the course of the last decade an important threshold was crossed when, for the first time in its history, the city-dwellers became the majority of humanity. The experience of living off or close to the land as a food producing farmer ceased to be the dominant occupation.

This trend will increase and deepen in the decades ahead. The OECD's Trends in Urbanisation and Urban Policies in OECD Countries pointed out that what has been the line of march in the developed capitalist nations for two centuries is now taking place with even greater rapidity in countries like China and India and the other nations of the rapidly developing world.

The anthropologist and geographer David Harvey has considered some of the implications of this urban transformation in his recent book, Rebel Cities. His argument is that the growth of the city follows the deep logic of capital with its incessant and permanent need to accumulate. The search for profit has driven huge increases in the productivity of labour power over the centuries. The tangible evidence of this is to be seen in the vast piles of commodities, in all the multiplicity of forms these can take from buildings and subway systems through to bangles and ipads that mushroom in urban areas.

Cities not only provide the markets in which the retailing of goods takes place in its most intense form, but they also play an essential role in allowing surplus value to exit from the relays of exchange. This take the form of luxury goods which are finally destroyed in consumption, or parked in places like art galleries and concert halls where their use value, for the time being, prevails over the price they fetch in the marketplace. In ending their lives as commodities in this way they help capitalism to address the constant threat of overproduction, where the saturation of markets with new goods threatens a precipitous collapse of value across the whole of the system.

In the accompanying article on page 21, focusing on London, Duncan Bowie sets out the issues that arise for social policy, as the point in which capitalist relations of production and exchange take place at their highest level. The capacity to sensibly plan for good housing and reliable public transport systems is constantly threatened by the turbulence of markets. Escalating land values in city centres, supporting a price structure that makes residential and business property affordable only to the global elite, is driving the hollowing out of city centres as people on medium to low incomes lose the chance to purchase homes and small businesses can't pay the rents on their leases.

All of this is true, but it is only one part of the story. Because the sheer intensity of the tensions and conflicts that are integral to capitalism is felt strongest in cities, they are also the places where the logic of the city as a tool of accumulation breaks down soonest. Quarters emerge in which the conditions of life require the subversion of the marketplace, turning it to the service of subaltern communities and networks in which the practice of solidarity again becomes possible.

The Canadian writer Doug Saunders has made a study of these enclaves of resistance, calling them ‘arrival cities' because of the function they play in facilitating the entry of new urban citizens and pushing forward the growth of the metropolis. He has studied these in the suburbs of Istanbul and Tehran, Shenzen, Dhaka, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Paris and London, looking for the factors which allow a city to retain its human dimension and retain the capacity to exist as communities structured around solidarity and support.

The picture he builds up is one of social processes shaping and giving content to local neighbourhoods, where homes, places of work and commerce and recreation are better integrated and public services function on a scale that supports community life.

The suggestion that comes from reading these accounts is that the Fabian tradition of technocratic planning is not sufficient to counter the forces of capital which carry interests that run counter to the human city. Harvey is more explicit on this score, calling for a form of class struggle which can be expressed as a right to the city, as the proper place for people to live and work towards their future.

These are ideas that are becoming more salient every day as the news of struggles in the cities of the Middle East, curving up into Turkey and reaching out to Athens and through into Europe. There they appear in very tentative form in the Occupy Movements and their symbolic actions in seizing public spaces in the European capitals.

What still continues to exist as a conscious, socialist movement in the metropolitan cities would be making a grave mistake if it continued to prefer its idealised town planning schemes to the spontaneous reclaiming of space which the new urban movements are pushing forward. It may well be the messiness of our urban predicament, with its ethnic mixes, tumultuous migrations, and frustration with the capitalist city that is growing up around them, that will provide the imagination and creative energy ­­that will allow us to return to the task of social revolution.