By David Harvey

It is quite possible that if and when we collectively emerge from the torments being inflicted by COVID-19, we will find ourselves in a political landscape where the reform of capitalism is very much upon the agenda. Even before the virus struck, there were minor hints of such a transition. Major business leaders who were gathered at Davos, for example, heard that their obsession with profits and market value and neglect of social and environmental impacts was becoming counterproductive. They were advised to take shelter from rising public wrath in some form of “conscience” or “eco-capitalism.”

The lamentable state of society’s public-health defenses against the onslaught of the virus, after forty years of neoliberal politics in many parts of the world, has increased the degree of public agitation. Austerity on anything other than military expenditures or subsidies to supposedly needy — though often filthy rich — corporations left behind a bitter taste, increasingly so after the bank bailout of 2008. In contrast, the collective and state-led measures to address the pandemic that did seem to work have generated more favorable public attitudes towards government.

In his remarkable daily news conferences, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo insists that the eventual exit from the current crisis will not only require a reimagining of the economic, social, and political landscape, but will also rest on what he sees as a unique reconciliation between expressions of the popular will and government powers. For those of us who have lived through the recent New York nightmare, this declaration of confidence in the value of state intervention makes some sense.

Unfortunately, Cuomo’s preparatory moves for his reimagining exercise have so far involved recruiting a billionaire’s club of Michael Bloomberg (to organize testing), Bill Gates (to coordinate education initiatives) and ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt (to re-calibrate communications and governmental functions). The ground-up democratic surge that has become more prominent at street level has yet to make much of a mark on political power. In the Cuomo imagination, the reimaginings and reconstructions required will be tailored to the needs of capital and people as defined by a progressive capitalist elite.

The Cities We Need

Throughout the long history of bourgeois governance, there have been some remarkable phases of radical reform in the United States, such as the Progressive era at the turn of the twentieth century, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Great Society of the 1960s. The consensus seems to be building that we are overdue another one.

It is in such a context that a head of steam is building to reconstruct urban life in particular, and to revitalize urban processes so as to promote not only more rational — and more eco-friendly — forms of economic development, but also more adequate ways of organizing daily life. As well as wreaking untold direct damage upon the quality of everyday life for most New Yorkers, the virus has also revealed the huge amount of rot beneath the surface glitter of conspicuous consumerism, indulgent individualism, and flamboyant architectural interventions.

It is in this spirit that the recent New York Times Editorial Board reflections on “The Cities We Need” — supplemented by several invited expert op-eds — invite some commentary. The central theme is simple enough. Once upon a time, “cities worked. Now they don’t.” We need to get them working again.

Behind this lies a somewhat nostalgic reconstruction of an era when “American cities were the hammering engines of the nation’s economic progress, the showcase of its wealth and culture, the objects of global fascination, admiration and aspiration.” In those good old days, “cities supplied the keys for unlocking human potential; an infrastructure of public schools and colleges, public libraries and parks, public-transit systems and clean, safe drinking water,” even though they were “deformed by racism, bled by the profiteering of elites and fouled by pollution and disease.” But above it all, those cities “offered opportunity.”

The problem now — and this is what the virus has revealed in such gut-wrenching detail — is that “our urban areas are laced by invisible [?] but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gap-toothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and all too often short.” Life-expectancy rates in the poorest neighborhoods are just sixty years, compared to ninety years in the affluent suburbs. To hammer home this point, the Times later published elaborate maps of differential life expectancies in US cities.

All Together Now?

It is unarguable that life chances depend upon the zip code of one’s birth. The litany of current failures is long (and far from invisible). As the Times observes:

Over the last half century their infrastructure of opportunity has badly decayed. Their public schools no longer prepare students to succeed. Their subways are reliably unreliable. Their water runs with lead. 

The lack of affordable housing in good locations means long and tedious commutes for low-wage workers on failing public-transit systems. It means thousands of homeless camping on the streets, on the buses, and in the subways. Educational opportunities map onto local differentials in income and wealth, serving to solidify and deepen class and racial divides.

The Editorial Board’s conclusion is that “the rich need labor; the poor need capital. And the city needs both.” We all need to pull together to make for ourselves a more satisfying and more equitable form of urbanization. This is an astonishing conclusion. It simply reasserts the primacy of the structures that lie at the root of most of the problems of contemporary urban life.

To be sure, the rich need labor because it is labor that makes them rich. But it is capital that has taken the lion’s share of wealth produced during these last forty years. It is also capital that has reduced labor to a fragment of itself through precarity, technological displacements, deindustrialization, and all the other ills that leave cities with a population that lives from paycheck to paycheck, unable to survive without resorting to charity at the food banks and free meals. It produces a population largely unable to afford the rent, let alone a mortgage payment, when unemployment or some personal tragedy or illness strikes.

Ronald Reagan famously remarked that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Until we realize that “capital is not the solution to our problem, capital is the problem,” we will be lost. Capital builds Hudson Yards and not affordable housing for those who are trying to live on less than $40,000 a year. Until capital can do the latter, all attempts at reform, however well-meaning, are sure to be coopted into the cycles of endless capital accumulation for the benefit of the few. Capital will continue to function in this way irrespective of the social and ecological consequences, while leaving the mass of the population to scrimp and save — if that is even possible — just to get by.

A Familiar Tune

The Editorial Board leaves us solely with hopeful exhortations to our superior moral instincts, our supposedly better angels, to solve a problem that calls for root-and-branch structural reform. “Reducing segregation requires affluent Americans to share but not necessarily to sacrifice,” they say. Heaven forbid that the affluent might have to sacrifice! “Building more diverse neighborhoods, and disconnecting public institutions from private wealth,” they hopefully claim, “will ultimately enrich the lives of all Americans — and make the cities in which they live and work a model again for the whole world.”

I am eighty-four years old, and I have heard this sort of thing too many times before to take it seriously. In 1969, I moved to a segregated Baltimore a year after much of the city was burned down in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. It did not take long for me back then to grow weary of heart-felt moralizing — the kind the Editorial Board resurrects — and the do-gooder spirit of those who genuinely (but alas so naively) believed it would all work out, if only those of us with good will (supplemented, presumably, by an empathy pill specially designed for reluctant subjects) would recognize that all of our fates are intertwined, that all of us are in this city together.

I wrote a book about the whole experience, Social Justice and the City, in which I sought to address the long-term continuity of capitalism’s urban problem. And here it is fifty years later and we seem set for a repeat performance, making exactly the same mistakes. It was abundantly clear back then that the market mechanism — which requires the production of scarcity to function — was the main culprit in a sordid drama. Thinking in these terms helped explain why almost all policies devised for the relief of urban inequality end up being crucified on an underlying contradiction.

If we engage in “urban renewal,” we merely move the poverty around (Engels, in his 1872 essay on the housing question, suggested that this was the only solution the bourgeoisie had to its urban problems). If we don’t, we merely sit by and watch as continuous decay takes place. “Gilding the ghetto” — as it was then called — plainly did not work, so the dispersal of impacted populations across urban space must be the answer. That also did not really work. The latter approach may have dispersed the ghetto somewhat, but it did not reduce levels of poverty or diminish racial discrimination.

Frustration with such failed outcomes led to the conclusion that the poor must bear the blame for their parlous condition, locked away as they were in their own distinctive “cultures of poverty.” The only proper response, said Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the time, was one of “benign neglect.” This presaged the neoliberal trope of personal responsibility and entrepreneurialism of the self, which justified blaming the victims, and in turn helped evade the kind of awkward questions which continuous policy failures inevitably posed. Few commentators scrutinized the forces which govern the very heart of our economic system. (Moynihan just happens, incidentally, to be Cuomo’s political mentor and role model.)

Emotional Tourism

The upshot is that all manner of solutions were devised and explored in those days, except ones that might challenge the continuation of the capitalist market economy. Yet this is the economy which, left to its own devices, inevitably produces spiraling impoverishment of the sort that the current pandemic has so starkly revealed.

When 40 percent of the thirty million people who are now unemployed had been earning less than $40,000 a year, surely we have to recognize the bankruptcy of contemporary capitalism in terms of providing for basic human needs. The neoliberal line of personal responsibility and human capital formation that developed back in the 1970s proved to be a convenient way for the capitalist class and the corporations to escape from the failures of the 1960s reform wave, while endlessly filling their own pockets.

It is vital, therefore, to subject the very basis of our society to a rigorous and critical examination. This is an immediate task. But let me say first what this task does not entail. As I concluded back in the early ‘70s, it does not mean yet another empirical investigation of the social conditions in our cities. In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is actually counterproductive, in the sense that it allows the bleeding-heart liberal in us to pretend that we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not. This kind of empiricism is irrelevant, even though it may earn us a Nobel Prize.

There is already enough information available to provide us with all the evidence we need. Our task does not lie in this field. Nor does it lie in what can only be termed “moral masturbation,” of the sort that accompanies the masochistic assemblage of some huge dossier on the daily injustices to which the urban populace are subjected, over which we can beat our breasts and commiserate with each other before retiring to our fireside comforts. This, too, is counterrevolutionary, for it merely serves to expiate guilt without ever forcing us to face the fundamental issues, let alone do anything about them.

Nor is it a solution to indulge in the kind of emotional tourism which attracts us to live and work with the poor “for a while,” in the hope that we can really help them improve their lot by volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating to a food bank (helpful though that may be in the short run). So what if we help a community win a playground in one summer of work, only to find that the school deteriorates in the fall? These are the paths we should not take. They merely serve to divert us from the essential task at hand.

A New Framework

This immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-conscious construction of a new political framework for approaching the question of inequality, through a deep and profound critique of our economic and social system. We need to collectively mobilize our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, that we can apply to the task of bringing about a humanizing social transformation.

These concepts and categories cannot be formulated in abstraction from social reality. They must be forged realistically with respect to the events and actions as they unfold around us. Empirical evidence, the already assembled dossiers, and the experiences gained in the community can and must be used here. And the surging wave of political empathy that is cresting in appreciation for all those who have lived their lives in the face of evident dangers must be taken at the flood. That wave will come to nothing if it is not consolidated by long-term, deep-rooted reforms.

The virus, it is said, does not discriminate. Well no! Like the New York TimesEditorial Board, I live comfortably isolated at home drawing my salary, dependent upon a segregated workforce that has to grapple with the existential choice between eviction and starvation through unemployment on the one hand, or keeping the city and its networks of care and comfort running for a measly wage on the other. And they also have to confront a potentially deadly virus on a daily basis. In what zip code do those workers reside? And what proportion of them are people of color, recent immigrants, Latinos and Latinas? How many laptops do the kids possess?

There is a distressing continuity to all this over the past century and a half. Surely it is time to break with this long and well-rehearsed history. We need to make a break for it, and plot the creation of more democratic and socially just forms of urbanization, animated by a different political economy and a different structure of social relations.

The disparities that underpinned the urban uprisings of the 1960s are still with us. In fact, they are deeper than ever. A few more months of lockdown and capitalist collapse, and the uprisings will almost certainly begin. But remember: “capital is the problem, not the solution.”

This piece was written in May, before the ongoing protests began.