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Social Justice in the City:
Comparing David Harvey and Murray Bookchin
by Dana Williams

 

Abstract:
Both David Harvey and Murray Bookchin have examined social justice in the city. They approach the concept in light of utopianism from different perspectives, critiques, causes, and solutions. Harvey views the present municipal malaise as a result of a crushing capitalistic economic system. Bookchin sees the rise of the state, urbanization, and bureaucracy, as well as capitalism to be the cause of the decline and decay of social organization and structures of the city. Within their individual contexts, both authors have explained matters accurately, especially from their individual test cases, and coalesce upon most issues of importance. However, it is their emphasis-and not their similarities-that differentiates their analysis, and thus solutions to the problems plaguing cities. Bookchin heralds the concept of municipal confederation and Harvey touts Edilia, stemming from strong class analysis.
Keywords: social justice, city, citizenship, utopia.

 

Social justice in the city

The notion of "social justice in the city" (a phrase which David Harvey is credited with creating within the field of geography) has inspired Harvey and Murray Bookchin to offer their unique visions of what many--including themselves--would call utopianism. They have each written for years on the systemic problems in society and cities, and have suggested both reasons for and solutions to those problems, David Harvey as a geography professor at John Hopkins University and Murray Bookchin as the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

Both Harvey and Bookchin approach the idea of social justice in the city from similar yet different perspectives. They assert that there is something innately wrong with how cities are today, be it with layout, design, power, or history. Both men use a critical approach in order to evaluate a variety of case studies (especially critical of global capitalism), both historical and present-day. The way that they view the issues of municipalities, urbanization, and cities vary somewhat by way of their methodology and scope of analysis.

Their foci also differ, with Harvey viewing the question of "social justice" in terms of economy and the concerns of social organization being more or less peripheral, while Bookchin notes economic disparity and points to it as the result of a lack of cohesive social organization in society. Thus, while they see the same problems: disaffection, poverty, ruthless power and corruption, and unaccountable tyrannies embodied in the forms of both city governments and corporations, they place different emphasis on the contributing factors and the areas that need to be emphasized in order to overcome those problems, yet collectively address a broader scope of issues than either does individually.

 

Spaces of hope

Harvey commonly uses a Marxist critique when reviewing society, especially in regards to socio-economic characteristics. He delves deeply into the works of Marx, be in the Communist Manifesto, Capital (I, II, and III), and other lesser-known writings. He applies Marx's economic findings to present-day urban life in America. Unfortunately, in the process of heavily relying upon Marx as the primary (if not only) reference point for capitalism critique, Harvey ends up nearly deifying Marx.

Using his hometown Baltimore as a test case, Harvey explores the notion of social justice as a function of economic factors for the populace. Thus, in Baltimore he sees much of an unjust nature (Harvey, 133). He challenges the apparent lack of alternatives to the status quo, and heralds the example of activism to initiate a living wage (as opposed to a "minimum wage") policy within the John Hopkins system (Harvey, 155 and 123-127).

Gentrification and the "feeding [of] the downtown monster" have drained Baltimore of both its moral and fiscal wealth (Harvey, 141). Such practices are a result of a prevailing economic trend, and effect many cities. While stating that cities presently have bad and undesirable characteristics, Harvey neglects to explain any historical cause for the situation (Harvey, 158).

In recent years, global capitalism has accentuated and accelerated the geographical differences that the world's places display, such as their "ways of life, standards of living, resource uses, relations to the environment, and cultural and political forms" (Harvey, 77-78). In addition, Harvey states, this broadening of the mobility of capital and capitalism has allowed for the spread of "AIDS, global warming, local environmental degradation, and the destructions of local cultural traditions"--issues he views as being inherently issues of class (Harvey, 81). All of this, despite the fact of the existence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Harvey, 86-90).

In a review of visions for utopia, Harvey exhibits drawings of various thinker's conceptions of the "perfect city", from people such as Robert Owen, Fourier, Thomas More, Ebenezer Howard, and Frank Lloyd Wright. In doing so, he points out that Disneyland is perhaps the antithesis to utopian cities (which he terms "degenerate utopias), since it perpetuates "the fetish of commodity culture rather than to critique it" (Harvey, 167). Although still lacking in historical context (comparatively), Harvey points out that social organization and cooperation lead to a more evolved species (Harvey, 210).

 

From urbanization to cities

Bookchin spans the centuries with his analysis of cities and municipalities. He starts with the Greeks, then the medieval city, the advent of colonialism and capitalism, up to the present day. Bookchin's historical review is a fascinating account of the many complex factors that cities incorporate: the powerless, elites, housing, governing structures, transportation, trade, etc. Always at the core of his arguments are strong historical precedents and examples, to convince the reader that this is not simply idle theory, but tried and true applied thought--just as Bookchin's forbearer Peter Kropotkin did at the turn of the 20th Century in Mutual Aid.

He states that although the Athenians had an interactive view of politics and democracy (with the Agora, councils, etc.) they still had slaves, patriarchy, war, and xenophobia (Bookchin, 49). Thus, Bookchin denies that the Greeks are the model for an ideal society, but rather merely a reference of a vibrant democratic tradition (Bookchin, 14).

He sees the quest for justice in the city as intractably wrapped within the need for people to be members of a community and citizens, as opposed to mere taxpayers and voters. He sees that the rise of capitalism, the state, bureaucracy, and mass culture was the impetus in which "social justice, idealism, and agrarian values of community gave way to privatization, self-indulgence, and suburban cookouts" (Bookchin, 198). With this rise in authoritarian structures, Bookchin points out that this led to the notion of "individualism" (especially in the United States) which in turn spurned isolationism and civil disconnect (Bookchin, 225).

This disconnect was accelerated by the advent of the nation-state, in which people began to identify more with their "nation" as opposed to their local communities and cities (Bookchin, 159). This bleeds out the presence of independent thinking (which he carefully separates from independence and freedom) and that broad-based social interaction has been degraded from solidarity to patriotism--a shifting of loyalties from fellow human beings to "the state" (Bookchin, 226 and 227).

As in the title of his book, From urbanization to cities (of which an earlier addition was titled Urbanization without cities), he makes a strong theoretical distinction between the nature of "urbanization" and what "cities" have historical stood for. Urbanization, he says, drives out what pre-modern cities all held in common, their status as "communities of the heart" (Bookchin, 18-19). In response to his view of urbanization (and with a intentional anarchistic-bend), Bookchin asserts that societies (and cities) function best when they operate upon the basis of mutual aid, confederation, collectivism, and self-management-thus classical characteristics of cities. He lays out countless examples for this trend by mentioning the citizenship exhibited by Vermont townships, the Swiss Confederation, New England town meetings, and the sectional assemblies of the Great French Revolution and Paris Commune (Bookchin, 110-111).

Bookchin takes issue with other critiques, specifically Marxism (be that Karl Marx's actual views, or the views of his followers and ideological champions). He accuses Marxist analysis to view the city as a tool of urbanization as the same tendency that made Marx refer to "rural idiocy"--by far, Bookchin argues, a superior ecological and social system (Bookchin, 117). The tendency of many Marxists to flock to the scheme of centralized government and control only deepens Bookchin's distrust in Marx, as he claims that city-states (examples of decentralization) are superior in their civil participation than are larger agglomerations of authoritarian power (Bookchin, 136). This is exampled by Marx expunging Michael Bakunin and his followers from the First International, who argued against a centralized state and authoritarian control.

However, Bookchin's greatest case against Marxism stems from what he says is turning the ethical content of socialism into merely the "egotistical political economy of the industrial bourgeoisie" (Bookchin, 187). Herein lies Bookchin's opposition to viewing cities and social justice as merely mechanisms and functions of economics, and not social interaction, organization, and democracy.

 

In comparison, contrast, and agreement

While Bookchin emphasizes it more than Harvey, both note that smaller cities are often touted as more "utopian" than larger ones (Harvey, 157) and Bookchin specifically and thoroughly declares that compact, decentralized city-states are more desirable than sprawling, centralized municipalities. Although not quite explaining what he means, it is not difficult to ascertain what is meant by Bookchin's heralding "confederal municipalism" to be the only alternative to authoritarian structures in cities (Bookchin, 220)--the "recovery and development" of politics as personal and the revitalization of what "community means (Bookchin, 222).

Harvey also asserts his own vision of utopia in a very interesting appendix chapter, entitled "Edilia, or 'Make of it what you will'". Just as he claims, his fantasy vision for Baltimore evolves and reads just as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward does (intriguing yet still obviously fiction). In this chapter Harvey begins to apply what Bookchin suggests, and develops small-scale-leading to larger-scale-social organization, which activates, mobilizes, and inspires citizenry.

Both authors have the unfortunate tendency to quote historical figures and philosophers ad nauseam, making it very clear that these two books are very much rooted in theory and academic literature. They also stray towards using complex language to explain what might otherwise be a rather simple subject. Therefore, perhaps unwittingly, they segregate their works from the general public and rightful deserve the label of "utopian", both for the content of their subject matter and for the elitism of their delivery.

Despite this trend, they both address issues that are of great support within US culture, such as environmentalism. Bookchin's writings have always been rooted in an ecological framework (that he calls "social ecology"), and Harvey mentions similar affinities (Harvey, 219-223). They also aptly focus upon the city's bogeymen--which are clear to both Harvey and Bookchin: run-amuck capitalism and unjust government policy. Bookchin goes farther to claim that the state itself dampens and reduces democracy and citizenship. Yet, in their agreement, both share the same vehement and unrelenting anger towards unaccountable, abusive power and the havoc and malice it wrecks upon not only the weak and victimized of society, but also society itself.

 

Sources

 

Urban Geography