David Harvey on the Right to Public Space and the 99 Percent


NYC-based author and professor David Harvey often speaks out on the use of public space. While reading this piece (excerpted), I couldn’t help thinking about New York’s billionaire (and out of touch) Mayor Mike “Wall Street, real estate and tourists are all I look out for” Bloomberg.

The Party of Wall Street Meets Its Nemesis (Verso Books blog)

The Party of Wall Street has one universal principle of rule: that there shall be no serious challenge to the absolute power of money to rule absolutely. And that power is to be exercised with one objective. Those possessed of money power shall not only be privileged to accumulate wealth endlessly at will, but they shall have the right to inherit the earth, taking either direct or indirect dominion not only of the land and all the resources and productive capacities that reside therein, but also assume absolute command, directly or indirectly, over the labor and creative potentialities of all those others it needs. The rest of humanity shall be deemed disposable.
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The Party of Wall Street ceaselessly wages class war. “Of course there is class war,” says Warren Buffett, “and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning.” Much of this war is waged in secret, behind a series of masks and obfuscations through which the aims and objectives of the Party of Wall Street are disguised.

The Party of Wall Street knows all too well that when profound political and economic questions are transformed into cultural issues they become unanswerable.

But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront The Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and by putting human bodies there convert public space into a political commons, a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and on-going struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Plaza del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, now the steps of Saint Paul’s in London as well as Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook that really matter.

The aim of this movement in the United States is simple. It says: “We the people are determined to take back our country from the moneyed powers that currently run it. Our aim is to prove Warren Buffett wrong. His class, the rich, shall no longer rule unchallenged nor automatically inherit the earth. Nor is his class, the rich, always destined to win.”

It says “we are the 99 percent.” We have the majority and this majority can, must and shall prevail. Since all other channels of expression are closed to us by money power, we have no other option except to occupy the parks, squares and streets of our cities until our opinions are heard and our needs attended to.

To succeed the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can and is doing step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. It must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces  from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied and the discontented, all those who recognize and deeply feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system that the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate what an alternative city, an alternative political system and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the one percent, is no future at all.

In response to the Occupy Wall Street movement the state backed by capitalist class power makes an astonishing claim: that they and only they have the exclusive right to regulate and dispose of public space. The public has no common right to public space! By what right do mayors, police chiefs, military officers and state officials tell we the people that they have the right to determine what is public about “our” public space and who may occupy that space when? When did they presume to evict us, the people, from any space we the people decide collectively and peacefully to occupy? They claim they are taking action in the public interest (and cite laws to prove it) but it is we who are the public! Where is “our interest” in all of this?

David Harvey teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (Anthropology), often writes and speaks on public space, and is the author of many books, including Social Justice and the City, The Condition of Postmodernity, and A Companion to Marx’s Capital.

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6 thoughts on “David Harvey on the Right to Public Space and the 99 Percent”

  1. The last paragraph really struck me. I think that “we” have collaborated with “the state” to disallow certain use and users from our public spaces so now it may seem only natural for the state to continue to determine who has use rights to our public spaces. What do you think?

  2. >>I think that “we” have collaborated with “the state” to disallow certain use and users from our public spaces so now it may seem only natural for the state to continue to determine who has use rights to our public spaces. What do you think?

    Yes. I agree.

    Today’s post was awesome!!!

  3. But what about those of us in the 99% who live in cities but don’t want to live in an occupied city, and don’t want to solve our problems by descending into utter chaos?

  4. Hi Georgia, That’s a good point and very true. I’m glad you picked that out. Right… how does it switch back…? or at least a little bit, esp. under the Bloomberg Administration where it’s become ‘my way or the highway’ with no room for negotiation. This Parks Department is incredible too — it’s as if they look down on everyone else in the communities with mostly disdain. We saw that with the redesign of the park for the most part – and with things at so many other parks and public spaces (Union Square, Randall’s Island, Yankee Stadium Parkland, etc.).

    Thanks, Monica!

    Hey Seth — I don’t know if it has to be (or is) “utter chaos.” I suppose it’s been one way for so long, it’s just ‘mixing it up’ a little and bringing things to light that have been hidden for too long in different ways via our public spaces. Maybe it’s a little ‘messy’ at times but it’s aiming to be collaborative. At least, that’s how I see it.

    Thanks for your comments !

    Cathryn.

  5. >>But what about those of us in the 99% who live in cities but don’t want to live in an occupied city, and don’t want to solve our problems by descending into utter chaos?

    Seth, how would you suggest that those opposed to corporate fraud and the corporations running of the country go about solving these problems? The political system is broken. Politicians answer only to the corporations and their lobbyists. The reason OWS has taken hold all over the United States is because there is no outlet for the voices of the 99%.

    Until one has become involved in politics, this is not obvious. I became involved in politics at a local level when a $1 million dollar kitty litter dog run was installed on our Upper East Side water front despite the fact that we already had a dog run we loved and the entire community was opposed to it. Despite the unanimous opposition from the community, Community Board 8 approved the plan. Our politicians Jessica Lappin and Scott Stringer got the money from the City Counsel, who gave it to the Parks Department who gave it to the Contractor. Kickbacks? Oh, yeah. There must have been.

    Now I am involved in trying to stop the Stahl Organization from fraudulently demolishing the landmarked apartment building I live in (First Avenue Estates). Guess who it turns out is running the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission? A buddy of Bloombergs — Robert Tierney. He is not an architect. Nor does he have any experience with landmarks. Bloomberg appointed him to knock down landmarked buildings!!!

    This has been my experience in local politics — fraud.

    So tell me Seth, how does one fight this kind of corruption in a nice well-mannered way?

  6. Thanks, Monica. Well said. I agree that there’s many layers to it and just ‘voting’ would seem to be a way to work things out … but it’s not. Politics being what it is here and now, we need to find alternative ways to ‘work’ the system – either from within or outside of it. That’s why “public” space becomes so important. And, as Georgia said, we can’t even really use *our* public space because, in a sense, that’s been co-opted!

    Cathryn.

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