We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expounded in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights.
It’s difficult to sum up all the complex argument he makes, but the crux of it is that urbanisation has historically been a way of solving the problem of surplus-capital and unemployment. Furthermore, it has historically been used and continues to be used as a way to pacify and undermine working class radicalism. The processes of urbanisation are always characterised by dispossession, whereby urban dwellers are forced out – through financial or physical coercion – to make way for capitalist development. In advanced capitalism this process has been characterised by a blurring of the urban and the rural, with such struggles assuming central political importance. Thus, one of the major battles of the period will be over the ‘right to the city’, which – concretely – means the battle over who controls the production and utilisation of the surplus which drives urban development:
The right to the city, as it is now constituted, is too narrowly confined, restricted in most cases to a small political and economic elite who are in a position to shape cities more and more after their own desires.
As against this, it is necessary to assert the democratic right to the city, insisting on broad, popular participation in the control of this surplus. For Harvey this means that such a right would go beyond the stale liberal deployment of human rights since:
The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
In a way, this argument reflects the more general line of argument that radical defenders of human rights deploy with respect to socio-economic rights. The basic argument usually amounts to the idea that by virtue of their character and scope socio-economic rights necessarily go beyond bland liberal rights – this is because they concern issues which simply cannot be dealt with as individual ‘property’. But I think this position in general – and I think it works with Harvey in particular – fails to account for indeterminacy in the law, and the way that even radical seeming rights can be co-opted once articulated through the law.
So firstly, I object to the idea that such rights are necessarily ‘collective’ rights. The law has an armament of procedures and processes designed to transform seemingly collective rights into individual ones. The first point to note is that even if a right is a collective one, it can easily be argued (and frequently is argued) that a given collective right is only instantiated through the distribution of rights to individuals. Thus, it is frequently argued that the collective right to self-determination is composed of individual minority rights as well as individual democratic rights.
In this case one assumes that this would need to be achieved through the proceduralisation of rights. Thus, it can be argued that the ‘right to the city’ entails certain individual rights to housing (e.g. protection against forcible eviction) and certain individual democratic rights (e.g. the right to vote for a mayor, who has some substantial control over the disposition of property). This proceduralisation might well mean that some individuals are better off, however, it is unable to get at the broader structural causes of dispossession etc. and so cannot affect the causes of this problem. As a result of this, the individual right itself might lose efficacy. It is useful here to look at Marius Pieterse’s fabulous ‘three act play’ on socio-economic rights (apologies for the massive quote):
ACT 1: On the Streets
Member/Citizen: I am hungry.
Member/Citizen: I want food!
State/Society: (Dismissive) You can’t have any.
State/Society: You have no right to food.
Member/Citizen: (After some reflection) I want the right to food!78
State/Society: That would be impossible. It will threaten the legitimacy of the constitutional order if we grant rights to social goods. Rights may only impose negative obligations upon us. We cannot trust courts to enforce a right to food due to their limited capacity, their lack of technical expertise, the separation of powers, the counter-majoritarian dilemma, the polycentric consequences of enforcing a positive right, blah blah blah…
Member/Citizen: (Louder) I want the right to food!!
State/Society: (After some reflection) All right, if you insist. It is hereby declared that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water and that the State must adopt reasonable measures, within its available resources, to progressively realize this right.
Member/Citizen: Yeah! I win, I win!
State/Society: Of course you do.
ACT 2: In Court
Member/Citizen: I want food, your honor.
State/Society (Defendant): That would be impossible, your honor. We simply do not have the resources to feed her. There are many others who compete for the same social good and we cannot favor them above her. If you order us to feed her you are infringing the separation of powers by dictating to us what our priorities should be. We have the democratic mandate to determine the pace of socioeconomic upliftment, and currently our priorities lie elsewhere.
Member/Citizen: (Triumphantly) But I have the right to food!
State/Society (Court): Member/Citizen is right. It is hereby declared that the State has acted unreasonably by not taking adequately flexible and inclusive measures to ensure that everyone has access to sufficient food.
Member/Citizen: Yeah! I win, I win.
Everyone: Of course you do.
ACT 3: Back on the Streets
Member/Citizen: I am hungry.
State/Society: (Silence) . . .
Member/Citizen: I want food!
State/Society: We have already given you what you wanted. You have won, remember? Now please go away. There is nothing more that we can do.
Member/Citizen: But I am hungry!
State/Society: Shut up.
(Member/Citizen mutely attempts to swallow the judgment in her favor.)
The ‘play’ also flags up another way in which the ‘right to the city’ might be divested of its power. Here, although the right may be ‘collective’ it is largely powerless. Here, it is useful to turn to Inga Markovits work on ‘bourgeois’ and ‘socialist’ law. Markovits argues that bourgeois law is primarily characterised ‘[a]s individual entitlements’ which ‘confer autonomy in a limited area’ (p.614). This is counterposed with ‘socialist rights’ which, are not individual trumps but:
[P]olicy declarations. Instead of protecting individual autonomy, they set public standards for desirable goals and behavior. Socialist rights are thus not weapons (which would imply potential hostility between the individual and society) but rather like railroad tickets: they entitle the holder only to travel in the indicated direction. The enforceability of a right is always dependent upon its underlying policy justification.
Now here, the right is clearly ‘collective’ but it can – although not necessarily – become rather ineffective.
The alternative posed here – between a perhaps effective but ultimately stymied individual right and a collective, but easily deflected collective right is not the only set of possibilities. But I think we have to acknowledge the fact that historically this has been just about the limit of rights discourse.
This being said, there is perhaps scope for certain radical ‘rights’. The right to the city could be one of these insofar as if we take it seriously it can read as implying a continuous collective intervention in social life. But crucially, I think this model goes far beyond what we would typically think of as rights. Clearly Harvey’s vision of such a right is not one which can be actualised in the law’s typical setting for actualisation – the court. This is because the social transformation required to create the right to the city simply could not be subject to legal remedies (what would the remedy be to such a violation – the judge hereby orders the establishment of a London Soviet?). So, in this sense, the elaboration and articulation of this right can only be seen in the light of the struggle of social movements. The right can only be meaningful when it animates and is animated by the struggle of the oppressed. Here there are obvious parallels with Bill Bowring’s work.
But I think the question then becomes well why use human rights discourse at all. Harvey’s argument is clearly that human rights discourse has attained an important position in contemporary society, and as such should be taken advantage of. And here we return to a familiar theme in my blog. The contingency with which Harvey treats the negative effects of human rights and their legality is quite telling. Thus, his account foregrounds the fact that ‘[w]e live … in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights’ (p.23). Here, the problem of human rights is seen as one of iniquitous content as opposed to form. This ignores, however, the pressures that the rights form exerts on any – even revolutionary content – pushing it towards those two alternatives I outlined above. The pressures of the rights-form – pushing towards individualism and abstraction – can obviously be combated – but I’m not sure that the benefits of rights rhetoric outweigh the costs (not to mention the broader problems of legitimating the entire structure of Law’s Empire).
 David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’ (2008) 53 New Left Review 23
 Marius Pieterse, ‘Eating Socioeconomic Rights: The Usefulness of Rights Talk in Alleviating Social Hardship Revisited’ (2007) 29 Human Rights Quarterly 796
 Inga Markovits, ‘Socialist Rights vs. Bourgeois Rights: An East-West German Comparison’ (1978) 45 The University of Chicago Law Review 612
 Bill Bowring, The Degradation of the International Legal Order? (2008) Routledge