Around the corner from where I used to live in northern Brisbane, there was an abandoned flourmill. It had been abandoned for decades, left to slowly decay, and became home to pigeons, homeless people and drunk young people trying to scale its enormous silos and inner frameworks.
The story of the mill is one of capitalism as a whole, of post-industrial decay in advanced capitalist societies where wages have become too expensive. Work moves offshore, or into the outer suburbs, and the mill decays.
My neighbourhood was a relatively poor one, despite its proximity to the inner city, but this was not to last. The neighbourhood became more and more up-market, with hipster cafes and restaurants moving in to replace the once abandoned lots.
The crown jewel of this “development” — read: gentrification — was a new development to be built on the site of the mill. Due to the heritage listing of the mill by the city council, the plan from the development company included the mill structure in its plans, building a “past-future fusion”.
This plan was about to begin when the global crisis of capital accumulation struck in 2008. The money for the project dried up, especially for a project as expensive as a full renovation and the site sat idle for years.
Five years after work was due to commence, the mill mysteriously burnt down. According to police and the construction company the homeless youth who had called it home for ages had suddenly turned against the place. The fire certainly had nothing to do with the construction company and the fact that they were losing money hand over fist because they were not allowed to tear down the old mill structure.
Flash forward to 2014. The city of Brisbane becomes home to a different kind of spectacle to the flame-licked beams of the mill complex. The world’s eyes turned to the city as the G20 went into session. The most powerful, and the most blood-splattered, of the world’s leaders gathered in my home town to discuss the fate of their riches, and by extension, the world.
Accompanying the leaders of the less-than-free world came 6000 police, complete with water cannons, tear gas and drones, intent on turning inner city Brisbane into a fortress. Protesters would be followed — as I was — arrested or intimidated. Demonstrations could be banned at a moment’s notice. All forms of protest were deemed crimes waiting to happen, with 24-hour courts and special prisons to back up the threat.
The effect was simple. For several weeks the people of Brisbane were robbed of their city. Our urban spaces, which are the centre of our common social life and community, were occupied and we were kept away with the open threat of extreme violence.
DEVELOPERS SHAPE CITIES
Both of these stories reflect a common theme — the way that capitalism permeates our urban spaces. Capitalism, as a system of accumulation, profit and power, shapes and forms the way our cities develop and change. It is ultimately the decision of investors, developers and the state how cities change and grow.
The development companies, with their eyes on ever-expanding profits, destroy heritage-listed buildings, drive poor and working class people out of their neighbourhoods and drive up the cost of rent.
This form of social cleansing is done in a way that makes it seem both innocuous and inevitable. Rather than use direct force, this social cleansing is carried out by the forces of market exchange, by the raising of prices, and by speculation on housing markets.
This speculation, in fact, is vital to the ongoing accumulation of capital on a global-scale. Urban development is at the centre of capital’s program of neoliberal transformation.
In Rebel Cities, David Harvey outlined how capitalism shapes our urban spaces. Public space, designed originally to be a form of urban commons, is increasingly privatised and denied to working class people. Housing is used as a store of value, as an investment for speculators, rather than as places to live. It is in housing where we see the fundamental contradictions of capital accumulation most clearly — houses sit empty because their value to the market is out of step with the actual needs of society.
YOUTH DENIED COMMON SPACE
Profit determines what is built and the manner in which it is built, and young people are often at the centre of this nexus of contradiction. Young people have always been the targets of projects to remove people from urban spaces, particularly working class and youth of colour. Young people are targetted by stop-and-search laws, loitering laws and laws that criminalise people for existing in public without consuming.
Young people are denied stable and quality housing as the price of accommodation goes through the roof, fed by speculative bubbles that price working class people out of the market before crashing and driving millions into poverty.
Beyond this, current systems of urban development reinforce all the hierarchies of class and power that capitalist society creates. In the suburbs, atomised and individualised family units reinforce racism, alienation, individualism and patriarchy, all while maintaining and increasing the disconnect between humanity and the earth. Suburbia feeds car culture and mass consumption societies, which in turn feed alienation and mental illness — while in the inner cities, working-class neighbourhoods are bought up, done up and made inaccessible.
Fundamentally, ordinary people have little or no control over how our cities grow, develop and change, and how our urban space is being utilised.
However bleak the situation may seem, there is hope. Capitalist development has given rise to urban resistance movements, which seek to reclaim some control over the city. Whether it is in the form of the multitude of square occupations around the world, such as Gezi Park in Istanbul, or struggles of urban poor communities against slum clearances, people are struggling to claim their right to urban space, to green space and to democratic cities.
Even in Australia, where battles over urban development, such as the East West Link in Melbourne, have become key political issues, we can see a class struggle emerge that places the city at the centre of its terrain of combat.
Ultimately, there is an alternative to capitalist urbanism — the Right to the City. David Harvey explains the concept as “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 urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
To reclaim the urban commons and create cities where young people are safe, valued and included, we need an urban revolution that can place people and planet at the heart of urban development.