According to Flanagan (2013), Harvey makes two central points: cities are "where the most sophisticated practices of late capitalism are employed to forestall crises of the state" and cities "are sites with the potential to reinvigorate class struggle by combining the split identities of worker and citizen." Flanagan adds that the book relies heavily on transnational Marxist theory.
Rebel Cities is a book of essays, beginning with a preface calling back to Lefebvre's Right to the City. In modern times, he traces a call for the right to the city from the masses (social movements) to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Modern activists weren't citing Lefebvre, but Harvey still finds him instructive. Lefebvre believed revolution could come from the cities, which put him at odds with other Marxists who believed it would come from the proletariat. An urban movement, which is not entirely made up of factory workers, is a different class than just factory workers. It's more disorganized, fragmented, divided, and fluid. Others dismiss urban movements as reformists who deal with specific and not systemic issues, and believe they are neither revolutionary nor "authentically" class movements (p. xiv).
Harvey points out that as factories leave post-industrial nations, those nations no longer have the classical industrial working class. More work is done by "insecure, often part-time and disorganized low-paid labor" (p. xiv). He calls this the "precariat."
With the decline of the urban-rural divide as rural areas take on the same capitalist nature of cities and peasant agriculture goes away, Harvey says the claim to the right to the city is a claim to something that no longer exists. Also, the right to the city is an empty term that can be defined by those in power.
Harvey (and Lefebvre) believe the city cannot bring about revolution because the opposing forces can surround it and starve it out. However, Harvey says we should not dismiss the city as a site for birthing revolutionary ideas and movements.
In chapter 1, Harvey defines the right to the city as the right to make the city into what we collectively desire it to be. Furthermore, as we make ourselves by making our cities, the right to the city includes the right to decide who were want to be. (For example, the creation of suburbs created a new lifestyle.) This is a collective right.
He then goes into one of the themes mentioned by Flanagan. Cities are created by a surplus of a product in a particular location by a particular group of people. Therefore, capitalism and cities are linked, and urbanization is also class formation. Urbanization - literally developing new areas and rebuilding existing ones - is used to stimulate the economy in Keynesian economics. Harvey frequently alludes to a problem of disposing of capital surpluses. I think he means that capitalism requires a continually growing economy, which means to avoid a crash, we must constantly produce and then sell more than ever before. Expanding and rebuilding cities is one way to do this.
Harvey says that neoliberalism has "restored class power to rich elites" (p. 15). This gap between rich and poor is built into the physical landscape of cities. When the city is remade for the purpose of disposing of surplus capital, there's a class conflict as the needs of the rich are served at the expense of the poor. An example of this is when slums are cleared because they are located on valuable real estate.
Harvey writes, "Urbanization, we may conclude, has played a crucial role in the absorption of capital surpluses and has done so at an ever-increasing geographical scale, but at the price of burgeoning processes of creative destruction that entail the dispossession of the urban masses of any right to the city whatsoever" (p. 22).
This is a fertile ground for social movements. Harvey visualizes all of the world's movements joining together, then transitions into his proposal for what those movements should ask for. They should ask for "greater democratic control over the production and use of the surplus" (p. 22). To him, the right to the city IS democratic control over the process of urbanization. This is in direct opposition to neoliberalism, which advocates privatization of control over capital surplus. Increasingly, the right to the city is in private hands.
He says the way to unite urbanites together is by focusing on cases of "creative destruction" in which the rights of the poor are violated in order to serve the needs of the rich.
R.M. Flanagan. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. 50.5 (Jan. 2013) p957.
David Harvey, 2012. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Brooklyn, NY: Verso).