David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience (London/Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985)



Although the production of space and the built environment are made in the image of capital, the urbanization of consciousness itself is a “topic far harder to ground” (xviii). For this reason, Consciousness and the Urban Experience is in fact far more about the urbanization of capital and the production of space than about consciousness and conscious experience. Rather than give a phenomenology of the urban mind in the way of great 20th century urban theorists like Simmel or Louis Wirth, Harvey shows how the processes of urbanization, and specifically the urbanization of capital, are intertwined with the urban experience. There is a dialectical clarity to this position, since he does not simply give an account of the urban mind as a mere symptom of the urbanization of capital:

The urbanization of consciousness cannot…be understood independently of the urbanization of capital; nor can the latter be understood without the former. The task for historical materialist interpretation of the urban process is, therefore, to examine how the consciousness produced through the particular patterning of relations between individualism, class, community, state, and family affects the paths and qualities of capitalist urbanization that in turn feed back to alter the patterning of relations that underlie the urbanization of consciousness. (253)

Thus, the first chapter of Consciousness, “Money, Time, Space and the City”, builds on urbanists like Simmel and Wirth, but also the full range of modern writers more generally from Zola to Dickens. From the outset, Harvey politicizes space, time and the city by placing them at the foot of nascent 19th century urban capitalism. The novelties of early-modern urban experience, tied so closely to the development of money, the “discipline of the clock” and the modern life of urban space, are inseparable from the urbanization of capital. For Harvey, no account of urbanized consciousness can gloss over these “concrete abstractions.” They are the content of daily life that both derive from and inform urban capitalism.

The abstractions and struggles of modern life play out particularly in the built environment – the urban domain of consumption facilities, built residence, public spaces, daily life and beyond.  For Harvey, capitalism ensures the “annihilation of the absolute qualities space” – ‘everything that is solid melts into air’ – thereby establishing a relative spatial environment (13). This new, changing environment is always subject to capitalism’s driving “creative destruction” and is the fundamental background to contestations over the built environment. The spatial and geographical phenomena of capitalism, so little explored in critical social theory of the 1980s, necessitate for Harvey a reworking of fundamental Marxian categories. In this reworking, the built environment comes to operate in modern life as a kind of ‘second terrain’ for the class struggle, largely as an outcome of the modern separation of work and living spaces (52).

It is with a new Marxist geography that Harvey turns to a historical study of the built environment. His classic example, to be revisited in Paris, Capital of Modernity (2003), is mid 19th century Paris at the height of Haussman the planner, the Paris Commune, and Haussman’s downfall. Paris in this period is the surprising embodiment of all matters formulated in Chapter 2, “Labor, Capital, and Class Struggle around the Built Environment in Advance Capitalist Societies.”  It merges all range of transformations in urban time and space: monetization and concrete abstraction, urbanized capital and the rational modern State, struggles over the built environment, class alliances and antagonisms, and so on.

The built environment in France’s Second Empire came under the rational control of the State, with Haussman at the helm, at a time when capital accumulation was advancing at a historical unprecedented rate due to new forms of circulation and investment based largely on the founding of the modern credit system. After the crises of capitalist growth that culminated in the revolutions of 1848, the State came to take a new role in the administration of Parisian space. At the time, credit capital and the modern banks had both volatized capitalism and given it new possibilities for growth. As massive capital surpluses were generated, the State was forced to step in and stabilize capital accumulation. It did so, according to Harvey, through the planned management and reconstruction of the built environment. In other words, the State was able to transform the built environment in the process of absorbing excess capital, thereby stabilizing the attendant capitalist crises of overaccumulation that periodically visit capitalism.

In the chapter, Harvey traces the clash between new forms of credit capital and the period’s triumph of a Pereire model of finance (deficit spending, large scale capital advances, speculation and massive borrowing) over a more conservative, Rothschildian view of finances and short term lending. It was the Pereire model that enabled new rational state planning, spatial control, and the overall urbanization of capital that allowed for incredible growth in Paris.

The intersection of credit capitalism and spatial control was not coincidental. Marx had already remarked on the modern conquest of time over space. Capitalism eliminates spatial barriers while at the same time enables new possibilities for the production of space. Harvey writes: “space can only be overcome through the production of space” (27). This is the “creative destruction” that capitalism absolutely requires and which found its logical expression in the Haussmanization of Paris. Not only did the new capitalism make the spatial environment in its own image, capital’s new ability to reconfigure space was the outcome of finance and credit, i.e. the embodiment of time’s victory over space. On a massive scale, investors and speculators where capable of spending “fictitious” capital in anticipation of new projects yet to be realized but that would fundamentally alter the built environment.

The creation of the built environment, tied to investment capitalism, was a deeply political process precisely because lending substituted and advanced time to allow for the immediate control of space. Haussman’s widened boulevards are a famous example of the political rationalization of Paris. The wider boulevards made it impossible for workers and radicals to barricade the streets. And thus for all of the eliminated space, a certain spatial abstraction was concretized and made real in the built environment. The “dual order” and special segregation between of rich and poor neighborhoods in Paris (95) best illustrates the physical concretization of spatial and monetary abstractions. The east-west distinction in Paris and the “embourgeoisement” (94) of the west side were early forms of gentrification, mirroring the emergent uneven development of center and periphery in Paris and throughout the world.

It was out of the contradictions and confusions of urban capital that resistance emerged, singularly represented in the Paris Commune. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Consciousness and the urban Experience is chapter 4, “The Building of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart”. Harvey tells the story of revolutionary Paris through the struggle over the hill of Montmarte, ultimately the site of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. The basilica crystallized a definite struggle over space involving the Catholic church, newly elected republicans, and an embattled collective memory of the Commune. The basilica, finally built by the church out of commitment to the ‘cult of the sacred heart,’ solidified the victory of reaction over the Commune in the most spatial sense: it’s domes now command attention from nearly every location in Paris, guaranteeing a central monument around which spatial configurations of the city are imagined.

But in a sense, the basilica is not a center at all. Harvey begins to wonder if the urban experience – especially the working-living distinction and spatial division of consumption itself – does not obscure the class struggle itself. Harvey reflects on the Pullman strikes of Chicago in the 1890s, where the ‘enemy’ of working class actors was not made opaque by urban consciousness and the separation of work and the built environment, such as in the truly modern multi-dimensional experience of Paris. The latter summoned an intractable world of contradictions and ambiguities, abstractions and lived experiences. Paris in contrast to Chicago was where not only phenomenological, but “objective” experience is made opaque: even capital interests come into conflict with one another, with the state, possibly even in a temporary alliance with labor and so on. Harvey accepts that Paris Commune was in fact already an expression of the multi-layeredness of modern urbanism. Thus, even while he insists that the surface appearances of conflict around the built environment “conceal a hidden essence that is nothing more that the struggle between capital and labor” (57), he ambiguously concludes Consciousness by endorsing the politics of urban struggle in the built environment.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Transl. Gayatri Spivak (London/Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) p. 162.


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