Lefebvre and Democracy

I just got back from a great time at the Association of American Geographers conference in New York.  I participated in a session on Henri Lefebvre organized by Andy Merrifield and Louis Moreno.  Participants included Peter Marcuse, Erik Swyngedouw, Lukasz Stanek, Miguel Robles-Duran, Don Mitchell, Ed Soja, and Neil Smith.  It was an amazing line-up, and the sessions attracted enough people to fill a ballroom, which was quite a thrill for me.  Below is the text of the talk I gave, which was an argument that we should be attentive to Lefebvre’s desire for democracy…


Lefebvre and Democracy

AAG 2012: “From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution: Lefebvre Reconsidered”

Hi everyone.  Thanks to Andy and Louis for the invitation to be here in these exciting sessions.

Lo llaman democracia: it’s called democracy.

What I want to do today is to make a case for thinking about Lefebvre’s political project as a project for democracy.  I don’t mean that in an essentialist or reductionist way.  I won’t argue that his project is really about democracy, that we misread him if we don’t see democracy as the unifying idea and true soul of his project.  I mean instead that in Lefebvre’s political project, there is an unmistakable and powerful desire for democracy, one I think is compelling and extremely relevant to the present moment.

Before I get to Lefebvre’s democracy, though, let me contextualize my argument a bit.  I will draw what I say today from a book I just finished.  In the book I argue that in the current context, we should be thinking and acting politically under the banner of democracy.  As you can see from the images, if we do so we will be joining a whole host of others who did so in 2011.

So in the book, I develop a way to think about democracy built out of a close reading of Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe, Hardt and Negri, Rancière, as well as the fiction and essays of David Foster Wallace.  I think it is easy to see in all of their work a deep desire for democracy, and this desire is actually quite similar across the various writers.  So the book assembles an idea of democracy that is a kind of bricolage made out of the desires of these multiple authors.

So let me try to offer a too-brief account of what that idea of democracy is.  I argue for a radical conception of democracy, something along the lines of what Spinoza called absolute democracy, democracy as a form of living together in which people, all the people, directly manage their affairs for themselves.  It is what people in the squares in 2011 were calling “real democracy.”  Democracy in this sense is not a form of government, or a state, or parties, or laws, or bureaucracies, or representative institutions, and so this means that a return to a strong state (welfare state, social democracy, Keynesianism), whatever benefits it offers in the present moment, is not a particularly democratic project.

Such an absolute, direct democracy is of course susceptible to the objection that it is impossible.  It is impossible for all the people, everyone together, to govern themselves directly.  This objection holds an element of truth, and so I argue we should think of democracy not so much as a state of being, but, to use Lefebvre’s terms, as a path we travel toward a horizon.  Democracy is less a state of being than a struggle to become democratic, an ongoing effort to manage our affairs for ourselves as much as we can.  In a 1964 essay, Lefebvre says that democracy nothing other than a permanent struggle for democracy.  It is becoming-democratic.

Of course becoming democratic requires also that we become active in a similar way, that we struggle to become political actors rather than political spectators.  Here I find Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator quite useful, but even moreso is David Foster Wallace’s exploration of how much effort it takes, just how hard it is, to become active and become democratic.

Our struggle to become-democratic and active is an individual one, but it is also of course collective as well, so I explore what kind of relations we should be building in the course of becoming-democratic.  This is an enormous question, of course, and all I can do here is gesture toward the leaderless and horizontal forms that people in Sol and Tahrir and Syntagma were experimenting with in 2011, forms that resonate with how Deleuze and Guattari and Hardt and Negri have conceived of them (rhizomes, bodies without organs, wolfpacks, etc.).

So, with that as backing, now let me turn more specifically to Lefebvre’s own desire for democracy…

One of Lefebvre’s last texts sets out what he calls a “new contract of citizenship.”  He proposes a suite of new rights (to difference, to information, to the city, to autogestion), but (to obviate the debate) he does not at all imagine these rights as liberal-democratic rights guaranteed by the state.  He wanted nothing to do with the Bill of Rights, or with the UN’s human rights.  Rather for Lefebvre it is a question of claiming these rights as a way to touch off a political awakening.  The new contract is what he calls “a point of departure” from which we initiate a struggle to become active again and to take control over the conditions of our own existence.  Through this struggle we reappropriate our own power, power that has been alienated to capitalist and state institutions. This active taking up the project of managing ourselves is a project he calls autogestion.  Taken beyond the factory and the working-class, conceived of as autogestion généralisée, it is for him nothing less than the project of absolute, or real democracy.  He says this project also involves, as part of the same fabric, the dictatorship of the proletariat (accomplished democratically from below rather than imposed from above), as well as the withering away of the state and capitalist social relations.

So that’s a sketch of Lefebvre’s democratic political vision, but what about the question of space and the urban?  For Lefebvre our struggle for democracy is always also a struggle to create and manage space for ourselves. He writes that “any revolutionary project today must…make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda” (Production of Space, p. 166-7).  The reappropriation of space is necessary because we live in a city and a world where inhabitants are alienated from the space they live in, where that space is managed for them by an oligarchy that follows the dominant logic of private property and market exchange.  For Lefebvre what we need is a collective struggle by inhabitants to de-alienate space by reappropriating it.  That reappropriation would involve reclaiming space for use, to be sure, but it would also, and more importantly, reclaim for inhabitants control over the process of creating space, and managing how it is used.

Let’s look into that spatial vision a bit further.  This state of being alienated from space is characteristic of what Lefebvre calls the “industrial city,” and more generally, “abstract space.”  This is the space of state power and capitalist accumulation.  It breaks urban space into fragments, then homogenizes the fragments so they are interchangeable.  It separates inhabitants from each other, warehouses them in what he calls “habitat,” and renders them politically passive.  In the industrial city they function as consumers rather than citizens or participants.  The purpose of abstract space is to maintain state control and facilitate capital accumulation.

Of course we must resist the abstract space of the industrial city, but what kind of space are we to create instead?  For Lefebvre one cannot set this out in advance.  A new space must necessarily be created by and for inhabitants themselves.  Nevertheless, Lefebvre is willing to propose a path toward a particular horizon, a direction in which we can move.

Against abstract space and the industrial city Lefebvre proposes the possibility of urban society, or again more generally, differential space.  This other space is both created and managed by inhabitants themselves.  They appropriate space, make it their own again, and thereby de-alienate it.  He imagines a space of the street in which inhabitants encounter each other, interact meaningfully, and in so doing become aware of their differences and negotiate them together.  Inhabitants are thus active socially and politically.  Through a process he calls l’inhabiter (as opposed to habitat), they work out together what urban space should be.  Urban society and differential space thus nourish the creative potential of inhabitants, and so encourage their creation of oeuvres: their own unique works rather than standardized commodities.  This space encourages play, jouissance, and free activity as opposed to labor.  In urban society the purpose of the city is the development of a common human potential rather than state power and economic accumulation (an idea that very much echoes Marx, sure, but also Aristotle). It is, in short, a different city in which inhabitants manage the space of the city for themselves. It is urban and spatial autogestion.  It is real democracy.

It is important to be clear that Lefebvre does not offer urban society and differential space as an ideal, or as a perfect utopia that arrives fully formed.  Instead, he sees them as extrapolations.  They are ideas that are extrapolated from scattered practices that are already taking place in our current society.  Lefebvre insists that efforts at de-alienation are already underway.  Inhabitants are struggling now to appropriate space, to create possibilities for encounter, play, and free activity.  Oeuvres are being created, and our common power is already being developed.  He says these activities are concrete and real, you can observe them today.  But they also tend to be fleeting and rare, overwhelmed by the practices of the industrial city.  Urban society (and differential space) remain virtual objects: they are possible but not yet fully actualized.  He says they appear to us as a “shadow of a future object in the light of the rising sun.”  And I think he would say they remain virtual today, despite the fact that in 2011, all over the world, this future object burst breathtakingly into view, out from the shadows and into the sun, if only for a limited time.

So what is to be done?  For Lefebvre I think the project of democracy is a project to kindle fires.  We must discover and narrate these insurgent practices, these appropriations of space, these struggles for spatial autogestion.  And we must help them grow and spread.  To do that requires all the concrete political work we are familiar with, building local struggles and linking them up with other local struggles in a common network.  But Lefebvre would insist there is also work to do in theory, the work of extrapolating these concrete actions, articulating them in thought, imagining urban society fully formed, so that we can become better able to see the glimmers of urban society in the blinding light of the industrial city.  Becoming-democratic is happening everywhere, sometimes more furiously, sometimes less.  Our job, the job of everyone together, is to help.  As Marco Polo says in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the project is “to seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and help them endure, and give them space.”  Marco warns us this task is not easy.  It is risky and requires attention and constant vigilance.  But let’s be clear: even if it is not easy to become democratic, still it is never a question of asceticism.  Do not think that we have to be sad to be militant.  The struggle to become democratic must always be a struggle, but it is a struggle to live and grow, to flourish together.  We will know when we are getting it right because it will fill us with a feeling of joy, of life, and of delight.


8 thoughts on “Lefebvre and Democracy

  1. Reblogged this on Pop Theory and commented:
    Mark Purcell has posted the text of a paper he presented at the AAG on Lefebvre and Democracy. Interesting stuff, including a pitch for a forthcoming book on democracy, which I look forward to. I can’t say I have much sympathy with the model Mark proposes – I think the image of ‘absolute, direct democracy’ he presents isn’t so much impossible, as being undesirable for all sorts of ‘democratic’ reasons. Nor is it clear to me why the exemplary democratic events of the last year need to be restricted to the spatial dramaturgy of Tahir Square or Occupy Wall Street. There seems something wilfully selective about the mantra that recalls these places and spaces. What if the really radical developments in democracy were taking place in Burma? What should we make of the fact that over time, African elections have become more violent as they have become more genuinely competitive? What, above all, if ‘democracy’ is not best thought of as identical to the self-image of highly committed social movement activists?

    • Thanks for the reblog, Clive, and for the comments. It is tough to capture the gist of the argument in a short talk, and so I can promise the book develops the idea at much more length. I hope it is clearer in the longer argument that I am not so much proposing a “model” of democracy, i.e. a realized polity, a state of being that we can reach, settle into, and inhabit. Rather, democracy is something else, something more like a horizon, an extrapolation of what we are capable of that we generate in thought in order to set ourselves the task of moving toward it. I am not sure either that we would want to reach it (even if it were possible to, which I don’t think it is), it would be too intense, too exhausting, just too…much. But I don’t think there are any properly democratic reasons to be less than absolutely democratic. I don’t think the democratic idea itself has any internal contradictions, though of course certain models that get called democracy (e.g. liberal democracy) very much do. And, to cut to the chase a bit, I am willing to say something like: the term ‘democratic institutions’ is probably an oxymoron, (and ‘democratic state institutions’ certainly is).

      On the question of the squares, I think it is really just fine to spend some time right now celebrating the good things, the active affects, the political life that were on display. That doesn’t mean we are restricting our understanding of democracy to them, just that they were an enormous series of events that we should and will pay lots of attention to. We haven’t even begun to sort out the many important elements yet, and so I think we should not rush to a (perhaps too-easy) critique of how they are being understood and narrated so far. These events were unbelievably multiple; there were an almost infinite set of desires being expressed. Some of them, I think, were properly democratic desires. Many others were not. And, at the same time, other events took place in Burma (certainly not *the* *really* radical ones, but other ones, ones just as important and worthy of attention).

      Of course there is lots more to say, but the limits of the medium and all…

      • Hi Mark

        I’m not sure why it’s an oxymoron to say ‘democratic institutions’. Democracy is rule by the people, or, a according to my OED, for example, government by the people [perhaps we could add ‘for’ and ‘of’, just to add some internal contradictions…]. One way or other, the bit about rule/government, call it what you will, is irreducible. Unless one conceptualises it like humpty dumpty. It’s not another word for anarchy, properly understood. So I would be inclined to say that the term ‘democratic institutions’ is not so much an oxymoron, and rather that the ‘institutions’ bit is redundant – it’s already implied in the first term.

        States, well, they come in different shapes and guises, armies can be great forces for the becoming-of-democracy, so can midwives; or not.

        As for the idea that the democratic idea has no internal contradictions – that depends not only on what content one supposes the idea has, but what sort of idea you think it is. It’s an essentially contested concept, the exemplary one – it’s a term of evaluation, and judgement, about which people disagree regarding it’s application, because it tends to refer to more than one value – including ones which can’t quite be anticipated, cos of that ‘becoming’ stuff. As I said, who would have imagined that giving women the vote would become the benchmark of being and becoming democratic.

        Like the new look, by the way.

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  5. Good stuff Clive. I think this is really the issue, whether democracy should be assumed to be a form of government, or state, or even most generally just institutionalized rule. I think the -kratia etymology is open for debate. Aristotle certainly understood democracy to be a form of constitution, and so for him the -kratia root refers to a type of governmental arrangement. But the word’s got more under its hood. Most generally it refers to might, strength, power, and this we could read in a very Nietzschean sense to mean the strength one can discharge into the world (and in fact Nietzsche is drawing his idea of power from a Greek-noble ideal (at least in part)). Or, similarly, we could take a Spinozan line and understand -kratia as a body’s capacity to cause affect in other bodies.

    Admittedly, the Aristotelian use of the term involves a sense of power or rule *over* another, but that is just because Aristotle assumed a partial demos, the demos as poor people. It is this partial idea of demos that H&N want to move beyond, which is why they draw on Spinoza’s absolute idea of the demos (not just the poor but everyone). So then democracy becomes rule by everyone, and of course everyone can only rule over themselves, so the sense of rule *over* an-other (i.e. heteronomy) falls away. So along these lines we might think of democracy as a collective project to develop and mobilize the strength of everyone in order to discharge it into the world. Of course the question of to what end they would discharge it is important (one Nietzsche loves to leave open just to make us squirm). It seems to me democracy would mean that people discharge their power in such a way as to manage their affairs for themselves.

    I think it is useful, even vital, to open up this absolute way to understand democracy, as a horizon toward which we can move. It rejects the idea that democracy is *necessarily* a government or state form, and indeed even affirms that, taken to its fullest potential, democracy is necessarily a way of living together that is *beyond* the state form. Without that ambitious horizon, I feel confident democracy will be quickly swallowed up by the omnivorous liberal-democratic apparatus.

    So thanks so much as always for your comments. They are definitely pushing me to think harder about all this…

    [More on Spinoza: per Erika Tucker at Cal Poly-Pomona, who is serious about her Spinoza: Spinoza thought of absolute democracy as a form of absolute state. When she was just here I asked her what she thought of how Hardt and Negri push the idea beyond the state form–she didn’t definitively support or reject the possibility…]

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