My Recent Talk on the Right to the City


I just gave a talk in the colloquium of the Department of Architecture here at UW, and it was a great time.  I thought I would post the text, in case it is of interest.  That is below.  I will also upload the slides, which you can right-click-and-save with this link.  They are in .odp format, so let me know if you cannot read them.

Here is the text:

Slide 1

Hello everyone. Thanks so much to the organizers for the invitation to come and speak with you today.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Mark Purcell, and I am an urbanist and political theorist in the Department of Urban Design & Planning. I study democracy and political mobilization in the city, and I have a particular interest in struggles for a right to the city.

I think the thing that would be most useful for the group is to report on some of the lessons I have learned in studying the concept of the right to the city, and then hopefully we can, together, explore how useful that idea is for living and flourishing in cities today. I will concentrate particular attention on the work of Henri Lefebvre, the French political thinker and activist who is one of the main progenitors of the idea.

Slide 2

Before I do that, though, let me open with two stories.

[***] In May of 2011 people from all over Spain came to Madrid, to the Puerta del Sol, to express their indignation at the austerity measures their government was foisting upon them. Echoing similar events in Argentina in 2001, [***] the Spanish chanted “que se vayan todos,” get rid of them all. They were referring not to a specific ministry or party, they were rejecting the entire Spanish government because, they felt, it had become nothing but a handmaiden to global financial interests that wanted the Spanish people to pay for a crisis that the banks had created. [***] “No nos representan,” they shouted, they do not represent us. They decided to turn away from the government and turned toward each other, developing a system of popular assemblies and committees to work out among themselves what future they wanted to build together.

The Greeks, faced with even harsher austerity measures, came together in Syntagma Square in Athens and responded in a very similar way, by turning toward themselves. The first declaration issued by the People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square read, in part:

 For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

Slide 3

With those as background, let me turn to the right to the city. I want to suggest that there are two main approaches to the idea: a liberal-democratic approach and Lefebvre’s approach. I will argue that these two are very different, and that Lefebvre’s is the much more preferable way to understand the right to the city, the one that best captures the popular desire on display in Spain and Greece.

But before I emphasize the differences, let me first identify an important theme that both approaches share. [***] Both want to elevate the figure of the user or the inhabitant of urban space over and above the owner of that space. As a result, both approaches emphasize use value over exchange value. This is important because in almost every city in the world today, the property rights of owners outweigh the use rights of inhabitants, and the exchange value of property outweighs use value in determining how urban space is to be used. And so in almost all its forms the right to the city is understood to mean a struggle to augment the use rights of urban inhabitants vis a vis the property rights of owners.

Slide 4

OK, so what is the liberal-democratic approach? This is the mainstream thought in contemporary efforts for a the right to the city. [***] Liberal democracy is a form of the [***] nation-state in which people are granted a relatively weak measure of democratic control through elections, parties, laws, and stable state institutions. [***] Liberal democracy also values individual liberty and strives to protect it by granting individuals rights that are designed to protect their liberty from both the state and fellow citizens.

In this political imagination, rights are legal protections that are held by individual citizens and guaranteed by the liberal-democratic state. [***] And so in this way of thinking the right to the city is essentially a proposal to add to the existing slate of liberal-democratic rights. [***] The liberal approach trains its political attention squarely on the state, since that is the institution that will guarantee any future right to the city. [***] A liberal approach to the right to the city thus tends to think of political action in terms of legal strategies. And it conceives of rights as end results. When a legal right is secured, the struggle is won, and it has come to a close.

[***] Such liberal initiatives for a right to the city exist at the local scale (Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City), the national scale (City Statute in Brazil, Right to the City Alliance in the US), or the supranational scale (European Charter for Human Rights in the City, World Charter for the Right to the City).

In Brazil, for example, the project has been to have the State augment the rights inhabitants have to use urban space so that they are equivalent to the property rights of owners. The state is then legally required to balance both sets of rights when making development decisions.

I think this liberal-democratic idea of the right to the city is important. It can be an effective tool for addressing very real inequalities in the city. Moreover, I think its focus on inhabitants and the use value of urban space points us in the direction of a radical idea. But I want to argue that that idea can’t reach its full potential, especially as Lefebvre understood it, until we go beyond a liberal-democratic world-view in which the state guarantees a right to the city.

Slide 5

To see why, let’s begin by remembering that the liberal-democratic state is what the young Marx called the bourgeois state, and he offered a withering critique of how it serves as a key element of capitalist domination. For his part, Lefebvre very much ascribes to and builds upon Marx’s critique. His idea of the right to the city aims to go beyond a liberal-democratic conception. And so most of the thinking and practice around the right to the city today is very different from what Lefebvre was hoping for.

[***] Henri Lefebvre was a French intellectual and activist whose work spans the second half of the 20th century. He was a Marxist and active in the French Communist Party at a time when Stalinism was dominant, both in the French Communist Party and in the Soviet Union. [In addition, he also lived under a highly centralized and interventionist French state that actively managed the capitalist economy.] As a result of those engagements, Lefebvre actively sought a way to think Marxism and communism without the state. His project was to imagine a radical democratic future beyond capitalism and beyond the state. [That project made him a central intellectual figure in the 1968 uprisings in Paris, which were carried out by workers and students seeking a democracy beyond the state and capitalism.]

I think we have to understand Lefebvre’s right to the city in the context of that wider radical-democratic vision. [***] Most people who think about the right to the city, when they decide to engage with Lefebvre directly, turn to this book, which includes his book titled The Right to the City. But I think if we want to know the full power of Lefebvre’s idea, we need to dig more deeply into his whole corpus of work.

Slide 6

So let me try to put his right to the city in the context of Lefebvre’s wider vision. [***] Very near the end of his life, in 1990, Lefebvre proposed something he called “a new contract of citizenship” between citizens and the state. He offers this contract as the core of his political vision for the future. On its surface, it looks to be very much in line with a liberal-democratic imagination, like nothing more than a tweaking of the current agreement between the state and its citizens. [***] Lefebvre even lays out a number of new rights to be included in the new contract. Among other rights, he offers these four I’ve listed here. But as we saw, the agenda of liberal-democratic rights guaranteed by the state is not at all his agenda. His new contract of citizenship is something much more politically revolutionary, and it cannot be contained by the liberal-democratic state. Lefebvre doesn’t want to tweak the contract; he wants to dissolve it. To see why, let me begin by examining in more detail this third right, the right to autogestion.

Slide 7

Understand what Lefebvre means by autogestion helps us understand how Lefebvre conceives of rights and the new contract. Autogestion is a French term that is usually translated as “self-management.” It traditionally refers to workers who take control of a factory and manage it themselves, without capitalist managers. While Lefebvre mentions autogestion in his book on the new contract of citizenship, [***] he really examines the idea fully in the collected volume State, Space, World. For Lefebvre, the rights in the new contract are notan addendum to existing liberal-democratic rights. They are not ends that are achieved when they are guaranteed by the state and codified in law. [***] Rather he conceives of rights as a point of departure for a renewal of political life. When we claim the rights in the contract, he thinks, we are rousing ourselves, we are touching off a political awakening, a rising up and shaking off of a torpor. [***] Through this awakening, we decide to become active again, and we take direct control over the conditions of our own existence. For Lefebvre, therefore, when we claim rights we are launching a struggle to reappropriate our own power, power that has been expropriated by the state and by capitalist institutions. This awakening, this active taking up the project of self-management or autogestion, is for Lefebvre the same thing as a project of radical democracy. And it is not just for the factory; it is for every sphere of society.

Lefebvre’s radical democracy is utterly different from the liberal democracy we have been talking about. He understands radical democracy to be something quite close to a Marxist-Leninist project: [***] it involves a dictatorship of the proletariat, one that is not imposed by a vanguard party that has seized the state, as in orthodox Marxism, but one that emerges spontaneously from below, through the political struggle of workers themselves. [***] As a result, there will be a deepening of democracy, even if that sounds paradoxical, because the overwhelming majority of people in society (the proletariat) are taking control of the decisions that shape society. As people become active and realize their own power, as they demonstrate to themselves that they are capable of managing their own affairs, [***] it becomes apparent to all that the state apparatus is a manager that is no longer necessary, and it withers away. In a very similar way, capitalist institutions like the corporation as well as the property relation also wither away as people demonstrate that they are capable of managing economic production for themselves. This twin hope, for the withering away of the state and of capitalism, is entirely non-negotiable in Lefebvre’s project of radical democracy. And of course that hope stands in stark contrast to a liberal-democratic understanding of rights guaranteed by the state.

Slide 8

OK, so how does this political awakening he talks about bear upon the right to the city, which is another of the rights Lefebvre says is part of the new contract? [***] To understand the importance of the city in Lefebvre’s thought, we need to turn to this book, The Urban Revolution. There he makes a distinction between what he calls the industrial city, on the one hand, and urban society, on the other. ‘Industrial city’ for him doesn’t mean the classic city of industrial factory production. [***] Rather it signifies the capitalist city that we inhabit today, in which private property and exchange value are the dominant ways to organize space, in which the dominant socio-spatial processes separate and segregate people from one another. The industrial city actively works to disconnect urban inhabitants from each other. They are warehoused, almost stored, in urban spaces Lefebvre calls habitat. This separation renders them politically passive, and they function only as workers and consumers rather than as active participants in urban life. The industrial city is a city that produces standardized commodities, and its purpose is to be an engine of capitalist economic growth. The industrial city is an oligarchy, managed by an elite few of state experts and corporate managers. [***] Wemight call this the neoliberal city. In his famous book from the 1960s, Guy Debord called it The Society of the Spectacle.

Slide 9

These are just some images to evoke some of these ideas about the industrial city:

[***] The classic suburban landscape of habitat: warehousing people and creating separation, segregation, isolation.

[***] Or the shopping mall: consumption spaces for consumers rather than political gathering places for active citizens.

[***] Or 2200 Westlake, which despite it being the darling of the urbanist community, is very much what Lefebvre would have called the industrial city…

Slide 10

Lefebvre contrasts the industrial city starkly with what he calls urban society. [***] In urban society, inhabitants appropriate urban space, make it their own again, and use it to meet their needs. Urban society counters segregation by drawing inhabitants together, centralizing them into spaces where they encounter each other and engage each other in collective and meaningful negotiations about the kind of city they desire. These encounters build a shared sense of common purpose, but they also serve to make inhabitants aware of the substantive differences among them, differences they must manage and mobilize as they decide their urban future together. In urban society, inhabitants are active socially and politically. Through a process he calls l’inhabiter (as opposed to habitat), they participate fully in urban society. This participation nourishes their creative potential and makes it possible for them to produce unique works of their own rather than standardized commodities for the capitalist market. In urban society the purpose of the city is not economic accumulation but rather the development of each person’s human potential. (This distinction very much echoes Aristotle’s politics, but also Marx and Engels’ communism: an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all). Urban society is, in short, a city in which urban inhabitants manage the space of the city for themselves without the state and without capital. It is radical democracy. [***] It is urban autogestion. It is the communist city.

The right to the city then, following Lefebvre’s conceptions of rights, is never an end. Never a legal right to be codified by the state. It is, rather, a collective declaration by urban inhabitants that they intend to begin a struggle for urban autogestion, for a city in which urban space is produced by inhabitants for inhabitants. In the course of that struggle, they will freely develop their potential as inhabitants, as citizens, and as human beings.

Slide 11

Again just some images to evoke what he is getting at:

[***] Classic autogestion: workers at FASINPAT in Argentina on the shop floor making decisions about production.

[***] Landless activists in Brazil occupying land they use to grow food, land that is owned by landowners who under-use it or use it for ranching.

[***] People in the summer of 2011 in Greece experimenting with autogestion as they rise up against the austerity state.

[***] People in 2011 in Spain doing the same thing.

[***] Or, just a bit later, people in Israel doing something quite similar.

[***] Guerrilla gardeners planting and growing food on an abandoned lot in Baltimore.

[***] A favela in Brazil: even in 1970 Lefebvre saw very clearly the importance of these settlements off the grid, these entire urban worlds that are to a significant degree produced and managed by the inhabitants themselves.

Slide 13

Quite a vision. A vision against which you may be wanting to raise a deep-seated objection: this vision of an urban society managed directly by users, without capital and the state, is fantastical, too radical, a pipe dream. So let me end by arguing why I think it is, on the contrary, entirely practical.

[***] Recall that for Lefebvre the new contract of citizenship, and the right to the city that is a part of it, is only a point of departure for a process of political awakening. Claiming a right to the city is a way to open a path toward a new horizon, toward a possible world, toward what he calls the “virtual object” of urban society. What does he mean, urban society is a “virtual object”? Unlike the industrial city, urban society is not fully actualized. And yet, at the same time, Lefebvre says practices of urban society already exist now amidst the industrial city. It is just that they are fledgling. He argues we can see glimpses of urban society in the spaces of the industrial city. It emerges, here and there, if only for a moment. The key is to pay attention to it, to learn to recognize it, and to help it flourish.

But the problem is that urban society is not easy to see. The light of the industrial city is blinding. It makes it difficult to perceive the fledgling urban society that is emerging. So what we must do, what Lefebvre does, is to imagine a full-blown urban society in thought. The way we do this is by amplifying and intensifying the fledgling urban society that already exists. [***] Urban society as he imagines it is an idea carefully extrapolated from fledgling practices of urban society that already exist inside the industrial city. [***] Once we imagine this full-blown urban society in thought, we can use that virtual object as a lens to help us better see those glimpses of actual urban society in the industrial city. Urban society as a virtual object can help us see, for example, meaningful connections among inhabitants in the midst of pervasive separation and segregation; or active citizens producing space amidst passive consumers; or the everyday acts of users amidst the economic interests of owners. It can help us see democracy amidst oligarchy, urban autogestion amidst the neoliberal city.

Lefebvre is adamant that urban society is not an unrealistic utopia. It is not a far-off goal at the end of history. It is rather a deeply practical revolutionary project: extrapolate urban society in thought, learn it, understand it, and then seek out its fledgling practices in the city we inhabit today. Once we discover those practices, we can protect them, nurture them, and help them grow on their own terms. It is a practical, concrete project of radical democracy, a project we can engage in today and carry forward into the future.

Slide 14

[***] It is, I think, essentially the project that Italo Calvino lays out in Invisible Cities: we have to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno of the industrial city, are not inferno, are urban society, and help them endure, and give them space.”

Thanks very much.


4 thoughts on “My Recent Talk on the Right to the City

  1. Pingback: Robert JR Graham » How Free Are You?

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