Deleuze & Guattari: Democrats

Sorry for the delay in posting new things.  I have just returned from the Lisbon and the Deleuze Studies Conference, and Dublin and the AESOP/ACSP planning conference.  Here is the text of my talk at the Deleuze Studies conference, arguing that D&G are basically democrats (understood the way I understand democracy), but that Lefebvre is an essential addition to D&G if we want to think space well.


For Urban Democracy


Deleuze and Guattari rarely use the word democracy. So it may seem strange at first that this paper argues that it is both possible and fruitful to read in their work a deep desire for democracy. When I say democracy, I don’t mean the liberal-democratic State with its elected representatives, parties, and laws. Rather I mean radical democracy, a democracy in which people directly manage their own affairs for themselves. Democracy as a form of life in which the constituent power of people is continually activated and practiced. Even though Deleuze and Guattari don’t use the term, I think they offer a bold and exciting vision for this kind of democracy.

But I think Deleuze and Guattari are less useful for thinking about space. I think they have an interest in space, in thinking in terms of spatial imagery, but it is more metaphorical and conceptual than it is concrete and practical. You could think space with Deleuze and Guattari alone, but I think in order to think it well, and in particular to think urban space well, we need to augment Deleuze and Guattari with the work of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre shares much politically with Deleuze and Guattari, but he offers us a large corpus of explicit thought on space and the urban.

What is Democracy?

In order to defend the claim that Deleuze and Guattari are democrats, let me first say something about democracy as I understand it. And what I will say here is an abbreviated version of the much longer exposition of democracy in my book that was recently released.

Let me do this by way of an etymology. Democracy is of course demos and kratos. I will get to demos in a second, but first let me recover kratos. We typically think of kratos as rule, or government, or authority. But I want to think of it according to its deeper or more original meaning, as the power to create, the power to invent something new, the power to produce. Deep at its root, I want to argue, kratos means potentia, puissance, or constituent power. It does not mean potestas, pouvoir, or constituted power. Or, rather, those latter meanings came later, through some misadventures in Greek society.

So now…demos. For the Greeks demos usually meant only the many poor, but as Hardt and Negri argue, in the modern era demos has come to mean everyone, anyone at all.

So then democracy today is an idea that brings together demos and kratos: everyone, all people, together with their kratos, their puissance, their power to create something new. It means a form of life in which people, everyone together, directly produce the world and manage that world for themselves.

(And so democracy does not mean, cannot mean, liberal democracy, or the liberal-democratic State, or the welfare State. As Hobbes demonstrated so clearly, these arrangements are oligarchies. They necessarily involve people surrendering their kratos to a potestas, to a Leviathan that rules them, to what Hobbes called “a power that is able to overawe them all.”)

So democracy is people reunited with their kratos. But if we think of democracy this way, then being democratic, which would mean fully retaining and using our kratos, is something we could not sustain for long. It would require too much activation and effort. It would overwhelm us. That is why we need to think of democracy not as a state of being but as a process of becoming. Democracy is better thought of as a struggle to become democratic. A struggle by everyone, all of us, to come to know our kratos, and to learn to use it effectively.

Deleuze and Guattari

Perhaps you can already see how this streams into Deleuze and Guattari. A central feature of their intellectual and political project, of course, is to emphasize, seek out, and celebrate our own creative and productive capabilities, our own “desiring-production.” Throughout Anti-Oedipus, desiring-production is captured, controlled, and ruled by Oedipus, and by the socius. But desiring-production is always working away inside the apparatuses that contain it. And so the mission of schizoanalysis is to discover our desiring-machines, to learn them, and to free them up to operate according to their own drives.

Deleuze and Guattari insist that desiring-production is primary—it is the source of all production. The apparatuses are unproductive; they merely contain desiring-production’s force. This idea is already very much there in Hobbes, who insisted that people are the source of all power, that the State is necessarily parasitic on that power. It is there too in David Ricardo, who made clear that Labor is the source of all value, and it is there in Marx, who subsequently showed that Capital must suck on that value like a vampire.

So, what is to be done? In A Thousand Plateaus they develop the argument that our project must be to to help desiring-production escape the apparatuses that contain it, to help it create its own lines of flight. But Deleuze and Guattari warn us that single lines of flight are very difficult to sustain. Most commonly, they are recaptured. Or, they go too far, they careen off into death or oblivion.

So it is crucial, they say, for escaped elements to connect with others, for them to form rhizomes of fleeing elements that augment each other’s speed, that help each other avoid recapture and remain in flight.

One the one hand, this activity of fleeing-and-connecting is destructive. As it flees, each element of desire carries with it a piece of the apparatus (or stratum or socius). As more and more flights are launched, the apparatus is increasingly abandoned, and it begins to erode, rot, and crumble.

But on the other hand (the more important hand), fleeing-and-connecting is a creative act: Deleuze and Guattari say that the elements in flight, as they connect up into rhizomes, begin to trace out, with their continual flight, and new plane, a new earth, a new land. A new land that is pervaded by the dense traces left by schizoid, molecular elements of desiring-production in flight.

We know the apparatuses will return in this new land, that the capitalist axiomatic, the molar aggregate, the subjected-group, and the sovereign State will reassert themselves. Deleuze and Guattari are clear that exodus is never achieved once and for all. The apparatuses must be continually warded off. There is no freedom, no being free; there is only a becoming free. Escape is a perpetual struggle. A struggle to become democratic.

So far I have been talking about desiring-production just in the abstract, but Deleuze and Guattari also think of it as something that drives more specific and recognizable political struggles. In Anti-Oedipus, for example, they want people to engage in schizoanalysis in order to refuse the imposition by psychoanalysis of the subject and the Oedipal triangle and to come to know their own desiring-machines. Or in A Thousand Plateaus they imagine people who are currently ruled by the State fleeing the state and governing themselves. Or they want producers of economic value to flee capitalist axiomatic1 and manage production for themselves. In the abstract, the new land is pervaded by desiring-production and is beyond any socius. But the new land is also, more specifically, a land pervaded by democratic community beyond the State, a land pervaded by free activity beyond capitalism. In the new land, people struggle to produce the world, and manage their affairs, for themselves. They rediscover their own puissance, their own kratos, and they practice using it. And they ward off the re-imposition of potestas and pouvoir. The new land is pervaded by self-management, by people fleeing oligarchy and using their kratos to govern themselves in common. It is a profoundly anti-oligarchic politics. It is, in so many ways, democracy.


I know Deleuze and Guattari talk about smooth, striated, and even holey space, they are famous for the term deterritorialization, they talk of nomads moving across the desert, they want us to discover “a new land.” But I think their talk of space remains largely conceptual and metaphorical.

Henri Lefebvre’s work trains its attention explicitly on both the symbolic and concrete aspects of space. His political analysis is quite similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s, which is to say he understands democracy similarly, as the struggle of people to realize their own power and use it to manage their affairs for themselves, but he embeds his analysis of political struggle explicitly in an analysis of space.

Lefebvre’s argument goes like this: capitalism and the State dominate society as a joint force, a force he calls the “State Mode of Production.” He insists that in order to dominate society the SMP must necessarily control of the production of space. The SMP produces what he calls abstract space, a space that reduces the complexity of space as a whole to a homogenized and standardized grid on which the regime of private property defines equivalent entities that can be measured, recorded, and exchanged in the market.

Not surprisingly, then, he argues that the struggle against the SMP is necessarily a struggle over the production of space.

Revolution was long defined…in terms of a political change at the level of the state [and] the collective or state ownership of the means of production….Today such limited definitions will no longer suffice. The transformation of society presupposes a collective ownership and management of space founded on the permanent participation of ‘the interested parties’ [the inhabitants or users of space] (Production of Space, p. 422).

Revolution must struggle for differential space, a space that is other than abstract space, in which the inhabitants or users of space re-appropriate the production of space, and they produce and manage it together in common.

Lefebvre applies this more general analysis of space to the city and urban space in particular. Under capitalism, what has been produced is something he calls the industrial city, a city in which private property and exchange value organize space, in which people are segregated from each other and warehoused in sterile living spaces Lefebvre calls habitat. This separation renders them politically passive, and they function as workers and consumers rather than active participants in urban life. The industrial city’s purpose is to be an engine of capitalist economic growth. This city is an oligarchy, managed for its inhabitants by an elite few state experts and corporate managers.

In urban society, by contrast, inhabitants appropriate urban space, they make it their own again, and use it to meet their needs. Urban society draws inhabitants together into spaces where they encounter each other and engage 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 (which he contrasts with habitat), inhabitants participate fully in urban life. In urban society the purpose of the city is not economic accumulation but the free development of each person’s human potential. Urban society is, in short, a city in which urban inhabitants produce and manage the space of the city for themselves without the state and without capital. It is spatial autogestion or self-management. It is radical democracy.

It is important to stress that for Lefebvre urban society is not a utopia, not an ideal society to come. It is rather what he calls a virtual object, a possible world that is inchoate, that is not yet fully formed, but that is already in the process of emerging inside the body of the actual industrial city. If we know what to look for, he says, we can see urban society emerging, here and there, if only for a brief moment.

Or sometimes, as in Spain in 2011, its emergence is more spectacular and endures for much longer. In this context, what becoming democratic would mean is a struggle to perceive this emerging urban society, this spatial autogestion, and to help it grow and flourish on its own terms.

I think we could read Lefebvre’s urban society as Deleuze and Guattari’s new land made palpable, alive, real. Urban society is urban inhabitants fleeing from the industrial city and coming together to appropriate space and manage it in common, to engage each other in substantive discussions and debates about the future of the city, to discover their desiring-machines, their puissance, their kratos, to learn how to use that power together, to resist potestas, to manage the city for themselves. A becoming democratic, but a becoming democratic that is always, necessarily, both urban and spatial.


9 thoughts on “Deleuze & Guattari: Democrats

  1. Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations Unit and commented:
    Mark Purcell has a good post up over at “Paths to the Possible,” discussing the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari and radical democracy, and in addition he probes the potentials for theoretical overlap between their project and the spacial analytics of Henri Lefebvre. Both elements, I believe, speak mountains when rendered in the context of the ongoing bottom-up social movements that have been dotting the globe for the past couple of years, and Purcell too notes this with a special nod to Spain. Good read!

  2. Reblogged this on The Rolling Blackout and commented:
    Great talk, wish I could have been there. I really appreciate Mark Purcell’s vision of democracy which he derives from a coalescence of views, D&G, Lefebvre, and modern social movements in Spain. I think this also reads like an update on his newest text, which is also a beautiful and informative read. I’m excited to read more and begin to shape my vision of radical democracy informed in part by Purcell’s vision.

  3. Pingback: Urban Theory and Schizonomadology | My Desiring-Machines

  4. Pingback: Reclaiming the urban space – towardsautonomyblog

  5. Pingback: Възвръщане на градското пространство – towardsautonomyblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s