Lefebvre, the Right to the City, and Chris Butler


This a review of Chris Butler’s Henri Lefebvre: Spatial Politics, Everyday Life, and the Right to the City that I just submitted to Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.  It should be forthcoming in a while, barring any snafus…


This is an excellent book that will no doubt take up a place in the canon of secondary texts on Lefebvre alongside works by people like Rob Shields, Andy Merrifield, Stuart Elden, and Lukasz Stanek. The book is well written and concise. The argument never sprawls, but Butler also never leaves the reader (at least those familiar with Lefebvre) feeling like something vital was left out of the discussion. The scholarship in the book is also quite impressive. Butler has clearly read widely in Lefebvre’s vast corpus, and his analysis focuses mostly on Lefebvre’s own work, drawing in secondary sources only sparingly. I think this is precisely the way one should do a book like this: engage predominantly with the writings of the author in question, and make use of secondary sources only where they can add some specific value. The book’s concision and careful scholarship are all the more impressive when dealing with a thinker like Lefebvre, whose work is so voluminous and ranges across so many different substantive topics.

On top of these evident strengths, Butler also reads Lefebvre in just the right way (in my opinion). That is, he understands Lefebvre’s work to be primarily an exploration of the possibility of radical politics. Lefebvre’s whole project is animated by a deeply felt normative political spirit. He analyzes the structures of power, to be sure, but only in order to seek out and learn to recognize the oppositional, or, better, alternative forms of life that are emerging all around us. In a sentence, Lefebvre hopes that a thoroughgoing political awakening among urban inhabitants will give rise to a generalized self-management (autogestion) of space, and that this generalized autogestion will move us entirely beyond the current regime of State command and capitalist social relations.

Let me try to expand a bit on that sentence in a way that is true to Butler’s arguments about Lefebvre. Butler begins by establishing Lefebvre’s commitment to an open Marxism that rejects reductionism and economism. He suggests (e.g. p. 43, 142) that Lefebvre’s interest in both space and everyday life were, at least in part, a way for him to think through how politics and action could extend beyond the shop floor and into every aspect of our lives. Lefebvre always remained deeply committed to Marxism as a political project, but as Butler makes clear, Lefebvre’s Marxism is particularly shaded toward the work of the young Marx, especially “On the Jewish Question” and “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” In OJQ, Lefebvre reads a decisive argument for a complete rejection of the State, and this leads him to declare dead-on-arrival the old model of revolution in which a workers’ party seizes the State and abolishes private property (Butler, p. 113). From EPM Lefebvre takes an analysis of alienation and appropriation that colors almost all his thinking. For example, Lefebvre was concerned that urban space in contemporary cities is alienated from its users because it is produced for them by expert managers. He argues that inhabitants must re-appropriate urban space through a process of political mobilization that struggles for grassroots control of the production of urban space.

Only through autogestion can the members of a free association take control over their own life, in such a way that it becomes their work [oeuvre]. This is called appropriation, de-alienation (Lefebvre, State, Space, World, p. 150).

Here we have the essence of Lefebvre’s political values. He typically offers an extended analysis of the powers that be, but he does so only in order to discover what counter-powers might be at work, what non-alienated powers we possess, and what worlds we might be capable of creating instead. Thus in The Production of Space he discusses at length the way abstract space constrains and dominates us, but he does so in order to sketch the lineaments of differential space, a space that runs counter to and beyond abstract space. Differential space is currently inchoate, but it is nevertheless already emerging. Similarly, in The Urban Revolution, Lefebvre gives us a meticulous critique of the industrial city, a city managed by the State-and-capital that works to ensure capital accumulation by homogenizing space, segregating users, and reducing them to passive consumers rather than active political agents. Again, he offers this critique in order to enable us to see what is counter to and beyond the industrial city, a possible world Lefebvre calls urban society, which is, like differential space, inchoate but already emerging in the cracks of the present order.

It is in the context of this distinction between the industrial city and urban society (and, more generally, the distinction between abstract space and differential space) that Butler quite rightly reads Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city. As Butler laments, overuse of the concept among academics and activists has led to its pretty-near-total devaluation, so that anyone at all who is doing anything even vaguely political in a city is said to be claiming their “right to the city.” But for Lefebvre, the right to the city is part of this more general political awakening whose goal is a generalized spatial autogestion. For Lefebvre the right to the city “is like a cry and a demand” through which inhabitants declare their intention to begin a struggle to manage the production of urban space themselves, without the State and without capital. It is the most radical of political visions, one that is deeply Marxist in its rejection of capitalism and also deeply anarchist in its clear-eyed resolve to struggle against the State and its management of space. Because the right to the city necessarily implies spatial autogestion, it can never be content with management of space by State representatives on behalf of inhabitants. He stresses unequivocally that inhabitants will manage space for themselves.

This way to conceive of the right to the city, of course, is almost wholly incompatible with contemporary efforts (and there are many) to create a right to the city understood as a positivist legal right guaranteed by the State. While Butler is appropriately respectful of these efforts and restrained in his disapproval, he is also right to emphasize that such efforts depart profoundly from Lefebvre’s political vision.

Let me mention one last important point Butler raises, which is his insistence on attention to Lefebvre’s idea of the right to difference. Butler argues that the right to the city is not enough because it can lead in practice to a kind of undesirable localism (p. 150), and that it must be partnered with a claim for a right to difference. Here I agree with Butler that we should pay more attention to this relatively under-emphasized theme (difference) in Lefebvre’s work. However, I disagree that the right to difference should be seen as a way to complete a lack in the idea of the right to the city. Instead, I understand the right to difference to be mostly just another way to articulate what is already implied in the right to the city and its project of spatial autogestion. That is, I read the right to difference as the right to think and act in a way that is different from the homogenizing forces of the industrial city and abstract space. Or, put another way, the right to difference is the right of inhabitants to encounter each other on their own terms and engage together in the project of managing urban space for themselves. Both rights are fully intertwined for Lefebvre, each presupposes and necessitates the other. That said, I fully share Butler’s desire for more attention to the idea of the right to difference, and more debate about how it relates to the (fully Lefebvrian) idea of the right to the city.

All in all, this is a tremendous book, well worth reading for those interested in Lefebvre, and for anyone committed to developing a radically new vision for left politics, for cities, and for the production of space.


Nomad Democracy, or, Eugene Holland and Me

D&G's nomad chariot

It is quite a thing to run across someone who seems eerily connected to you in terms of their intellectual project.  That is the experience I had reading Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism, and I just had it again reading Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship.  I tend to think in terms of the concept democracy, and Holland prefers citizenship, communism, markets, and general strike, but our overall projects are quite close.  We both draw on a similar stable of thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, the Italians, the Invisible Committee, Marx) to imagine a politics that does not confront the state and capital, but rather seeks out the alternative forms of economic, political, and social life that are already being tried.  Our job (‘our’ meaning everyone) is not to create those new forms, or organize people and cause them to live those new forms, but to learn to recognize new forms as they exist now and figure out how to help them grow on their own terms and spread by connecting with other, similar initiatives.  I just tried to articulate this idea in a response to a comment made by Nik Janos on my post on Bakunin.  The idea is that these alternative forms of life must survive, grow, and, eventually, come to pervade society, to reach a critical mass, as Holland puts it, to become-general so that we arrive at a bifurcation point after which we spill over into a new land, one that is thick with the presence of democracy (for me, or free-market communism, for Holland).  It is not really a question of wanting to smash the state or capitalism, it is rather a question of “growing” democracy to a point where those oligarchical forms of rule appear quaint and no longer relevant to the needs of our lives.  Holland puts it like this (p. 163): we have to “produce a gradual but irreversible, and ultimately definitive, becoming-unnecessary of our abject dependence on both capital and the State….”  I would just soften his “irreversible” and “definitive” language: we must always understand that even if we reach the tipping point, even if we create a new land, capitalist and State alienation will always return, always re-emerge and seek to reimpose themselves on us.  We must understand the new land to be made up of our perpetual flight from these apparatuses.  Their defeat is possible, but it can never be irreversible.

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply I am at the same level as Merrifield and Holland, just that we are trying to articulate a very similar project.

[Holland and I also share an affinity for Richard Day’s work, but don’t like his penchant for ruling out forms of struggle once and for all, considering them “dead” or passe.  I have an exchange with Day on this point coming out soon in ACME].

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.