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.