Everyday Code

Here is the text from my talk at the AAG conference last week. It was for a really great session organized by Joe Shaw and Mark Graham (who are at the Oxford Internet Institute) on “An Informational Right to the City”.


Everyday Code: The Right to Information and Our Struggle for Democracy


Henri Lefebvre proposed a right to information, and he thought that right must be associated with a right to the city. I want to urge us to understand both those rights in the context of Lefebvre’s wider political project. That wider project was the struggle for self-management, what Lefebvre often called “autogestion,” and what I prefer to call democracy.

Lefebvre articulates his wider political vision in terms of what he called a “new contract of citizenship between State and citizen.”


This contract is made up of a series of rights, which include the right to the city, to services, to autogestion, and to information. Clearly this agenda looks very liberal-democratic; one might expect that a minimal State will guarantee individuals this list of rights. But this is not at all Lefebvre’s vision. Instead, he is calling for “a renewal of political life,” for a generalized political awakening among people. Lefebvre hopes this awakening will constitute a revolution, through which people decide to become active participants in managing their affairs themselves. This new tide of popular political activity, if it can sustain itself over time, will eventually make the State (and capitalism) superfluous, and they will wither away. And so Lefebvre is proposing a very strange sort of contract between citizens and State, a contract whose aim is to render both parties obsolete.

Key to understanding Lefebvre’s wider vision is this right to autogestion. In English it means “self-management,” and traditionally it referred to rank-and-file workers taking over the management of their factory from the factory’s owners and professional managers. Lefebvre advocated that kind of autogestion, but he also wanted to extend the idea, beyond workers as political subjects and beyond the factory as political arena, to a range of political subjects and political arenas. He was aiming at something people at the time called “generalized autogestion,” in which all people take up the project of collectively managing all matters of common concern.

That last idea is important, that autogestion is a project. It is not a utopia, not an ideal community at the end of history, without the State, in which people manage their affairs entirely for themselves. Autogestion is, instead, a project. It is a perpetual struggle by people to become increasingly active, to manage more and more spheres of their lives for themselves.

So of course information is critical here. Effective and enduring self-management, by whatever agents in whatever arenas, requires that people have access to and effectively use the information that is relevant to their common affairs. And so the right to information is a part of the contract that Lefebvre proposes. In our own liberal-democratic vernacular, the “right to information” would mean something like: individual citizens have the right to access information that is being kept from them for some reason, usually by the government. But if we understand the “right to information” in the context of Lefebvre’s wider project, I think we will conclude that access to information, people having information, is necessary, but it is not really the main point. What matters most, in the context of autogestion, is what people do with the information they have. Once they have access to it, do they engage with it? Do they appropriate the information—which is to say, do they make it their own—and put it into the service of the project of autogestion?

If we understand the right to information this way, with Lefebvre, I think we will tend to frame the problem of information differently than it is usually framed. The problem isn’t so much that we are being prevented from getting the information we need. There is more information available to us than we know what to do with. The problem is, more, how can we become active, appropriate the information available to us, and use that information effectively in our project to manage our affairs for ourselves.

And so I want to draw our attention away from much discussed struggles to gain access to information, like Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. While such struggles are germane to Lefebvre’s wider project, they tempt us to assume that once we have access, the struggle is won. But it isn’t. And so I want to draw our attention to the struggle to appropriate and use the information we already have access to. Are we engaging with it actively and incorporating it effectively into our political project of autogestion?

To do this, I am going to talk about something quite a bit less sexy than government secrets, or big data, or all the new forms of geographical information we use.


I am going to talk about the software that runs our personal computers. That is, I want to talk about how we use, understand, and interact with the information—the software code—that structures our everyday digital environments: window managers, system trays, power managers, and so on. These programs are, increasingly, the medium through which we engage with the world. Do we understand how they work? Are we able to? Do we care?

Everyday (Digital) Life: GUIs


The larger paper addresses three main topics, but it’s this first question of Graphical User Interfaces that I think sheds the most light on this issue of whether we use and appropriate the information on our desktops.


A graphical user interface (GUI) is a program that allows a user to issue commands to a computer without knowing the actual commands themselves. A GUI opens a window on the desktop and presents the user with buttons, drop-down lists, check boxes, and tabs with which the user can, through a series of mouse gestures and clicks, tell the GUI what changes s/he wants to make.

Let me take you through one very small example. On my machine, the monitor resolution is changed by issuing this command:

xrandr --output HDMI-0 --mode 1280x960

‘xrandr’ is the program that issues the command, the –output flag tells the computer which monitor to adjust, and the –mode flag tells the computer which resolution to set that monitor to. I can make these changes directly, by typing the command above into a terminal window and pressing enter. Or I can use a GUI. In my case that would mean using a mouse to click the “Launch!” button in the top-left corner of the desktop, which would show me a base menu of options. Clicking “settings” on that menu opens another menu, on which I would click “display.” Then the GUI opens a new window, and it makes a query to find out which monitors are available to use. It then presents me with an icon for each available monitor. I click on the icon for the monitor I want to change, then I select the resolution I want from a drop-down box that offers me all the resolutions that monitor is capable of. Then, behind the scenes, the GUI will issue the “xrandr” command above, and the resolution will change. At this point, most GUIs will even check in with the user and ask if the new resolution is acceptable, to which the user responds by clicking the “yes” button or the “no” button.

Nearly all of us use a GUI to change our monitor resolution. We rely on it. We don’t know how to change the resolution directly. We don’t know what command to issue. We don’t know how the command works; we can’t avail ourselves of the many powers it has. We don’t know how to find out the actual names of the monitors, the ones the computer uses, or what resolutions they can operate at. We need the GUI to help us. And it does. It doesn’t trouble us with the specifics: it issues the command in the background, out of our view. We are probably not even aware a command is being issued at all. The monitor just changes. The GUI takes care of it. It takes care of us.

While this example may seem almost painfully trivial, still, it matters to us whether the monitor is set to the right resolution. If it wasn’t, it would be hard to get work done. But even though it matters to us, we don’t really know how to tell the computer directly to behave the way we need it to behave. We are illiterate, most of us, unable to read and write the simple commands the computer understands and responds to. We need the GUI to read and write for us. We are helpless without it.

And so we users are alienated from the information that runs our desktops. In the paper I call this a “soft alienation,” rather than a hard one.


In hard alienation, we are being actively prevented from accessing information by some intentional means, such as a government’s claim to secrecy or a corporation’s claim to intellectual property. Soft alienation is alienation that we can overcome, often with only a little effort. To return to my xrandr example, no real barriers exist to prevent me from learning xrandr. It is installed by default on my operating system. Its manual is included, it’s only 2,100 words, and it’s comprehensive. Xrandr can be mostly learned in about a half an hour. It is a powerful command that is capable of much more than what the GUI can do. And yet most of us don’t learn xrandr. We rely on the GUI.

So in soft alienation, we are choosing to be alienated, choosing to let others produce and manage information for us. The impetus for this kind of alienation does not lie outside us, it lies inside us. The struggle against this alienation will be different from the struggles where ‘we’ confront ‘them’ because they are oppressing us. The struggle will be, instead, a struggle within, a struggle between the part of us that wants to be passive and alienated, and the part of us that wants to be active and master the information that matters to us.

How do we engage a struggle like that? I don’t think we should try to defeat our bad desires, those that want us to be passive and dependent. I think we should focus on our good desires—our desires to actively manage the information that runs our desktops—and we should try to cultivate those desires. What we need is simply to start doing the right thing, start building up our ability to access and master information. We need to read the xrandr manual, start issuing commands, and see what happens. When it works, we can try out other features of the command. When it fails, when we break something (which we will), we can figure out how to fix it, or we can turn to others who have had the same problem, and they can help us. As we build our strength in this way, by practicing, by exercising our good desires, I think we will develop a taste for it. We will come to enjoy the feeling of learning a command, issuing it directly to the computer, and seeing the changes happen. We will come to prefer that way of interacting with our machines over the alienation of the GUI. This feeling—call it pleasure, or joy, or delight—is vital. It will have to be there if we are going to succeed. It isn’t a cheap pleasure, the kind of thrill we get when we see the redesigned Apple OS for the first time.


It’s a deeper pleasure, slower burning but longer lasting, that we can settle into, that we can make a habit out of.


I have been focusing my attention on the desktop, on this little world we inhabit so intimately, and I have tried to give some account of what Lefebvre’s right to information would entail in that world. But of course this session is on “An informational right to the city.” And so what about the city, and the urban, both of which were so important to Lefebvre? In making the argument that our little desktop worlds matter, I am not saying, at all, that the city no longer matters. Both matter. However, I am willing to say that the two struggles are analogous, almost to the point of being isomorphic. In managing the information on our desktops for ourselves, we users must become active, aware, and alive; we must decide to take up the project of producing and managing this newly-vital realm for ourselves. The gist of the right to the city, as Lefebvre understood it, is the same: those who inhabit the city must take up the project of actively producing and managing urban space for themselves. They must overcome their desire to be ruled, to have urban space managed for them, and they must discover the delight of governing the city for themselves.

And of course the struggle for our desktops and the struggle for the city are only two of the many struggles that matter. When Lefebvre turned his attention toward the city and the urban inhabitant he was trying to generalize the concept of autogestion, beyond the factory and beyond the working class, to the city and the urban inhabitant.


There is no reason to think we should stop there. The school, the family, the military, the desktop: all are arenas in which we can pursue the project of autogestion. I am happy to think of these all as essentially equivalent political struggles. We shouldn’t nest or hierarchize them: a struggle for autogestion on the desktop is no more or less important than a struggle for autogestion in the city, or the home, or the school. Each moves us farther down a path toward autogestion, toward managing our own affairs for ourselves. Each teaches us the habits, skills, and attitudes we’ll need to maintain the struggle. Each trains us to know what it’s like to appropriate a sphere of experience, to take up the challenge of being the author of our own lives. Each reveals to us our own power to create, to manage, and to decide. Each helps us know what it feels like: the pleasure, or joy, or delight, of autogestion. Each is a little project—both individual and collective—to save our lives. What we need to do is not to rank them or prioritize them; we need to notice them, amass them, connect them together into a spreading project for generalized autogestion, into a spreading project for democracy.


Lefebvre and the Right to the City in Policy and Politics


I have a new piece that is just out in Policy & Politics, and they have been nice enough to make it available for free during the month of September.  What I am trying to do in the piece is give a solid, fairly thorough account of what Lefebvre thought the right to the city meant (using sources beyond the Writings on Cities book), and then tie that idea in with democracy as I understand it.  I will paste the abstract below if you’d like more information on the argument.  I hope the article is of some interest.  You can’t beat the price, at least.

The piece is part of a special issue of Policy & Politics on “reconfiguring the local public realm” (Volume 41, number 3).  Big thanks go to Gary Bridge, Alex Marsh and David Sweeting, who edited the issue and organized the conference at Bristol where the papers in the issue were first presented.  They have a blog post with more information about the special issue here.



This paper aims to contribute to contemporary debates on governance change in the local public realm by undertaking a close analysis of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city. I argue that when it is fully appreciated, Lefebvre’s idea imagines a thoroughgoing transformation of the city as a political community. It involves a radical democratization of cities, which Lefebvre understands to mean an ongoing and collective struggle by urban inhabitants to manage the city for themselves, without the state and without capitalism.

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.

Illuminati: Unrepresentable Citizenship and the City


“Democracy rests under the sign of Janus, the exiled god of thresholds and beginnings, not under Terminus, god of confines and outcomes.”

Augusto Illuminati’s piece from the book Radical Thought in Italy outlines a very similar project to the other Italians: to effect an exodus from capitalism and work, from the State and representation. A politics of escape, flight, exodus, leaving, refusal, secession. This flight cannot be directionless, of course, it must consciously and actively refuse/resist capitalism, or it will be reabsorbed.

So we must interrupt, disrupt, break, make contingent, destabilize the existing order, and we must begin, arise, cross the threshold into the new, the other.

But still, how might this disruption, this destabilization take on some “strategic plasticity,” Illuminati asks, how might we create some thickness, some coherence beyond?  He suggests that we think in terms of rules (as opposed to laws). Rules (of thumb perhaps) that coordinate free activity, rather than laws that govern work.  Rules that are easily modifiable and contestable.  A network of rules that protect the free unfolding of individual and group difference [here I think of GNU General Public Licenses, or the Creative Commons licenses].  Rules that explicitly deny capitalism/work, but that also begin to construct ways to coordinate heterogeneous forms of life beyond capitalism, beyond property relations, beyond the State.  Rules that can help create interfaces for communication between heterogeneous systems.  Experimenting with such rules, such protocols for relating peers in networks, might be thought of, he suggests, as experiments with non-representative democracy, with forms of life that incorporate the general intellect.  Flexible strategies of subjectivization in free associations, rather than formal citizenship in the State.

And, very interestingly, Illuminati proposes that cities are an important site for developing such new forms of life and subjectivity. (On this point he is echoed by Hardt and Negri, who pose something similar in Commonwealth.) We might rescue citizenship from its formal nation-state conception and think of it instead as “living in a city” [the translation is a bit choppy, I assume the original is something like abitare la città]. Here I think he is reimagining the city as the city of feudal escapes, as the city of deserters of institutions, as the Lucca that emblazoned libertas on its towers. And here, he implies, the cities of the global South are especially important, these cities with their massive and unprecedented churn, their whole zones off the grid, their huge amounts of creative activity (potenza) and autoproduction. Living in (these) cities opens up particularly strong possibilities for new subjectivities to emerge, for the invention of new politics outside formal politics, for people to develop new experiments in nonrepresentative democracy.

The Italians never mention Lefebvre, but of course this kind of thinking should cause us to reach immediately for The Urban Revolution (and maybe also The Production of Space), where Lefebvre works through in detail the importance of the city for a life beyond capitalism and the State.

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.

Cease pouring it out like a sewer and sing in your own voice

Here is the last of the talks I gave in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in a session on Critical Urban Theory organized by Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont.


“Goodbye Mr. Criticism”


Negri’s title is Goodbye, Mr. Socialism. I can’t speak for Negri, but my guess is that he means what he says. Given the argument in the book, Negri would probably be happy to say goodbye to socialism once and for all, given of course that we understand the term to mean a State society in which a proletarian party controls the apparatus of government. If so, I am happy to stand behind him 100%.

I can speak for myself, though, and my title is polemical. That is, I am overstating to make a point. I don’t mean to say that we should say goodbye, once and for all, to critique and criticism in urban theory. We can have critique. There is a role for it. But we must always remember that its role must be subordinate, that it can never be primary. I want to say about critique what Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace said about irony.  Hyde says

Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.  That is why it is so tiresome.  People who have found a route to power based on their misery–who don’t want to give it up though it would free them–they become ironic (Alcohol and Poetry, 1986, p. 16).

And Wallace follows on:

This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….But irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks…I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures…one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow…oppressed (“E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”).

So irony and criticism can play a role, but it can only be a limited one, a ground clearing, a removing of barriers that prevent us from growing and thriving. But there is a problem: this limited role is not so easy to maintain. Critique has a tendency to be voracious.  It has a habit of consuming us, of coming to occupy our entire political imagination.  Who can deny, for example, that our critique of neoliberalism has become almost obsessive?

g  e d c ab f

Its geography, history, logic, global spread, ecological consequences, ethnography, and even its recent crisis. We have become so consumed by destroying, by the ground clearing, that we have forgotten what else there is.

This is Nietzsche’s argument, about ressentiment. He says that we live in a system he calls “slave morality,” which teaches us relentlessly that we are oppressed, and that we should hate our oppressors because they are evil. In this way of thinking, we can only be good by disassociation, because we are not them. We stew in our ressentiment, we become obsessed by our oppressors, and we forget to do anything other than criticize their power. Nietzsche is worried that ressentiment can grow to eat up all other modes of thought, that it renders us able to feel only spite, bitterness, anger, and envy. Such feelings, for Nietzsche, mean we are on the wrong track, that we have come to accept our cage, to fixate on it. We are obsessed with neoliberalism, austerity, oligarchy. And here’s the thing, for Nietzsche: this obsession prevents us from discovering our own power, our own potential for creation, our own strength, our own will to grow and flourish, our own will to life. And so it is essential that we rid ourselves of ressentiment, he says, that we become instead those “whose task is wakefulness itself” those who say yes to life, those who discharge their own strength into the world. (This is all in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).

To a troubling extent in geography, I think, we are awash in critique, we are macerating in our own bile. We need a way out. We need to take seriously what Henry Miller says: you need to

cease pouring it out like a sewer, however melodious it may sound to your ears, and rise up on your own two legs and sing with your own God-given voice [Numen]. To confess, to whine, to complain, to commiserate, always demands a toll. To sing it doesn’t cost you a penny. Not only does it cost nothing—you actually enrich others (instead of infecting them). . . .(Sexus, pp. 429-30; quoted in Anti-Oedipus, p. 334).

So what should we be doing instead? What would it mean to sing, to say yes to life? It is certainly not to learn to love neoliberalism, to appreciate its benefits. Neither should we pretend neoliberalism doesn’t exist, to turn to empty diversions, to feel-good stories about reggae or volunteering in Central America, to listen to NPR.

I think Deleuze & Guattari have it right: start from Hobbes. Hobbes realizes that the State has no power of its own. It only has the power the people agree to give it. For Hobbes, there is no way around it: the people are the source of all power; State power is derivative. Marx was just following in Hobbes’ wake when he told us that labor is the source of all economic value, that capital must suck out that value like a vampire. The State is not the source of power. Capital is not the source of economic wealth. We are. Begin there. Redirect our attention: toward what we can do, toward what we want to create instead. And then pursue it. And connect with others who are also pursuing their own strength, pursuing truths that feel the same as yours.

The Invisible Committee: “Attach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.”

Scroobius Pip: “You see a mousetrap. I see free cheese and a fucking challenge.”

If the State or capital is impeding this project somehow, clear it. Critique can be useful in clearing obstacles. Moreover, if it is done right, critique can even be a way to search for and discover our own vital powers.

This is the way Deleuze and Guattari see critique too.  They tell us to

lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 161).

They say we should be attentive to the powers that constrain us, sure, just not obsessively.  And our goal in playing attention to the powers should not be  confront them and smash them. Rather we should examine them in order to know how to turn away from them, to know how to escape. “Don’t fight,” they tell us, “flee.” When we flee, we will have the chance to properly turn our attention to ourselves, to discover (or rediscover) our own power, to get to know our desiring machines, to find out what they can do, to see how they can produce flow conjunctions, to see how we might cultivate our small plot of new land.

So “Goodbye, Mr. Criticism” is a polemic, because there does remain a role of critique.  But only if critique is used to carefully examine the contours of the strata, to better understand the apparatuses of capture, so that we can flee.  And we flee only in order to make possible the other ways of being that we already have within us, ways of being that are latent, inchoate, dormant.

Let me give you an example.


Whatever you think of Hardt & Negri, I recommend to you a crystalline essay by Michael Hardt in which he offers what he calls a “critique of political economy,” and he says that “any communist project must begin” with this sort of critique. He argues that in contemporary capitalism the composition of labor and the relations of property is changing. Labor has changed such that the leading edge of accumulation, the form all other forms will be forced to adopt, is immaterial labor: it produces ideas, knowledges, codes, and it produces affective relations among people. That is, it produces, as products, things like common understandings, common languages, and common sensibilities. Products that by their nature held in common by many people, products that are easily shared or reproduced. These products are increasingly hard to enclose as property.  Moreover, enclosing them tends to reduce their value. They work best when they are held in common. But of course expanding the common undermines the basis of capitalism. And so we see the increasing importance of efforts to reinscribe the idea of “intellectual property,” as a way for capital to expropriate the common and charge a rent on it (patents, copyright, SOPA/PIPA). What capital is doing here is scrambling desperately to discover new ways to control and profit by this production of an expanding common. Apple, for example, depends utterly on vigilantly restricting access to code that was produced in common by thousands of coders across many decades. Faced with this fact, we can be bitter about this, resent them for their hoarding a resource that should belong to everyone. Or, we might instead pity them: for having to hustle so hard, and employ such a large army of lawyers, to defend a sad model that is always on the brink of being swallowed up again by the common ocean from which it emerged. Hardt is saying that contemporary capitalism is becoming a world in which the leading edge of labor is relentlessly producing a new common that is increasingly hard for capital to enclose. If communism is properly conceived as the abolition of property as such, Hardt says, let us be attentive to the ways in which we are already producing communism in the world right now, all around us.

So, just a taste of what critique might be like when it sets out to discover potential rather than stew in ressentiment. One thing we should not do with Hardt’s critique is get sucked into a debate about how important or large or powerful or autonomous the emerging common is. He isn’t telling us that capitalism will collapse under its own weight tomorrow, that we need only stand by and wait for its fall. He is saying, I think, that capitalism is always struggling desperately to contain us, but it is also always, necessarily, unleashing us unintentionally. It is our power that it must control. The potential for its demise rests not in its internal contradictions, but rather in us, in our own strength, in the strength we are only just learning how to use. Hardt is offering us a methodological reorientation, away from the search for the ubiquitous and inescapable power of capital and toward the search for the ubiquitous and emerging power of the common.

So what kind of positive practices might such critique imply? Paolo Virno insists that what we need today is to conceive of and engage in a project of an exodus, a flight, a defection.


But despite what it seems, Virno’s idea of exodus is not a negative one. For Virno we should leave, we should flee, but not in order to starve the powers that be, even though that might happen. Rather for Virno exodus is a positive act because we withdraw, we flee into smooth space, in order to discover and experiment with our own power. Exodus is a way to discover our own “latent wealth,” he says, our own “abundance of possibilities.” It is a project to learn how to use this wealth, how to begin putting it to work. Exodus

involves, therefore, a complex ensemble of positive actions. It is not a resentful omission, but a committed undertaking. The sovereign command is not carried out, because, above all, we are too busy figuring out how to pose differently the question…(p. 199).

Learn our legs, learn what they can do, learn what they can’t do, where we need to get stronger. Cease being obsessed with oppression; become obsessed with ourselves. Stop pouring out critique like a sewer, and begin to sing in our own voice.

In terms of what we might hear when we begin to sing, Virno proposes ideas like a “non-State Republic” (199), “a power that refuses to become government” (201), “leagues, councils, and soviets” (203), “a non-State public sphere,” and “nonrepresentative democracy”:

Democracy today has to be framed in terms of the construction and experimentation of forms of nonrepresentative and extrapaliamentary democracy.  All the rest is vacant chitchat (p. 202)

He doesn’t specify any of these new ways of living in detail. That is because they are all emerging, they are yet to be realized. We must decide what they will mean together. But we can’t do that unless we turn our attention to these new ways of living, unless we begin taking seriously the question of what we can do.

One last word, perhaps, on someone I have not mentioned yet.


With all the emerging fascination with the idea of the planetary, with planetary urbanism, I want to end by insisting that we read Lefebvre as very much a part of this lineage, from Nietzsche, through Deleuze & Guattari, and on into the Italians. We tend to take up Lefebvre through Harvey (and Castells), and for years that tradition has missed the particular power of Lefebvre, stuffing him awkwardly into an orthdoxy that sanitizes his dangerous spirit. Lefebvre was clearly a thinker of possibility rather than limitation. He did not stew in ressentiment. He examined the industrial city and abstract space only in order to probe for the creative possibilities of urban society and differential space. He searched tirelessly for what could grow in the cracks of the dominant order. He didn’t see a mousetrap. He saw free cheese and a fucking challenge.

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.

Calvino, Wallace, Holland, (and me)


Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, my translation:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is that which is already here, the inferno that we inhabit every day, that we create by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for most: accept the inferno and become such a complete part of it that you no longer know it is there. The second is risky and requires vigilance and continuous attention: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and help them endure, give them space.

David Foster Wallace in L. McCaffrey, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, p. 26:

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the  definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as  dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship, p. 172:

The task of nomadological utopianism is then to detect and reinforce such alternative instances [to capitalism and the State], distill and express the ideals informing them, then relay and propagate those ideals in additional institutions and practices throughout social life, in anticipation of pushing society to a tipping point beyond which they actually come to prevail.

Me, drawing heavily on the others, from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy, p. 21-2:

Both Calvino and Wallace are saying that there is something already here, something good, breathing in the midst of human society. This good is not transcendent, or an ideal to come. It is immanent, incipient, coming. Calvino calls it that which is “not inferno.” For Wallace, it is those elements of “what’s human and magical” in the world,  elements that illuminate the “possibilities for being alive.” Even though we are surrounded by the actual world of the inferno, we can seek out the not-inferno and help it to grow. In a similar way,  Lefebvre’s transduction argues that a possible world is not “out there,” beyond our current situation, but rather it is already here, even if it remains inchoate. Our task as political thinkers and actors, Lefebvre argues, is to discover this good, this other world, to remove the barriers that prevent its growth, and to nurture it as best we can.

Lefebvre Too: No to the State


Revolution was long defined either in terms of a political change at the level of the state or else in terms of the collective or state ownership of the means of production….Today such limited definitions of revolution 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,’ with their multiple, varied and even contradictory interests (Production of Space, p. 422).

The second part is a bit coy, but what he means by the ‘interested parties’ is essentially people in general, or, in the context of the city, urban inhabitants who use the space of the city, rather than those who own it.  He is arguing for active self-management of space by people rather than its management by experts and leaderships of whatever kind (state, union, party, etc.).

In State, Space, World (p. 61) he writes

Democracy is nothing other than the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy is the movement itself. Many democrats imagine that democracy is a type of stable condition toward which we can tend, toward which we must tend. No. Democracy is the movement. And the movement is the forces in action. And democracy is the struggle for democracy, which is to say the very movement of social forces; it is a permanent struggle and it is even a struggle against the State that emerges from democracy. There is no democracy without a struggle against the democratic State itself, which tends to consolidate itself as a block, to affirm itself as a whole, become monolithic and to smother the society out of which it develops.