Democratizing the City Using…Planning?


As I mentioned in a recent post, we just read some Marxist critiques of planning in my planning theory class, one by Fogelsong (”Planning the Capitalist City”) and one by Harvey (“On the Ideology of Planning”). These old readings brilliantly show how state-led planning in capitalist societies is necessarily an activity that preserves capitalist social relations and thus the capitalist system. The common complaint about these readings, though, is that they do not offer a clear alternative. Of course there is always state-socialist planning (which may be, as one of my students perceptively hypothesized, the alternative the authors (Harvey) actually do favor but cannot advocate out loud). But there is also here, embedded in the Fogelsong, something perhaps of use.

Fogelsong says that capitalism is subject to crises, and planning’s function is to manage those crises so capitalism doesn’t collapse. Fine. But he focuses specifically on spatial contradictions, those having to do with urban land. One contradiction is what he calls the “capitalist-democracy contradiction,” which is: despite the fact that urban land is mostly privately owned, nevertheless it has a social function, a use value for urban inhabitants. Fogelsong says that there is some need to socialize control over urban land so that its social functions can be ensured (if not, the self-interested decisions of private owners may well ignore these social functions, which will produce unrest that could threaten capitalism). But of course fully socializing decisions about urban land would eliminate the system of private ownership that is capitalism. Fogelsong thinks about this socialization in terms of democratization, i.e. socialization requires and involves greater real-democratic control over the decisions that produce urban space. So, as an alternative to the trap of planners-as-handmaidens-to-capitalism, we could imagine planners working to create mechanisms to increase popular participation–and here I mean participation that really does increase the control people have over the production and management of urban space (rather than the same old bullshit)–as a way planners might begin to alter the very structure of the capitalist city. Not just using state control of space to ensure a modicum of social function, but finding ways to increase popular control over space so that people themselves can ensure the social function, constrain the privileges of private ownership, and work toward a more really-democratic, and therefore less capitalist, city. I am not sure how far this can be pushed, or what its limits are, but it seems, for planning, a fruitful direction to explore.

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].

More from Bakunin: Against Marx


From “Critique of the Marxist Theory of the State,” in Bakunin on Anarchism, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, Knopf, 1972, pp. 330-331):

“If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable – and this is why we are the enemies of the State.

What does it mean that the proletariat will be elevated to a ruling class? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? There are nearly forty million Germans. Can all forty million be members of the government? In such a case, there will be no government, no state, but, if there is to be a state there will be those who are ruled and those who are slaves.

The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.

Ultimately, from whatever point of view we look at this question, we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority. The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people. Those who doubt this know very little about human nature…

The Marxists are aware of this contradiction and realize that a government of scientists will be a real dictatorship regardless of its democratic form. They console themselves with the idea that this rule will be temporary. They say that the only care and objective will be to educate and elevate the people economically and politically to such a degree that such a government will soon become unnecessary, and the State, after losing its political or coercive character, will automatically develop into a completely free organization of economic interests and communes.

There is a flagrant contradiction in this theory. If their state would be really of the people, why eliminate it? And if the State is needed to emancipate the workers, then the workers are not yet free, so why call it a People’s State? By our polemic against them we have brought them to the realization that freedom or anarchism, which means a free organization of the working masses from the bottom up, is the final objective of social development, and that every state, not excepting their People’s State, is a yoke, on the one hand giving rise to despotism and on the other to slavery. They say that such a yoke – dictatorship is a transitional step towards achieving full freedom for the people: anarchism or freedom is the aim, while state and dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses of people, they have first to be enslaved!

Upon this contradiction our polemic has come to a halt. They insist that only dictatorship (of course their own) can create freedom for the people. We reply that all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation, and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people, and by a voluntary organization of the people from the bottom up.”

Eugene Holland: Nomad Citizenship


Add Eugene Holland to the list of people (Balso, Negri, Badiou) who see communism as necessarily operating at a distance from the State.  He develops the idea of “free-market communism” as a way to

deploy selected features of the free market to transform communism and free it from a fatal entanglement with the State (xvi).

His goal is to force

orthodox Marxism to acknowledge that hitherto existing communism has featured a centralized authoritarian State and that the free market offers an essential corrective to State-governed social relations (xvi).

Of course, by “free market” he does not mean a capitalist market. That is what he thinks the idea of communism can do: it can force those who equate capitalism with a free market

to acknowledge that hitherto existing capitalism has inexorably produced exploitative oligopolies and monopolies that ruined free markets…. Communism offers an essential corrective to the wage relation on which capitalist exploitation is based (xvi).

The idea of his paradoxical concept of free-market communism, he says, is to force us to think about free markets and communism in new and more productive ways.

State, Space, World

I recently did a book review of State, Space, World, a collection of Henri Lefebvre’s work edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden (who blogs at Progressive Geographies).  The review is in Social & Cultural Geography 13(2), edited by my friend Michael Brown.  In the interest of promoting the book, which is great, I will just paste the review below, hoping the copyright militia doesn’t come after me…

Lefebvre, Henri. (2009) State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Edited by N. Brenner and S. Elden. Translated by G. Moore, N. Brenner and S. Elden. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 330 pp. $28.50, paperback (ISBN 978-0-8166-5317-1)

Let me say this plainly: this is an excellent book. There two main reasons for this excellence.  The first is the enduring quality and originality of Lefebvre’s work, and the second is the evident abilities of the editors, Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden.  Both are important factors, but let me begin with the editors.  A significant element of the editors’ contribution is the translation of the works, for which they were joined by Gerald Moore.  Lefebvre’s writing is famous for not being well-wrought, at times scattered, elliptical, or even dashed-off.  In this book, the language is far more readable and transparent than it is in other translations, particularly the Writings on Cities book.  In addition, the translators have made very wise choices with difficult terms.  The best example of this is the term autogestion, which they leave untranslated.  As the book makes clear, this word is really a gateway to a complex argument about politics. Its standard translation, “self-management,” is nondescript in English.  Leaving it untranslated signals to the reader to be attentive to the term and to what it means.  Such attentiveness will open the door to new political worlds in Lefebvre.

In addition to the excellent translation, the editors’ introduction is extremely substantive, well-written, and makes an excellent guide to the theoretical contents of the book. Their scholarship is meticulous; this is clearly not a book that was rushed in any way. It is patiently crafted and is the work of serious scholars who care very deeply about the material they are working with.

As the title suggests, the editors have chosen to focus on Lefebvre’s work on the state, space, and world. This also includes quite a bit of Lefebvre’s theoretical work with respect to Marxism and philosophy. Of course with any selection things will be left out, and in this case the book mostly leaves to one side Lefebvre’s work on the critique of everyday life, rural sociology, the urban, history and time, and rhythmanalysis. This is fine of course, there’s no need to cover everything in Lefebvre’s corpus, but it’s worth noting what the book does not provide.

In terms of what is included, I think there are quite a few revelations here. The selections on the state are downright thrilling.  Lefebvre’s more well-known work tends to be abstract and politically oblique.  Here he is entirely direct.  The essays on the state in the first part of the book make clear Lefebvre’s deep commitment to a Leninist vision of the withering away of the state.  In a strident critique of Stalinism and the French Communist Party, he argues that the entire point of the proletariat seizing the state is to create the conditions for the state to wither away.  Of course this is paired with his Marxist conviction that capitalism must also wither away, and so we have in this book a very clear political agenda takes its cue unapologetically (though not uncritically) from The Communist Manifesto.

Very much related to this political agenda is the concept of autogestion.  The term is extraordinarily important for Lefebvre, though it has been subjected to relatively little attention in geography scholarship. It forms the basis of his understanding of politics and his hope for the future.  It also draws him toward an anarchist position, which is articulated with the Marxist-Leninist position on the state and capitalism into an exciting and complex political vision. Lefebvre imagines people reappropriating control over the conditions of their own existence, so that they create a world in which no one is governed by outside authority, a world in which power is no longer alienated from people to institutions like the state or the corporation, but remains with the people themselves. It prefigures Douglas Lummis’ (1997, p. 27) vision of radical democracy: “the people gathered in the public space, with neither the great paternal Leviathan nor the great maternal society standing over them, but only the empty sky­—the people making the power of Leviathan their own again, free to speak, to choose, to act.”  Lefebvre is very clear here: he is offering a vision for radical democracy.  It is easy to imagine how we can connect that larger political vision with Lefebvre’s writings on cities to imagine urban inhabitants reappropriating control over the production of urban space, a vision which helps us to more fully specify, and understand far more radically, the concept of the right to the city.[1]

In addition to this deeply radical and stimulating political vision, the second part of the book explores more familiar, though not unrelated, reflections on space, the politics of space, and planning. These are more “conventional,” in the sense that they echo or prefigure The Production of Space, which makes up the bulk of what geographers have already focused on in Lefebvre’s work.  This second part of the book also includes Lefebvre’s writing on the issue of the worldwide and the planetary, which is drawn from the work of Kostas Axelos. Lefebvre was remarkable in how he saw neoliberal globalization coming in advance of the actual fact.  And in many ways these discussions are a closer look at why he was capable of that prescience.  While I found these chapters less compelling than the relatively more political ones, I am certainly not ready to dismiss the importance of his ideas on the world and the worldwide either.

Overall then, I would say this book is not only required reading for anyone interested in Lefebvre, but it should be the starting point for those who want to engage his work on the state, politics, Marxism, and autogestion. Especially if it is paired with The Urban Revolution, I think this book is a powerful weapon in the struggle against the neoliberal city, and a source of great strength as we build another world.


Lummis, C. (1997) Radical democracy. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Ranciere, J. (2009) The emancipated spectator. Translated by G. Elliott. New York, Verso.

[1] Those who find this idea of reappropriation compelling should see Ranciere’s (2009) explicit critique of Guy Debord in The Emancipated Spectator.  Despite the many similarities between Debord’s vision and Lefebvre’s, though, Ranciere never mentions Lefebvre.

Reichs and Wrongs

Jodi Dean (at her great blog I cite) has posted a link to a depressing song and dance by Robert Reich, who manages not only to take bait offered by Bill O’Reilly, but also to “defend” himself by denying any association with Karl Marx or communism.  He laments that the FoxNewsers have cheapened our political discourse, but he himself affirms a discourse in which it is absolutely out of the question to call oneself a Marxist or a communist.

As Dean says in the comments, there is a pressing need to recapture these terms, to claim them and use them, to declare with joy, “I am a Marxist,” and “I am a communist!”  Of course then we need to say what we mean by those terms, but that discussion is precisely what Reich closes off.

And more than that, we need to refuse, with Deleuze and Guattari, an either/or understanding of these terms in favor of a “and…and…and” understanding.  So unlike Robert Reich, I am a Marxist and a communist and an anarchist and a libertarian and an autonomist and an Aristotelian and a Nietzschean and a Gramscian and a democrat.  And I am loving every minute of it.