Free Download: Digital Rights to the City

Published Today: Our Digital Rights to the City

Free to download (pdf, epub, mobi):


‘Our Digital Rights to the City’ is a small collection of articles about digital technology, data and the city. It covers a range of topics relating to the political and economic power of technologies that are now almost inescapable within the urban environment. This includes discussions surrounding security, mapping, real estate, smartphone applications and the broader idea of a ‘right to the city’ in a post-digital world.

The collection is edited by Joe Shaw and Mark Graham and its contributing authors are Jathan Sadowski, Valentina Carraro, Bart Wissink, Desiree Fields, Kurt Iveson, Taylor Shelton, Sophia Drakopoulou and Mark Purcell.

Please follow us @meatspacepress

Join our mailing list at

‘Our Digital Rights to the City’ also available free at:

* Free to download (epub, most e-readers): epub

* Free to download (pdf): pdf

* Free to download (mobi, for Kindle): mobi

* Free to read (pdf): Here

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.

Conference on Gendered Rights to the City

*Gendered Rights to the City:*

*Intersections of Identity & Power*

*April 19-20, 2015*

*Feminist Geography Conference*

*University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee*

You are invited to submit proposals for papers, panels, and other types of
presentations to this feminist geography conference in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin.  This two-day pre-conference to the Association of American
Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Chicago will host scholars, activists,
students and faculty from around the world to share their research,
pedagogy, activism, and other topics in an informal and stimulating
environment. The conference themes include explorations of gender,
difference, and power relations in contemporary and historical landscapes.

The conference is located in a racially, ethnically, and religiously
diverse city with a rich immigrant and industrial history shaped by labor
activism and socialist politics.  Significant deindustrialization and
suburbanization in Milwaukee have contributed to urban inequality and
racial segregation that have in turn shaped gender identities and women’s
activism in the city.

*Deadline for submission of proposals: January 5, 2015*

*Possible themes for papers and panels:*
   - Community research and activism
   - Intersectionality
   - Unbounding the city: rural-urban connections
   - Professional development & mentoring
   - Gender, power, and difference
   - Gendered health and the city
   - Gender and social justice
   - Feminist pedagogies

*Tentative schedule:*

Sunday, April 19 – Registration, Paper sessions and keynote panel

Monday, April 20 – Papers, panel sessions, and fieldtrip

Tuesday, April 21 - Depart for AAG in Chicago

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.

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.

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.

“Our politics starts from the places we have taken”

Reading a piece by Peter Hallward, I ran across this piece of wisdom, from S’bu Zikode, Chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement:

Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don’t have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly. We do not allow the state to keep us quiet in the name of a future revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quiet in the name of a future socialism that they can’t build. We take our place as people who count the same as everyone else. Sometimes we take that place in the streets with teargas and the rubber bullets. Sometimes we take that place in the courts. Sometimes we take it on the radio. Tonight we take it here. Our politics starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politics because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us.

There are certainly echoes of Ranciere’s “part of those who have no part” here, when Zikode says that “we take our place as people who count the same as everyone else.”  But I was also quite struck by the resonance with the right to the city, by his insistence that “our politics starts from the places we have taken” and “we have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground.”  He does not set out a future goal of occupying and controlling space in the city, but starts from the spaces we have already taken, the large and growing part of the city that people already control and have defended.  Here, perhaps, is a way to approach the political  potential of informal settlements, not by holding them up as an ideal example of self-managed urbanism, but by finding in them the already existing power (in the sense of popular potential–potentia, puissance) and the already occupied ground, and beginning there, with this power and on this ground.  There is where it might be possible to begin a politics, an activation, a struggle for democracy.  Or rather, to continue, augment, and spread the struggle that is already underway.   

New Book on the Right to the City

I just received a copy of a new collection of essays on the right to the city (by Francesca Iovino, Lefebvre, Harvey, me, Kolektyw Syrena, Marco Deseriis, and Jodi Dean).  The book is in simultaneous Italian and English. It was organized and published by a group in Italy to go with a gathering called Babel2, an independent festival of critical housing, which took place in Forteprenestino, a squatted social center in Rome that has been occupied and self-managed since 1986.  The lead on the book was Valerio Bindi, and it is under a creative commons license, so if you are interested you should contact him and see if there are copies available.

People’s Declaration from Syntagma Square

This is from last year, of course, but on reading it again I was struck by its power.  It is impassioned yet restrained.  Determined yet joyous.  I am particularly taken by the line, “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.”  A political call to arms that it seems to me is true to the depth and power of Lefebvre’s right to the city, in an era when the idea is often mouthed but rarely meant.