Powerpoint delivered by Mark Purcell
Hello everyone. Thanks so much to the organizers for the invitation to come and speak with you today.
My name is Mark Purcell, and I am an urbanist and political theorist from the University of Washington, in Seattle. I study democracy and political mobilization in the city, and I have a particular interest in struggles for a right to the city.
Please forgive my speaking in English. Unfortunately Hebrew is not one of the languages I have studied. On the plus side, my English is extremely strong.
I think the best thing for me to do tonight is to report on some of the lessons I have learned in studying the right to the city, and then hopefully we can, together, explore how useful that idea is for living and flourishing in mixed cities that are charged with ethno-national, gender, linguistic, and religious difference. 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.
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.”
I want to suggest that there are two main approaches to the idea: a liberal-democratic approach and Lefebvre’s approach. I will discuss both, but I want to argue for Lefebvre’s as the best way to understand the right to the city, the one that best captures the popular desire on display in Spain and Greece.
In a minute I will emphasize the differences in the two approaches, but first let me identify a very solid common theme that runs throughout almost all work on the right to the city. Almost everyone emphasizes the figure of the user or the inhabitant of urban space. Moreover, there is a common effort to distinguish between use and ownership. Currently, in almost every city in the world, the property rights of owners outweigh the use rights of inhabitants. The exchange value of property determines how it is used much more so than its use value. And so the right to the city in almost all its forms is understood to mean a struggle to augment the rights of urban inhabitants vis a vis the property rights of owners.
Let me start by saying more about the liberal-democratic approach. This is the mainstream set of ideas and practices in contemporary efforts for a the right to the city. Liberal democracy, which derives from John Locke’s writing on the state, is a form of the nation-state that grants people a relatively weak measure of democratic control through elections, parties, laws, and stable state institutions. It also values individual liberty and strives to protect it by establishing a strong distinction between the public and private spheres, and by granting individuals numerous rights designed to prevent limitations to their liberty either by fellow citizens or by the state.
So in this political imagination, rights are enduring legal protections that are granted to individual citizens by the liberal-democratic state. This tradition understands the right to the city, then, to be proposing additions to the list of existing liberal-democratic rights. This approach trains its political attention squarely on the State, since that is the institution that will guarantee any future right to the city. This approach tends to think of political action in terms of legal strategies. And it conceives of rights as ends: when a legal right is secured, the struggle has come to a close.
Such legal strategies 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 augment the rights inhabitants have to use urban space to the point where they counterbalance the property rights of owners. The state must then take both rights claims into account when making development decisions.
I think a 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 use value 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 must guarantee a right to the city.
I think it is instructive to remember that the liberal-democratic state is what the young Marx called the bourgeois state, and offered a withering critique of it. Lefebvre very much ascribes to and builds upon Marx's critique. His idea of the right to the city wants to go beyond a liberal-democratic conception. Whatever the tactical merits of the liberal-democratic approach, it is not at all what Lefebvre understood the right to the city to mean. And that means that 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. 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 must understand Lefebvre’s right to the city in the context of that wider radical-democratic vision. Most people, when they 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.
So let me try to put his right to the city in context. I will start at the end. 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 presents 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, just a tweaking of the existing agreement between the state and its citizens. He 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 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 than anything that can be contained by the liberal-democratic state. He doesn’t want to tweak the contract; he wants to dissolve it. To see why, let me begin by examining this third right, the right to autogestion.
The right to autogestion helps us understand how Lefebvre conceives of rights and the new contract. Autogestion is a French term usually translated as “self-management,” and it traditionally applies to workers who take control of a factory and run it themselves, without professional managers. Autogestion is mentioned in Lefebvre’s book on the new contract of citizenship, but really in order to fully grasp what he means by autogestion, we need to turn to his writings 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 rights are what he calls a point of departure for a renewal of political life. Claiming the rights in the contract is a way for people to rouse themselves, to touch off a political awakening, a rising up and shaking off of a torpor. Through this awakening, people decide to become active again, that they take direct control over the conditions of their own existence. For Lefebvre, when people claim rights they are launching a struggle to reappropriate their 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 nothing less than the project of radical democracy, not just in the factory, but in society as a whole.
Lefebvre’s radical democracy is very different from the liberal democracy we have been talking about. He understands it to be 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. The result of that emergence is a deepening of democracy, because the overwhelming majority of people in society are taking control of the decisions that shape that society. As people realize their own power, as they demonstrate to themselves that they are capable of managing their own affairs because they are actually doing it, 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 social relations 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. Of course that hope stands in stark contrast to a liberal-democratic understanding of rights guaranteed by the state.
OK, so how does this political awakening bear upon the right to the city, which is one 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 his book, The Urban Revolution. In that book, 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 (Manchester or Chicago). Rather it signifies the capitalist city that we inhabit today, that he inhabited in 1970, in which private property and exchange value are the dominant ways to organize space. In the industrial city the dominant socio-spatial processes separate and segregate people from one another, and those separated parts are homogenized so that they are exchangeable in capitalist markets and interchangeable for state managers. 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 makes 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 above all 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 like to call this the neoliberal city. In his famous book from the 1960s, Guy Debord called it The Society of the Spectacle.
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.
Lefebvre contrasts the industrial city starkly with what he calls urban society. In urban society, inhabitants are able to appropriate urban space, and they use it to meet their needs. Urban society draws inhabitants together, it centralizes 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 inhabitants’ creative potential and encourages them to produce unique works of their own rather than standardized commodities. In urban society the purpose of the city is the development of each person’s potential rather than economic accumulation. (This distinction very much echoes Aristotle’s politics, as well as Marx and Engels’ idea of communism, which is an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all). Urban society is, in short, a world 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.
The right to the city then, following Lefebvre’s conceptions of rights, is not an end. 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.
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.
Given the themes of the conference, I thought I would say just a bit more about Lefebvre’s understanding of difference.
The right to the city posits a very clear commonality among users or inhabitants of the city. For Lefebvre, they share a common interest as users of urban space, and they also share a negative identification, which is that they are all not-capitalist-consumers and not-state-subjects.
But Lefebvre didn’t think users were homogeneous. Recall that he insists on a right to difference. For him that right is important because the industrial city separates inhabitants from each other and then standardizes them so that they are interchangeable as consumers and as state subjects. One subdivision resident or one mall shopper or one citizens’ vote is the same as the next. For Lefebvre the right to difference is a claim to resist this homogenization, to create spaces of encounter where inhabitants can explore non-capitalist and non-state ways of being together. The result, Lefebvre thinks, will be the proliferation of differences, different ways of life beyond capitalism and beyond the state. Autogestion in urban society produces difference, and it prompts inhabitants to engage with that difference, to begin to sort out its contours, to understand it, to feel its weight, to face the challenges it presents, but also draw strength from it as well.
But Lefebvre is quite vague on just what that difference would entail. He specifies that it would mean differing from capitalist-consumer and state-subject. But what would he make of a difference such as that between hasidim and secular Israelis on Bar-Ilan Street, or Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, or conservative Christians and gay-rights activists in the United States? For Lefebvre difference is conceived in contradistinction to capital-and-the-state. And so I want to suggest that the question of mixed cities has the potential to significantly expand, challenge, and perhaps even radically challenge his idea of difference.
But beyond the question of difference, you may be wanting to raise a more deep-seated objection, you may want to object that this vision of an urban society managed directly by users, without capital and the state, is fantastical, it is too radical, it is 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. This is important. Urban society is a virtual object. Unlike the industrial city, urban society is not fully actualized. But at the same time, even though it is virtual, Lefebvre says practices of urban society already exist now, 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, and we must do this by amplifying and intensifying the fledgling urban society that already exists. Urban society as he imagines it is an idea carefully extrapolated from actual practices that are already happening inside the industrial city. Once we imagine this full-blown urban society in thought, we can use that idea, that virtual object, as a lens to help us better see those glimpses of actual urban society in the industrial city. And so the idea of urban society can help us see, for example, meaningful connections among inhabitants in the midst of pervasive separation and segregation; active citizens producing space amidst passive consumers; 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.
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.
The spectacular (Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, Occupy, Huelga general)
The everyday (Fabricas recuperados, Time banks, Asambleas Vecinales, CORE, Bus Riders Union, life in an informal settlement)
Mark Purcell is the author of this material. It has been shared under the creative commons license. It may not be used commercially or be altered, transformed, or built upon.