‘A Spectre is Haunting’ paper: Lefebvre and urban politics

The  papers from yesterday’s ‘A Spectre is Haunting’ conference will be uploaded in due course. If for any reason anyone wishes to republish these papers please seek the permission of the author. For starters, mine is below

Henri Lefebvre; or a politics of urban space and everyday life for the 21st century – Jon Piccini (jon.piccini [at] uqconnect [dot] edu [dot] au)

In today’s green anti-capitalist discourse, the urban question is too often seen as predetermined. Cities are hives of CO2 emissions and other pollutants, we are told, centres for poverty and dispossession alongside repositories of great wealth for a select few. With the UN now indicating that 50% of the earth’s population live in the metropolis, we are told by luminaries of the ecological left that this mode of habitation is unsustainable. Some unfortunately vocal intellectuals advocate what amounts to a ‘return to the countryside’ – accompanied by a massive decrease in human population – as the only answer to our current environmental conjuncture, seemingly mirroring Engels’ quaintly 19th Century understanding that the city would simply disappear in a post revolutionary situation.[i] To change contexts briefly, in Shanghai, I was recently informed, it is possible to visit the preserved home of Zhou Enlai, leading Chinese Maoist and Foreign Minister. The building is a tribute to revolutionary austerity, containing the few meagre possessions which Enlai lived from over the decades. Problems arise, however, when one leaves the house – only to be surrounded by advertisements for Prada, Gucci, and other western commodities. Here the urban revolution has been decided firmly in global capital’s favour.

This captures the problematic which today underlines the urban question. How can cities be made liveable in the face of ecological imperatives, the stigma of mass poverty and the colonisation of their spaces by the spectacle of capital? I propose that we must, even with these problems, defend the urban: not only as it is the only means of mass inhabitation possible but also because it’s form provides a kernel, if of a utopian variety, of hope for a truly communist future. Henri Lefebvre, the great French Marxist intellectual, would certainly agree. Described somewhat audaciously by Andy Merrifield as possibly “the most self-effacing and least narrow-minded Marxist…who ever lived”[ii], Lefebvre’s peripatetic oeuvre encapsulates work in a multiplicity of fields. However, his most instructive writing is that related to urban spaces and everyday life – and the revolutionary possibilities incipient in these. What follows will outline Lefebvre’s and other like minded thinkers conception of the city and the possibilities for resistance that lie within them. This must not be seen as a fleeting exercise, but rather one central to the Left’s project, for as Mike Davis stated recently in NLR – “Left to the dismal politics of the present…cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. A new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.”[iii]

Perhaps it is best to start this discussion within everyday life. Born in 1901 in a small village in the French Pyrenees, bordering Spain, Lefebvre’s early work was largely concerned with the nature of rural life in his home province and sociological explanations of its cultures. These were topics considered insufficiently revolutionary by the Stalinist French Communist Party, from which he was expelled after Soviet tanks crushed Hungary’s carnival of resistance in 1956. Leaving that grey behemoth of the French far-left, Lefebvre found some new, younger friends in the form of Guy Debord and his Situationist International – who were only at this stage beginning to codify their ideas around the abstraction of the city and everyday life into 1966’s Society of the Spectacle. It was this friendship – born of a mutual affection for politics and alcohol – that “piqued…Lefebvre’s interest in things urban” – drawing him towards an understanding of the ‘urban’ both as an ideology in Marx’s terminology, a politicised expression of capitalism’s desire for immortality, as well as a canvas upon which ordinary people could make their own realities.

Lefebvre’s experience of the 1968 student-worker movement in Paris, upon which he was a vital intellectual inspiration from his professorship at Nanterre, provided ample evidence for his developing theory that modern city of revolutionary ferment was both a spatial representation of the status quo whilst simultaneously nurturing a nascent counter-hegemonic framework. He saw the city as eclipsing industrialisation as the key point of capitalist profitability, “we can consider industrialisation as a stage of urbanisation” Lefebvre remarked “as a moment, an intermediary, an instrument. In the double process (Industrialisation-Urbanisation), after a certain period the later term becomes dominant, taking over from the former”.[iv] This privileging of the production of urban forms over traditional concepts of industrial development was matched with a premonition of the city’s role in post-fordist surplus value absorption – with the end of the post war boom and opening of markets giving way to rampant speculation in real estate, of “liquid loot yearning to become concrete in space”. This problematic has a certain historicity, as David Harvey notes in his ideas on the role of surplus capital absorption in mid 19th century France, a State whose response to the European wide political-economic crisis of 1848 was to invest heavily in urban redevelopment. The most famous of these projects was of course the Haussmannisation of Paris, where utopian ideas of city planning drawn up by early socialists were reconfigured and bastardised on a grand scale – entire working-class suburbs were demolished to make way for the gigantic boulevards and nascent shopping arcades which would soon make Paris famous as the ‘city of lights’.[v]

It was displacements and dispossessions such as this which drove Lefebvre to think of cities not just in a purely economic way, but spatially – culturally, socially and politically. The result of this work was his 1974 publication The Production of Space, which sought to comprehend how the urban itself was constructed and reconstructed by its leaders and inhabitants. Lefebvre’s conception of urban space has been likened to a “flaky pastry…layered and heterogeneous” through which “the city can be understood as a subset of multiple urban practices and imaginations”.[vi] This encapsulates his layered methodology of space as a “conceptual triad” of the conceived, the lived and the perceived. Conceived, represented space is space as understood by power, it is “constructed by assorted professionals and technocrats” so as to carry signifiers and meanings upholding the hegemony of the dominant, capitalist, mode of production. It is engraved in “monuments and towers, factories and office blocks”.[vii] People, however, actually live in these spaces, and it is this lived experience that furnished their direct understandings of that same environment, creating what the author calls representational space. As Lefebvre relates, “this is the dominated – and hence passively experienced – space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate”. It is how the urban is experienced on a daily symbolic basis, as the local café, as East 52nd Street, or the family Laundromat.[viii] This relationship between the conceived and the lived gives rise, in a dialectical fashion, to a final category, that of the perceived. Otherwise referred to as spatial practice, this can be seen as the synthesis of the conceived-lived dialectic, mediating between the spaces of everyday life and space as conceived by dominant hegemony, creating either societal cohesion, or political-cultural conflict.[ix]

Lefebvre however notes the overwhelming role conceived understandings of space play in this mediation, especially under late capitalism’s drive for urbanisation, and posits this as resulting from the abstracted nature of represented space. Under this abstract space “lived experience”, as well as the critical spatial practice of perception, “is crushed, vanquished, by what is ‘conceived of’’” in a process often accompanied by violence.[x] Abstract space finds its manifestation in the ideologically laden forms of capitalism, “monuments have a phallic aspect, towers exude arrogance, and the bureaucratic and political authoritarianism immanent to a repressive space is everywhere”.[xi] Such space “dances to the tune of the homogenising forces of…capital” while “denying the celebration of lived experience, of tradition…of sensual differential space”.[xii] However, in a typically Gramscian turn, Lefebvre notes that the bourgeoisie are unable to totalise their hegemony of conception, instead insisting that

They find themselves unable to reduce practice (the practico-sensory realm, the body, social-spatial practice) to their abstract space, and hence new, spatial, contradictions arise and make themselves felt.[xiii]

The Wachowski Brothers dystopian sci-fi flick The Matrix provides a useful way of engaging with these ideas. Thomas Anderson, mild manner software engineer and after hour’s computer hacker, lives in a giant unnamed metropolis – one he is partly aware is not completely real. Jason Abbott explains how “the world of the Matrix is one in which there is no clear division between the virtual and the ‘real’, both are lived spaces, both are contingent, both are interconnected, impacting upon each other”.[xiv] Neo, as Anderson comes to be known, lives in ‘The Matrix’, a computer program which represents reality as it was at the beginning of the 21st century. This is Lefebvre’s conceived space, space as represented by capital – the city itself is a living embodiment of capital’s achievements and provides all the alienated work, recreation and subcultures a modern metropolis requires. As Lefebvre postulated, this constructed city has taken over from any possibility of a space directly lived and experience, that which is presented in film as a disturbingly Cartesian separation between the body and mind enclosed in giant farms which harvest humans for power. What this program covers over, Mr Anderson soon discovers, is ‘the desert of the real’, the fact the world has been destroyed in a brutal war between machines and man – a political truth which at times can enter The Matrix, in the form of resistance fighters hacking into its core programming.

It is thus clear, Abbott elaborate, that The Matrix “is nonetheless a space in which there is room, albeit limited, for subaltern groups to manipulate the same technologies to contest the hegemonic order” – and this is just as true in the real world as it is in Hollywood. Lefebvre claimed that one of the means through which ‘differential space’ could be created in the metropolis was through reclaiming “the right to the city” the right to an urban centre and an everyday life different to the abstractions forced on us by capital. As Merrifield articulates,

This isn’t any pseudo-right…no simple visiting right…‘this right can only be formulated’ he says, ‘as a transformed and renewed right to urban life’…there can be no city without centrality, no urbanity, he believes, without a dynamic core, without a vibrant, open public forum full of lived moments and ‘enchanting’ encounters, disengaged from exchange value.[xv]

What does this mean then for struggles today? The first, and most obvious example is the now seemingly unfashionable praxis of Reclaim the Streets parties, aimed at “transforming stretches of asphalt into places where people can gather without cars, without shopping malls, without permission from the state, to develop the seeds of the future inside the present society”[xvi] We need not look to American or European examples either, for Brisbane has been host to a variety of struggles against abstract urban space. During the sixties and seventies Brisbane’s New Left activists engaged in a concretely urban-centred style of activism, seeking to appropriate spaces for contestation of the boring, capitalist city. Trades Hall, for example, was ‘borrowed’ by the Student Left to run a highly popular disco-cum-political centre called FOCO, which regularly attracted thousands of young people throughout 1968 and 1969 while activists have always had to contest our right to march on the street, a right the honourable Lord Mayor seems dead set on taking away once again. These are contestations of the physicality of space as well as the forms of life we want to create within them, and consequently redevelopment of King George Square could then have been a point of much greater contestation for Brisbane’s left. Having served since its construction as a large meeting place, hosting rallies as diverse as the response to Communist MP Fred Paterson’s bashing in 1948 to the famous Right to March movement of 1977-79, the location has been reconstructed in a truly alienated, abstract fashion, replete with an oddly slopped surface, wall to wall concrete and a few corporate coffee shops to boot. Here too it would seem, like in the exploding metropolis of Shanghai, we have left the urban question to be solved in capital’s favour.

If the Australian Left is to emerge from its current morass, it could do worse than critically deal with the Marxist urbanism of Henri Lefebvre. If we are to reimagine the urban in a beyond its current unsustainable, poverty stricken dimensions, the it is necessary for us to deal with issues of urban space and its uses in a much more concrete manner – involving ourselves in daily struggles for urban space and an unrestrained right to a differential everyday life. Many scholars have previously pointed out the fundamentally utopian nature of the modern metropolis, constructed as it is to provide an eternal monument to capitals greatness and power whilst hiding the realities and structural violence which underpins it, perhaps best exemplified by Dubai’s great slave-built towers. However, it is through struggles over and for spaces of free expression and rebellion that we can start to construct our own utopic condition within the metropolis – the seed of Mike Davis’s Ark, and of a communist future within the urban.

[i] Frederich Engels, The Housing Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963).

[ii] Andy Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre, A Critical Introduction (New York, London: Routledge, 2006)

[iii] Mike Davis, “Who will build the Ark?” New Left Review No. 61 (Jan-Feb 2010): 30.

[iv] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003) Translated by Robert Bonnono, 72.

[v] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (Sept-Oct 2008), 25-6.

[vi] Gyan Prakash, “Introduction” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin Kruse (eds.) The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 7.

[vii] Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre, 109.

[viii] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 39.

[ix] Harvey Molotch, “Review essay: The space of Lefebvre”, Theory and Society, No. 22 (1993), 897.

[x] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 51.

[xi] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 49.

[xii] Andrew Merrifield, “Place and space: a Lefebvrian reconciliation”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 4 (1993), 524.

[xiii] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 63.

[xiv] Jason Abbott. “Living in The Matrix: Capitalism, Techno-Globalization and the Hegemonic Construction of Space.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Le Centre Sheraton Hotel, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Mar 17, 2004.

[xv] Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre, 92.

[xvi] RTS poster quoted in Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre, 56.


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