2017 marks the Golden Jubilee of Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City, his “cry and demand” for a more participatory and democratic city life. It’s a cause both to celebrate and commiserate. But celebration and commiseration have typically been part and parcel of the Left’s dialectic, a dialectic that cuts inside us as people as well as political subjects. For everyone concerned about the fate of our cities, before us now lies a massive expansion of urban life across the planet, an opening up of urban horizons and frontiers, matched by a closing of the political mind, a withering of the established political will.
Ours is an urban society, set to be evermore so during the decades to come; yet political leaders almost everywhere are putting up walls, cowering before provincial smallness rather than embracing cosmopolitan vastness. When Lefebvre long ago spoke of “planetary urbanisation,” he did so because he thought the scope and possibility for the right to the city might enlarge, that our narrative about cities might become bigger and more inclusive. The right to the city needed to flourish within this immensity, he said, had to understand it, keep its frame of reference and plane of immanence open.
Lefebvre announced the right to the city at the centenary of Marx’s Capital, doing so with a self-avowed “cavalier intention.” Urbanisation, for him, was and still is a “revolutionary” process in which assorted ruling classes played and continue to play the dominant role. It’s they who initiate the drive to totalise the productive forces, to colonise and commodify land, to valorise people and nature. Just as they’ve fracked deep into the earth and power-drilled monetised value from nature, ruling classes now frack into human nature as well, power-drilling value from different aspects of everyday life, from land and housing, from the entire public realm.
Lefebvre, though, never imagined that urbanisation would be everywhere, that bricks and mortar, freeways and highways would predominate every which way, that all green space would turn grey; neither was he saying that cities would quantitatively overwhelm the planet. (That’s why he would have been radically at odds with the empirics of UN-Habitat’s “Urban Age” thesis.) Rather, as his commemoration of Marx’s Capital implies, he was warning of the closing of the circle of a particular form of post-war capitalism, one that defines itself less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more and more through an actual production of space.
This system produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. The process embroils everybody, no matter where; even when it doesn’t embroil, when it abandons people and places, it embroils. Urban society today is tantamount to the progressive production of evermore frackable spatial units. In a way, I like to think Lefebvre was hoping his thesis would become untrue, that the circle can never be complete, that it has to stop, or else be diverted, even if there’s no going back, that urban society, like it or not, is here to stay.
Urban society is thus the battle ground for new forms of radical and progressive politics: it has to be. Lefebvre affirmed this not out of personal whim: capitalism affirmed it out of historical necessity, as our “objective” reality, as an arena in which we all must now engage, willy-nilly. His most explicit reference to planetary urbanisation came later in life, in a valedictory essay from 1989, “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire,” published two years before his death.
His precise language here is worth pondering on for a moment. Menace stalks us, Lefebvre says; not so much of “planetary urbanisation” but of “the planetarisation of the urban” (“la planétarisation de l’urbain”). The ordering is telling. For the urban doesn’t so much spread as it becomes the vortex for sucking in everything the planet offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because its energising and totalising force “expulses” (expels) people, “secretes” what Lefebvre calls a “residue.” This expulsion process makes urban space expand, lets it push itself out, has it further entangle rural space, and disentangle rural life.
Lefebvre says every big system leaves a residue that escapes it, that is chewed up and spat out by it. Every whole leaves a remainder. It’s an idea most forcefully articulated in Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre’s dense takedown of traditional philosophy, published a couple of years prior to The Right to the City. In Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre says that totalisations like global capitalism always exhibit leakiness, have internal contradictions that both structure and de-structure. Totalisation can never be total; it always secretes and expels a “residual element,” its Other. There’ll always be people who don’t fit into any whole, who don’t want to fit in, who aren’t allowed to fit in. They’re the stuff left over after all the metrics are totted up, after everything has seemingly been accounted for: le reste after la somme. They’re the philosophical anti-concepts, an affirmation of remainders, of marginal dregs, a growing planetary constituency.
Residues are people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy workers, petty service sector and agricultural workers—residues are workers without regularity, without salaries and security, without benefits and pensions; they’re workers without any real stake in the future of work.
Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander. They’re displacees, people forced off the land, thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. I call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue; I mean it literally and metaphorically, as a concrete and potential space, as a place of political encounter, one not yet fully glimpsed.
Resides are the NINJA (No Income, No Job, No Asset) generation; Greeks who feel the brunt of the Troika austerity initiatives; dispossessed Arab and African youth in French suburbs; Detroiters beholden to “Emergency Managers”; Palestinians lobbing rocks at Israeli tanks; Rojava Kurds in northern Syria; Indignados on the streets of Spain; “June Days” Brazilians protesting public transport hikes; occupiers in Istanbul’s Gezi Park; Umbrella kids in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central; Nuitards staked out around Paris’s Place de la République. The list goes on, and on.
The spirit of Metaphilosophy gets worked through The Right to the City. Planetary urbanisation is itself a metaphilosophical category, a will to totalise, a discontinuity within continuity, a difference in repetition, a breakdown of old industrial society, and its supersession—its overcoming—by a new spatial form: diffusive, unbound and apparently planetary in its reach, beyond any city-rural breach. Thus a profound existential problem is displaced onto the plane of urban society where it now transpires as a complex political dilemma, an attempt to forge a new humanitarianism out of the “bad side” of capitalist development. Capitalism’s cutting edge is a bleeding edge for ordinary people.
While planetary urbanisation has to be a theory trying to figure out totalisation under contemporary capitalism, it shouldn’t itself be a totalising theory. Instead, it’s a theory of residues within a vortex, an attempt to piece together a politics of residues, a politics of remainders in the whole. Lefebvre even suggests that the political ante here is to formulate a new “revolutionary conception of citizenship.” Indeed, he says this is really what he meant by “the right to the city” all along. And this is the working hypothesis he’s bequeathed us fifty-years down the line, left us to figure out practically. The right to the city is about residues reclaiming (or claiming for the first time) their rights to a collective urban life, to an urban society they’re actively making yet are hitherto disenfranchised from: “the right to the city implies nothing less than a revolutionary conception of citizenship.”
So many people have been pushed off-limits these days that it’s extended the limit of limits, created a more expansive social space for a new conception of citizenship, for a citizenship still to be invented. In this guise, citizenship lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. It doesn’t express a legal right bestowed by any institution of the bourgeois nation-state. What we’re talking about is a citizenship without a flag, without a country, without borders. At this point I can only label it a “shadow citizenship,” something phantom-like.
Still, many residues in America’s deindustrialised heartlands aren’t interested in expansive conceptions of citizenship. Nobody has ever shown them any, of course, offered them any. Meantime, these residues seem content with more reactionary kinds of enfranchisement; and when somebody promises it them, they jump, they vote Right. Now, there’s a common theme uniting the whole world: People recognising their own disenfranchisement. It has reached desperate depths. But frustration matched with vulnerability has enabled assorted demagogues (religious as well as political) to step in. Some have voiced populist ragings against the machine, created scapegoats galore, any old or new straw target, anything to further their vested interests and political ambitions. And many residues, for want of an alternative, have believed them.
But parochial nest-building is doomed over the longer term, retrogressive in our age where human interconnectivity has broadened and deepened. To see the world through the lens of planetary urbanisation thus has certain distinct advantages. After all, it’s a viewpoint expressive of commonality rather than difference, a mutually shared planet in which people who look different, who talk different from one another, who don’t know one another, who may even hate one another, have more in common than they might think.
That shared experience is an ever-growing mutuality of disadvantage and despair, of suffering and perhaps hope. There’s affinity even if it’s rarely acknowledged. The right to the city has to help us identify how this affinity gets recognised, how it gets mediated, undermined, upended by forces upending the planet, forces that work together, that throw everybody into a scary mix. The right to the city has to help us create new forms of organisation, new institutions that leap across the nationalist divide. How to invent a new, more “hospitable” form of citizenship that nourishes people’s sense of identity without crushing other people’s identity? How can people—residues—express and become themselves through their connection to urban society?
Jacques Derrida once wondered whether it was possible to define a modern cosmopolitanism that bypassed the nation-state. His response is uncannily similar to Lefebvre’s. Yes, Derrida said, it was and still is possible: through relatively-autonomous cities, independent from any state, separate nodes allied to one another through “forms of solidarity to be invented.” We’re still trying to invent this solidarity; so far it has alluded the Left. But Derrida urges us to make “yet another effort.” He uses an intriguing phase to describe the nemesis of disenfranchisement and dispossession: “villes-refuges”—“cities of refuge” (or sanctuary cities)—crucibles for a new kind of unconditional citizenship.
This ideal actually prevailed in 5th-Century Greece, voiced by Pericles, Athens’ first citizen, in his famous “Funeral Oration,” recounted by Thucydides in Peloponnesian War. Pericles commemorated Athenian war dead and wanted its citizens to remember how their system of government had “a different attitude than its neighbours towards military security.” Theirs was based on openness not closure, discussion not denial. “Our city is open to the world,” Pericles proclaimed, and Athenians should have “a confidence of liberality.” “We have no periodical deportations,” he said. “The greatness of our city brings it about that all good things from all over the world flow into us.” Athens was a paragon of urban citizenship everywhere, “a city that’s the school of all Greece.”
Five centuries on, the Old Testament spoke of cities of refuge set aside as sanctuaries for people, spaces of asylum to protect innocents—and sometimes the guilty: “These towns will be cities of refuge,” The Book of Numbers said (35: 15-17), “for the sons of Israel as well as for the stranger and the settler amongst you.” The Hebraic tradition recognises the right to an urban immunity and hospitality that goes way beyond mere particularism, a simple search for unique refuge: it’s a divine hope for a form of urban sovereignty where people could become wholly human.
What Derrida has in mind are cities of sanctuary for writers who undergo persecution because of their art and political views; but he hints, too, that the concept might apply to all displacees and emigres, to all asylum seekers and refugees—writers or otherwise. Might we broaden this notion even more to include residues in general, safeguarding all the rootless and landless effected by everyday trauma, by the ordinary madness of our political-economic system? A place of asylum where people can become wholly human?
“A new sovereignty of cities,” says Derrida, “would open up a novel space for rights which inter-state national rights have failed to open up.” “We dream of another concept,” he says, “of another right, of a potential right of the city” (emphasis added). Derrida knows this is “an experimentation of a right and a democracy to come.” He knows, like Lefebvre, it’s wishful-thinking, utopian, especially since he gives us little sense of what a “ville-refuge” might look like, let alone how it might be achieved.
Yet the concept might be closer to home than he thought. A number of US cities—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence—all recently pledged not to cooperate with Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Across the US, “sanctuary cities” are gearing up to oppose federal government and its immigration agents. Liberal urban bastions reaffirm their intention to defy the Trump administration. At the risk of losing millions dollars in federal support, they’ll act as bulwarks against mass deportation. These cities have no power to bestow “official” rights to people; but they have the power to resist, putting a new twist on struggles against federal government: this time it’s liberal cities not conservative states who counter what they see as unjust federal intervention.
In response to a crisis of political legitimation, the “spectre” of urban solidarity looms; minorities in cities recognise that national and international rights are “out of joint.” In a way, we now need to read Derrida’s idea of “villes-refuges” in conjunction not only with Lefebvre’s right to the city, but also with the former’s earlier Spectres of Marx, where he spoke of a “New International”; “a profound transformation,” Derrida called it, “projected over the long term, of international law, of its concepts and field of intervention.” This New International is “a link,” Derrida said, an affinity, a suffering and hope, still discreet, almost secret, without status or title, contract or coordination, party or country, national community or common belonging to a class.
We’re not yet sure what this International really is; we can’t name it anything positive. But it’s there nonetheless, we know it’s there, hope it’s there, out on the horizon, if we can look that far. We know it’s more needed than ever before, needed everywhere. It’s a ghostly dream-thought of a new status for the city, a right to and of the city, a will to belong to a democratic urban webbing, a solidarity of confederated assemblies interrogating the essence of politics and the role of the nation-state: just what is a citizen of the urban, a citadin(e) of the twenty-first century? Progressives will have their work cut out in this challenging year ahead. Meantime, à la tienne, Henri!…
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Andy Merrifield on the 50th anniversary of Lefebvre’s The Right to the City.
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