LEFEBVRE IN THE AGE OF COVID — Lessons from The Urban Revolution and Paris Commune

 

This essay was originally posted at Monthly Review Online on 28th March 2021 

B40FA13A-E29A-4D41-8F41-DA8F087E6FB5Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970) quietly celebrated its 50th birthday under lockdown, and our greatest ever urban revolution, the Paris Commune (1871), just toasted its 150th. Both book and event have lost none of their lustre for helping progressive people think about city life, even as COVID-19 threatens to destroy that life. We might say especially as COVID-19 threatens that life, because both The Urban Revolution and the Paris Commune offer vital instruction about how we might rebuild a post-pandemic urban world, rebuild it democratically.

COVID has upended urban life as we once knew it. But it intensified already existing pathologies, those contaminating “normal,” pre-pandemic life. For decades, business-as-usual exploitation has meant cities have become not only functionally and financially standardised, but also unaffordable and unequal. Recent social distancing disrupts these inequities even more, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters, hurting poorer, immobile denizens the most. Nowadays, our urban reality is one of the de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and loathing.

Such denigration of the city would have hardly surprised Henri. He knew all about anti-urbanism and thwarted hopes. After all, The Urban Revolution was born of them, rooted and incubated in the promise of 1968, yet anticipating much more the depressing era that would follow. [1] By 1970, Lefebvre recognised that the promise of those street-fighting years was dashed; a sober reconceptualisation was warranted, a taking stock, particularly of material circumstances. What he foresaw, post-1968, was a revolution fellow Marxist Antonio Gramsci might have labeled “passive”—a revolt from above, a counter-revolution. (It’s what Marx meant in the Manifesto when he said “the bourgeoisie has played the most revolutionary part.”) Still, what Lefebvre wanted in The Urban Revolution was a revolution more akin to the Paris Commune, something Gramsci would have called a “war of position,” a popular, historical assault from below.

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Like Marx inverting Hegel, Lefebvre stands mainstream economic and sociological wisdom on its head: “we must consider industrialisation as a stage of urbanisation,” he says, “as a moment, an intermediary, an instrument. In the double process (industrialisation-urbanisation), after a certain period the latter term becomes dominant, taking over from the former.” This is a bold, provocative statement for any Marxist. For it suggests that the mainstay of the capitalist economy isn’t so much industrialisation as urbanisation, that industrialisation all along was but a special form of urbanisation. Capitalism reigns, Lefebvre says, because it now manages and manufactures a very special commodity: urban space itself—an abundant source of surplus value as well as a massive means of production, both a launch pad and rocket in a stratospheric global market.

We must no longer talk of cities as such, he says; all that is old hat. Instead, we must speak of urban society, a society born of industrialisation, a society that shattered the internal intimacy of the traditional city, that grew into Engels’ industrial city, but which has, in turn, been superseded, absorbed and obliterated by vaster metropolitan units. Rural places, too, become an integral part of the urban process, swallowed up by an “urban fabric” that continually extends its borders, ceaselessly corrodes the residue of agrarian life, gobbling up everything and everywhere in order to increase surplus value and accumulate capital. “This term, ‘urban fabric’,” explains Lefebvre, “doesn’t narrowly define the built environment of cities, but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the countryside. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway and a rural supermarket are all part of the urban tissue.”

The Urban Revolution appeared a year before Richard Nixon devalued the US dollar, wrenching it from its gold standard mooring. Gone, almost overnight, was the financial and economic regulation that kept in check a quarter of a century of capitalist expansion. As the US economy bore the brunt of war in Vietnam, an American balance of trade deficit loomed. Nixon knew fixed exchange rates couldn’t be sustained, not without overvaluing the dollar, not without losing competitive ground. So he let the dollar drift, devalued it, and loosened Bretton Woods’ grip. World currency thereafter oscillated; capital could now more easily slosh back and forth across national frontiers. A deregulated capitalism became rampant, without restraint; Lefebvre sensed its coming, saw how it facilitated what he’d call the “secondary circuit of capital,” a siphoning off of loose money that could speculate on real estate and financial assets, liquid loot yearning to become concrete in space.

From capital’s point of view, as a class, this makes perfect bottomline sense: the landscape gets flagged out as a pure exchange value, and activities on land conform to the “highest,” if not necessarily “best,” land-uses. Profitable locations get pillaged as secondary circuit flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Willy-nilly people are forced to follow the money, flow from the countryside into the city, from factories into services, from stability into fragility. The urban fabric wavers between devaluation and revaluation, crisis and speculative binge, a ravaged built form and a renewed built form—and a fresh basis for capital accumulation. Once, it was a gritty warehouse on a rusty wharf; now, it’s a glitzy loft on a prim promenade. Once, an empty field on the edge; now a core neighbourhood on the up.

Half a century on, Lefebvre’s insights in The Urban Revolution sound as fresh and as meaningful as ever. Yet anybody expecting a rebel-rousing manifesto here will be disappointed. This isn’t a book like The Right to the City (1968), which climaxed with a passionate “cry and demand” for urban life. In 1970, Lefebvre gave us a more reflective text, cautious in its militant musings. If we want clues about what kind of radical revolution The Urban Revolution actually does espouse, we must look backwards, turn towards the past, and to an earlier Lefebvre work: La proclamation de la Commune, written in 1965. Reading it can help us move forwards.  

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It was the style of the Commune that kindled Lefebvre’s political imagination. What style? “The style of an immense, grandiose festival,” he says, “a festival that citizens of Paris, essence and symbol of the French people and of people in general, offered to themselves and to the world. Festival at springtime, festival of the disinherited, revolutionary festival and festival of revolution, free festival, the grandest of modern times, unfurling for the first time in all its dramatic magnificent joy.” [2] For 73 days, loosely affiliated citizen organisations, neighbourhood and artist associations, propped up by a “Central Committee” of the National Guard, transformed Paris’s 20 arrondissements into a liberated zone of people power, freed from bourgeois authority, from its army and police, from its economy and bureaucracy.

In the early hours of 18th March, a crowd of disgruntled citizens, predominately women, gathered on the Butte Montmartre, and surrounded obsolete cannons that were public property. General Lecomte ordered the National Guard to seize the cannons, and to open fire. Three times he gave the order to shoot. The soldiers stood silent, reluctant to turn their weapons on their own, on “the people”; they were, after all, themselves “the people,” conscripts from the working-class, and before them stood their would-be mothers. Suddenly, the tide had turned. Machine guns switched direction, took aim at the rule of Order. Lecomte would be shot later that day, alongside General Clément Thomas, one of the chief executioners in the 1848 “June Days.” 10 days on—28th March 1871—in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, la Commune de Paris was formally proclaimed. “Here is the holy city,” wrote Rimbaud not long afterwards, “seated in the west.”

It was, Lefebvre says, “grandeur and folly, heroic courage and irresponsibility, delirium and reason, exaltation and illusion” all rolled into one. Insurgents corroborated Marx’s ideal of revolutionary praxis at the same time as they refuted it. For this was no worker uprising incubated in the factories; rather, “the grand and supreme attempt of a city raising itself to the measure of a human reality.” An urban revolution had made its glorious debut, reenergising public spaces and transforming everyday life, touting victory while it wobbled in defeat. It was condemned to death at birth, notwithstanding the gaiety of its baptism. “The movement’s success,” says Lefebvre, “masked its failings; conversely, its failures are also victories, openings on to the future, a standard to be seized, a truth to be maintained. What was impossible for the Communards stays until this day impossible, and, by consequence, behooves us to realise its possibility.”

Ironically, the particular singularity and uniqueness of the Commune—that it occurred when Paris was besieged by war, surrounded by Prussian forces—makes it somehow more universally applicable for us today, as we, too, are besieged by forces that likewise surround us, that likewise invade our lives. In fact, the Commune’s pre-history sounds ominously like our own present history. Poorer populations suffered most. Paris’s economy was kaput. Enterprises folded daily. Food was scarce. Unemployment grew. People stood in long lines outside essential services, like boulangeries, desperate for bread. Winter had been bleak. Spring stayed chilly. There was little fuel for heating. Meantime, the rich had fled, cleared off to the countryside, along with their money. The Bourse and the Banque de France equally upped sticks; an interim bourgeois government ruled from Versailles.

This “de-structuring” of social life, says Lefebvre, rippled from top to bottom. On the other hand, its “re-structuring”—the reconstitution of urban life—flowed the other way, from the bottom upwards. People reorganised and rebuilt Paris in the rubble, from the rubble. Here we can learn plenty. There was a moratorium on rents; debts were written off; parasitic practices forbidden. Paris was “de-capitalised.” “There was a sort of qualitative bond,” writes Lefebvre, “in the activity of the Parisian masses.” The city’s base became “the people of Paris…artisans, small business owners, workers, petty-bourgeois allied to proletarians—who became spokespeople and participants in municipal events.” These unsung heroes and heroines “were proud of their anonymity.”

The promise of city reveals itself here when all is taken away, when city life is most in danger. For what remains are only its human resources—its citizens, citizens acting as citizens, joining hands, participating, creating their own public institutions, organising one another, doing so voluntarily, without monetary tags, without competitive compulsions; doing so, we might say, for the wellbeing of everybody else. It was the great gift of cooperation that Marx outlined in Capital, his core vision of democracy. Marx spoke about cooperation at the workplace; here we’re talking about cooperating in an entire city, human beings pooling their will and wits as a municipal power. When people work together, Marx says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely way to describe things. Marx thinks that when we “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.”

But the problem with cooperation in “normal” capitalist life is its phoniness, that it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who exploit people’s togetherness for their own commercial ends. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but creamed-off as private gain. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” he says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.” Marx always willed this at the factory; for 73 days, in Paris, we glimpsed it in the street, in daily life, where we still need it most.

Could we ever imagine those extraordinary circumstances of Paris’s Commune becoming somehow ordinary, embedded in a city life released from a competitive free for all? What happened in 2020 has been something extraordinary. COVID-19 instigated its own revolution in daily life, a passive, if deadly, revolution. But what of Lefebvre’s active revolution, and his right to the city? Could a de-commodified, de-capitalised city life ever become a little less extraordinary, maybe even something completely normal? What if real cooperation became the order of day, that our hands and eyes were in the front and behind—as Marx suggested—and that we became “to a certain extent omnipresent”? We’ve seen what a strong state can do when it intervenes in our economy and society, what it can do at a crisis moment; now we need reimagine it intervening once the crisis has passed, intervening democratically, fostering cooperation and participation, enabling some bottom-up reconstruction of a world that has undergone so much topdown destruction.

One thing is for certain: that the right to the city no longer means the right of the rich and powerful to mobilise its own property rights, to use them to abuse other people, to rip off at work and at home, to pay too little while charging too much. There has to be some institutional control of flows into the secondary circuit of capital, some way those flows can be stymied, channeled into infrastructure and property geared towards public use-values, not corporate exchange-values. In Lefebvre’s Marxist terminology, concrete space must prevail over abstract space. Those “blind-fields” of thinking of the world in terms of quantitative growth for quantitative growth’s sake must be broken down, rendered longer-sighted, more socially visionary.

Lefebvre said the right to the city, if ever it came to pass, would resemble a giant social and spatial contract. Associative ties would bond people together, bond them to each other and to their city. What we might add, in an age of public health crisis, is that these “rights” now need to be complemented by “duties.” The Commune, again, is suggestive. Communards gave to the city, recognised that to make their city function they had responsibilities. Public space wasn’t just about them, exclusively about individuals. Public service meant respecting the collective, respecting each other in the realm of one another. Freedom here came through collective necessity, through contributing towards the common good—existentially profiting from this common wealth, primarily because people were helping create it themselves. The sense of unselfish achievement was legion.

The value of the public realm, in other words, was affirmed, kept robust and healthy. In our own times, we’ve seen how this public realm has been denigrated and torn apart. The breakdown of the social contract is nowhere more evident than where unfettered self-interest reigns, where responsibility for other people is denied. What prevails here is an absurd anti-social contract, exemplified by the flagrant unwillingness to wear a protective face mask in public, since it supposedly threatens individual liberty. Successive generations have been force-fed a capitalist ideology that seduces people into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what like, and if they can’t their rights are being flouted.

Anything public and shared is treated with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. This no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any duty to the city beyond the self. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural these days to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of collective services—outsourced for vast sums to distant private consultants and contractors. But COVID has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state.

There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. It’s like rebuilding Paris in a revolution. One aspect of any right to the city has to be a willingness to acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits that we’re part of a bigger whole, part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding. The remarkable success story of the UK’s vaccine roll-out hinges on an unofficial subplot: the army of dedicated volunteers who have chipped in to lend a cooperative hand, organising every vaccination centre, the line ups and traffic flows, even administering the injections. They’ve done it everywhere with good cheer and with great efficiency. Maybe it’s because collective participation offers personal fulfilment. Everybody knows it, everybody appreciates it, is inspired by the positive spirit in the air. Waiting for your jab, standing in line, those hands and eyes in front and behind are really palpable, and uplifting. (One might dream of a public health system commandeering this much respect and manpower in ordinary times.)

In a strange, more modest way, perhaps this collective feeling corresponds with what the Communards felt. It’s a sensibility that crops up often in Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la commune, and gets expressed by a word seldom spoken anymore: “dignity”—la dignité. We seldom hear it because so much of our life today, notably our urban life, has no dignity, is hard, an alienating daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet. In amongst it all, dignity becomes a luxury, a far-off ideal. But the sense of dignity, as the Communards knew, derives from solidarity, from public engagement. Poor but proud, they retained their dignity, did the right thing, did it with others, staved off isolation and disempowerment, struggled to overcome adversity together, sensing that for a while it could work, that you could succeed. Perhaps the right to dignity is really what The Urban Revolution quietly proclaims 50 years on, like the Commune, at its 150th anniversary: the right to be respected, the duty to respect others. If ever there’s a style worth emulating, then it’s dignity. A grand style, for sure. One that should never have gone out of fashion. Vive la Commune!

 

NOTES

[1] Henri Lefebvre, La révolution urbaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); and The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003)

[2] Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune (Paris: Gallimard, 1965). Lefebvre’s interpretation of the Commune led to a fallout with Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI), who accused their former comrade of pilfering its ideas on 1871. Debord said Lefebvre’s take was lifted from SI’s own “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” admitted Lefebvre in a 1983 interview. “I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan. I worked for weeks at the Institute.” “I don’t care about these accusations of plagiarism,” Lefebvre said. “I never took the time to read what they wrote about the Commune in their journal.” All the same, Lefebvre thanks Debord in La proclamation de la Commune, for his friendship and support “in the course of fecund and cordial discussions in the elaboration of this book.” But in a typesetting howler—or Lefebvre practical joke?—Debord is cited as M. Guy Debud! In 2018, La fabrique éditions republished Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la Commune, with an excellent preface by the late Daniel Bensaïd, from 2008, discussing at length the Lefebvre-Debord tiff, which unfolded like Gogol’s tale of the two Ivans. In La fabrique’s reprint, though, Lefebvre’s Debord acknowledgement has been cut.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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