Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City

Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City


It’s no accident that the discussion about the right to the city emerged just when it did, or that it has become a hot formulation again just now.

To summarize, the critical milestones (viewpoint: U.S.A./Europe) were perhaps –

1919, unrest and failure of the classical Marxist revolutions in /Europe, expected to arise semi-automatically out of the exploitation and immiseration of the working class and their understanding of their exploitation., led by the working class and party.

1934 – election of Hitler, resulting from that immiseration plus the insecurity of the middle class, successfully manipulating discontent culturally/ideologically towards fascism

1946 – defeat of fascism, replaced by the welfare state, dealing with the same issues by concessions and the counter-manipulation of the promise of consumption, One-Dimensional Man, rapid technological advance

1960 – wide=spread unrest, led not by working class but in the United States at least by those excluded from the welfare state, discriminated against in recognition and benefits, primarily African-Americans, and by revulsion against the ideological manipulation and emptiness of values of consumption , led by the discontented, supported by groups of the excluded, barely by the exploited, with tensions among them

1970 – calming/suppression of the unrest, period of prosperity, conformity/collaboration with the system, rising public benefits and private consumption, globalization of production

Today, 2080-2010 – growing disillusionment, growing criticism of capitalism, financialization, growing search for alternatives, by the excluded, the exploited, the discontented.

A growing body of theory has analyzed these developments. Key contributions appeared in the aftermath of the unrest of the 1960’s, largely relying on new readings of Karl Marx and  including work of Henri Lefebvre, critically paralleling analyses of the Frankfurt School and particularly Herbert Marcuse[1]. It sought to go from critique to the possibilities of fundamental social change.

But where to turn to find agents of such social change? Henri Lefebvre, facing that question, developed the formulation of call for “the Right to the City” as an answer.

What he meant by that was not always clear; I have dealt in several pieces with alternate reading of what he has written.[2] It is relatively clear that he continued to see the working class as important actors in efforts for social change, but as increasingly inadequate and often recalcitrant ally in efforts for change. Rather, he saw the motor force for change outside of the work-place, not in the factories or the offices, but in the experiences of everyday life of all kinds of people in their home, in their schools, in their communities – and, yes in their cities.


Lefebvre’s own reading. For Lefebvre, the right to the city is a political claim: a cry and a demand, for social justice, for social change, for the realization of the potential that technological and human advances had made possible after the second World War. It was a battle cry, a banner in a fight, not simply for the eradication of poverty but for the abolishment of unjust inequality.

In a way, it was an ill-chosen formulation, because it was not intended to be taken literally: Not a Right in the sense of a legal claim enforceable through the judicial system, but a moral right, an appeal to the highest of human values. And it was not a right to the City, not a right to be included in what the city already was, but rather a right to a city that could and should be, to the city as a metaphor for an new way of life, one whose characteristic were directly related to the new processes of urbanization, which for Lefebvre encompassed a new way of life, of everyday life as well as of government, or a social system as well as, even more than, a physical place, a particular built environment or legal jurisdiction.

For Lefebvre, the call for the Right to the City was a revolutionary call, a call produced by and justified by the urban revolution of which he wrote as a new stage in the historical development of civilization.

And it was not limited in any way to the physical city, but understood “city” as a synecdoche for “urban society:”

As Lefebvre put it,   the city

“cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life as long as the ‘urban’ [is a] place of encounter, priority of use value,.”[3]

Lefebvre even says, at one point:

“…from this point on I will no longer refer and to the city but to the urban”[4]

Lefebvre’s reading clearly implies the necessity for an analysis of the structures of power that hold back the transformation of life that he envisages. Lefebvre’s own analysis is essentially Marxist, even if it does not expore that analysis as intensively as, say, the New Left, Herbert Marcuse,, or David Harvey have. But some such analysis is required to make it effective.

2.      The strategic reading. In practice, the Right to the City banner has been picked up as the umbrella under which a wide variety of groups suffering from the existing conditions of their lives in the new urban society: the very poor, the homeless, those dependent on welfare grants or charity, those discriminated against because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mal-educated, the legal restrictions of citizenship laws, gender inequality. These are groups whose economic position does not give them the power, through the withholding of their labor, to threaten the functioning of the economic system, and whose political power can be effectively reduced through the power of the 1%, despite their much larger numbers, in a democracy still subject to the disproportionate power of the rich. It was the basis for the formation of coalitions of those groups, realizing that they needed to pool their efforts to have any influence at all. The the formation of the national and local Right to the City Alliance in the United States and abroad.

 For them, the impulse of their action is initially simply to be included in the existing city, to obtain the benefits of existing city life from which they have been excluded: to obtain decent shelter in existing empty and warehoused living units, to get paid at least living wages in the already existing jobs, to be treated with the dignity and respect accorded as of right to all other citizens of the city, to be protected by the  police that provides security for others, rather than being stopped and frisked routinely without cause.

The strategic reading of the right to the city  is not in contradiction to the Lefebvre ran reading, but in a sense a step towards it, but one with more limited claims, but perhaps also more urgent ones.

Look at the members of that coalition in New York City, as an example:

The Right to the City Alliances in in the United States, and the Right to the City Alliance inNew York city, are both alliances of other, preexisting groups, 43 for the national, [5] 12 for the New York City Alliance. All of the member organizations of the two pre-existed the formation of the respective alliances. They represent a wide range of interests: Homeless, welfare recipients, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, LGBT, folk, service workers, environmental groups:

[The Right To The City Alliance] is a multi-issue national alliance of base building and grassroots organizations and allies working to advance an urban strategy to ensure the rights of low income people of color to urban places and spaces in our cities.[6]

They cooperate closely with labor unions who are interested in cooperating with them. E.g. the Service Workers International Union, both unions are not members. The Alliances represent the deprived, both of material welfare and of dignity. But they do not occupy positions immediately essential to the operations of the system that is oppressing them, as unions and their working class members do – if clearly less so that 50 years ago. Bringing Alliance member groups together with each other, and then with organized (and unorganized, as in Workers’ Centers) workers is a matter of urgent strategic necessity. Both are materially deprived of material goods, but also of the dignity and respect which members of a just society should accord each other. They are, together, large in numbers, but weak in economic power, as technological advances, automation and globalization permit the system normally to remain profitable without their active consent.

Bringing these forces together in a strategic alliance requires an analysis of the power relations that underlie its necessity, and that links those supporting the call together. In practice, that analysis certainly has to include a discussion of existing relations of power, and what changes might be produced within those relations as they exist. It may or not press that analysis into specific examination of the possibilities of fundamentally changing those relations of power. How far the analysis then goes, and how convincing it can be made to the members of the Alliance, will determine whether it pursues Lefebvre’s own reading of the Right to the City, or limites itself to intermediate goals that may or may not lead in that direction.

3.      The discontented reading.  For many of those not thus excluded inclusion in the existing city was not enough. Lefebvre’s call was for a new and better city, new and better way of life. Many of those already included in the existing were discontented, and profoundly. They felt their own potentials were constricted, their human values distorted, their aspirations for the future pushed into a quest for conspicuous consumption, their search for social support and solidarity defeated by the pressures of competition, competition for goals they did not share but were force to pursue – and convinced to value by an extreme cultural and ideological apparatus, against their own deepest desires.

 The discontented, in this reading, were those that were the activists of the New Left, about whom Herbert Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man: students, teachers, intellectuals, artists, idealists, those that felt themselves misfits in a society over which they had no control.

But the analysis underlying the discontented reading does not suggest an overall path towards achieving its goals. No one argued that the discontended, while having the demand for the right to the city, had the power to achieve it. Herbert Marcuse was explicit in saying that, while they might provide leadership, it required larger forces, in particular among the exploited and excluded, to achieve it. That in turn required changes from within those groups: to achieve anew society, new men and women are required. But to support the development of new men and women, a new society was required – a paradox to which he proposed no solution other than its recognition. Lefebvre’s reading implicitly agreed; as David Harvey reformulated Lefebvre, the argument was that the right to the city included was “a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”[7]

In practice, the focus on discontent as the motor of efforts to achieve a right to the city that will deal with its particular manifestation is likely to lead to a leading role for those most directly affected – not somuch the exploied or excluded, but the students, artists, idealists etc. who are generally materially free to concentrate on such concerns. That leads to the dangers of elitism, to tensions among those sharing a material interest in the principles of the Lefebvre’s reading of the right to the city. In terms of policy polsitions, it is a tension between shorter and longer-term goals; in organizing, between, in this case, members of the constituent groups with the Right to the City Alliance and their “allies, ” often academics and intellectuals generally more in a position to elaborate analysis and program details.

4.      The spatial reading. Many read Lefebvre’s right to the city call as one aimed specifically and literally at the city as a built environment, as physical space, and saw the call of the right to the city as a call for designing and running a better city, a more beautiful city, and healthier and more environmentally sustainable city. Some were professionals, architects, urban designers, planners, geographers, who used the call for the right to the city as support for calls for the better utilization of what they were trained to do, and wanted to do. And they saw their work as supporting and modeling what a right to the city for all might look like, in the flesh.

In practice, the spatial reading is a narrow reading of the right to the city. It appeals to specific disciplines, professionals, interests focused on the material built environment of the city, and often tempted to see such changes as dictating social patterns and determining issues of justice and well-being by themselves. Some argue for what might be called a modelling approach, the development of model communities, model businesses, model spaces, that might demonstrate in the flesh what is possible: spaces of hope, new economies. In more comprehensive struggles. The spatial reading may be one that is distracting from broader goals, one that is more likely to demonstrate alternatives for the discontented than to change the power relations that lead to exploitation and exclusion. Linked to analysis that includes a central place for consideration if issues of power and conflicting material interest, it can be a useful adjunct to movements for the right to the city.

5.      The collaborationist reading. Then there is a reading which uses the call for the right to the city as in fact support for their own efforts at mild reform, the reformist reforms of which Andre Gorz wrote and which are that matters about which liberal and conservative supporters of the welfare state content. To many, recalling Lefebvre’s own reading of the right to the city, this is pure co-optation, a distortion of the radical content of the slogan. When the right to the city becomes embodied in an officially adopted Charter of the City, adopted by public institutions, whether local, national or international, that have neither the power nor the desire to implement such rights, however defined, the fact that Lefebvre’s call recognized the inevitability of conflict, the necessity for struggle, is blatantly denied concealed, made toothless behind a façade of good intentions, rationality, quest for consensus.

Needless to say, a collaborationist reading interferes with, rather than promotes, militant action to achieve in the real world of inequalities of power and conflicts of interest. A litmus test might be the view of the right to the city a a right for all, as to which consensus is the goal, rather than a redistributive and transformative approach to change.

6.      The subversive reading. A very political reading of the right to the city is however also possible, one that combines the thrust of Lefebvre’s own radical intent with the practical realities confronted by Lefebvre’s own reading, the strategic reading and the discontented’s reading. Such a subversive reading is implicit in, and has surfaced in, the Right to the City Alliance in the United States, in its search for transformative[8] claims and demands, for programs and goals that will both give priority to the immediate needs of the excluded, the ultimate goals of the discontented, and the claims of those not (maybe not yet?) accepting the slogan or understanding its content, but yet exploited by the same existing patterns from which the deprived, the excluded, and the discontented suffer – specifically, the working class, labor, organized and not, the very poor, the discriminated against, the excluded.

The strategy here is implicitly founded on the same understanding guiding the Right to the City Alliances, as in community-labor centers, etc. The key word used in this subversive reading is “transformative:” demands and claims action for which can produce immediate results, but which point towards the radical goals of Lefebvre’s original work, and the related goals of the social movements and economics struggles that produced and have continued to inspire political protest movements throughout history.


 The six different readings of the Right to the City suggest different strategies. A further  possible strategy might be to work sector by sector, looking at sectors as wholes interdependent with each other but having different problems and different potentials for change. Such a strategy might focus on expanding existing areas of public provision, as in police protection, fire protection, public education, some forms of research and development, fighting privatization of public functions and pushing the desirability instead of expanding the public sector. Socialism one sector at a time, perhaps,[9] or the long march through the institutions.

Revolution as such remains off the range of possibilities, force available to the elite is overwhelming, viz. Near East. But the Occupy movement suggests another and further possibility: physical space not contested in its built form, not building physically a new city, but Occupying an old one with a new content.  The slogan there after all is Occupy Wall Street, with both a spatial and an economic and political meaning  Build on the existing, keep some of its usable forms, but change the power relations that determine how they will be used. That, perhaps occupying one sector at a time, seems to me a possible path ahead.

But that’s a long discussion, for another time.

[1] Marcuse, Herbert. 1972. One-Dimensional Man, .Boston: Beacon Press, and Marcuse, Herbert. 2005. The New Left and the 1960s, vol. 4 of Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, edited by Douglas Kellner, Oxford: Routledge. While technology plays somewhat the role with Herbert Marcuse that urbanization plays with Henri Lefebvre, their fundamental analyses are largely similar.

 [2] Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “From critical urban theory to the right to the city : What right, whose right, to what city, how?” in Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse And Margit Mayer, eds. Cities For People, Not For Profit: Critical Urban Theory And The Right To The City, London: Routledge.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. 1996 [1967]. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, ed. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, London: Blackwell, P. 158

[4] Lefebvre, Henri. 2003 (1970).The Urban Revolution. Foreword by Neil Smith. Translated by Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press, p. 45.

[7] David Harvey, “The right to the city,” New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, available at

[8] See Blog #30, Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformational Provocations, at

[9] See Marcuse, Peter. 2010. “Socialism One Sector at a Time.” ZNet and in: Charles Reitz, ed. Crisis and Commonwealth: Marcuse, Marx, Manifesto, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books