Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Given that the conservative responses to unjust inequality essentially accept its existence, that the liberal  does something to ameliorate the results of unjust inequalities but does not address their causes, and that the progressive response does even more, but both within  severe limits that leave the production of such inequalities essentially untouched, and finally given that radical responses, although  they do address the causes of unjust inequality, are not  on the real world agenda anywhere in the world today, what can be nevertheless be done to achieve a more desirable handling of issues of equality than  our present system presents?

The suggestion here is to push for actions that are immediately possible, but that point transformatively to the more radical proposals necessary to eradicate unjust inequalities.. At least four modest but theoretically promising types of efforts in that direction are already under way, although their transformative potential is not always stressed: 1) transformative electoral activities; 2) transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena; 3) transformative  pilot projects attempting to model in limited practice solutions  that would be radical if comprehensively adopted; and 4) transformative educational efforts involving teaching , research, writing, public debates, on the real sources of unjust  inequalities and the possible steps to their eradication – and the development of theory. These might be considered four fronts in the effort to tackle the unjust inequalities that characterize our present societies.

1)      Transformative electoral activities.

The progressive democratic-socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders for the presidency in the United States would be an example. If it is seen simply as a normal campaign for the election of a particular individual with a particular attractive platform, it may have limited impact, and may not survive a likely electoral loss. If the electoral campaign is seen as accompanied by a political revolution, as its rhetoric in fact proclaims is necessary, it points to broader and deeper issues, and opens the door to consideration of radical possibilities going beyond the progressive.

Historically , the record of radically-oriented national election campaigns  has not been good, although they have a long tradition behind them, just this  century, the Socialist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, The Progressive Party, Jesse Jackson’s campaign, all had very limited influence.  Today, the Working Families Party is active in electoral campaigns in some states, but it remains small. In crass political terms, the experience seems to be that the more radical the platform the less effective the electoral impact. Efforts are beginning to evolve to have the Sanders campaign itself lead to some type of on-going organized involvement both in future elections and/or in current political issues. Whether it will be an exception to the rule remains to be seen.

2)      Transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena

The individual issues that are fought over in any even formally democratic society usually center on specific concerns, but may or may not be seen as parts of more fundamental societal arrangements, and may then, very much context dependent, have a transformative impact.  The criticism of the role of money in political campaigns could point to a full public funding of campaigns, with limits on private money going far beyond simple calls for transparency. Calls for a $15 minimum wage may open the door to an on-going push for a livable wage and beyond, to a truly equitable distribution of compensation for work done, and minimums set on the basis of an expanded definition of what such a wage should provide. Single-payer insurance provision to cover the cost of health care could raise the question of whether health care should not from the get-go be free, not provided on a fee-for-service basis but as a public good, as basic public education is provided, or police or fire protection or the building of streets and highways. Modest proposals for participatory budgeting could raise the question of whether all budgeting decisions could not be made with grass-roots democratic involvement. Support for the creation of Community Land Trusts as owners of land could raise the question of simple public ownership of all land, as a natural resource.[1]

Keeping Liberal and Progressive proposals expanded to their radical fullest regularly in sight, while still getting ones hands dirty in the struggles to achieve what can be done day –too-day, would be a way of making many existing political efforts not only more appealing in the present but also transformative to what might be done in the future to fully end unjust inequality.

3)      Transformative pilot projects attempting to model radical alternatives.

The history of utopian communities is extensive and rich. They are rare today. But the attempt to try out radical ideas on a limited scale, with the transformative goal in mind of leading to their wide-spread and comprehensive adoption, remains important. Indeed, utopian thinking and puzzling out what ideal cities or countries or neighborhoods might look like is an exercise that might be more important now than ever, now that any new idea is likely to be met with the charge that nothing like that has ever been done before, where’s the data to support it, let’s stick to doing things that we know can be done in the world that we have, not the world we want. In limited practice, solutions that seem utopian might in fact be tested and shown to work on a small scale, and would be very radical if comprehensively adopted. The work of Gar Alperovitz and the Democracy Project,[2] and the New Economy efforts, are provocative. Learning from such efforts could indeed be transformative on the way to broader change.

But there are severe limits to most pilot models, involving, viability today in the here and now. Dangers lie in the context of a competitive profit-driven society, with constant down-ward pressures on wage to maintain financial viability. Even short-term, internal democracy in e.g. co-ops, and more, may end up at risk. And how the transition might be made from pilot project to its broader environment. The  temptation and often apparent necessity of building fortified silos of justice in a desert of unjust inequality  to broad social change is under-discussed.[3], [4] Pilot models are a good and helpful step towards a just and equal society, but do not inevitably lead us there.

4)      Educational efforts and the development of theory.

Most of those reading tis blog, and certainly its writer, have not been brought to concerns about the unjust inequalities discussed in these blogs by their own material deprivation, by the kinds of physical exploitation and immiseration that classic images of revolutionary subjects evoke. As this is written, The New York Times headlines a front-page story about “How the G.O.P Elites Lost the Party’s Base” and describes how “Working Class Voters Felt Ignored by Republican Leaders.” The Republican Party having deserted its “traditional blue-collar working class base—“its “most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans.”[5] The descriptions set conventional social theory about class relations on its head.  But it reflects a current reality: the wide gap between undying material relationships of class and power, on the one hand, and the ideological interpretations and their psychological reflections that characterize so many political disagreements and rationalize the unjust inequalities that we see today. It is a gap that is ideologically, in the broad sense of the term, created, and it requires ideological counters if there is to be any hope of serious social change.

Ideological efforts to confront unjust inequalities have two aspects: one involving educational work, the other theoretical work.

Education is a somewhat awkward term for public information or savvy use of the media to tell a story, to convince readers or listeners or watchers, to convey the news in critical depth, to undo prejudices and stereotypes analyse conventional wisdoms. It may involve letters to the editor, journal articles, phone calls, panels, or, research, funded or not.

Theoretical work overlaps with the educational somewhat, but has a different audience and somewhat different audience: It may be educational, in the above sense, but it is also directed at those already concerned and active, and involve itself in clarify cause and effect relationships as a guide to strategy and tactics in ideological/political confrontations. Research of course has standard of logic and fact-finding that are necessary for credible work, but in the choice of subject matter and willingness to draw conclusions relevant to issues of equality that radical research show its usefulness. As the social psychological processes of one-dimensionalization grow in importance, the counter processes of logical analysis and exposure become ever more important.


Transformative might thus be the name of such blended proposals aimed at dealing with unjust inequality in a politically feasible fashion. . It would characterize ideas, demands, program proposals, legislative actions, social movement demands, which would marshal political power behind immediate demands for liberal or progressive measures coupled with a consistent and open consideration of the political feasibility of forwarding the goals of the Radical approach and building the foundation for struggles for radical action

A Transformative approach would add a recurring footnote, as explicit as the political situation will allow, to Liberal and Progressive demands. It can help to maintain awareness of the depth of the problem of Unjust Inequality and of the need for each individual program and proposal to recognize that the ultimate goal is actually the elimination of Unjust Inequality altogether. It can help keep pressure on the arc of history to bend ever more towards social justice and just equality..


ds Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.


[1] For further examples of potentially transformative demands , see my Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

[2] See and Gar Alperovitz “The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States”, April 13, 2013 Truth out News Analysis

[3] For my own views of the potentials and limits of the pilot project approach see Marcuse, Peter. 2015 “Cooperatives on the Path to Socialism?” Monthly Review, vol. 66, No. 9, February, pp. 31-38

[4] For a further discussion, see also Blog# 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands

[5] March 28, p. 1.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.


Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

 Blog #81c – From Clinton  Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Hillary Clinton’s over-all approach could be seen as a major example of the liberal approach  to inequality, (see Blog #81b), and  Bernie Sanders’ could then be seen  is well on what might be called  the progressive side of liberal, although  stopping short of something more radical (see Blog #81d, forthcoming.). The Liberal and the Progressive share most of the same values, but differ in their political approaches, which I believe leads also to differences in the analysis used to undergird them. The Clinton Liberal approach aims at forming a broad coalition that would move towards consensus by minimizing areas of disagreement and conflict, seeking a practical majoritarian compromise on the liberal side of key disputes. The Sanders progressive approach is more confrontational, seeking a more populist base, and accepts the necessity to confront sharp clashes of interest in achieving its objectives.

Strategically, the Clinton liberal position hopes to avoid direct and painful confrontation with the prevailing structures of power, and hopes to redress unjust inequalities in the system through progressively oriented accommodation with those in power; on the radical side of progressive, the Sanders position is willing to attack the holders of power directly in moving towards the goal of reducing inequality. The liberal view focuses on lifting the lower 99%; seeing redistribution from the top 1% as a simply a means to that end; the progressive view also addresses the disparity between the 1% and the 99%, but sees it as per se unjust and needing redress at both ends. Higher taxes on the rich are seen as a means to help the poor, in the liberal view; in the progressive view, they are also seen as a way of remedying a fundamental unjust inequality. Whether the difference in political strategy leads to a difference in in analysis, or vice versa, in not an easily resolvable or particularly useful debate.

The Progressive response thus accepts the liberal proposals but goes further. It sees gross economic inequality, measured in terms of wealth and income, as being per se unjust. It agrees that poverty should be addressed, but sees poverty as requiring redistribution from the rich to the poor. Higher taxes on the rich are needed not only to keep the middle class safely in the middle and the poor above harmful poverty, but they are also needed  because the extreme wealth of the rich is itself unjust, unjustly acquired by inheritance or exploitation or oppression or pure luck, and it is socially just to reduce it. The quantitatively measured  inequality that we see today is wrong not only because it means the poverty of the poor at the bottom but also because it is linked to the immoral power of the rich, with the top 1% now controlling more wealth than all the bottom households (the bottom 50% or more; the figures vary) taken together. The wealth of the 1% needs to be used to achieve a just and sustainable equality.

Revolution is called for by some progressives, including Sanders, but on the political side as reforms to the electoral processes, and in the end the called-for measures on the two sides differ more in language and in extent than in basic values. A higher minimum wage is supported by both, although both implicitly agree that it can not be so high as to interfere with a reasonable profitability for businesses or entrepreneurship. Abolition of the wage relationship is not suggested by either, nor a recasting of the governmental role in the economy. Public regulation is seen on the liberal side as basically an undesirable necessity to be limited as far as possible; on the progressive side, it is accepted as inevitably needed and an extension of democracy. Redistribution is centrally involved in both; higher taxes are the conventional means to that end. Exploitation is inevitable, but can be moderated. Non-economic unjust inequality is wrong, but a large part of that inequality will disappear if economic inequality is addressed. Everyone in society will not agree to that solution; the rich will object to supporting the poor at their expense. Liberals believe it can and should be reasonably compromised; progressives see consensus as thus not likely, unanimity not achievable; conflict as inevitable

To generalize, the liberal response seeks to address quantitatively measured inequality at the distribution end, after it has been created in the economy, and sees such change as feasible through the existing political processes. The progressive response to quantitatively measured inequality is to address its unjust production in the economy, but within the basic structures of the existing economy, and sees political revolution as the necessary path to undermine that unjustly created inequality.

A radical response would go even further, and seek fundamental changes in existing economic structures. Since such changes do not seem to be imminent in most of the world today, a transformative approach might be a realistic way forward today (See #blog81 d and e , forthcoming).


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality? It’s no Mystery

Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality in the U.S.A.?

An Answer in 22 and 7 words.

Piketty showed, in 648 pages, that inequality is increasing long-term. It continued in the short term:

In 2009, figures were: average net worth, top 1%;   $16,439,400   bottom 20% minus $14,000

Total Net Worth[1]      Top 1 percent              Bottom 80 percent

1983       33.8%                   18.7%

2010       35.4%                   11.1

Why is this so?

The wrong answers:

1.     Because the need for higher education and more skills is growing. Wrong because:

  1. Access to higher education and skill training is controlled by the 1%. They support education that helps them produce profit, do not support that which could lead to criticism and organization for higher pay.
  2. And higher pay and greater net worth are more related to parents’ incomes, s4ector of the economy, e.g. financial, education, social work, art, than to training and skills.

Because it is just, and criteria for justice in the distribution of income is that a person works harder, contribute more to society, is smarter, needs more, is justly entitled to have more. Wrong because:

  1. Sitting in an office is not harder work than working on an assembly line or collecting garbage, but is paid more because hedge fund managers have more power than factory workers or garbage collectors.
  2. And hedge fund managers do not contribute more to society than social workers or teachers, in fact do major damage.
  3. And there is no evidence the 1% have higher innate IQ’s than the 99%.
  4. And the 1% have more than they need, most of the 99% less.
  5. And the 1% have vastly more than the 99% to begin with.



The right answer, in 22 words.


The 1% are rich because they profit by keeping the 99% poorer. There is only one pie to divide, whatever its size; if the 1% take more, the rest will take proportionately less..

Why is this so, in a democracy, and so little understood?

The wrong answer:

1.     Because the people wanted it that way. The wrong answer because:

2. Wealth provides political power also. And apparent prosperity co-opts opposition.

3. And the 1% control the means of mass communication, and bury the alternatives.And presumed experts of the 1% pontificate that trickle-down will work to the benefit of all.

4. And the 1% control the use of physical force, the use of incarceration, etc.


The right answer, in 7 words:


Political and economic democracy are too limited.

Blog #55b expands on this answer. Blog # 55c gives concrete examples.

[1] G. William Domhoff, at


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


Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas

Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

The last blog, Blog #29 began with the puzzle that the United States faces deep-seated problems today: problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that claims the values and has the  resources to remedy them.  The answer suggested was that the situation was partly the result of shortfalls of democratic procedures, partly the result of inequalities of wealth and power, but that both of these rest on an ideologically and culturally blocked awareness of fundamental causes and available alternatives – a blocked consciousness that needs to be directly addressed.

That blog  argued that, in dealing with the tea party (as a stand-in for the defenders of the status quo}, it would be most effective to combat those blockages by starting with the problems that are generally acknowledged, pushing some immediate steps towards solutions, but constantly linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.

Some examples, not presented as developed proposals for the formulation of demands or platforms, but as examples of the approach that might be taken, follow. [1]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: reforms that simply make existing programs or policies more efficient, eliminate waste, trim costs, but change neither the thrust of the program not the power relations in which it is enmeshed.

B: Liberal reforms: reforms which expand or modify a program, using market mechanisms wherever possible, and without challenging its structural causes or the power relations in which it is embedded.

C: Radical reforms: reforms which drastically modify programs and expand their aims, challenging the power relations in which they are embedded

D: Transformative Claims: claims, going beyond specific reform proposals which address their structural causes and links to systemic issues, directly challenging the power relations in which they are embedded and serve.

[These examples are suggested only as illustrative, and are thus far really only perfunctorily sketched. For each, there are groups and individuals who have gone much further in working out demands and claims, at all levels, who should be consulted on each issue.  The point here is only to suggest the kind of differences to be found on each, and in each case running along a non-exclusive spectrum from dealing merely with efficiency-only to presenting the need for full-scale transformation. More detail and other examples would be welcome.]:

        Higher education:[2]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Standardized conditions of private loans

B: Liberal reforms: Provide a public option for loans; provide substantially increased public grants

C: Radical reforms: Limit scope of private for-profit institutions.

D: Transformative Claims: Make higher education free.

2.      Mortgage foreclosures[3]:

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Higher reserve requirements of banks; judicial review of sloppy paper work.

B: Liberal reforms: Expand opportunities for voluntary renegotiation of loans; subsidize lowering of interest rates and writ-downs of loans; regulate rents taking into account landlords’ finances.

C: Radical reforms: Require write-down of loan principals; mandate continued occupancy at reasonable rents after foreclosure; facilitate non-profit ownership; regulate rents taking into account occupants’ finances.

D: Transformative Claims: Remove housing from the speculative market through public acquisition or facilitation of conversion to private non-profit, limited equity, cooperative, or community land trust ownership, with adequate subsidies to cover maintenance and utilities at levels affordable to lower-income occupants; confiscatory taxation of speculative profits; aggressive expansion of public housing. Housing should be treated for its use value, not its exchange value.

3.      Public Space:[4]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Administer to protect surrounding property values.

B: Liberal reforms: Provide, expand, and administer to protect surrounding property values and quality of life of neighbors; regulate use by reasonable police measures; give zoning bonuses where privately provided.

C: Radical reforms: Provide, expand, and administer taking into account needs of surrounding community; Protect use against police repression, Require private provision in connection with new construction.  Protect right of use by homeless.

D: Transformative Claims: Provide, expand, and administer adequately to satisfy the needs of the population as a whole; give priority to uses appropriate for the exercise of political democratic rights; mandate public use for these purposes of private property where necessary. Provide supportive permanent housing for homeless users.

4.      Health

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Planned decentralization/consolidation. Computerize records; permit cross-jurisdiction private insurance in a transparent marketplace.

B: Liberal reforms: Finance Medicare and Medicaid properly. Permit unified bargaining with pharmaceutical companies; subsidize insurance, providing a public option.

C: Radical reforms: Medicare for all. Buy out private hospitals and care facilities at asset, not income, values. National Health Service

D: Transformative Claims: Eliminate fee for service provision, comprehensive national health care system, without access restrictions, paid for routinely as a public service, like police and fire protection.

5.      Jobs and Labor Relations

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Full appointments to NLRB; adequate information to workers;

B: Liberal reforms: Adequate inspections and enforcement of FLSA, health and safety standards; facilitation of discrimination cases. card checks for elections; indexing minimum wage levels

C: Radical reforms: Living wage requirements for all jobs; expanded public service jobs; ceilings on management and ownership incomes and benefits

D: Transformative Claims: Requirement of worker participation in decisionmaking in ownership; public provision by public employees of all essential services.

6.      City Planning:[5]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: independent technically qualified City Planning Commission with adequate staff

B: Liberal reforms: Advisory community planning boards

C: Radical reforms:  Community Planning Boards with decision-making powers

D: Transformative Claims: Public ownership of land, city-wide Assembly of Planning Boards with decision-making power over all land use issues.

7. Homelessness

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Screen applicants for shelter eligibility; track applicants; police supervision of shelters;

B. Liberal reforms: Expand shelter system; provide social service consultations.

C. Radical reforms: Provided expanded affordable housing opportunities; staff transitional housing where needed; provide homeless persons input into policy and administration.  Policy;

D. Transformative reforms: Establish and implement a legal Right to Housing for All, including direct public provision and stringent rent controls.

8. Municipal Budgeting

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Putting the capitol budget within the jurisdiction of the City Planning commission.

B. Liberal Reforms: Giving Community Boards or Councilmanic District assemblies a decision-making role in expenditures within their districts.

C. Radical Reforms: Providing a comprehensive city-wide Participatory Budgeting process affecting both operating and capital budgets

D.Transformative Reforms: Expanding a Participatory Budgeting proeess to cover revenues/tax policies locally and adopting national legislation prohibiting tax evasion by cross-border evasion and prohibiting local-level competition in tax programs.

 9. Worker Ownership and Co-operatives

A. Efficiency-Only Reforms. Permit NLRB-supervised elections for union representation

B. Liberal Reforms. Permit Card-check Voting. Aggressively enforce rights to organize and bargain.

C. Radical Reforms. Provide for majority worker ownership, in stock or co-operative form, of individual firms.[6]

D. Transformative Reforms. Strengthen or transfer to democratically controlled public ownership entire sectors of the economy and of production and services provision. [7]

Many other examples could be given, and the above certainly need further development. The point is that, at whatever level of reform is strategically immediately attainable, the principles behind the further levels should always be on the table, including the arguments for the most transformative. They may seem utopian goals here and now, but there is no historical or material reason why any of them are not reachable. Insisting that they be acknowledged even in the midst of the more immediate objectives is at least a small step in the direction of getting there.

Blog #31 will hesitantly suggest some New Rules for New Radicals as possibilities for moving to implementation of such transformative reforms.

[1] My debt to Andre Gorz and the concept of reformist and non-reformist reforms should be clear.

[2] See Andrew Ross’ discussion, described in Dan Schneider, “Occupying Student Debt,” Dollars and Snse, Jan-Feb 2012, p. 6

[3] See further Marcuse, Peter. 2009. “A Critical Approach to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the United States: Rethinking the Public Sector in Housing.” City & Community, vol. 8, No. 3, September, pp. 351-357.

[4] See my blogs #3, 4, and 5.

[5] Tom Angotti, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011, provides excellent background.

[6] Gar Alperovitch,

[7] See Alliance for a Just Society.


Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal

Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT

If the purpose of re-imagining the city is to stimulate understanding and appreciation of what the actual possibilities might be for a city of heart’s desire, and to move the uncommitted to join in the struggle to achieve such a city, then perhaps there is a very concrete and visible activity that might provoke action in that direction.

The concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement is specifically to foster action, and the adoption of “Occupy Wall Street” as its name indicates the movements analysis of the road-block to success: Wall Street, as symbolic of the power of financial institutions and the 1% they coordinate over the lives of the 99%. But the name is meant symbolically; at the most, the movement has occupied spaces already largely public, near the financial district but not displacing any financial activity by its presence. At best, demonstrations on Wall Street itself have been limited, short-lived, and tightly controlled by the police. And this is perhaps as far as, today, realistically, the movement can go in actually, literally, “occupying Wall Street.”

But why not spell out what actually “occupying wall street” might look like, as a way of highlighting what the alternatives to it are. Why not use imagination in fact to picture what a street like Wall Street might look like if it were actually occupied by the 99%, if what was done there was replaced by activities better serving the broad public interest? Imagine the buildings of Wall Street as they are now but devoted to advancing the goal of a city of the heart’s desire. What would they be like?

Well, why not have a design competition to answer that question? Suppose the assignment were to imagine the trading floor of the Stock Exchange as the meeting place for the General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Imagine if the offices in the Stock Exchange were to be allocated to Occupy Wall Street’s many Working Groups and spin-offs. Imagine the lobby and accessible spaces turned over to Occupy Sandy as a storage and distribution center for food and blankets for the victims of Sandy, and kept as a an available resource for other disasters?1 Imagine the incredible high-speed computers of the stock exchange made available to civic organizations for social networking and information on present campaigns and planned actions. What would Wall Street, and the Stock Exchange building, look like when put to these different uses?

But why limit the re-imagination of existing city spaces only to Wall Street itself? Why not reimagine 1 World Trade Center, the erstwhile “Freedom Tower,” and make it truly representative of our vision of a free and just society by converting it into supportive housing for the homeless, changing it from use by the richest and most powerful members of our society to a symbol of our concern for the least well off and most powerless? Perhaps, if the homeless were all thereafter provided permanent homes elsewhere, Wall Street might serve as a publicly-supported giant hostel or family hotel for visitors to the city who cannot afford the luxury hotels abounding elsewhere in the district – reflecting the concerns we have for the strangers in our midst?

Goldman Sachs has just finished building a $2.4 billion building in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center site, as its investment banking headquarters. What is worked on there will undoubtedly have a major impact, not only on the financial sector and the economy as a whole, but also on public policies affecting both the 1% and the 99%. Suppose the building were re-imagined to serve the purposes of participatory decision-making by all segments of the 100%? Suppose rooms and office sites were assigned to community groups, groups advocating for the poor, minorities, the powerless, as well as to business and trade groups, to think tanks for groups across the political and ideological spectrum? Suppose executive dining rooms were to be eliminated, and instead cafeterias were provided for workers from all the different offices – perhaps with tables designed to maximize meeting strangers? Perhaps a health club, similarly designed? Perhaps the Chase Manhattan tower would offer another similar opportunity, if the demand exceeded what the Goldman Sachs building could accommodate – although Goldman Sachs alone is to accommodate 11,000 workers in 43 floors? Universities are constantly struggling for space for expansion. How about a competition for turning the new Bank of America building on 42nd street over to the City University of New York, and inviting other educational institutions from around the five boroughs to share the space?

One could imagine this as a design competition, along the lines of a conventional architectural competition, with a prominent jury, a foundation-donated prize, wide-spread publicity and exhibitions and conferences on the results. If star architects are too involved with clients who might not appreciate the effort, perhaps schools of architecture and planning might be hosts to studios and projects to be entered in the competition, and the as yet unconstrained imagination of students marshaled in its execution?

And, theoretically, it could not only be a competition for physical designers, but perhaps also for economists and sociologists and planners. And not only as to the new uses imagined for the places, but also as to the impact of displacing their present uses. Economists might consider how investment decisions could be made if we didn’t have a stock exchange, political scientists how public decisions could be made absent the power of mighty lobbyists. Sociologists might explore what the resultant mixing of users might suggest and how it might be made most productive.

Such a competition, or competitions, should not be so difficult to organize. And if one is serious about wanting to bring about a better world, one of heart’s desire, why not concretely imagine what it would look like with the physical spaces that we have already built up in our cities?


1. Occupy Sandy might be asked about their space needs. They have put out a request for help:
“Occupy Sandy needs a new multi-purpose space to be used similarly to how Jacobi and 520 have been used for the past month. Please use your networks to help us expand our options. The needs are: roll-in/out capability, meeting and intake space, proximity to transit, accessibility to recovery sites, internet access or potential to install, key access, office and communications hub space, bathrooms, positive community relationships, parking/wide streets, clean, safe and healthy. Please respond immediately with any leads about spaces. Contact is:”


Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically

Blog #25 – Re-imagining the City critically

Re-imagining the city can be a provocation to reconsider and expand the range of possibilities for a city in the future. It can simply be an opportunity for an unfettered imagination physically to design something completely new and different, not tethered to the existing city. Or it can open the door to a fundamentally critical view of the existing city, questioning the social and economic and organizational principles that underlie its present constitution and are normally taken for granted. The best of classic utopias do both. What follows focuses only on the latter, on the imagining not of the physical but of the human principles and practices on which an imagined city could be based. It raises some critical questions about some of principles and practices as they implicitly exist today and imagines some alternatives.

If we were not concerned with the existing built environment of cities, but could mold a city from scratch, after our heart’s desire, Robert Park’s formulation that David Harvey is properly fond of quoting, how would such a city look? Or rather: according to what principles would it be organized? For its detailed look, its physical design, should only then be evolved after the principles it is to serve have been agreed upon.

So what, in our heart of hearts, should determine what a city is and does?

I. The World of Work and the World of Freedom

Why not start, first, by taking the question literally. Suppose we had neither physical nor economic constraints, what would we want, in our hearts? Never mind that the supposition posits a utopia; it is a thought experiment that may awaken some questions whose answers might in fact influence what we do today, in the real world, on the way to an imagined other world that we might want to strive to make possible.

It may be hard to imagine such a counter-factual, but there are three approaches, based on what in fact we already know and want today. The first two rest on a single distinction, that between the world of work and the world outside of work, a key implicit division that underlies how we plan and build our cities today, a division that largely parallels that between, as various philosophers have phrased it, the system world and the life world , the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, the world of the economy and the world of private life, roughly the commercial zones and the residential zones. One approach is then to imagine reducing the realm of necessity; the other is to imagine expanding the realm of freedom.
Most of us probably spend close to a majority of our time in the world of work, in the realm of necessity; our free time is the time we have after work is over. Logically, if the city could help reduce what we do in the realm of necessity, our free time would be expanded, our happiness increased.

II. Shrinking the Realm of Necessity

Suppose we re-examined the composition of the world of necessity that we now take for granted.. How much of what is there now is really necessary? Do we need all the advertising billboards, the flashing neon lights, the studios for the advertising agencies, the offices for the merger specialists, for the real estate speculators, for the high-speed traders, the trading floors for the speculators, the commercial spaces devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, the consultants helping to make unproductive activities produce only more wealth, not goods or services that people actually use? If not do not need all of them, do we need all the offices for the government employees regulating them? Do we need all the gas stations, all the automotive repair and servicing facilities, all the through streets to serve all the cars we would not need if we had comprehensive public transit? Do we need all the jails and prisons and criminal courts? Are these parts of the realm of necessity today that are really necessary?

How about the ultra-luxury aspects of the city today? How do we see the multi-story penthouses in Donald Trump’s buildings? The virtually fortified enclaves of the rich in high-rise enclaves in our center cities, the gated communities with their private security in our inner and outer suburbs? The exclusive private clubs, expensive private health facilities, ostentatious lobbies and gateways and grounds where only the very rich can live? Are McMansions and true mansions necessary parts of the realm of necessity? If conspicuous consumption, a la Veblen, or positional goods, are in fact necessary for the well-being of their users, than something is wrong here: such marks of status, such conspicuous consumption, surely is not ultimately as satisfying for its beneficiary as other more socially rich and personally productive and creative objects and activities might. Or are these expensive attributes of wealth part of the real freedom of their possessors? But the realm of freedom is not a realm in which anything goes: it does not encompass the freedom to harm others, to steal, to destroy, to pollute, to waste resources. Imagine a city where there are limits on such things, in the public interest, freely and democratically determined, but in which what is provided for (but all of it) is what is really necessary for a meaningful freedom to be enjoyed.

Conclusion: the realm of necessary work could be shrunk significantly without any significant negative impact on a desirable realm of freedom.

III. Freely Doing the Necessary

A second way the necessary world of work could be reduced would be if some of what is in it that is truly necessary could be freely done, moved into the world of freedom. If in our imagined city what we do in the world of work could be converted into something that would contribute to our happiness, we’d be way ahead of the game. Is that possible – that we would do some of our presently unpleasant work freely, enjoy our work as much as we enjoy what we do outside of work? That we would in fact at the same time reduce the amount of work that is really necessary, and also convert much of the remainder into work that is done freely, in fact part of the realm of freedom? And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible?

But why “unhappy?” Couldn’t some work that is now being done only because it’s paid for, unhappily at least in the sense of not voluntarily done but only done because of the necessity of making a living, also be done by volunteers, under the right conditions And even provide happiness to those doing it?

The Occupy Sandy movement these past few weeks provides some hints.

In Occupy Sandy, volunteers have been going to areas devastated by the hurricane Sandy, distributing food, clothing, helping folk made homeless find shelter, water, child care, whatever is needed. Under the name of Occupy Sandy, many veterans of Occupy Wall Street and other occupations, but they are not doing it to build support for Occupy movement, but out of the simple desire to help fellow human beings in need. It’s part of what being human is all about. It’s been discussed, as part of what sociologists call the “Gift Relationship, ” but not the relationship of giving where you expect something in return, like exchanging gifts with others at Christmas, and it’s not just with people you know, but with strangers. It’s an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked, we want to help each other, we stand in solidarity with each other, we are all parts of one whole; that’s why we bring food and blankets and moral support. The feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, that such acts of solidarity and humanity provide are what a re-imagined city should provide. A city where no one is a stranger is a profoundly happy city.

Imagine a City in which such relationships are not only fostered, but ultimately become the whole basis for the society, replacing the profit motive for personal actions with the motivation of solidarity and friendship, and the sheer pleasure of the work.. Think of all we already do voluntarily today that is really, in the conventional sense, work. Imagine something very concrete, something maybe very unlikely but not so difficult to imagine. Imagine what you would do if you didn’t have to work, but were guaranteed a decent standard of living: all the voluntary organizations we belong do (de Tocqueville noticed that long ago), the collectively way houses were built and roofs raised in the early days of the United States, the clubs, the street parties, the volunteers staffing hospitals and shelters, the Occupiers of all sorts doing what is really social work as part of their freely given support for the movement, the houses built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. Think of volunteers directing traffic in a blackout, sharing generators when the power goes off, giving food to the hungry. In many religions, carrying for the stranger is among the highest of virtues. And think of artists doing chalk pictures in the sidewalk, actors putting on street performances, musicians playing publicly for pleasure as much as for donations. Think of all the political activity that we engage in without any expectation of return other than a better city or country. Think of all that retired folk do voluntarily that they used to be paid for: teachers tutoring students, literacy volunteers helping immigrants, women who had worked at home and still do also helping in the kitchens of shelters and community clubs, volunteers cleaning trash on trails and roadsides. Think of all the young people helping their elders to master new technologies. Isn’t the city we want to imagine one where these relationships are dominant, and the profit relationship, the mercenary relationships, the quest for profits and ever more goods and money and power, were not what drove the society? Where the happiness of each was the condition for the happiness of all, and the happiness of all was the condition for the happiness of each?

Some things in the realm of necessity are really necessary, but are unpleasant, uncreative, repetitive, dirty – yet get done today because someone gets paid to do them and is dependent on doing them for a living, not because they get any pleasure out of doing them. Part of the work done in the realm of necessity is not really necessary, as argued above. But some is: dirty work, hard work, dangerous work, stultifying work: cleaning streets, digging trenches, hauling cargo, aspects of personal care or treatment of diseases, garbage collection, mail delivery – even parts of otherwise rewarding activities, like grading papers for teachers, cleaning up in hospitals, copying drawings for architects or fussing with computers for writers today. Could any of this be freely done if the conditions were right? Some of this work can undoubtedly be further mechanized or automated, and the level of unskilled work is already steadily being reduced, but it is probably a fantasy that all unpleasant work could be mechanized. Some hard core will remain for some unhappy soul to do.

But as to such pure grudge work, would not the attitude towards doing it be much less resentful, much less unhappy, if it were fairly shared, recognized as needed, efficiently organized? In some social housing estates in Europe, tenants were accustomed to sharing the responsibility for keeping their common areas clean, the landing in their staircases, their entries, their landscaping. They were satisfied that it was properly organized and both the assignment of tasks and the delineation of physical spaces was something worked out collectively (in theory, at least!) and generally accepted as appropriate. Most took pride in this unpaid, unskilled work; it was an act of neighborliness. Once we watched a fast-order cook flip pancakes, tossing them in the air to turn them over, grinning as he served them to an appreciative diner. Craftspeople traditionally took pride in their work; today there are probably as many hobby potters as there are workers in pottery factories. If such facilities were widely available in a city, might not many people even make their own dishes out of clay, while automated factories mass-produced ones out of plastic?

So one route to re-imagine the city from scratch is to imagine a city where as many as possible of the things that are now done for profit, motivated by exchange, competed for for personal gain in money or power or status, or driven by necessity alone, are done out of solidarity, out of love, out of happiness at the happiness of others. And then imagine what are all the things we would change?

To put the challenge of reo-imagining a city most simply, if a city could be fashioned for the purposes of the enjoyment of life, rather than for the purposes of the unwelcome but necessary activities involved in earning a living, what would that city be like? At a minimum, wouldn’t it shift the priorities in the uses of the city from those geared to “business” activities, those pursued purely for profit, in “business” districts, to those activities done for pleasure and their innate satisfaction, in districts designed around the enhancement of residential and community activities?

IV. Expanding the Realm of Freedom

As an alternative way of re-imagining, a city could also be re-imagined based on the day to day experience with what already exists in the realm of freedom in the city as we have it now. And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible? Making available other facilities necessary to sustain the realm of freedom in the re-imagined city? Community meeting places, smaller schools, community dining facilities, hobby workshops, nature retreats, public playgrounds and sport facilities, venues for professional and amateur theaters and concerts, health clinics – the things really necessary in a realm of freedom?

We might give the possibilities shape by examining how we actually use the city today, when we in fact are not concerned with making a living but rather with enjoying being alive, doing those things that really satisfy us and give us a feeling of accomplishment? What would we do? How would we spend our time? Where would we go? In what kind of place would we want to be?

One could divide what we do into two parts: what we do privately, when we are alone or just with our intimately loved ones, and what we do socially, with others, beyond our core and intimate inner circle. The city we would imagine would make sure each has the first, the space and the means for the private, and that the second, the space and the means for the social, are collectively provided. For the first, the private, what the city must provide is protection for space and activities that are personal. The second, the social, this is what cities are really for, and should be their main function. Cities, after all, are essentially defined as places of wide and dense social interaction.

So if we look at what we already do, when we are really free to choose, what is that we would do? Probably very much some of the same things we do now, when we are free – and, possibly, if one is lucky,, they might be some things one is also getting paid to do now. Some of us love to teach; if we didn’t have to earn a living, I think we’d like to teach anyway. We might not want to have a 9:00 a.m. class, or to do it all day or every day; but some we’d do for the love of doing it. Many of us cook at least a meal a day, without getting paid for it; would we maybe cook for a whole bunch of guests in a restaurant if we could do it on our own terms, didn’t need the money, and weren’t getting paid? Would we travel? We would take others along if we had room? Entertain guest, strangers, from time to time, out of friendliness and curiosity, without getting paid, if we didn’t need the money? Would we go to more meetings, or be more selective in the meetings we go to. Would we go for walks more often, enjoy the outdoors, see plays, act in plays, build things, design things, clothes or furniture or buildings, sing, dance, jump, run, if we didn’t have to work for a living? If none of the people we met were strangers, but some were very different from us, would we greet more people, make more friends, expand your understanding of others?

Imagine all that, and then imagine what we would need to change in the city we already know to make all that possible.

What would that imagined city look like? Would it have more parks, more trees, more sidewalks? More schools, no jails; more places where privacy is protected, and more where you could meet strangers? More community rooms, more art workshops, more rehearsal and concert halls? More buildings built for effective use and aesthetic pleasure rather than for profit or status? Fewer resources used on advertising, on luxury goods, on conspicuous consumption?

What would it take to get such a city? Of course, the first thing is unfortunately very simple; we’d need the guaranteed standard of living, we’d need to be free of the need to do anything we didn’t like to do just to earn a living. But that’s not so impossible; there’s a whole literature on what automation could do, on what waste there is in our economies (23% of the Federal budget goes to the military; suppose that money didn’t get paid for killing people but for helping them)? And wouldn’t we be willing to share the unpleasant work that remains if it were the means to live in a city that was there to make us happy?

All that takes many changes, and not only changes in cities. But the thought experiment of imagining the possibilities might provide an incentive for actually putting the needed changes in effect

V. From the Real City to the Re-Imagined City: Transformative Moves

Beyond thought experiments, provocative as they may be , what steps can be imagined that might pragmatically move us towards the re-imagined city of heart’s desire? One approach might be to start by seeking out existing aspects of the city activities that either already offend our hearts and moving to reduce them or that already give us joy and moving to expand them.

If then we were to reimagine the city pragmatically but critically, starting with what’s already there, the trick would be to focus on those programs and proposals that are transformative, that would deal with the root causes of problems and satisfactions, that would be most likely to lead from the present towards what the city re-imagined from scratch might be. In other words, to formulate transformative demands, one that go to the roots of problems, what Andre Gorz called non-reformist reforms.

it is fairly easy to agree on much that is wrong in our cities, and to go from there to agreement on what might be done in response. Then putting those pieces together, a re-imagined image of the city, perhaps not as shining as one re-imagined from scratch but more immediately realistic and well worth pursuing, could emerges.

Look individually at what those pieces might be (there are of course more, but the following are examples of key ones).

Inequality. We know high and rising levels of inequality are at the root of multiple tensions and insecurities in the city, and that a decent standard of living in the city depends on its residents having a decent income. Strong living wage laws, and progressive tax systems, are moves in that direction. The transformative demands here would be for a guaranteed minimum annual income for all, based on need rather than performance.

Housing. Decent housing for all, eliminating homelessness, over-crowding, unaffordable rents, would be key ingredients in any properly re-imagined city. Housing vouchers, various forms of subsidies, even tax incentives, zoning bonuses for mixed-rental construction, are all moves towards ameliorating the problem. For homes threatened with foreclosure, reducing principal or interest and extending payments is helpful short-term, but likewise does not deal with the underlying problem. Transformative, however, would be the expansion of public housing, run with full participation of tenants and at a level of quality removing any stigma from it residents. Community land trusts and limited-equity housing likewise points the way to replacing the speculative and profit-motivated component of housing occupancy from it use value, stressing the community ingredient in housing arrangements. That does address the roots of the problem of unaffordable quality housing.

Pollution and congestion. Automobile fumes congestion, inaccessibility except by care for needed services can all be serious problems, and regulating emission levels on cars and congestion pricing are useful means to ameliorate the problem. Transformative are measures such as closing streets (the Times Square experiment vastly expanded), and lining it with much improved pubic mass transit, encouraging adaptation of heavy usage areas to bicycle access, mixing uses, all go further to attacking the roots of the problem, to suggesting transformation towards re-imagined cities.

Planning. The lack of control over one’s environment, the difficulties of participating actively in the decisions about the future of the city in which one lives, is a major issue if the quest is for happiness and satisfaction in the re-imagined city. Public hearings, the ready availability of information, transparency in the decision-making process, empowered Community Boards. But until Community Boards are given some real power, rather than being merely advisory, alienated planning will continue. Real decentralization would be transformative. The experiment in Participatory Budgeting now under way in New York City and elsewhere is a real contribution to potentially transformative policies.

Public Space. After the experience of the evictions from Zuccotti Park, the need for public space available for democratic actions has become manifest. Adjusting the rules and regulations governing municipal parks, permitting more space, public and public/private, to be available for such activities, are steps in the right direction. Protecting the right of the homeless to sleep on park benches is a minimalist, although basic, demand, obviously not a demand aimed at ending homelessness. Expanding the provision of public space and giving priority for its uses for democratic activities can be transformative, and would be a component of any re-imagined city. (See my Blog #8).

Education. Adequately funded public education, with the flexibility of charter schools but without their diminution of the role of public control, would be a major step forward; for students presently in higher education forgiveness of student loans is a pressing demand. But the transformative demand would be for totally free higher education, available to all, with the supportive conditions that would permitall students to benefit from it.

Civil Rights. Organization is a key factor in moving towards an imagined transformed city, and the city of the present should facilitate democratic organization. Other issues mentioned above: public space, education, housing and incomes making real participation feasible, are all supportive of an expanded conception of civil rights. So, clearly, is the end of many practices restricting organization, from police limitations on assemblies and speech to so-called “homeland security” measures to simple use of the streets for public assemblies, leafleting, etc. Transformative here would be oversight measures seriously limiting the unfortunately inevitable tendency of government officials and leaders to try to control critical activities within their jurisdictions, critical activities sure to be found short of the achievement of the re-imagined city, and perhaps even there.

Put the goals of all such transformative demands together, and you have transformed a purely imagined city into a developing and changing mosaic based on the existing, having its roots in the present reality, but slowly flesh on the bones of what imagination will generate.


A warning: Re-imagining the city can be fun, it can be inspirational, it can show doubters that another world is possible. But there is a danger:

Re-imagining the City should not be seen as a current design project, laying out what the physical city could look like if we had our way, what utopia would look like. What the city needs is not redesign, but reorganization, a change in who it serves, not how it serves those who now are served by it. It needs a different role for its built environment, with changes adapted to the new role, not vice versa. A re-designed city is a means to an end. The end is the welfare, the happiness,, the deep satisfaction, of those whom the city should serve: all of us. We should not spend much time physically designing what those reimagined cities would look like except as a provocation to thought, for which however they are useful – and which is the intent of this piece. The actual designs should be done only when there is actually the power to implement them, by the people who would then use it. Designs should be developed through democratic and transparent and informed processes.


For an immediately practical proposal to make the re-imagination of the city a politically useful next step, see Blog #26.

  1. But a caution here, for what the heart desires can in reality be manipulated. Herbert Marcuse deals with this issue in making the distinction between authentic and manipulated desires, authentic and manufactured needs. See Collected Writings, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. VI.
2. Similar to Jurgen Habermas’ formulation.
3, Hegel, Marx, Herbert Marcuse
4. How to define what is “really necessary” is of course a tricky proposition. For one fruitful approach, see Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
5. Richard Titmus, The Gift Relation, 1970.
6. Maimonides, St. Francis.
7. Are parts of the struggle for competitive or simple existence, not done for the satisfaction of productive work well done that they provide., Herbert Marcuse has it in Essay on Liberation.
8. Marx’s fantasy, in the Grundrisse, commented on in Herbert Marcuse vol. VI, Collected Papeers, Douglas Kellner, ed., Routledge.forthcoming,
9. For the present situation, focusing on white collar work, see Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Adam (October 2011) Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Digital Frontier Press. ISBN 0-984-72511-3.

Frivolous Appendix

Isaiah 40:4 is used in the text of Handel’s Messiah, in a passage in which the prophet tells the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord by making a highway for him through the desert, and then:

“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

Reading this as a political metaphor for the social and economic constitution of an imagined city, it is eloquent. It might be read as a metaphor in the debate on income tax rates under way as I write this, as well as for the appropriate goals of the criminal system and the need for transparency in public actions.

But read as a design for an imagined physical city, it would be the opposite of good planning. Environmentalists would shrink from it in horror, architects would rend their garments, criminal justice reformers might see it as a call for more jails, historic preservationists see it as threatening the legacy of the traditional quarters of old cities. Isaiah is not around to defend himself, but surely his meanings were closer to the political/social than the physical.

Beware of presenting social issues in physical metaphors, lest they be taken literally!