Henri Lefebvre's Writings on Cities and
The Right to the City

OK. Before we can say anything about the contents of the book called Writings on Cities, published under the name of Henri Lefebvre, and translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Blackwell Publishing, 1996), we must say the following about the book itself, as a product. Ahem. This piece of shit is only 250 pages long, uses large type, has a soft cover, includes no illustrations, and yet costs a whopping $45. From cover to cover, it is riddled with unchecked facts, missing punctuation marks, dropped words, words that appear unaccountably and should be dropped, misspelled words, etc etc. For example, the publisher's page is dated 1996 and yet fails to record that Henri Lefebvre died in 1991 (the bio line still reads "1905 - "). It's obvious that this book was never properly proofread. All of this can be blamed on Blackwell, which seems to have published Writings on Cities as a way of capitalizing on the success of its edition of The Production of Space (1991)[1].

But the editor/translators must take their share of the blame: a fifth of "their" book (50 pages) is devoted to their ultra-self-conscious and unnecessarily long introduction, which, if deleted, would necessitate the deletion of a large number of entries in the book's 10-page-long index that refer to subjects raised not by Henri Lefebvre, but by Kofman and Lebas. The selection of texts they made is very unsatisfactory: the reader gets a full translation of Lefebvre's Le droit a la ville, first published in 1968; but instead of getting a full translation of Espace et Politique -- published in 1973 as the sequel to Le droit a la ville -- the reader only gets a translation of the book's introduction and a single and very short chapter. These regrettable decisions weren't based on "space limitations": there appears to have been plenty of room for such obvious filler as the two interviews with Lefebvre and the two texts snatched from the book called Elements de rythmanalyse, published in 1992. The reason why the majority, if not all of Espace et Politique was not included in the Writings on Cities anthology is explained as follows: "Some of it has already been translated (Antipode, 1976) and much of it announces the subsequent and more elaborate Production of Space." But Kofman and Lebas's own list of references shows that Lefebvre didn't publish any books in 1976 and that none of the books he did publish were published by "Antipode," which is in fact a journal in the field of radical geography. Quite obviously, the existence of overlap between Espace et Politique and The Production of Space does not require that the former should not be published in its entirety.

Last but not least, Kofman and Lebas's translation tends to be a literal word-for-word affair (did they dash it off in a hurry? did they never get a chance to polish it properly?), which means that their English renderings are often awkward, even confusing. But rather than provide examples, let us simply proceed with our discussion, which will of course involve extensive quotation of Lefebvre and will thus provide a number of opportunities for the reader of this text to decide for him- or herself if Kofman and Lebas's translations/typographical renderings are good or bad.


Le droit a la ville (The Right to the City) was written in 1967 to mark the centenary of the publication of Karl Marx's Das Kapital (1867) but it wasn't published until the following year. Lefebvre had been thinking about cities since 1947, when he published the first volume of his pioneering study, Critique of Everyday Life. But he remained lodged in and attached to the countryside in which he'd been born and raised until the mid-1950s, when he moved to Paris. In the city, Lefebvre eventually met several young, very attentive readers of his book, including such future members of the Situationist International as Constant Nieuwenhuis, Guy Debord, Michelle Bernstein and Raoul Vaneigem. As a result, Lefebvre decided to take up the issue of the city once more. His decision came at an interesting time. As he says in The Right to the City,

Over the last few years and rather strangely, the right to nature entered into social practice thanks to leisure, having made its way through protestations becoming commonplace against noise, fatigue, the concentrationary universe of cities (as cities are rotting or exploding). A strange journey indeed! Nature enters into exchange value and commodities, to be bought and sold. This 'naturality' which is counterfeited and traded in, is [in fact] destroyed by commercialized, industrialized and institutionally organized leisure pursuits. 'Nature,' or what passes for it, and survives of it, becomes the ghetto of leisure pursuits, the separate place of pleasure and the retreat of 'creativity' [...] In the face of this pseudo-right [to nature], the right to the city is like a cry and a demand [...] The claim to nature, and the desire to enjoy it displace the right to the city. This latest claim [the right to nature] expresses itself indirectly as a tendency to flee the deteriorated and unrenovated city, alienated urban life before at last, 'really' living [...] The right to 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.

Between 1958 and 1962, Lefebvre and the Situationists worked together closely. As has been pointed many times, the Situationist concept of the "situation" was closely related to the Lefebvrian concept of the "moment."[2] In 1963, there was a dreadful falling-out between them concerning excerpts from Lefebvre's book on the Paris Commune, La Proclamation de la Commune, which was eventually published in 1965. In Aux Poubelles de l'Histoire ("Into the Trashcan of History"), dated 21 February 1963, the situationists alleged that these excerpts were clearly plagiarized from a situationist text entitled "Theses on the Commune" and dated 18 March 1962. There were of course several other bones of contention: the Situationists' boycott of Arguments magazine, in which the allegedly plagiarized excerpts were published; ex-girlfriends; etc etc.[3] Whatever: the point here is that the split was far worse for Lefebvre than it was for the Situationists, whose work deepened and thrived in the aftermath. But the split clearly troubles The Right to the City, and the two other books Lefebvre published in 1968: his "Cliff Notes"-style summary of his own ideas, translated as Everyday Life in the Modern World, and his May 1968 cash-in gambit L'Irruption a Nanterre au sommet. Indeed, it wasn't until 1973 or 1974 -- the very years in which he published Espace et Politics and The Production of Space -- that Lefebvre fully recovered his balance, and started producing good work again.

The problem for Lefebvre in The Right to the City is that there is little in Karl Marx's works -- even in the later, "mature" writings -- from which to offer a properly Marxist critique of the city. Lefebvre himself is very clear on this.

Until now, in theory as in practice, the double process of industrialization and urbanization has not been mastered. The incomplete teachings of Marx and Marxist thought have been misunderstood. For Marx himself, industrialization contained its finality and meaning, later giving rise to the dissociation of Marxist thought into economism and philosophism. Marx did not show (and in his time he could not) that urbanization and the urban contain the meaning of industrialization. He did not see that industrial production implied the urbanization of society, and that the mastery of industrial potentials required specific knowledge concerning urbanization. Industrial production, after a certain growth, produces urbanization, providing it with conditions, and possibilities. The problematic is displaced and becomes that of urban development. The works of Marx (notably Capital) contained precious indications on the city and particularly on the historical relations between town and country. They do not pose the urban problem. In Marx's time, only the housing problem was raised and studied by Engels. Now, the problem of the city is immensely greater than that of housing.

And so, in the absence of Marx, Lefebvre needs the situationist critique of the city to successfully bring Marx's Capital into the world of 1967. Unfortunately, due to his strained personal relations with Debord and the other situationists, Lefebvre feels he can't mention them, their theories nor their publications. For example, when it comes time for him to note that "the problem is to put an end to the separations of 'daily life/leisure' or 'daily life/festivity'. It is to restitute the fete by changing daily life," Lefebvre restrains himself from mentioning either the Paris Commune -- an importance instance in which the "right to the city" was forcefully asserted -- or his book about the subject, only two years old at the time. And yet, inevitably, it would seem, Lefebvre's critique of the city is unmistakably situationist or, rather, strongly reminiscent of the Situationists of 1962.[4]

In this critique, the city has been thoroughly commodified: it is a privileged space for the consumption of commodities and it is consumed as if it were one big commodity. "They city is no longer lived and it is no longer understood practically," Lefebvre writes. "It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for estheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque." And yet, "the urban remains in a state of dispersed and alienated actuality, as kernel and virtuality." In short, "urban life has yet to begin." For urban inhabitants to start really living, they must make use of their cities. But the word "use" must be considered as broadly as possible; it must include appropriation, which inevitably involves re-creating ("inventing" or "sculpting") existing space(s), that is to say, the production of new space(s).

To end the chapter called "The Right to the City," Lefebvre gives us a fascinating portrait of class relations in today's commodified city.

Who can ignore that the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit. They go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht. They are everywhere and nowhere. That is how they fascinate people immersed into everyday life. They transcend everyday life, possess nature and leave it up to the cops to contrive culture. Is it essential to describe at length, besides the condition of youth, students and intellectuals, armies of workers with or without white collars, people from the provinces, the colonized and semi-colonized of all sorts, all those who endure a well-organized daily life, is it here necessary to exhibit the derisory and untragic misery of the inhabitant, of the suburban dweller and of the people who stay in residential ghettoes, in the mouldering centres of old cities and in the proliferations lost beyond them? One only has to open one's eyes to understand the daily life of the one who runs from his dwelling to the station, near or far away, to the packed underground train, the office or the factory, to return the same way in the evening and come home to recuperate enough to start again the next day. The picture of this generalized misery would not go without a picture of 'satisfactions' which hides it and becomes the means to elude it and break free from it.

Great stuff, solidly within the orbit of the Situationists' On the Poverty of Student life -- except for the description of "the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristrocracy," who use high-speed technologies (airplanes chiefly, but also wireless telephones and/or radio transmitters) to get to and from, and also up and out of the cities of the world. In short, they use time (accelerated speeds) to both control and transcend the slow space(s) of everyday life. But these are not really situationist themes. One thinks instead of the writings of Paul Virilio, who is certainly neither Marxist nor situationist.[5]

Significantly, there are many passages in which Lefebvre does not even mention such basic Marxist concepts as the proletariat and the revolution. Both themes emerge rather late in The Right to the City and, when they do appear, they do not dazzle the world with their brilliance. No: unlike the passages on everyday life, they are dull and boring, and they are certainly not helped in this regard by Kofman & Lebas's stilted translation. The entirety of thesis #9 in "[Twelve] Theses on the City, the Urban and Planning" (the final chapter of The Right to the City) states:

The revolutionary transformation of society has industrial production as ground and lever. This is why it had to be shown that the urban centre of decision-making can no longer consider itself in the present society (of neo-capitalism or of monopoly capitalism associated to the State), outside the means of production, their property and their management. Only the taking in charge by the working class of planning and its political agenda can profoundly modify social life and open another era: that of socialism in neo-capitalist countries. Until then transformations remain superficial, at the level of signs and the consumption of signs, language and metalanguage, a secondary discourse, a discourse on previous discourses. Therefore, it is not without reservations that one can speak of urban revolution. Nevertheless, the orientation of industrial production on social needs is not a secondary fact. The finality thus brought to plans transforms them. In this way urban reform has a revolutionary bearing. As the twentieth century agrarian reform gradually disappears from the horizon, urban reform becomes a revolutionary reform. It gives rise to a strategy which opposes itself to the class strategy dominant today.

A revolutionary reform?! Sheesh: there's no such thing for a Marxist! Perhaps this book didn't find a publisher in 1967 because it just wasn't very good. Perhaps it only found a publisher because of the revolt of May 1968, which aroused interest in all of the contemporary French Marxist theorists, no matter what the caliber of their latest works or their actual connection to the May movement.


Lefebvre's The Right to the City certainly looks rather weak in comparison to Giorgio Agamben's writings on "the city," or, rather, Agamben's writings expose several serious weaknesses in Lefebvre's book. In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995, translated from the Italian by Daniel Heller-Roazen, 1998, Stanford University Press), Agamben calls attention to the fact that the French philosopher Michel Foucault -- despite introducing the concept of biopolitics in the late 1970s (see his The History of Sexuality, Volume I) -- "never dwelt on the exemplary places of modern biopolitics: the concentration camp and the structure of the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century." Instead Foucault dwelt on disciplinary institutions, in particular, the prison. But, to Agamben, "the camp -- and not the prison -- is the space that corresponds to this originary structure of the nomos."

This is shown [Agamben continues], among other things, by the fact that while prison law only constitutes a particular sphere of penal law and is not outside the normal order, the juridical constellation that guides the camp is (as we shall see) martial law and the state of siege. This is why is not possible to inscribe the analysis of the camp in the trail opened by the works of Foucault, from Madness and Civilization to Discipline and Punish. As the absolute space of exception, the camp is topologically different from a simple space of confinement.

The implication is obvious: if the concentration camp is the most important topological (structural or spatial) phenomenon of the Twentieth Century,[6] and if Foucault does not discuss nor even mention the camp, then Foucault's works can't be very important, insightful or useful. (Almost all of the great post-World War II French theorists have an original theory that also functions as a kind of litmus-test for the interest of the works of their contemporaries: for Debord, it is the spectacle; for Foucault, it is the carceral or 'disciplined' society; for Lefebvre, it is everyday life in the city; for Paul Virilio, it is the acceleration of time; for Jean Baudrillard, it is the hyper-real, etc etc. Note in this regard Virilio's ideological break with Baudrillard and his embrace of Deleuze & Guattari's war machine, or Baudrillard's dismissal of Foucault, etc etc ad nauseum.)

It is indeed quite curious that neither Lefebvre's The Right to City nor anything else contained in Writings on Cities discusses or mentions the concentration camp. (The Production of Space is also silent on the subject.) This omission is especially felt during Lefebvre's discussions of the dialectic of urbanization and industrialization: is it not interesting that the Nazis constructed their highly industrialized concentration camps as if they were self-contained little cities and yet never situated these "mini-cities" within any German cities (like factories, they were built in the outskirts or in conquered nations such as Poland)? To Agamben, the answer is "yes." It is this precise topology -- the doubled structure of inclusion (modeled on the city) and exclusion (outskirts) -- that makes the camp the exemplary (urban) space of modern biopolitics. Lefebvre's omission is especially glaring in light of how much attention both Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem gave to the similarities between concentration camps and contemporary architecture and urbanism.[7]

The second weakness highlighted by Agamben's work concerns Lefebvre's decision to cast his putatively Marxist critique of the modern city as the declaration of a "right," which as a matter of fact is the only original thing about The Right to the City. In Homo Sacer, Agamben, introducing a chapter on the "Rights of Man," declares:

Yet it is time to stop regarding declarations of rights as proclamations of eternal, metajuridical values binding the legislator (in fact, without much success) to respect eternal ethical principles, and to begin to consider them according to their real historical function in the modern nation-state. Declarations of rights represent the originary figure of the inscription of natural life in the juridico-political order of the nation-state. The same bare life that in the ancien regime was politically neutral and belonged to God as creaturely life and in the classical world was (at least apparently) clearly distinguished as zoe from political life (bios) now fully enters into the structure of the state and even becomes the earthly foundation of the state's legitimacy and sovereignty.[8]

For Agamben, it's a simple matter of re-reading the documents that founded modern democracy: the 1679 writ of habeas corpus and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, among others. What one finds is this:

It is not the free man and his statutes and prerogatives, nor even simply homo, but rather corpus that is the new subject of politics. And democracy is born precisely as the assertion and presentation of this 'body': habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, 'you will have to have a body to show' [..] Corpus is a two-faced being, the bearer both of subjection to sovereign power and of individual liberties.

Another (hopefully not contradictory) way of saying this is that, when rights are codified in or as law, they become suspendable under certain extraordinary but lawful conditions, such as martial law, a state of siege, etc etc. And when "human" or "democratic" rights are suspended, there is a split between the old laws, which supposedly protected everyone, and the new provisional laws, which protect "the majority," but not everyone. (Note, in this regard, the beauty of the "silence" of the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "The enumeration in the constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Here rights are protected from suspension to the precise extent that they escape enumeration!)

And so, we are not surprised when we find that these precise problems appear in -- and fatally compromise -- the documents that, over the course of the last five years, have been drafted by international human rights groups on the subject of "the right to the city." The first of these documents is entitled World Charter for the Human Right to the City (January 2003) and was collectively authored by the various groups that first came together 1-4 February 2002 at a "World Seminar for the Human Right to the City" sponsored by the World Social Forum. The second document is the World Charter on the Right to the City, which was first presented in July 2004 at the Social Forum of the Americas and then in September 2004 at the World Urban Forum. It is not clear to what extent the various organizations involved -- which include UNESCO -- have been aware of Lefebvre's The Right to the City. But they must be aware of the connection now, that is, since 2003, when Don Mitchell published his study entitled The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Right to the City (New York: Guilford).

It is peculiar that these documents should ever have wanted to be have been defined as "charters." A charter is not only a document that sets forth the principles, functions and organization of a corporate body, but it is also a grant of rights and privileges from the sovereign power of a particular nation. Nothing in a charter is guaranteed. The rights and privileges, even the very existence of a corporation ("corpus") can be suspended by the sovereign in certain "emergency" situations.

Significantly, neither document offers a good definition of "the city." World Charter for the Human Right to the City notes that cities "represent much more than physical space distinguished by a higher density of living space" (paragraph 2), but says no more than that. Much more formal and precise, the World Charter on the Right to the City says that, "For the purpose of this Charter, the denomination of City is given to any town, village, city, capital, locality, suburb, settlement or similar which is institutionally organised as a local unit of Municipal or Metropolitan Government independently of whether it is urban, rural, or semi-rural." And so "the City" is everywhere: it exists everywhere there's a local government. But isn't "the City" much more than just local politics? Hasn't the City's essence, particularity and specificity been lost in this definition?

As for the right to the city itself, it is apparently nothing new. In the words of the World Charter for the Human Right to the City, it "actually amalgamates a bundle of already-existing human rights and relate State obligations, to which, by extension, local authorities are also party" (paragraph 7); it "encompasses the internationally recognized human rights to housing, social security, work, an adequate standard of living, leisure, information, organization and free association, food and water, freedom from dispossession, participation and self-expression, health, education, culture, privacy and security, a safe and healthy environment" (paragraph 11); and it "embodies claims to the human rights to land, sanitation, public transportation, basic infrastructure, capacity and capacity-building, and access to public goods and services -- including natural resources and finance" (paragraph 12). In other words, "the right to the city" is just an empty slogan, a catch-all phrase.

Both documents have a remarkably narrow idea of what the city's inhabitants are allowed to do with and to the city, which, as we will see, is not really their city. The World Charter for the Human Right to the City says "these standing rights and obligations are supported by the concepts of equal usufruct of the city" (paragraph 7), and the World Charter on the Right to the City says that "the cities attend its function if to guarantee to all persons the full usufruct of its economy, culture and resources" (Article II, paragraph 2: all mistakes are in the original). In the law, "usufruct" means the utilization and enjoyment of someone else's property so long as that property is not altered or damaged. It is a "right" usually "reserved" for those who lease or rent property. Such agreements can lawfully be terminated and the "inhabitants" can lawfully be evicted if they appropriate ("misappropriate") the property. Only those who own the property have the right to properly appropriate it.

But the real weakness of these documents lies in the confused and confusing way that they each define, address and refer to the bearers of the enumerated rights. The World Charter for the Human Right to the City declares that "the Human Right to the City is both an individual and a collective right of the city's inhabitants, especially protecting and serving members of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups" (paragraph 8). It is clear that this "collective right" would never be democratically exercised if some individuals (it wouldn't matter if they are members of dominated or dominating groups) could receive greater, increased, or better protection and service. It would violate the principle of equal protection under the law.

The World Charter on the Right to the City says that "everyone has a right to the city without discrimination of gender, age, race, ethnicity, political and religious orientation" (Article I, paragraph 1) and yet says that, "for the purpose of the Charter, citizens are all persons who live in the city either permanently or in transit" (Article I, paragraph 5), thereby creating a potentially confusing distinction between "everyone" (which even includes people who do not dwell in the city) and the city-dwelling "citizens." Further distinctions within city-dwelling "citizens" are drawn by Article II, which states "For the purposes of this Charter vulnerable people are the following: persons and groups in situation of poverty, in health and environmental risk, victims of violence, the disabled people, migrants, refugees and all other groups which, in the reality of each city, are in a situation of disadvantage with respect to the rest of the inhabitants" (paragraph 6, emphasis added); and Article XIV, which states that "This present Article" -- which is titled "The Right to Housing" -- "shall be applicable to all persons, including but not limited to, families, tenants without ownership titles, the homeless, and those whose living conditions vary, such as nomads, travellers and the Roma" (paragraph 10).

But what rights do people possess -- what good are their "rights to the city" -- if their citizenship has been suspended by the sovereign? This is the crucial question when it comes to "nomads, travellers and the Roma," that is to say, people who don't have a "proper" nationality or a "homeland" they wish to return to someday. Under these two Charters, "the city" can do absolutely nothing to prevent sovereign power -- remember, the city is merely a "locality" -- from arresting, detaining and eventually deporting these "illegal immigrants" from the Nation-State.[9] Worse still, by rendering indistinct the notion of citizenship -- it applies to non-city dwellers, permanent city dwellers and temporary city-dwellers -- these Charters have created a conceptual framework in which the state of exception[10] can "logically" be extended to include not only "nomads, travellers and the Roma," but also the native-born or legally naturalized "persons and groups [who are] in a situation of disadvantage with respect to the rest of the inhabitants," and even "the rest of the inhabitants" themselves: absolutely everyone. For that's what totalitarianism is: the state of exception applied to everyone.

-- NOT BORED! 14 September 2006
(minor correction concerning "Antipode" made on 24 January 2008)

[1]. See our essay on The Production of Space.

[2] See Guy Debord's letter to Andre Frankin, dated 22 February 1960. See also Debord's letter to Lefebvre concerning "revolutionary romanticism," dated 5 May 1960.

[3] See Guy Debord's letters to Bechir Tlili dated 14 May 1963 and 15 April 1964.

[4] After which the SI supposedly abandoned urbanism, derives and psychogeography, in favor of extolling wildcat strikes, Workers' Councils and the theory of the spectacle. See Kristin Ross's interview with Lefebvre.

[5] See for example our essay on Virilio's Art and Fear.

[6] For Asger Jorn's interest in topology, see "Open Creation and Its Enemies," Internationale Situationniste #5, 1960.

[7] Debord: see "Critique of Urbanism" (Internationale Situationniste #6, August 1961) and the montages in the film version of The Society of the Spectacle (1973). Vaneigem: "Comments against Urbanism" (Internationale Situationniste #6, August 1961), which contains the great line: "If the Nazis had known contemporary urbanists, they would have transformed their concentration camps into low-income housing."

[8] Here Agamben is following Michel Foucault, who writes in The History of Sexuality, Volume I: "We have entered a phase of juridical repression in comparison with the pre-seventeenth-century societies we are acquainted with; we should not be deceived by all the Constitutions framed throughout the world since the French Revolution, the Codes written and revised, a whole continual and clamarous legislative activity: these were the forms that made an essentially normalizing power acceptable."

[9] See Guy Debord, Notes on the "Immigration Question".

[10] In archaic Roman law, the legal-juridical status of the homo sacer, the person who could be killed but not sacrificed. For more, see our review of a recent book by Giorgio Agamben.

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