Social Theory: Henri Lefebvre

22nd Jun 2022 by Simon Mabon

Social Theory: Henri Lefebvre

Contribution by Deen Sharp (LSE)

Henri Lefebvre has transformed how we understand the spatial transformations that capitalism entails, namely its production of urban space, and the everyday struggles to transform it. Lefebvre was prolific, publishing over seventy books in his lifetime. His writings are often closer to streams of consciousness than formal academic texts. This can also make his work somewhat impenetrable, contradictory, and rambling. As the Lefebvrian Andy Merrifield notes, Lefebvre “wrote every book as if it was his last: feverously, rapidly - perhaps, on occasion, too rapidly.”[1] But this should not detract from his importance as a scholar, who has changed the way we think about space and spatial practice. Lefebvre has also made notable contributions to the thought of foundational western philosophers, such as Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. 

 

Intellectual Context 

Born in in 1901, Lefebvre experienced most of the 20th century first hand. He worked as a taxi driver, broadcasted on radio, taught philosophy and sociology at numerous universities and high schools, was a member of the French Communist Party until his exclusion in 1958, and committed anti-Stalinist who fought against racism for the Resistance movement. [2] His lived experience was central to his vast written theoretical and politically engaged work. He died aged 90 in June 1991, but his work grows more prescient by the day. 


Lefebvre’s influence has been particularly strong amongst urbanists: geography, urban studies, planning and architecture. But Lefebvre’s contributions span the disciplines. Stuart Elden insists that Lefebvre thought should be “conceptualized as a whole”; the need to understand Lefebvre not only as a spatial theorist but also as a political theorist and philosopher. [3]Indeed, Lefebvre has made foundational contributions to Marxist thought. He, along with Norbert Guterman and others, founded La revue marxiste, one of the first Marxist journals in France.[4] Among his published books, five are on the writings of Marx, Hegel, and Lenin, and he made notable contributions to the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger.[5]

The legacy of Lefebvre’s writings is mixed. His vast production of texts, some of which was poorly written, has meant that his work has too often been dismissed. It was only until the year of his death and the following the translation of The Production of Space, that Lefebvre started to be read extensively in Anglo-American academia (concurrently he was also “reborn” in France). Since the early 1990s, a steady stream of English translations of Lefebvre’s writings on everyday life, modernity, the city, urbanization, rhythmanalysis have appeared, as well as several scholarly guides and introductions to Lefebvre’s at times impenetrable writings (see below “further readings”). 

 

A key insight that Lefebvre put forward through his idea the “production of space” is that space does not exist in itself, it is produced: (social) space is a (social) product. Two Lefebvrian ideas have come to the fore that I detail below, and both relate to this key insight that space is a social product. The first, is the idea of planetary urbanization. This is an analysis of the production of space through capitalism, which is characterised by urban space. The idea of planetary urbanization views the production of the urban context from above and on a global scale. The second, is the concept of the “right to the city” that Lefebvre describes as a “call and demand”. This idea takes us to the level of street, and the production of space through the politics of encounter and everyday social relations.

 

Key Argument     


“Society has been completely urbanized” Lefebvre (2003 [1970]) wrote, “This hypothesis implies a definition: An urban society is a society that results from a process of complete urbanization. This urbanization is virtual today, but will become real in the future.”[6] In the 1960s the world was not majority urban. Over the past fifty-years the prescience of Lefebvre’s thesis of the complete urbanization of the planet has grown increasingly more powerful.   

Urban studies scholars, such as Neil Brenner, Christian Schmid and Andy Merrifield, have ensured that Lefebvre’s theory of planetary urbanization has lived on, built upon, and utilized to analyse the extended urbanization of the planet.  

 

Lefebvre through planetary urbanization allows us to “see” the urban in a radically different way to normative approaches. He argues that the processes of urbanization under modern capitalism cannot be reduced to the sociospatial entities that are conventionally labelled as “cities”. Instead, Lefebvre refers to the urban fabric to illuminate the dominance of the city over the countryside and to the explosive growth of capitalist industrial urbanization. The scholarship that has built on Lefebvre’s idea of planetary urbanization has been at the centre of an intense contemporary debate within urban studies. Many of the critics of planetary urbanization have argued that this thesis ignores everyday life and urban struggle. I will not go into this acrimonious debate here. I will stress that everyday life was central to Lefebvre’s thinking and foundational to his other key contribution that I take up in this paper, “the right to the city”. 

 

Lefebvre developed a distinct “heterodox” (or messy) Marxism. Through a blend of Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Lefebvre established an intellectual framework that emphasized everyday life and resisted linear narratives. He stressed instead rhythms, repetition, cycles, and moments. Elden writes that: “The notion of everyday life provides an indispensable context for the work on urban and rural sociology, the analysis of time and space, and…the question of the state.”[7]  For Lefebvre it was through an analysis of everyday life that we could understand the capitalist mode of production (that he proclaimed had colonized it). In true Marxist form, for Lefebvre the object of study is everyday life but the objective of this analysis is to transform it.

 

A key concept that Lefebvre put forward and that has resonated not only with academics across the world, including in the Middle East, but with activists and even policy makers, is the right to the city. Indeed, the “right to the city” has become so prolific in urbanist circles that some dismiss it as merely a catchphrase. Lefebvre’s right to the city - a “cry and demand” - has profound implications for ideas around citizenship, as well as claiming rights and appropriating social and physical spaces of the city. 

 

Through the concept of the right to the city, Lefebvre was reacting against overt functionalism and modernist urban planning that was eroding the chaotic heterogeneity, cosmopolitanism and vibrant street life of the historic city and replacing it with dispersed, functionally disaggregated, and politico-economically administered forms of urban life.[8]The right to the city was not about restoring historical forms of the city, Kipfer et alia argue, but asserting revolutionary perspectives on urban society that emerge out of struggles in social spaces where the ‘city’ may never have existed: modernist company towns, factories, and high rises.[9] For Lefebvre the right to the city represents the right to participate in society through everyday practices (e.g. work, housing, education, leisure). These rights are not granted by the state (from above) but rather to be established through political action and social relations. 

 

Notably, the right to the city in Lefebvre’s framing doubles as the right to difference.[10] Capitalist urbanization in its destruction of the historic city, Lefebvre contended, eradicated difference. Revolutionary space must assert itself against the force of homogeneity, this is what Lefebvre sought through the right to difference. As Gilbert and Dikec note, Lefebvre first conceived the notion of the right to the city to legitimate “the refusal to allow oneself to be removed from urban reality by a discriminatory and segregative organization.”[11]

 

In Application

Despite the vastly differentiated socio-economic, political, and demographic contexts in the Middle East, the intensification and extension of urbanization has been a common feature. This has manifested itself in the spectacular rise of the Gulf city-states, such as Dubai and Doha. Mega-projects have sprung up across the region from Morocco to Iraq. In Saudi Arabia the government has launched urban projects on such as scale that they call them “giga-projects”, that are “designed to create new ecosystems and unlock new sectors.”[12] Saudi is currently building or proposing six different giga-projects, including the $500 billion “NEOM mega-city of the future”. But rapid urbanization has also been experienced outside the oil rich Gulf states. In Egypt, for instance, President Sisi following the 2013 coup announced a range of infrastructure and urban mega-projects, including a new capital city. 

 

Lefebvre provides the tools through such conceptual frameworks as planetary urbanization to comprehend this extensive and extended urbanization across the Middle East. It is through his work we can understand how and why the real estate industry underpins so many of the region’s economies. How and why, there has been a region wide shift from the rural to the processes of urbanization, and the associated explosion of shopping malls, gated communities, and golf courses. 

 

But it is important not to lose sight of how this urbanization has impacted the inhabitants of the region themselves and this is where Lefebvre’s “right to the city” is critical. The concept and slogan of the “right to the city” has been taken up by scholars, housing activists, policy makers and governments (in Mexico the government passed the right to the city charter). The influence of the ideas and framing of the “right to the city” has also been felt in the Middle East. The right to the city framework has been utilized by scholars across the region (see suggested reading below), and has directly influenced activist groups, such as the municipal campaign group Beirut My City (Beirut Madinati) in Lebanon, and Tadamon in Egypt.   

 

Issues to be aware of


Lefebvre can change the way you think about our contemporary urban world but you need to approach his work with care, persistence and your own intellectual rigour. Lefebvre can be difficult to read, so do utilize the many guides that have been written by scholars from various disciplines to navigate his work (see below). Lefebvre is often guilty of misquoting, misattributing or not quoting at all. But the liberty Lefebvre took in his writing produced some startling insights just two of which I have outlined here. Lefebvre will open new horizons but proceed with caution and care.   

 

Suggested readings

Stuart Elden has produced a helpful guide to not only where and how to start engaging with Lefebvre's own writings but also the numerous introductions and analysis produced by others on Lefebvre's work.[13] There have been several scholars that have taken up the idea of the right to the city in the Middle East.[14] Unlike the right to the city, Lefebvre’s thesis of planetary urbanization, and the most recent scholarship that has built on this work, has had a lukewarm reception from Middle East urban studies scholars.[15] There is much more work to be done in thinking through the planetary urbanization thesis and its implications for the Middle East.   

[1] Merrifield, Andy. Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

[2] Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre.

[3] Elden, Stuart. Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible. Continuum Studies in Philosophy. London ; New York: Continuum, 2004.

[4] Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre. 

[5] Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre. 

[6] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 2003 [1970]. 

[7] Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre.

[8] Kipfer, Stefan, Parastou Saberi, and Thorben Wieditz. ‘Henri Lefebvre: Debates and Controversies 1’. Progress in Human Geography 37, no. 1 (1 February 2013): 115–34. 

[9] Kipfer et alia., ‘Henri Lefebvre: Debates and Controversies 1’.

[10] Kipfer et alia., ‘Henri Lefebvre: Debates and Controversies 1’.

[11] Gilbert, Liette and Mustafa Dikeç, ‘Right to the city: politics of citizenship,’ In: Goonewardena, Kanishka, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom and Christian Schmid, ‘Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre,’ New York: Routledge, 2008. 

[12] Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, ‘Saudi Giga Projects,’ https://www.pif.gov.sa/en/Pages/OurInvestments-GigaProjects.aspx.

[13] Stuart Elden, ‘Where to start with reading Henri Lefebvre?’ https://progressivegeographies.com/resources/lefebvre-resources/where-to-start-with-reading-henri-lefebvre/#:~:text=I%20mentioned%20the%20urban%20work,read%20The%20Production%20of%20Space.

[14] See for instance: Bayat, Asef. ‘Politics in the City-Inside-Out’. City & Society 24, no. 2 (2012): 110–28; Bezmez, Dikmen. ‘Urban Citizenship, the Right to the City and Politics of Disability in Istanbul’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37, no. 1 (1 January 2013): 93–114; Fawaz, Mona. ‘Neoliberal Urbanity and the Right to the City: A View from Beirut’s Periphery’. Development and Change 40, no. 5 (2009): 827–52; Kuymulu, Mehmet Bariş. ‘Reclaiming the Right to the City: Reflections on the Urban Uprisings in Turkey’. City 17, no. 3 (1 June 2013): 274–78; Nagle, John. ‘Ghosts, Memory, and the Right to the Divided City: Resisting Amnesia in Beirut City Centre’. Antipode 49, no. 1 (1 January 2017): 149–68. 

[15] Khatam, Azam, and Oded Haas. ‘Interrupting Planetary Urbanization: A View from Middle Eastern Cities’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36, no. 3 (1 June 2018): 439–55.