what is a city? cycles, structure, strategy

Sean Bonney presents the first of three papers to be discussed at Sunday’s Communist Theory Forum

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess, among other things consciousness, and therefore think.”

In this famous extract from The German Ideology, Marx suggests that while alienation begins in basic social and economic relationships, it sustains itself by immediately expanding into intellectual life and thus is able to determine the entirety of social reality. Just as it is necessary for capitalism to expand outward into ever more territories, by violence or seduction, thus it must expand inward into the consciousness of those it subjugates. In what follows, I want to use the ideas of Henri Lefebvre to show that, while alienation is produced at the level of economic exploitation, it is expressed at the level of social reality itself. Specifically, the city becomes an engine of bourgeois ideas that is able to produce those ideas within its inhabitants as if they were their own, and as if they were the only ideas possible.

Henri Lefebvre’s contribution to Marxism was his extensive analysis of everyday alienation, and he is best known for his multi-volume study The Critique of Everyday Life. As a young man working on the fringes of the Surrealists (who themselves had a highly serious though somewhat troubled relationship with communism), he was responsible for the first circulation of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. After resigning from the French Communist Party in the late 1950s, he became arguably the most important intellectual influence on the ideas of the Situationist International.

I am going to concentrate on one small section of Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution, which was written in the immediate aftermath of the Parisian ‘events’ of May 1968, and in which the city is analysed in terms of three structural levels which work together to produce capitalist reality. For reasons of space, I am also going to simplify Lefebvre’s ideas quite gratuitously. Lefebvre argues that the city is comprised of “a global level… a mixed level… and a private level, the level of habitation”. The global level, which expresses “the most general, and thus the most abstract relationships” is the dominant. It is the level of international capital itself, of corporate and imperialist power, and although it exists to enforce capitalist reality as its basic and central level – economic and social relations – it expresses itself through the large-scale trappings of the city itself: monuments, tourist attractions, spectacular development projects etc. Thus, it projects itself temporally to give the idea that current economic conditions have always existed, and always will. To place these ideas within the contemporary scene , such disparate entities as the Tower of London and the Olympic developments in the East End are brought together as expressions of capitalism as a natural and inevitable force. Massive changes within the everyday workings of capital, plus imperialist ventures into new areas are thus normalised and made to seem unquestionable.

The other two levels are the places where we actually live. In a simple sense, they can be seen as aspects of each other: they are where we actually live. Thus, the private level is our own basic lives, our homes and everyday comings and goings, while the mixed level is where we meet and exist socially. It is manifested in our streets, local shops and markets, in public parks and in buildings such as libraries, pubs, cafes. That is, it is where actual social life is conducted. But the mixed level is also, Lefebvre argues, an intermediate level, where the dominant ideas of global capital are able to enter our everyday lives. Lefebvre thus posits a topdown model of social reality, where the abstractions of global capital are able to occupy all levels of social space. To give a very crude example, in Walthamstow Town Square a massive TV screen has recently been erected, so that an area where previously people would associate in a more or less unmediated fashion is now dominated by spectacular manifestations of capitalist ideology. On a more general level, those cafes I just mentioned are increasingly being transformed into global corporate environments such as Starbucks and so on. Strategically then, our problem, as Lefebvre puts it, is how to turn this model upside down, so that the social and collective desires expressed on the private and mixed levels can become dominant and thus, by extenuation, dissolve capitalist social relations and enable true social life: that is, communism.

To make a grotesque understatement, that’s rather more easily said than done. I don’t think anyone would disagree that the period in which Lefebvre formulated this analysis was a time that contained, even given the defeats of 1968, rather more scope for optimism than our own. This was long before the near fatal setbacks of the Thatcher era, not to mention the disorientation that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Lefebvre’s mixed level is now occupied by global capital in ways that would simply have seemed impossible in 1968. The public buildings have either been privatised or decimated, and furthermore, the global has almost completely dissolved the private level, which is constantly being pushed further out onto the perimeters of social space. Crucially, these changes are immediately normalised by the illusory eternal being of capitalism.

Lefebvre described the city as a ‘social text’, and the model I have very simply sketched was one of his attempts to read that text. However, capitalism is not a stable ideology. The processes whereby the global level is able to increasingly occupy the levels where actual life is lived, in what is essentially an internalised imperialism, necessitates an unfixed and constantly fluctuating expression of its being. If Lefebvre’s metaphor of the city as a text is feasible, then its is one that does its best to make itself all but unreadable. Although, as we have seen, global capital presents itself as an unchanging and inevitable system extending backwards and forwards through time, it can only do this through a system of cyclical transformations. A particularly contentious example would be Soho. In the late nineteenth century it was an area in which European communists could find refuge. Marx, of course, lived there (on a site that’s now an overpriced restaurant) as did those who were trying to escape the repression that followed the defeat of the Paris Commune. The area was full of communist meeting halls, lively bars and cafes and, perhaps most crucially, extremely cheap rents. By the mid-twentieth century it was the haunt of a curiously right-wing British bohemia that still lived on the frisson of a relaxation of social mores left over from its previous occupants. Today, those lively bars and cafes are allegedly still there, but now they are used by media workers and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a few celebrities.

The level of global capital thus moves in an endlessly constricting circle, where its enemies are gradually transformed into the agents of its transmission. On a more basically economic level, its cycles also move outwards. Working class areas such as Shoreditch or Spitalfields are gentrified first by an influx of artists and other bohemians looking for cheap rent, which in turn makes such areas attractive for highly paid city workers until, ultimately, ever increasing circles of the city become little more than a monument to global capital, Recently, with the Olympic development in Stratford, it seems that even the intermediate, and at least nominally left-wing, element of bohemia is no longer necessary. Meanwhile, the working class are made invisible. Worse, with capital’s weapons of unemployment and the threat of homelessness, the class becomes increasingly criminalised, thus expanding the ultimate level in Lefebvre’s schema, albeit one that he left out: the prison.

Strategically speaking, we have to admit that the situation looks dire. However, Lefebvre’s analysis may help us to read and interpret the city, thus enabling us to think of ways to take back social space in actions that can complement the central struggles taking place in the workplace (ironically, another level that the basically bohemian Lefebvre leaves out of his schema). So far, Lefebvre’s critique of the occupation of everyday life by global capital, when not being depoliticised in academia, has been the province of lifestyle anarchism. Squatted social centres, for example, are an attempt to reclaim social spaces from the reaches of capital, but all too often they are disastrously unable to make a connection with their communities. When the old Vortex jazz bar in Stoke Newington was squatted a couple of years ago, it very rapidly deteriorated into a hang-out for countercultural activists whose concerns were perceived as very remote from those of the working class in the area. The highly politicised Turkish community for example, preferred to hold their meetings in the yuppie bar round the corner.

But Lefebvre’s analysis still does have potential as a weapon in the class struggle, in that it can help us in our attempts to theorise and understand capital’s domestic strategies of domination. If we can theorise social space as an expression of the false totality of capitalism, and begin to understand the relationship between the private and the global levels dialectically, then perhaps we will be able to begin to move from the defensive position that we have been in for too long. Lefebvre’s critique of the city may enable us to see our various struggles, in the workplace and out of it, as being absolutely connected. And then, perhaps, for the first time in a generation we will be able to go on the attack.