The right to the city

A political action program?

Felipe LINK, 2016

Collection Passerelle

A previous version of this article appeared in the book Lefebvre revisitado: capitalismo, vida cotidiana y el derecho a la ciudad, Carlos A. de Mattos and Felipe Link (Ed.), RIL Editores, Santiago de Chile, 2015


The diversity and complexity of the « urban conflicts » that are increasingly frequent in our cities have forced us to rethink the paradigms from which we try to interpret the contemporary contradictions of society. In this context, a series of concepts are resurfacing that consider space as a dimension of the object of claim, as important or even more important than the traditional, social or historical dimensions, in the understanding and eventual resolution of conflicts and considering space as much more than a simple support or stage on which social phenomena take place (Soja, 2010). It is considered as a relatively autonomous element super-structurally, which is not exclusively dependent on the bases of material production of the society and therefore, it is an object in itself, product and producer of social relations (Lefebvre, 1974). This is, for example, the case of new social movements that act on different scales, breaking down traditional temporal barriers and spaces and articulating local and global scales in a discontinuous process (Sassen, 2007). This is also the case of many movements, more or less organized, that fight for more urban justice and that have reinstated, little by little, the idea of the right to the city, understood as a political claim somewhat simplified and decontextualized from the general process of urbanization that gives the concept its origin (Lefebvre, 1968).

Traditionally in Latin America, the classical Marxist perspective seemed to dominate in the analysis of urban and territorial problems, under the influence of Castells (1971) and the concepts and methods of « The Urban Question ». Thus, it is likely that in our region, the urban problematic is approached through the Marxist prism according to which, «  as Marx and Engels explained in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), the city is a cultural product coherent with the economic action of a historically hegemonic social class, the bourgeoisie, which uses it as a tool for its affirmation » (Bettin, 1982:51). It is thus not considered as a more or less autonomous element in the dependence of the structure of material production of the society, investing the relation between the processes of industrialization, subordinating them to the generalized urbanization and to the field of the social reproduction. According to Lefebvre, «  the concept of (social) space and space itself, therefore, escape the classification «  base-structure-superstructure ". The hypothesis according to which « space appears, is formed, intervenes sometimes at one of the « levels », sometimes at the other. Sometimes in the work and in the relations of domination (of property), sometimes in the functioning of the superstructures (institutions). Thus unequally but everywhere. The production of space would not be «  dominant  » in the mode of production, but it would link the aspects of practice by coordinating them - by bringing them together in a « practice », precisely  » (Lefebvre, 1974:56).

Thus, on the one hand, there is an orthodox tradition in the Marxist interpretation of space and the city, and on the other hand, there is a certain simplification and abstraction of the idea of the right to the city, associated with urban justice understood as a model of a desired city, going beyond the equity of distribution, which should move towards a city that supports the full development of human capabilities for all (Marcuse, 2009). This paradox taken into account, and despite its limitations, the concept of the right to the city has opened the way to relatively new and revalued claims, offering, according to the Lefebvrean interpretation, a field of possibilities for socio-spatial transformation, eminently urban. It is about the possibility of a revolutionary outcome in a field parallel or complementary to the traditional struggle for production and work. According to this new perspective, the right to the city appears as a kind of post-capitalist ideal, impossible in the current conditions of modernization and very far from a program of political action that could be seized by any social movement in order to use it for its ends in a given territory. This does not mean that, as an ideal, it does not help to rethink the limits of the possible. For Lefebvre, according to Merrifield’s (2006) interpretation, the political utility of a concept does not consist in an exact reality, but in allowing experiments with reality. Thus, the right to the city cannot be limited to claiming, easily and abstractly, something that surrounds us.

So what is the right to the city? This is certainly not a simple question, but by studying the two tendencies we have previously described, on the one hand the Marxist orthodoxy and on the other the simplification and instrumentalization of the concept, there seem to be two possible answers.

First, we need to critically read the original concept, both in its definitions and in the general context of Lefebvrian thought, to conclude that there are no concrete elements for a program of political action, more developed than actions in given territories. This perspective shows us that in Lefebvre there is a general system of thought, articulated from a vision of the State, to the forms of daily life, where the right to the city is linked in an abstract way and is understood as an open field of realization of the subject.

On the other hand, it is also possible to understand the idea of the right to the city in accordance with Thomas’ theorem (1928) that «  if people define situations as real, these are real in their consequences ", that is to say, the concept of the right to the city has been transformed and distanced from the thought that saw its birth, according to the number of claims and punctual urban conflicts, modifying its meaning and its links with the general conception of space production.

In this article, we will adopt the first interpretation, starting from the analysis of the concept of the right to the city, in the light of the general system of Lefebvrean thought, and more particularly of the idea according to which the right to the city is situated in a context of production of space. This task will certainly not be exhaustive in view of the magnitude of the author’s work, but it aims to be a contribution to its understanding.

The object and the subject of the right to the city

Castells (1971) in The Urban Question, as well as Lefebvre (1968) in The Right to the City, show the importance of the role of grassroots organizations in the production and transformation of urban space and society in general. According to Castells (1974), urban social movements provoke a structural transformation of the urban system, seeking a new relationship between civil society and the State. The general objective that could be summarized to the so-called «  grassroots organizations ", is related to the original idea of Lefebvre (1968:168) to make concrete «  the mastery of freedom and the affirmation of a new humanism, a new type of man for whom and by whom the city and his own daily life in the city change into work, appropriation and use value.  » which often goes against the dynamics and structural understanding of the production of urban space. Although we are not before a new phenomenon observes a growing interest of the citizenry to manifest its willingness to intervene in urban processes, which generates initiatives to achieve their goals and where the institutional politics, as a traditional space of participation has lost its central role. The new social movements are pushing back the limits of political interference and institutionality and are challenging traditional forms of participation and alliances (Offe, 1996). In this context of general political transformation, the right to the city is understood as an alternative to traditional demands. As a field of «  non-transformative reforms  » (Fainstein, 2010), but where it is possible to move towards the construction of a more just city.

The subject of the right to the city thus seems to be both each and every individual, city dweller in a context of general under-politicization and increasingly weak institutions. As for the object of the right to the city, it seems to be any punctual claim that supposes a more just distribution of goods on its territory.

However, for Lefebvre this seems to be a false interpretation. As he argues, the right to the city is not a punctual or concrete claim, and even less the addition of the two. Indeed, the general production of urban space generates structural contradictions with conjunctural consequences. In this sense, «  The urbanization of society is accompanied by a deterioration of urban life […]. There is a real contradiction here. I call it the contradiction of space. On the one hand, the ruling class and the state strengthen the city as a center of power and political decision, on the other hand, the domination of this class and its state breaks up the city}  » (Lefebvre, 1973:144). «  It is with these suburban dwellers in mind, with segregation, with isolation, that I speak in a book of the « right to the city. » This is not a right in the legal sense of the word, but rather a right similar to those stipulated in the famous Declaration of Human Rights, the constitutive basis of democracy. These rights are never literally fulfilled, but they are always referred to in defining the situation in society  » (Lefebvre, ibid.).

The right to the city as the form of encounter and self-management ?

In reading Lefebvre, one understands that the basis of the right to the city is neither contractual nor natural, but is linked to the essential character of space. This character has a lot to do with the possibility of re-articulating the process of urban alienation, in which the city and everyday life in the city are transformed into work, appropriation and use value (Lefebvre, 1968). Thus, one cannot conceive of the right to the city as «  a simple right to visit or return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a right to urban life, transformed, renewed  » (Lefebvre, 1968:138).

This idea appears as a new and revolutionary concept of citizenship but linked to a general transformation of the process of production of space. That is, a process of transformation of the capitalist mode of production. One cannot re-establish the lost connections in the system : «  the revolution of space implies and amplifies the revolution defined as a change of the ownership of the means of production  » (Lefebvre, (1979:194). As a result, while planetary urbanization seems to be inevitable and necessary for the very reproduction of the capitalist system, the most likely consequence is what Merrifield (2011) identifies as the emergence of «  tragic intimacy ", i.e. proximity without sociability, presence without representation, encounter without true rapprochement, where the idea of the right to the city understood as «  « the urban », meeting place, priority of use value, inscription in space of a time promoted to the rank of supreme good among goods, finds its morphological basis, its practical-sensible realization  » (Lefebvre, 1970:108) is very unlikely. Lefebvre himself, speaking of the situation in France, asserted that: «  despite our revolutions and our democratic constitution, almost all the elements of social life are at a standstill. Everywhere, one encounters only inequalities. On all sides, one witnesses the spectacle of a life totally sclerotic by its rules  » (Lefebvre, 1976:138), which seems to be linked to a general system of social production of space, in its complexity, as physical, social and mental space.

Certainly, all this is not very encouraging, for «  there is a contradiction between the space that the state produces and controls and the space produced by private interests, especially capitalist interests. This phenomenon is particularly visible in cities where there is a scarce and homogeneous space, fragmented and at the same time equal. […] There is an intense contradiction between the center and the periphery […] contradiction between the hyperorganization that extends from the family to the state and an unbridled tendency toward individualism1 » (Lefebvre, 1977:146). Nevertheless, authors such as Merrifield or Lefebvre himself do not abandon the idea of the city as a form of encounter, having clearly in mind that if it is certain that the urban reality changes the relations of production, it does not manage to transform them (Lefebvre, 1968). In this perspective, Lefebvre pays special attention to the subjects who produce space in order to claim a certain emancipatory possibility, although this is still far from a coordinated program of action. On the one hand, the role of urban planners, architects and urban developers, and on the other hand, the revaluation of knowledge at the local level aim at the production of space through use value. At the «  macro-architectural and micro-urbanistic  » scale, as an intermediary space in which it would indeed be possible to achieve something in this sense «  According to Marx, the overthrow of the world implies the overthrow of dominant spaces (and in the domination of space) by replacing domination with appropriation, demand with ordering, and exchange value with use value  » (Lefebvre, 1979:194). Thus, the idea of self-management is revealed as a mechanism as well as a goal, as an end and a means to the transformation

of space. «  In the transformed space, a transformation of the relations between productive activities and the return of the internal market can and must exist, deliberately orienting towards spatial themes. It is space as a whole and in its production that must be redefined and thus will push for the necessary subversion and conversion in this sense  » (Lefebvre, 1979:194). The idea of self-management is neither more nor less an orientation. There is something perceived, imagined, conceived, and thematized but not yet systematized by society itself. Merrifield (2011) illustrates this : «  if we accept the urban as a specific terrain for political struggle, what will be the real picture of the right to the city ?  » If the urban process is global, fostered by finance capital, democratization must also be global (Merrifield, ibid.) and thus the image and concrete possibility of self-management is diluted. Merrifield, before this, proposes an alternative : a new elaboration of the idea of the right to the city. He develops an idea of a politics of the encounter, of radical, Lefebvrian moments, which would generate a «  constellation of moments  » without claiming any rights, but rather mediating between individual life and an emancipatory group fusion (Merrifield, ibid.)


In conclusion, we wish to emphasize the indispensability of an idea such as the right to the city. Linking this concept with the idea that : «  Marx defined production as production for social needs, and these, in large part, are related to space : housing, facilities, transportation, reorganization of urban space etc. This extends the tendency of capitalism to produce space, while radically changing its product  » (Lefebvre, 1979:193). Thus, we must, on the basis of the concept of space, confront a general trend of alienation in this area. However, we need to be clear about the real possibilities of this and other theoretical concepts, so that we can implement them in the best possible way without creating false expectations. Lefebvre’s right to the city is only possible in a general context of transformation of the capitalist system, in particular through the transformation of property rights. A transformation of the capitalist system does not only take place in the realm of production and labor, on the contrary, it is nourished and articulated in the city. According to Lefebvre, «  the revolution of space implies and amplifies the very concept of revolution, defined as a change in the ownership of the means of production. This gives it a new dimension, beginning with the suppression of a particularly dangerous form of private property, as is the ownership of space (in its various forms)  » (Lefebvre, 1979:194).

Moreover, the general context of space production engages the state, understood as a relevant actor in coordinating actions and in repression, in terms of instrumental space production. «  (In the world of state production) the state is not only a business owner but at the same time produces a space that it constructs itself, space planning being the most refined and subtle way through the balance of materials or commodities and the financial balance. Spatial planning in the hands of the state […] develops through paths that are difficult to understand : the control of com-munications, electrical networks, highways, etc.  » (Lefebvre, 1976:141).

The state is thus part of a mode of social production of space that further limits the possibilities of the right to the city, and even more so when the contradictions take place on a global scale. «  The class struggle, worker-boss, is an outdated idea, […] the essential phenomenon takes place at the level of the state or at the level of global society as a whole, and has to do with the distribution of global surplus value  » (Lefebvre, 1976:144).

In this perspective, for Lefebvre, total democratization seems to be the only alternative, and this on the basis of a rather orthodox approach to traditional Marxism. That is to say that :   »the strengthening of the state from below, which leads it to merge with society and thus to become less powerful, is the only form that allows the present state to act effectively against multinational corporations, in other words, democratization, the invention of a deeper and more concrete democracy, is the only way to fight against these terrible powers, which we only suspect of their effectiveness and their dangerosity. Only democracy allows us to avoid catastrophes »(Lefebvre, 1976:147). This can be seen as the general concept of the right to the city, understood as a component in an explanatory matrix of the production and reproduction of space. This concept is linked to political practice, it inspires, illuminates, generates concrete actions on the territory but it remains in the field of critical theory. According to many studies and authors, social movements claim things related to the socio-territorial consequences of these processes, emphasizing the unsustainable and destructive character of the current forms of urbanization, which makes necessary an alternative in the different dimensions and scales of urban life. Brenner, Marcuse and Mayer (2012) clearly shows how in a context where the excessive commodification of the city generates consequences that intensify the contradictions of the model and produce social movements and pressure to change things. There is an urgent need to define a critical urban theory that can account, as honestly as possible, for an urban phenomenon that goes beyond its own boundaries to find an alternative to a status quo of the capitalist process of urbanization (Brenner et al. 2012).

Today more than ever, the idea of the right to the city must be maintained as an ideal of general urban policy and must be transformed into a political practice that goes further than specific claims that can be exclusionary. The right to the city must conceive of the whole of society and its relationship with the territory in order to be able to implement the general right to the city effectively. This is not an easy task, as there is precisely no plausible alternative to advance this concept. Smith’s (2009) phrase about a dead but still relevant capitalism no longer seems so clear. On the contrary, at each of its crises and contradictions, the system can count on strong support, and, according to Harvey (2014:14) : «  the forces of the traditional left (political parties and unions) are clearly unable to organize robust opposition against the power of capital. […] what remains of the radical left now mostly acts outside the channels of organized or institutional opposition, waiting for small-scale actions and local activism to eventually converge into a satisfactory alternative. …] Autonomous, anarchist and local views and actions are legion, but because the left wants to change the world without taking power, the plutocratic capitalist class, ever stronger, continues unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without limit. This new ruling class is supported by the controlling security state which does not hesitate to use its repressive powers to crush any form of dissent2  » (Harvey, ibid.) In the face of this, the right to the city must be implemented quickly as a political action program.

1 Translator’s note : clean translation, the work having not been translated into French

2 Translator’s note : clean translation, as the work has not yet been translated into French


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