Car culture also marked another step in the rejection of the limits of the human body and of the infinitely rich social life of the street, trading the not-yet fully explored powers of human sociability for the hollow rewards of a disembodied petty domination. While mass transit had also encouraged the violation of these limits, car culture erased the space of encounter that remains in the subway car, substituting for it the isolation and domination, the taking of space, inherent in the automobile as a technology. Auto—the prefix itself signaled the ongoing shift in values, the way that the perspective of an isolated self, its desires realized not in concert with others but against them, would vanquish the possibility for an infinitely richer intersubjective experience. Individualism, Lefebvre wrote, “is not simply a theory, but also a fact and a class weapon.”7Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I: Introduction, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), 151.
The Right to the City
Can we get the city back, which would also mean getting it for the first time? If capital produces places and people in its own image, can we produce them in ours? What principles might guide dissident imaginations? What acts might realize them?
The “right to the city,” as Lefebvre coined the term, was not the right merely to exist at a given point in space. Nor was it a bounded right, granted in sufferance by a weary state, temporary, contingent, fleeting, its grip perpetually slipping until the next crisis exhausts and cancels it. In the context of the city’s recovery from its mid-1970s brush with bankruptcy—less a recovery than a restructuring that left the city more dependent than ever on a perpetual juicing of land values—partial decommodifications of housing that seemed like rights turned out to be customs. The history of rent control, granted pragmatically in the midst of a world war, preserved in the face of a postwar housing crisis that threatened to destabilize the city, and battered ever since, is instructive. Without a consistent, independent social force to defend them, rent control and policies like it fell victim to the gradual recapture of the state by capital.8On conceptualizing the right to the city, see Neil Gray, “Beyond the Right to the City: Territorial Autogestion and the Take over the City Movement in 1970s Italy,” Antipode 50, no. 2 (March 2018), 319–339.
But the true right to the city is something other than and beyond even a well-defended set of rent controls. Lefebvre spoke of it as the right to the oeuvre, to collective authorship of a great work. The notion of the work describes an overall project, a total, disalienated practice where technical and spiritual progress walk hand-in-hand. It recalls the mindset of the alchemist, of science in its expansive, pre-modern guise, before the dialectic of a capitalist enlightenment tightened around it, narrowing reason and yoking knowledge to domination, inaugurating what now looks like a centuries-long death spiral culminating in the elimination of the basic conditions for life on the planet. The right to the city, for Lefebvre, was less a guarantee than a practice, immeasurably broader than this or that constitutional right. It incorporated the right to participate—to deploy one’s powers in a collective process of shaping the world—and to appropriate—to enjoy the use of that world, not in the hollow fashion of private property, a way of using that excludes and impoverishes others, but a social appropriation where the process of shaping the world is at once the process of shaping oneself in concert with others. “The important thing is not that I should become the owner of a little plot of land in the mountains,” wrote Lefebvre, “but that the mountains be open to me.”9Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I, 158. To use the world without destroying it or the people in it—this is the dream of the right to the city.
Once we grasp what the right to the city means, it becomes clear that this freedom could not be granted in any thorough or meaningful way without significant damage to private property, exploitation, capital accumulation, and their management by the state. The right to the city becomes an active one, realized through jagged experimentation in struggles against capital and the state. It becomes less a right in the ordinary, liberal sense of the term than a principle, a limit point, a horizon against which our acts in the present can be measured. It becomes a revolutionary demand.
We need these speculative abstractions, this intuition of the whole, to orient our practice and guard against the magnetic force of opportunism, pulling us into that rut that Lefebvre called “reformism without reforms,” enjoying rights granted precisely because they do not call into question the principles on which the system rests. For this reason, the right to the city acquires, by definition, an insurrectionary dimension. When the bar slips too low, or when the horizon of struggle becomes purely defensive, one has already lost.
Struggling for what seems impossible in the moment, on the other hand, makes for good strategy on three counts. First, it enlarges our collective imagination, allowing us to see other worlds, making the limit point of our struggles concrete, convincing us that there is another way. Second, it can leave us in a stronger position when struggles fall short, as they tend to do, of a wholesale transformation of social relationships. Finally, this act of imagination, this struggle to enact the future, educates, steels, and potentiates us for the next struggle.