I just got back from a great time at the Association of American Geographers conference in New York. I participated in a session on Henri Lefebvre organized by Andy Merrifield and Louis Moreno. Participants included Peter Marcuse, Erik Swyngedouw, Lukasz Stanek, Miguel Robles-Duran, Don Mitchell, Ed Soja, and Neil Smith. It was an amazing line-up, and the sessions attracted enough people to fill a ballroom, which was quite a thrill for me. Below is the text of the talk I gave, which was an argument that we should be attentive to Lefebvre’s desire for democracy…
Lefebvre and Democracy
AAG 2012: “From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution: Lefebvre Reconsidered”
Hi everyone. Thanks to Andy and Louis for the invitation to be here in these exciting sessions.
Lo llaman democracia: it’s called democracy.
What I want to do today is to make a case for thinking about Lefebvre’s political project as a project for democracy. I don’t mean that in an essentialist or reductionist way. I won’t argue that his project is really about democracy, that we misread him if we don’t see democracy as the unifying idea and true soul of his project. I mean instead that in Lefebvre’s political project, there is an unmistakable and powerful desire for democracy, one I think is compelling and extremely relevant to the present moment.
Before I get to Lefebvre’s democracy, though, let me contextualize my argument a bit. I will draw what I say today from a book I just finished. In the book I argue that in the current context, we should be thinking and acting politically under the banner of democracy. As you can see from the images, if we do so we will be joining a whole host of others who did so in 2011.
So in the book, I develop a way to think about democracy built out of a close reading of Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe, Hardt and Negri, Rancière, as well as the fiction and essays of David Foster Wallace. I think it is easy to see in all of their work a deep desire for democracy, and this desire is actually quite similar across the various writers. So the book assembles an idea of democracy that is a kind of bricolage made out of the desires of these multiple authors.
So let me try to offer a too-brief account of what that idea of democracy is. I argue for a radical conception of democracy, something along the lines of what Spinoza called absolute democracy, democracy as a form of living together in which people, all the people, directly manage their affairs for themselves. It is what people in the squares in 2011 were calling “real democracy.” Democracy in this sense is not a form of government, or a state, or parties, or laws, or bureaucracies, or representative institutions, and so this means that a return to a strong state (welfare state, social democracy, Keynesianism), whatever benefits it offers in the present moment, is not a particularly democratic project.
Such an absolute, direct democracy is of course susceptible to the objection that it is impossible. It is impossible for all the people, everyone together, to govern themselves directly. This objection holds an element of truth, and so I argue we should think of democracy not so much as a state of being, but, to use Lefebvre’s terms, as a path we travel toward a horizon. Democracy is less a state of being than a struggle to become democratic, an ongoing effort to manage our affairs for ourselves as much as we can. In a 1964 essay, Lefebvre says that democracy nothing other than a permanent struggle for democracy. It is becoming-democratic.