Thursday, September 22, 2011

Henri Lefebvre and ecosocialism

By Adam Whitford 
Socialist Resistance
September 22, 2011

Henri Lefebvre
Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) is famous for writing about space: not outer space, but social space. He looks at how space is created and used under capitalism, and how different social forces could shape space differently. His influence is apparent in the work of Marxist economic geographer David Harvey, and in the debates about the impact of occupations of buildings and public spaces in the Middle East, Greece, the Spanish State, Britain and Israel.

Here I want to focus on the possible links between Lefebvre’s arguments in his book The Production of Space (1974; translated from French in 1991) and contemporary ecosocialist approaches.[1] Ecosocialism, as it has developed since the 1990s, is based on the twin notions that ecological sustainability is indispensable if we are to achieve prosperity and equality for all human beings, and that such a society would be impossible under capitalism. What, then, can Lefebvre tell us about the spatial relationship that capitalism has constructed with the earth and with its human inhabitants? What alternative set of relationships does he have in mind?

We can start by noting that The Production of Space (PoS) represents something of a response to the ecological movement of the 1970s. Thus Lefebvre presents an apparently isolated object, a house, as connected to wider networks of energy:

‘One might almost see [the house] as the epitome of immovability, with its concrete and its stark, cold and rigid outlines. … Now, a critical analysis would doubtless destroy the appearance of solidity of this house, …In the light of this imaginary analysis, our house would emerge as permeated from every direction by streams of energy which run in and out of every imaginable route: water, gas, electricity, telephone lines, radio and television signals, and so on…. (PoS, 92-3).

Lefebvre goes on to extend this model of energy flows to the street, and thence to a whole city, ending the passage with a striking image:

…the city, which consumes (in both senses of the word) truly colossal quantities of energy, both physical and human, and which is in effect a constantly burning, blazing bonfire. (PoS, 93)

In contrast to such an approach, capitalism has traditionally tried to make us think about the things people buy, or purchase the use of – a car, a flat, etc – as separated from such networks. Under capitalism, each object has its own magical value. In picking out these commodities as individual objects, advertising tends to present them as special, separate, unique to you. This magic of the commodity , momentarily isolated from its surroundings, is what Marx calls its fetish value. The private car, for Lefebvre, is our fetish object number one: “ In this society where things are more important than human beings, there is a king-object, a pilot-object : the automobile. Our society, so called industrial, or technical, has this symbol, a thing invested with prestige and power …”[2] In fetishising such objects, then, we commonly fail to recognise the material foundations on which their existence depends; these foundations comprise not only wage labour, but the energy which this labour both harnesses and embodies.

How is it that Lefebvre is able to view things in this interconnected way? It is not just that he has been influenced by ecological radicalism. His dialectical approach means that he never sees phenomena as separate and self-contained objects, but as part of wider processes. For him, as for Heraclitus, Epicurus and his followers, the Chinese Daoists, Hegel and Marx (who wrote a thesis on Epicureanism), nothing remains the same, everything is in movement.

His approach thus stands in opposition to the more rigid outlook associated with the early capitalism and the 17th century European scientific revolution. The philosopher Rene Descartes developed the idea of a powerful, rational, human subject (‘I think, therefore I am’) separated from but dominating physical space. The astronomer Isaac Newton saw space as essentially an empty void, filled occasionally with objects such as stars and planets and molecules, which were solid, like billiard balls. Einsteinian physics and quantum theory have dealt a series of blows to such confident simplicities. They present space not as empty, but as traversed by interconnections, by energy waves. Solid elementary particles meanwhile turn out to be far from solid; they become concentrations of energy. But the old view of an empty space inhabited by solid objects (such as the house) is still ‘common sense’ in modern societies, and it is one that has been promoted by capitalism itself.

Why is this? Lefebvre explains that capitalists need to exercise their power over space in order that they can make a profit. This is not only about marking out private property; it involves having a command over one’s own national territory, as well as dependent territories. This means that capitalists will tend to see a space partly as ‘empty’ (think: Zionists in Palestine, the colonisation of North America, the straight lines demarcating the frontiers of African and Middle Eastern nations) and partly as containing certain objects, which can either be turned into commodities (minerals, oil, labour resources), or which are obstacles to the process of commodification and have to be destroyed or neutralised (insurgents, resistant communities, natural obstacles). For these purposes, accurate maps organised on a grid system have proved essential .

But, one may object, surely all the talk about globalisation is proof that capitalists don’t any longer think in Cartesian or Newtonian terms? The media gives us a picture of a planet traversed by flows of energy, resources, capital, labour. We are all familiar with those images of bright cities at night seen from space, of internet connections, of airline routes, all of which can evoke the vitality and dynamism of global capitalism.

There are, in fact, two tendencies of capitalism which converge here. On the one hand, everything and everywhere is seen as potentially subject to change, open to inflows from elsewhere; on the other hand, everything is potentially classifiable, and thus capable of being fixed in place and plotted on the abstract spatial grid of power. The Communist Manifesto famously summed up the experience of capitalist modernity in the phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. But the fragmentation and disorientation that we feel is only part of that experience: simultaneously we come up against something very solid – structures of exploitation and control, in the form of the capitalist market and state. Capitalism thus constructs a “a visual space of transparency and readability… nothing in it escapes the surveillance of power” [PoS 147].

Nonetheless, Lefebvre also invokes, inspiringly, the spectre of resistance – a ‘counter-space’, which is developed wherever the rule of capital is being fought.

We know what counter-projects consist or what counter-space consists in – because practice demonstrates it. When a community fights the construction of urban motorways or housing developments, when it demands ‘amenities’ or empty spaces for play and encounter, we can see how a counter-space can insert itself into spatial reality: against the Eye and the Gaze, against quantity and homogeneity, against power and the arrogance of power, against the endless expansion of the ‘private’ and of industrial profitability. [PoS 381-2]

This ‘Eye’ which must be resisted, Lefebvre clarifies elsewhere, is ‘the eye of God, of the Father, of the Master or Boss’, the eye that watches over capitalist social space. Thus he understood the political significance of these local ‘environmental’ challenges to power before most of the Left, who would have tended to dismiss them as the work of a few middle-class cranks. Perhaps Lefebvre gives the over-optimistic impression that local campaigns will spontaneously cohere and present an alternative to the system – but he does recognise that these conflicts over space must achieve ‘resolution’ in the form of a different method of organising society, otherwise we are doomed to keep fighting over – literally – the same old ground. What he is sceptical about (and this is one area where I would differ from him) is the necessity for a political party or parties to give direction to this resistance.[PoS 381]

Nature is a key referent in Lefebvre’s argument. He argues, however, that nature has been ‘defeated’: ‘natural space’ is on the point of disappearing [PoS 30-1]. This all started, he says, when humans developed tools, thus alienating themselves from nature. This process has latterly been hugely shaped – and accelerated – by capitalism, but the source of original sin is in human consciousness itself, which aims to subordinate nature to its purposes. [PoS 376].

The ecosocialist Daniel Tanuro would disagree on both counts:

It is not nature that is in crisis, but the historically determined relationship between humanity and its environment. This crisis is not due to the intrinsic characteristics of the human species but to the mode of production that became dominant about two centuries ago — capitalism — and the modes of consumption and mobility that it entails.[3]

Nonetheless, Lefebvre goes on to propose that , faced with the catastrophic degradation of nature, the aim of socialists should be to develop a ‘second nature’. [PoS 376] What would this ‘second nature’ be like? Lefebvre gives us few clues, but it would be based on ‘appropriation’ of Nature rather than ‘domination’[PoS 376]. It would by no means be the techno-utopia beloved of modernists, but it would owe its existence to the possibilities opened up by huge technological advance, above all to automation which would be controlled by human beings rather than controlling them. Humans could then construct a nature which would be both a product of science and technology, and a creative work of art [PoS 409].

Tanuro has argued that such ‘mastery’ of nature, in the classical Marxist sense, is impossible, given nature’s complexity and unpredictability. But it is perhaps easier to accept Lefebvre’s related point, that under socialism the sharp distinction between humanity and nature , upheld in their different ways by both capitalists and ecological radicals, would have to be broken down. David Harvey has similarly pointed out that building an ecologically sustainable human society would require active engagement with nature. ‘For Marxists’, he has stated, ‘there can be no going back, as many ecologists seem to propose, to an unmediated relation to nature’[4]. A ‘pure’, ‘untouched’ natural environment is a fantasy under any circumstances.

Lefebvre also criticises those socialists who cleave “to an ideology of growth which, if it is not actually aligned with bourgeois ideology, is close to it” [PoS 422]. “There are those who want a ‘socialism’ in the industrialised countries that would simply continue along the path of growth and accumulation” [PoS 357] Instead, he argues, revolutionaries must put “the process of purely quantitative growth into question”[ibid]. Rather than focusing on the production of more things in space, a socialist society would create a qualitatively different space, a space of solidarity, creativity and love.

Reading The Production of Space can be a frustrating experience. Its argument may seem abstract, vague, circular – because it frequently is. But it is also remarkable to watch a Marxist in his (and the) early seventies actively engaging with the issues brought into the light once again by the rise of the modern green movement. It is only in the last decade that some socialist organisations, not just individual academics, have begun to take on board the challenge posed by ecological theory and practice. In this context, Lefebvre still has a good deal to teach us.


1) A 2002 special issue of the academic journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism also attempts to engage in various ways with the implications of Lefebvre’s thought for Marxist ecology.

2) Henri Lefebvre, Contre les technocrates, 1967, re-edited in 1971 as Vers le cybernanthrope, Paris, Denoel, p.14. Quoted and translated by Michael Lowy in “The revolutionary romanticism of May 68”, February 2002,

3) Daniel Tanuro, “Foundations of an ecosocialist strategy” . First published in Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, No.6, autumn 2011. Translated by Richard Fidler at

4) David Harvey , “The Nature of Environment: Dialectics of Social and Environmental Change”, Socialist Register, 1993, p.42.

Further Reading:

Rob Shields, Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics, Routledge, 1999

Andrew Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre: a critical introduction, Routledge, 2006.

Lefebvre’s work on space is the key inspiration for David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, 1989), which succeeds as no other book does in explaining shifting cultural experiences in terms of changes in the use of space under capitalism.

John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2000) discusses, among other things, the young Marx’ s engagement with the materialists of classical antiquity, particularly Epicurus and Lucretius.

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