September 22, 2011
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. 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)
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.
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]
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.
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].
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, www.essf.lautre.net)
3) Daniel Tanuro, “Foundations of an ecosocialist strategy” . First published in Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, No.6, autumn 2011. Translated by Richard Fidler at http://lifeonleft.blogspot.com/2011/09/foundations-of-ecosocialist-strategy.html
4) David Harvey , “The Nature of Environment: Dialectics of Social and Environmental Change”, Socialist Register, 1993, p.42.
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.