Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ordering Space in a Post-Capitalist World: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space

What would a society that moves beyond capitalism towards a humanitarian or egalitarian space look like? For Henri Lefebvre, contemporary global spatial relations rest on a foundation supporting the continued enfranchisement of the wealthiest segment of society. Lefebvre’s La Production de L’Espace (1974), well translated by Donald Nicholson~Smith in 1991 and published by Blackwell Publishing argues that urban designs developed in the epoch of capitalism hinder the functioning of a more egalitarian world model. Lefebvre asserts that wholly new spatial coding would be necessary for the implementation of a socialist utopia.

For Lefebvre the conceiving of space by the current ruling class maintains unequal relations of power, whether intentional or a product of the relations of power which came into being following the collapse of the feudal order. In order to maintain the structure of power relations, tools of social abstraction are deployed in zoning and architectural planning. Lefebvre points out on page 316 that “For the working class, as is well known, the primary product of capitalism in its ‘ascendant’ phase . . . was the slums at the edge of the city.” This has evolved since the initial rise of capitalism, but the international distribution of labor still operates under this basic system of labor extraction. He maintains that minimal housing for the most marginal segments of any population under this rubric of social organization is carefully managed both physically and culturally.

The strategic space of capitalism and its own social space “becomes a space that sorts – a space that classifies in the service of class,” Lefebvre writes, on page 375, while it pretends to do away with want in providing tolerable housing and minimal sustenance. In designing urban and rural spaces with these aims, power forces “worrisome groups, the workers among others towards the periphery.” According to his argumentation the very organization of the living situation in cities, in towns, and between the town and the surrounding rural spaces is designed to retain the wealthiest persons in their positions as such. These designs blur the relations of production from working class consciousness. Indeed, we have recently seen that the thresholds of tolerance have become so well culturally maintained by the culture industry in the United States as to force millions of homes to go empty and even become unnecessarily demolished, even as their former residents erect tent cities throughout the country. Lefebvre’s argument holds true today.

Lefebvre sees this spatial ordering as an impediment to the integration and production of an alternate, socialist space. He writes on page 379 that “innumerable groups, some ephemeral, some more durable, have sought to invent a ‘new life’ – usually a communal one," although he notes that these experiments have often failed because they relied on the orderings of capitalist relations. Then what space is appropriate for such a socially progressive enterprise? Lefebvre outlines a brief synopsis of how the development of a socialist space could take place in his first chapter where he prescribes, on page 55, that its strategy “would be founded on small and medium sized businesses and on towns of a size compatible with that emphasis.” Furthermore, Lefebvre’s utopian development would seek to enhance the entirety of the land at its disposal “forward together” and it would not disjoin “growth from development.” Therefore, Lefebvre’s ideal spatial re-coding allows workers to live geographically with the means of production spread throughout a more evenly developed landscape, one in which power doesn’t diffuse from a center, but arises throughout.

Put more simply, a more egalitarian world – according to this line of thinking – would necessitate the development and planning of a new code of urban and rural design.

1 comment:

Devin Zane Shaw said...

You might also want to check out, regarding the organization of space and the marginalization of the poor, Mike Davis' "Planet of Slums"