The Right against the City

24 October 2012, originally published at Critical Legal Thinking


On the co-optation of the ‘right to the city’ by the Greek far right, Golden Dawn.

Image: Golden Dawn on the Streets

“Reclaim our cit­ies”. “Self-​organise”. “Take neigh­bour­hood action”. Con­sider these slo­gans for a moment. Sound famil­iar? Indeed they should, echo­ing as they do a body of schol­ar­ship (e.g. Amin & Thrift, 2005; But­ler, 2012; Chat­ter­ton, 2010; Dikeç, 2001; Har­vey, 2003; Leon­tidou, 2006, 2010; Mar­cuse, 2009; Mayer, 2009; Simone, 2005) stem­ming from Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the Right to the City (Lefe­b­vre, 1996; hence­forth RttC). Des­pite this com­mon ori­gin, inter­pret­a­tions of the Lefe­b­v­rian “right” have been most diverse; per­haps his own often-​times abstract writ­ing has inad­vert­ently caused this schol­ar­ship to reach out­side the con­fines of his own polit­ical alle­gi­ance and thought: ten years ago, Mark Pur­cell (2002) pro­tested that the ori­ginal RttC notion was more rad­ical than his own con­cur­rent lit­er­at­ure would make it appear. But today, a reform­ist inter­pret­a­tion of Lefe­b­vre might be the least of the wor­ries we are faced with here, on the south-​eastern shore of the Medi­ter­ranean that is the Greek territory.

This intervention’s open­ing words were a pre-​electoral pledge by Ant­onis Samaras, the country’s cur­rent PM. Shortly after his rise to power in June 2012, Samaras made sure of keep­ing to his word. In early August police launched an oper­a­tion1 allegedly to crack down on illegal immig­ra­tion; in its first couple of days alone approx­im­ately 6,700 people were detained,2 com­fort­ably set­ting a record for the num­ber of indi­vidu­als detained in a single day since at least the end of the country’s dic­tat­or­ship (1974). In a ludicrously incred­ibly ironic twist the oper­a­tion was dubbed “Xenios Zeus”, after the god of guest pro­tec­tion in ancient Greece. Mean­while, encour­aged by its unpar­alleled elect­oral suc­cess,3 the unashamedly Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) party has been lead­ing a full-​out, mil­it­ant street-​based oper­a­tion while call­ing for people to take the law into their own hands, vigilante-​style. As a res­ult nearly 500 racist attacks were recor­ded against migrants between Feb­ru­ary and August 2012 alone, accord­ing to the country’s Migrant Work­ers’ Asso­ci­ation.4 The main elect­oral slo­gan of the GD has an inex­tric­able spa­ti­al­ity, too: “gia na xebrwmίsei o tόpos”“so we can rid the place of filth. And, least we for­get, the build-​up to the GD’s unpar­alleled elect­oral suc­cess began with a very mod­est pledge to take neigh­bour­hood action, when it chose to focus on organ­ising loc­ally, grassroots-​style, in the cent­ral Athens neigh­bour­hood of Agios Pan­telei­mo­nas. All this at the same time as the country’s left-​wing, anarch­ist and broader ant­ag­on­ist move­ment was enthused in the after­math of the Decem­ber 2008 upris­ing (Vradis & Dalako­glou, 2008).

Per­haps a reflex response against this thun­der­ous land­ing of the Right into the realm of every­day urban organ­ising and act­ing would be to cry “recu­per­a­tion”. Surely, in the same way that the Greek police unashamedly inver­ted the mean­ing of “guest pro­tec­tion”, it could be claimed that the reac­tion­ary force that is the GD has twis­ted the mean­ing of eman­cip­at­ory thought? Claim­ing so, how­ever, would be ignor­ing our duty to pro­tect such thought against the pre­cise force it is sup­posed to oppose. Surely see­ing Deleuze, Guat­tari and Debord being ref­er­enced in a mil­it­ary train­ing manual (Weiz­man, 2006) should have made a clear enough warn­ing sign?

The rise of the Golden Dawn was unpre­dicted and — accord­ing to the intel­lec­tual tools at the dis­posal of crit­ical aca­dem­ics — ostens­ibly inex­plic­able, too. This is a bit­ter les­son: we failed to fore­see what would hap­pen, and we have failed to pro­tect soci­ety against the com­ing cata­strophe. But for us crit­ical geo­graph­ers, there is an addi­tional bur­den. The lan­guage used by the GDgives a valu­able les­son par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to our dis­cip­line — and to our attempt, through the RttC lit­er­at­ure, to for­mu­late a cri­tique against exist­ing urban order, yet a cri­tique only too often lost in an a-​historical, but often delib­er­ate abstraction.

Con­sider the dis­par­ity Pur­cell iden­ti­fied between Lefebvre’s fest­ive RttC notion and more recent RttC schol­ar­ship. On the one hand, a Right to the City echo­ing the eph­oric post-​1968 belief that the world was about to change for ever, that an eman­cip­at­ory social trans­form­a­tion was ante portas — and that this eman­cip­a­tion would stem from and ground itself in a shift in the way urban space was pro­duced and lived. On the other hand, a more recent Right to the City schol­ar­ship that often con­ceals a key fact, the fact that it has arisen by and large as an exodus through scale. Claim­ing a RttC has not merely been a “way to respond to neo­lib­eral urb­an­ism” (Pur­cell, 2002: 99) but a way to escape an ostens­ible inab­il­ity to influ­ence agen­das on the national, or inter­na­tional scale; think, here, of the largely reac­tion­ary cli­mate in US under Reagan and the UK under Thatcher in the 1980s. Claim­ing the RttC was to claim asylum away from neo­lib­eral national agen­das of the time; an exodus that came as a neces­sity. Or even think of the later claim of RttC as paci­fic­a­tion: “a “new urb­an­ism” move­ment that touts the sale of com­munity and boutique life­styles to ful­fil urban dreams” (Har­vey, 2009: 323)⁠. Even so, in both cases, the RttC held a prom­ise of a polit­ics that was closer to the human scale, of a poten­tial to influ­ence our imme­di­ate sur­round­ings, the way in which we act and live. Per­haps a great fal­lacy — it now seems, in hind­sight — was that we per­haps allowed ourselves to believe that urban polit­ics could exist inde­pend­ently, in the ether of the city itself. The seem­ingly abrupt, viol­ent enter­ing of the far-​right into the urban arena and its own claim of a RttC comes as a sur­prise to many of us, but it should not have been. Neither as crit­ical geo­graph­ers, nor as part of the broader social ant­ag­on­ist move­ment (whatever label we each affix to ourselves) do we hold any mono­poly over the under­stand­ing that build­ing a grass­roots pres­ence can seep through scale, often-​times to reach at the heart of power. What to do once there — abol­ish it (in the case of anti-​authoritarians) or seize it (in the case of authoritarians) — is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter; yet the path­way to reach that exact point appears identical nevertheless.

By now there is a fact: (neo)Nazis and the ultra-​conservative, author­it­arian and neo­lib­eral gov­ern­ments fol­low­ing the dic­tate of the EU, IMF and ECB in Greece have both chosen a scale of inter­ven­tion that was, until recently, almost mono­pol­ised by voices of the social ant­ag­on­ist move­ment and crit­ical Left: the urban scale. What lies ahead is a crit­ical ques­tion: how does one pro­ceed from now on? As Michael Watts (2010) also asks, “what might [the irres­ist­ible rise of a rad­ical right] imply for being rad­ical (of an alto­gether dif­fer­ent hue) today”? One, most unre­com­men­ded, option would be to with­draw our col­lect­ive force from the urban and in retreat, to attempt anotherexodus through scale, just like the one that reju­ven­ated RttC schol­ar­ship in the face of neo­lib­eral dom­in­a­tion. It is dif­fi­cult even to com­pre­hend what level of cata­strophe another retreat of this kind might bring. A second option — essen­tially, the only one viable — would be for us to use this unpre­ced­en­ted attack as an oppor­tun­ity, an oppor­tun­ity to define solidly what in this par­tic­u­lar scale of inter­ven­tion (the urban) is polit­ic­ally allur­ing and fer­tile for the broader move­ment of social and human eman­cip­a­tion. By now of course, we have the addi­tional urgency to ensure, by a suf­fi­ciently rapid and metic­u­lous inter­ven­tion in the urban scale, that the onslaught of the Right against the city is not unstoppable.

The task is urgent, but the tar­get is by no means unreach­able. Even now, it should not be for­got­ten that we are still act­ing in our own ter­rain and — quite lit­er­ally — under our own terms: the use of a RttC rhet­oric by the Right and the far-​Right is entirely deceiv­ing; total­it­arian, fas­cist and neo-​Nazi action is essen­tially anti–urban. Anti–urban, if by urban one is to under­stand the amal­gam of dif­fer­ent cul­tures, con­cep­tu­al­isa­tions, peoples that make a city thrive. Urban as a place of encounter (Lefe­b­vre 1996: 158); an encounter, in turn, as a means for a more socially and polit­ic­ally enriched life. It is in this way — and this way only — that city air makes us free. Oth­er­wise, liv­ing in a sterile, com­part­ment­al­ised con­urba­tion is most likely to allow only a hal­lu­cin­a­tion of free­dom. This is why the archetypal step toward urbi­cide (the killing of cit­ies) has always been the abrupt, viol­ent uproot­ing of all that is dif­fer­ent. Everything else — the phys­ical destruc­tion of urban infra­struc­ture, the uproot­ing of peoples — is pre­ceded by the form­a­tion of a crit­ical dis­tance between the per­pet­rat­ors and their victims.

To cre­ate a false dis­tance between ‘loc­als’ and ‘for­eign­ers’ and then to try to enforce racially-​defined ‘order’ between the two is essen­tially anti-​urban, turn­ing against the dis­order that Sen­nett (1970) read as a quint­es­sen­tial ingredi­ent of urban life. And it is also in this sense — even if through an ini­tial pro­cess of neg­a­tion — that crit­ical geo­graphy schol­ars now have an invalu­able oppor­tun­ity to rethink rad­ic­ally and to reshape the mean­ing of the RttC. Our right to the city is not the attack against what is dif­fer­ent, weak, repressed. Nor is it, how­ever (or it should not be), a hol­istic accept­ance of every­one act­ing in the urban ter­rain. A truly eman­cip­at­ory RttC should, by defin­i­tion, exclude those now attack­ing the urban psyche. This RttC should be neither a slo­gan hol­low of mean­ing in lieu of polit­ical sub­stance, nor a frag­men­ted invoc­a­tion to the powers that be. Where it would end is unknown. But it would most def­in­itely start from an under­stand­ing that any struggle in the urban ter­rain is in con­tinu­ation to struggles for eman­cip­a­tion in every single other social and polit­ical scale. Speak­ing of his ori­ginal RttC notion Lefe­b­vre (1996: 195) warned: “it does not abol­ish con­front­a­tions and struggles. On the con­trary!” There is little time to pon­der, and no space to retreat: we must build our own alle­gi­ances and alli­ances, seek out what it is that has made the urban a fer­tile ground for eman­cip­at­ory thought and hold it dear, fight for it. It is no longer a rhet­or­ical ques­tion, or a scalar retreat; fight­ing for, and not just claim­ing, a right to the city will more than ever encap­su­late and at the same time decide the fate of the social and polit­ical struggles lying ahead.

Ant­onis Vradis is a PhD Can­did­ate at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and a mem­ber of the Occu­pied Lon­don col­lect­ive www​.occu​pied​lon​don​.org


— Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2005). What’s Left? Just the Future. Anti­pode,37(2), 220 – 238. doi:10.1111/j.0066 – 4812.2005.00488.x
— But­ler, C. (2012). Henri Lefe­b­vre. Spa­tial Polit­ics, Every­day Life and the Right to the City. Lon­don: Rout­ledge.
— Chat­ter­ton, P. (2010). The urban impossible: A eulogy for the unfin­ished city. City14(3), 234 – 244. doi:10.1080/13604813.2010.482272
— Dikeç, M. (2001). Justice and the spa­tial ima­gin­a­tion. Envir­on­ment and Plan­ning A33(10), 1785 – 1805. doi:10.1068/a3467
— Har­vey, D. (2003). The right to the city. Inter­na­tional Journal of Urban and Regional Research27(4), 939 – 941. doi:10.1111/j.0309 – 1317.2003.00492.x
— Har­vey, D. (2009). Social justice and the city. Athens, GA: The Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia Press.
— Lefe­b­vre, H. (1996). Right to the City. In E. Kof­man & E. Lebas (Eds.),Writ­ings on Cit­ies. Oxford: Black­well.
— Leon­tidou, L. (2006). Urban social move­ments: from the “right to the city” to transna­tional spa­ti­al­it­ies and flan­eur act­iv­ists. City10(3), 259 – 268. doi:10.1080/13604810600980507
— Leon­tidou, L. (2010). Urban Social Move­ments in “Weak” Civil Soci­et­ies: The Right to the City and Cos­mo­pol­itan Act­iv­ism in South­ern Europe. Urban Stud­ies47(6), 1179 – 1203. doi:10.1177/0042098009360239
— Mar­cuse, P. (2009). From crit­ical urban the­ory to the right to the city.City13(2 – 3), 185 – 197. doi:10.1080/13604810902982177
— Mayer, M. (2009). The “Right to the City” in the con­text of shift­ing mot­tos of urban social move­ments. City13(2 – 3), 362 – 374. doi:10.1080/13604810902982755
— Pur­cell, M. (2002). Excav­at­ing Lefe­b­vre: The right to the city and its urban polit­ics of the inhab­it­ant. Geo­Journal, 99 – 108. doi:10.1023/B:GEJO.0000010829.62237.8f
— Sen­nett, R. (1970). The uses of dis­order. New York: Knopf.
— Simone, A. (2005). the Right To the City. Inter­ven­tions: Inter­na­tional Journal of Post­co­lo­nial Stud­ies7(3), 321 – 325. doi:10.1080/13698010500268189
— Vradis, A., & Dalako­glou, D. (2008). After Decem­ber: Spa­tial Legacies of the 2008 Athens Upris­ing. Upping the Anti, (10), 117 – 129.
— Watts, M. J. (2010). Now and then. In N. Castree, P. Chat­ter­ton, N. Heynen, W. Larner, & M. W. Wright (Eds.), The point is to change it: geo­graph­ies of how and sur­vival in an age of crisis. Oxford: Wiley-​Blackwell.
— Weiz­man, E. (2006). The Art of War. frieze, (99).

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