Marcuse and the Right to the City

So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?

For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.

There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.

You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.

Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.

And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:

  • The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
  • The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.

And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.

I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.

(also published at


One response to “Marcuse and the Right to the City

  1. The current economic mess has a number of glaring aspects, some of which have yet to be noted. The system which was in place before the sandwich mortgage/hedge-guarantee aspects of the global financial business got burped and vomited. Certainly the system can be “corrected,” but not the root core from which it gets its life.

    First it must be remembered that economics deals with real objects and actions with the ongoing results always to involve gain—advantage—of, today, money. Break even in any given manipulation of object or action and you are OK—probably dissatisfied, but still operationally alive. Lose out from gain and changes must be made or operations must cease—even for non-profits—donors must always be kept gainfully active. Profit, however, is the overwhelming goal of the system, and profit means you get more out of effort than you put in—more money, that is. In a world where all are gaining—or attempting gain—from their transactions with objects or actions means there must be money available over and above what costs are involved at completion of these activities. Of course, this money in large measure doesn’t really exist—not printed and distributed, rather is truly virtual money—balance sheet digits convertible to real hard cash which is only in part there. Worldwide there is not physical money for all the money people in fact have. This is one of the keys to much of what has occurred in the current near crash. The money we have is more promissory than actual. The current crisis deals largely with promise of what is supposed to be there to in fact be there. It wasn’t and still isn’t. The balance sheet money which we believe to be real is only real because we believe it to be so and universally act in concert with this belief. Indeed, it must be remembered that money is an amazing means of opening the world to consumption of choice, but is in fact only an abstraction which is allowed by consensus that it is what we believe it to be. A rock is real thing, but a dollar is a value thought—only a thought.

    Second, money is tied to object, not people. The horror of a purely capitalist system is that it place profit always and everywhere above people. This is no mystery or revelation. The current system can be tweeked, reshuffled back into a less dangerous course of action. But as you point out, these corrections are merely that, and the system continues until the next crisis–which is historically guaranteed. The difficulty will come when the final collapse actually occurs. Then, and only then it seems to me, the decision must be made to place a monetary value on humans before it does so on object and action. Consensually valuing each and every human free from any personal attribute must at some point come about. Every human life has value in the full sense of definition. Currently lives have value in the full definition minus life as money. Capitalism can still survive under this system; in fact, should thrive even more strongly so. The something for nothing will never be removed from human consciousness. The collective right to our urban environment of which you write can only come into fruition when people apply their consensual worth monetarily in the recreation of the City. From my vision, this can only occur when we collectively agree we are of “dollar” value by right and operate accordingly, collectively or not.

    At some point, not too far off io believe, there will be a universal “currency” of sorts where each and every human is a walking monetary credit. This will be added to financial structures of a capitalistic system (it will never quite go away) where gain—even enormous gain—can be achieved by working what comes into place. So we start with something—and can add to it. There may still be the deprived, but if regulatory functions are adequate, deprivation will be by choice or unfortunate circumstance.

    Sorry about the length here. But I do love your blogs!

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