Henri Lefebvre was an unusual Marxist. Unlike many of his peers, he declined to start his analysis from the vantage point of the economy, capital, or labor. Instead, he insisted on beginning with the trivial details of everyday experience. Lefebvre’s critique of consumer society was savage. He argued that everyday life was an inauthentic experience, colonized by capitalism. Yet, at the same time, Lefebvre was an optimist: he claimed that everyday life was the only possible source of resistance and political change. Read on to find out more!
Henri Lefebvre: Philosopher of Everyday Life
Henri Lefebvre was a man engaged in the politics of his time. Born in 1901 in Hagetmau, a small commune in South West France, he died on 29 June 1991 at the ripe old age of 90. As a writer, Lefebvre was prolific, he authored over 300 articles and more than 30 books.
In his late twenties, he worked at Citroën and as a taxi driver in Paris. He was a member of the French Communist Party, and fought Fascism as a member of the resistance. Lefebvre settled into an academic career aged 47 after a brief stint as a high school teacher. Lefebvre witnessed many of the major upheavals of the 20th-century first hand.
Above all, he was a committed Marxist, and an unrelenting humanist. He never stopped thinking and being curious. Despite his membership in the French Communist Party, he was a fierce critic of Stalinism. Lefebvre rejected Soviet-style communism in favor of a utopian vision of democratic freedoms and communist horizons.
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As an intellectual and activist Lefebvre moved with the times. Yet curiously, he was also able to “help shape and define the times” (Merrifield, 2006, p. xxvi). Part philosopher, part sociologist, cum urbanist, romantic, and revolutionary, Henri Lefebvre was a remarkable character — and a legendary drinker.
As a man, Lefebvre’s eclectic life reflected his revolutionary propositions. On the one hand, his writings inspired several generations of well-known intellectuals from Jean-Paul Satre to David Harvey. On the other hand, his ideas provided practical direction and intellectual firepower to the student revolutionaries of 1968.
As the barricades went up across the Parisian streets, Lefebvreian slogans appeared on the city’s walls: “Beneath the streets, the beach!” … If May 1968 was a revolt of poets then the rules of grammar came from Henri Lefebvre.
Alienation and Everyday Life
First and foremost, Henri Lefebvre was a Marxist: his critique of everyday life was heavily influenced by Karl Marx’s writings on alienation. He was unusual because he focused less on abstract structures and more on the trivial details of everyday life. Lefebvre’s political aim was to understand and reinvent everyday life, from the bottom up.
Like Marx, Lefebvre saw humans as fundamentally creative beings that under capitalist conditions, experience alienation from their labor. However, he believed that Marxist analysis should be more akin to quantum theory: by delving deep into the sub-atomic structure of everyday life — as it is experienced and lived — he suggested that one can understand the structural logic of the entire universe (Merrifield, 2006, p. 5).
Over the course of the 20th century, capitalism had increased its scope to dominate the cultural and social world, as well as the economic sphere (Elden, 2004, p. 110). So, while alienation for Marx was something that emerged primarily in the economic sphere, for Lefebvre, alienation led to the progressive debasement of everyday life itself.
In a nutshell, he argued that since the establishment of capitalism in the 19th century three kinds of time had shaped reality: (i) free time (leisure time) (ii) required time (work time), and (iii) constrained time (traveling time, time for administrative formalities).
The key problem of 20th-century life was thus that the balance of these different kinds of time had changed. Everyday life had taken the place of economics as the primary terrain of capitalist accumulation and class struggle (Elden, 2004, p. 115).
The Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption
One of Henri Lefebvre’s most important ideas was that everyday life had been colonized by consumption. The everyday was accordingly the focal point of alienation in the modern world. The emergence of consumer society resembled what he called a “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.”
Contrary to the idea that markets are spaces of freedom and choice, Lefebvre argued that “the market” was instead merely a space of controlled consumption. Where everything is calculated in minutes, numbers, and money. Leisure activities are planned, and spontaneity is radically curtailed.
Capitalist production creates imaginary needs. Creative abilities and spontaneous life are seen as unimportant, and at best secondary to the closed circuit of production and consumption. Fashion magazines and adverts instruct consumers what to wear and tell them how it is desirable to live. Everyday life is translated into the social make-believe of advertisements, “society pages”, and publicity.
Happiness and status are promised through the act of consumption, as consumers are instructed how to live, dress, and exist. Lefebvre goes on to make the argument that the stated aim and original justification of an open free-market society — satisfaction and choice in regard to every imagined and known need — is an illusion. Instead, controlled consumption plans for consumption, and for the satisfaction obtained through these objects itself.
A sense of void and unrest ultimately prevails. Lefebvre suggests that in the “good old days” the working classes were unaware of the structure of production — and thus their exploitation. Conditions at work for wages served as cover for exploitative social relations. In the context of the consumption of make-believe, he suggests that the social relations of capitalism intensify, and become vaguer still.
The Right to the City
Henri Lefebvre’s most well-known idea is the “right to the city”. Part visionary democratic ideal, part scathing critique, Lefebvre argued that urban space is not just a place where political struggles play out, but also the object of political struggle itself.
The right to the city was a call for the right to social participation and public life, the right to freedom, and the right to habitat. In its most fundamental sense, the right to the city is the right to revolutionize everyday life.
When talking about the right to the city, Lefebvre was keen to make the argument that the whole modern notion of rights needed to be reconsidered. Rights to work, education, health, housing, leisure, etc needed to be supplemented by the right to the city (Elden, 2004, p. 229). Thus above all, the right to the city is a call to arms.
In a capitalist society, Lefebvre argued that the city is downgraded to the status of a commodity, to a mere space of speculation and consumption. Instead, Lefebvre urged that the city must be reclaimed as a place of collective rights. The right to the city is a call for the right to the benefits of urban life, for urban justice, and the freedom to remake the city for the benefit of its inhabitants.
In this respect, the right to the city is about the politics of citizenship. In recent times the slogan has been enthusiastically taken up by social movements and activists calling for the extension of civil rights to immigrants and national minority groups.
The right to the city — or what can more precisely be understood as the right to urban life — is not just a claim to territory, but to society, and its social system of production. It is a demand and a call to arms for the revolution of everyday life.
Henri Lefebvre: Revolution, Festival, and Everyday Life
Henri Lefebvre made many interesting points about freedom and the collective intoxication of festivals in his writings. The realization of communion between communities, and the license to eat, dance, and be merry, made a clear imprint on his thought.
Everyday life for Lefebvre had been colonized by capitalism and so had its location: social and public spaces (Elden, 2004, p. 117). In this context, he set up his idea of the festival in opposition to his concept of everyday life.
Lefebvre’s concept of the festival differs from everyday life in so far as moments of the everyday: food, practical community, and relations to nature, are amplified and intensified. The notion of the festival is seen as close to the concept of revolution, and thus offers a platform for the subversion of the programming and control typical of everyday life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of the festival was at the heart of Lefebvre’s analysis of the events of May 1968. In his book on the topic, he wrote explicitly of 1968 as resembling something approximating a revolutionary festival. Lefebvre argued passionately that the right to the city, the concept of the festival, and the revolutionary subversion of everyday life were tightly interlinked.
Laughter, humor, and songs were central to his ideas about the possibilities of revolutionary action. In Lefebvre’s view, the everyday and the trivial were critical features of a Marxist humanism fit for the times.
Lefebvre witnessed the rise of consumer society and it troubled him deeply. Yet despite living through the crisis, tragedy, and war of the 20th century, he refused to concede defeat. Lefebvre argued passionately for the right to the city, and all the way up to his death in 1991, believed that there remained a world to win.