Much current activism and scholarship has raised concern that the various processes of neoliberal restructuring are threatening democracy. More specifically, researchers in geography and other social sciences have stressed that political and economic restructuring in cities is negatively affecting the enfranchisement of urban residents. Much recent research and writing has explored progressive responses to this perceived disenfranchisement in cities. One popular trend has been a fascination with the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a way to respond to neoliberal urbanism and better empower urban dwellers. I argue that the right to the city holds promise, but that in the literature the idea remains both theoretically and politically underdeveloped. It remains unclear (1) what the right to the city entails or (2) how it might address current problems of disenfranchisement. This paper examines the right to the city in greater depth. It does so by offering a close reading and analysis of the intellectual roots of the idea: the writings of Henri Lefebvre. I suggest that Lefebvre’s right to the city is more radical, more problematic, and more indeterminate than the current literature makes it seem. The paper concludes by suggesting that the right to the city does offer distinct potential for resisting current threats to urban enfranchisement. However, the right to the city is not a panacea. It must be seen not as a completed solution to current problems, but as an opening to a new urban politics, what I call an urban politics of the inhabitant.
In December of 1999 during the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, the Rainforest Action Network hung an enormous banner from a construction crane that read: Democracy → ← WTO. Extending this argument beyond the WTO, demonstrators and activists in Seattle, Washington D.C., Montreal, Goteborg, Genoa, Porto Allegre, and other places have insisted that a central problem of neoliberal global restructuring is that it is disenfranchising democratic citizens. Control is being transferred, they argue, from citizens and their elected governments to transnational corporations and unelected transnational organizations. Activists identify large corporations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and various other institutions as the architects of a neoliberal project that pursues a specific form of globalization: the increasing functional integration of all people and places into a single, laissezfaire, and capitalist world economy. Opponents of this form of globalization fear that the growing power of capital and its pursuit of neoliberalization will increasingly disenfranchise the mass of people, excluding them from the decisions that determine the course of globalization. A range of scholars in geography, urban studies, political economy, and elsewhere echo this fear; they argue that the current round of global restructuring has increased disenfranchisement, encouraged authoritarianism, and imperiled democracy (e.g. Falk, 2000; Held, 1995; Swyngedouw, 2000).
That more general argument about democracy and globalization has been adapted to the urban context by geographers and other social scientists. They have developed a compelling body of theoretical and empirical work that examines the relationship between political- economic restructuring and urban governance. They argue that (1) the current round of political- economic restructuring has involved extensive changes in the institutions of urban governance (Brenner, 1999; Jessop, 1997; MacLeod and Goodwin, 1999), and (2) those governance changes have tended to disenfranchise urban inhabitants with respect to the decisions that shape the city (Peck, 1998; Tickell and Peck, 1996; Ward, 2000). Although these changes have been complex and have led to a range of outcomes, the literature argues that overall they have tended to decrease the control urban residents have over the decisions that shape their city. Therefore, this work argues that there is a continuing need for research and action that can devise new strategies for resisting neoliberal globalization and for enfranchising urban inhabitants.
Among those who have explored potential responses to disenfranchisement, the idea of ‘the right to the city’ has received considerable attention (Friedmann, 1995; Isin, 2000; Rights to the city, 1998, 2002; Soja, 2000). However, for 100 the most part this work has not systematically elaborated just what the right to the city entails, nor has it carefully evaluated the consequences the idea would have for empowering urban residents. The right to the city is frequently discussed, but it is rarely engaged in depth (exceptions are Dikec, 2001; Purcell, in press). In some ways, the ‘right to the city’ has become something of a catchphrase; its potential for contributing to a renewed urban democracy has yet to be critically examined. The purpose of this paper is not to advocate for the right to the city, but to critically examine it. My goal is to (1) articulate a detailed statement of just what Lefebvre’s right to the city entails, and (2) examine some of the consequences it would have for urban democracy in the face of neoliberal restructuring1. The paper pursues these goals by returning to Lefebvre’s writings and engaging in a detailed exposition and evaluation of his idea (Lefebvre, 1968, 1973, 1996). I argue that Lefebvre is a good starting place for a more detailed and critical analysis of the right to the city and its utility for urban democracy. My analysis suggests that Lefebvre’s right to the city offers a much more radical, more problematic, and more open-ended vision of urban politics than the vision currently offered in the literature. Lefebvre does not offer a completed and self-contained alternative to current urban enfranchisement structures. Instead, he imagines and advocates a new urban politics, what I call an urban politics of the inhabitant. That new urban politics is entirely contingent: it may have desirable or undesirable outcomes for the social and spatial structure of the city. The right to the city offers an approach that at once is exciting and disconcerting. It is exciting because it offers a radical alternative that directly challenges and rethinks the current structure of both capitalism and liberal-democratic citizenship. It is disconcerting because we cannot know what kind of a city these new urban politics will produce. They could play out as a truly democratic challenge to marginalization and oppression, but they could also work to reinscribe new forms of domination. It is important to think carefully and critically about the right to the city, because realizing it would not mean the completion of a new urban revolution; rather, it would mark its beginning.
The problem: global restructuring and declining enfranchisement in cities
The recent popularity of the right to the city idea is partly a result of a growing concern in geography and other social sciences about the hypothesized decline of democracy and enfranchisement in cities. The work on questions of democracy, citizenship, and globalization is large and diverse. I am unable in this paper to examine the right to the city against all aspects of this literature2. I focus here on the arguments being developed by political economists in geography, who have argued that the post-1970 round of global restructuring has involved specific changes in the way cities are governed (Goodwin and Painter, 1996; Jones, 1999). It suggests that governance is being reconfigured in three main ways: (1) it is being rescaled, (2) policy is being reoriented away from redistribution and toward competition,and (3) many state functions are being transferred to nonstate and quasi-state bodies. This last change is referred to as a shift from government to governance. The three changes have provoked concern that urban inhabitants are becoming increasingly disenfranchised, specifically with respect to the control they exert over the decisions that shape the geography of the city (Brodie, 2000).
Researchers argue that governance is being rescaled such that institutions at sub- and supranational scales are taking on greater powers. There have been moves to create new governing institutions at the supra-national scales, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The sub-national aspect of rescaling involves local institutions accepting more responsibility and authority as nation-states devolve control from the national scale to the local and regional scales. This devolution means that local governing institutions are increasingly responsible for duties such as economic development, social services, the provision of infrastructure, and spatial planning (Painter, 1995; Staeheli et al., 1997). In this context, governance institutions in cities have taken on greater authority and responsibility to make policy for urban areas. They are less beholden to governing institutions at larger scales, particularly national-scale states.
The increased autonomy of local governance institutions has been accompanied by a shift in their policy orientation. The main shift has been toward competition: in the context of neoliberal restructuring, local governance institutions have placed increasing emphasis on maintaining their region’s economic competitiveness (Harvey, 1989; Peck, 1998; Swyngedouw, 1996). In the past, local governance was associated more with administering national-scale redistribution schemes designed to stimulate consumer demand and support a national economy based on mass production and mass consumption (Amin, 1994). Since economic restructuring has made the local economy increasingly less a function of the national economy, local governments have become more concerned with ensuring that the local area competes effectively in the global economy. No longer do local leaders feel they can rely on national policy makers to advocate for the economic fortunes of their locality. Therefore, the literature argues, economic development and competitiveness have become the primary imperative that drives local policy-making. Local places increasingly engage in supply-side intervention designed to attract investment to the local area: they assist technology transfer to stimulate high-tech growth, they take a greater role in planning and funding infrastructure improvements, and they offer job retraining designed to provide a flexible labor force for the new economy (Leitner, 1990; Painter, 1995; Peck and Jones, 1995).
In moving away from demand-oriented redistribution and toward supply-oriented competition, local government has begun to seek greater efficiency by reorganizing its overall structure. It has begun to contract out services to volunteer organizations and private firms, and it has developed quasi-public bodies – such as ‘quangos’, training and enterprise councils, urban development corporations, and publicprivate partnerships – to carry out many of the functions of local government (Krumholz, 1999; Payne and Skelcher, 1997; Walzer and York, 1998). In order to ensure the local area is more competitive in the global economy, the local state has ‘outsourced’ some functions so that it can reconfigure itself to become more like a flexible firm. It has developed ‘an emphasis on customer care; leaner, flatter managerial hierarchies; budgetary devolution; multiskilling and flexibility of the workforce; a key role for information and information technology; and the adoption of new managerial ideologies’ (Hoggett, 1987; Painter, 1995, p. 282). Overall, the argument is that a shift from local government to local governance is underway; in its effort to compete for increasingly mobile investment capital, the local state (government) has transferred many of its powers and duties to complex networks of new state, quasi-state, and non-state institutions (governance) (Hay and Jessop, 1995; Painter and Goodwin, 1995; Ward, 2000). The result has been a much more complex and rapidly evolving set of institutions that govern urban areas. In the main, scholars worry that the new governance ethos is driven particularly by the imperative of capitalist accumulation. It eschews democratic deliberation as inefficient and inappropriate for present economic circumstances. Moreover, the new governance institutions are increasingly outside the local state, meaning more governing decisions are being made by actors not directly accountable to the local electorate and conventional democratic control. The fear, in short, is that these new institutions and their new policy imperatives exclude local inhabitants from the decisions that shape their cities. Overall, research on globalization and urban governance change has declared an urgent need for new strategies to counteract the growing disenfranchisement of urban inhabitants.