Henri Lefebvre, the State and Social Movements

Lecture by Klaus Ronneberger
June 5th, 2013

The event is held in the context of the exhibition »Front, Field, Line, Plane – Researching the Militant Image« by Urban Subjects (Sabine Bitter/Jeff Derksen/Helmut Weber), who in 2009 already cooperated with Klaus Ronneberger for the project »Autogestion, or Henri Lefebvre in New Belgrade«.

In his lecture, the urban sociologist Klaus Ronneberger, one of the authors of the widely received publication »Die Stadt als Beute« (Bonn 1999), reconstructs aspects of Henri Lefebvre’s (1901-1991) theory. The French philosopher, sociologist and urbanist dedicated to the theory of practice became known in Germany particularly for his book »Critique de la vie quotidienne«, which had been published in an extended version in Paris in 1958. Until today, this adversary of Louis Althusser, but also of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, has an impact on both academic discourses and social movements. Examples of the latter are the today highly topical formula »right to the city«, which he coined in the 1950s, and the activist initiatives of the same name in numerous cities. Lefebvre was also inflüntial in various ways on discourses in the field of art. In the 1930s, for example, he was engaged in an intensive exchange with Surrealism and Dadaism. In the 1950s and 60s, »Critique de la vie quotidienne« then became one of the most important intellectual inspirations for both the artists’ group COBRA (Asgar Jorn, Constant, Pierre Alechinsky and others) and the Situationist International that formed around Guy Debord.

According to Lefebvre, everyday life and the state are two different levels of reality: The second objectifies and deforms the first. This is a reason for his persevering critique of the state and his assertion that any thought distancing itself from practice results in an identification with the state. Lefebvre’s central proposition is that the role of the state in the context of capitalist globalisation does gain and not – as is often alleged – lose significance. The state must be understood as a worldwide process that itself produces globalisation and the world market as one of its dimensions; it is not called into question by this form. At the same time, the state’s specific handling of the contradictions of capitalism leads to growing resistance on all levels against its strategies and rationality: Particularly in the 1970s, the activities of various social movements gave rise to a transformation of everyday life. In this context, Lefebvre refers to local community committees and citizens’ initiatives, alliances of women and students, the ecology and peace movements. In Lefebvre’s view, the crucial means – both instrument and medium – of this social transformation is »autogestion« (self-management) that simultaneously demands »direct democracy«. Lefebvre’s analysis leads to the insight that civil society in the representative constitution paradoxically lets itself be represented in and by the state. The question is, however, to what extent Lefebvre’s assumptions still apply under the present-day conditions.