The translation into English of Henri Lefebvre’s essay, ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’, prompts an opportunity to pose afresh some questions about the intersection of politics and space, the state organisation of space, and the production of space. While the history of capitalism is intrinsically linked to how the modern state organises space—to engender social relations in space and bind itself to space—the attention to these concerns has been dawdling in historical sociology. Whenever struggling to understand state space, my attention turns inter alia to Henri Lefebvre’s chapter ‘Space and the State’ that reveals how the state becomes a pivot in the production of space. ‘Is not the secret of the state, hidden because it is so obvious, to be found in space?’, asks Henri Lefebvre (1978/2009: 228).
Of course, the state partitioning of space, how spatiality is hierarchised and how the class contradictions of space result in convulsions, crises, and wars animates his wider enquiries too. Related to that focus is the right to space, struggles over spaces of differences (differential space) and the ‘right to the city’ that represents for capitalism an antagonistic tendency. These interests come to the fore in ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’. Enfolded in the essay is the call to arms: ‘The right to the city implies nothing less than a revolutionary concept of citizenship’ (Lefebvre 1989/2014: 205). Whenever struggling in, through and with state space and the city form, then, attention should equally turn to the vivid analysis of this most recently translated essay. But what of historical sociology and the political economy of capitalism in treating the history of space and entreating a focus on the spatial logistics of the state?
Less time dawdling and more space allocated to Henri Lefebvre’s relevance to the historical sociological study of the rural and the urban, struggles over territory, and the production of space seems long overdue. This is especially the case because of the ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre. As Stuart Elden (2004: 236; see 2006) helpfully details to the non-Francophone, Henri Lefebvre’s book La survie du capitalism (The Survival of Capitalism) is much more ambiguous in its title because survie means ‘afterlife’ as well as ‘survival’. My contention, here is that the ‘survival’ (survie) of Henri Lefebvre is pivotal to a consideration of the historical sociology of state space and the political economy of capitalism.
This is so not only because of his attention to the survivals of the peasantry in the modern world across the ideological and structural domains. The former in terms of survivals of agrarian myths, or folk tradition; the latter in terms of the village, or the peasant family. It is also the case in relation to his focus on the survivals of rural sociology in modern capitalism as a reflection of the process of uneven development. Within the burgeoning debates on uneven development in historical sociology (neglected by mainstream international studies) there is much more scope for an engagement with Henri Lefebvre’s perspectives on rural sociology (neglected by historical sociological studies on uneven development). With Lefebvre:
In a hundred ways, the capitalist form of private property subordinated to itself previous forms: those of the clan or tribe, communal or feudal. The fact emerges clearly from the study of the agrarian structure of “underdeveloped” countries: colonial or semi-colonial countries, backward sectors in capitalist countries (1953/2003: 119).
A spatial dimension features in my historical sociological analysis in Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Morton 2013). A central proposition of this book is that the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development on a world scale as the geographical expression of the contradictions of capitalism as a mode of production (drawing from Leon Trotsky) shapes the spatial, territorial, and scalar configuration of state power. However, although shaped by the condition of uneven and combined development, it is also the balance of class forces within state spaces that alters the developmental trajectory and spatial form of statehood through class strategies of passive revolution (drawing from Antonio Gramsci) that define the rise of a state in capitalist society. Affirming a central line of argumentation in my book, as a survival of capitalism or restorative strategy of passive revolution, a focus on the historical sociology and political economy of space in Mexico provides insight into aspects through which the coercive class relations of capitalism are being reorganised on a new basis within the conditions of uneven development shaping state space. A focus on counter-spaces of resistance here also helps to reveal emergent class struggles and how the spatial organisation of state power through passive revolution is socially produced and contested at the sub–national scale (see Hesketh 2014; Hesketh and Morton 2014).
The ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre to historical sociology is therefore profound, notably when considering his focus on the explicit relationship between sociology and history. As Elden (2004: 139) affirms, Lefebvre was a historical sociologist in as much he was attentive to the dialectical movement between research structured with history and that concerned with sociological reality. With his perspective of rural sociology, Lefebvre also delivered a clear and much-overlooked methodological approach to disentangling the horizontal complexity (of agrarian formations and structures of the same historical date) and the vertical complexity (of the coexistence and juxtaposition of formations that differ in age, the archaic alongside the ultra-modern within a given geographical area) in rural sociology and its relationship with human geography, political economy, ecology, statistics, and, we may add, historical sociology (Lefebvre 1953/2003: 112-13). This is a ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre that should be at the centre of historical sociological reflections about capitalist space, the state control of space, and the state mode of production. It is a ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre that should also be related to practical and theoretical challenges to the renewal of capitalism and how capitalism has found itself able to attenuate, if not resolve, its internal contradictions by occupying space, by producing space (Lefebvre 1976: 21). Catching up with the present, capital’s capacity to survive is now significantly the major theme at the 2014 Historical Materialism Conference in London.
Amidst the ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre relevant to a historical sociology and a political economy of space is a focus on ‘agro-cities’, changing the landscape of rural sociology, as well as the spectre of the urban centre itself. Also relevant here is the ‘lost’ manuscript Manuel de sociologie rurale that Henri Lefebvre wrote on agrarian reform, ground rent, capitalist agriculture, and monopoly capitalism (Elden 2004: 128; Lefebvre 1953/2003: 119, 268n.16). In ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’ all these themes combine in the foreboding statement that ‘soon, only islands of agricultural production and concrete deserts will remain at the Earth’s surface’ (Lefebvre 1989/2014: 205). What more is there in the ‘survival’ of Henri Lefebvre?
Elden, Stuart (2004) Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible. London: Continuum.
Elden, Stuart (2006) “Some are Born Posthumously: The French Afterlife of Henri Lefebvre”, Historical Materialism, 14(4): 185-202.
Hesketh, Chris (2014) ‘Producing State Space in Chiapas: Passive Revolution and Everyday Life’, Critical Sociology, doi:10.1177/0896920513504604.
Hesketh, Chris and Adam David Morton (2014) ‘Spaces of Uneven Development and Class Struggle in Bolivia: Transformation or Trasformismo?’, Antipode, 46(1): 149-69.
Lefebvre, Henri (1953/2003) ‘Perspectives on Rural Sociology’, in Henri Lefebvre, Key Writings, ed. Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas and Eleonore Kofman. London: Continuum.
Lefebvre, Henri (1976) The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production, trans. Frank Bryant. London: Allison & Busby.
Lefebvre, Henri (1978/2009) ‘Space and the State’, in Henri Lefebvre, State, Space, World: Selected Essays, ed. Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, trans. Gerald Moore, Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lefebvre, Henri (1989/2014) ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’, trans. by Laurent Corroyer, Marianne Potvin, Neil Brenner, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(2): 203-5.
Morton, Adam David (2013) Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, Updated edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.