Marcuse on the Right to the City

City journal this time out has a collection of papers about and from Peter Marcuse and critical urban theory. The entire edition is worth reading, but in particular it’s worth reading Marcuse’s own contribution:

Marcuse, P. (2009). From critical urban theory to the right to the city. City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 13, 2(3), 185-197.

It’s worth reading largely because–and I say this with great respect for Professor Marcuse–he’s so misguided in how he describes our contemporary crisis and in how he describes a right. I really wish we in urban and planning theory could get to a point–particularly in critical theory– where our theories concern more nuanced views of power and influence than what happens in this article: i.e., “I blame whatever political or social ideas I personally find distasteful on the Right.”

In political philosophy, Mary Ann Glendon started a firestorm, rightly, when she published Rights Talk: the Impoverishment of Political Discourse. Her point, and it’s a good one, is that American politics had devolved away from fruitful deliberation about the nature of the collective good towards arguments about individual rights over and over again. She’s got a very good point: I routinely hear students refer to their “rights” and even Burger King had a campaign the “Right to Have it Your Way.” Ill-defined rights are all over the place everywhere, virtually all the time, largely because they do have the sense of being Dworkin’s “trump card” in political discussion. Rights are tempting to use because they carry the air of being entitled to an outcome we want out of a (probably distributive) conflict and shutting the cakeholes of those who would deny us what we want. They can be assigned to me as a person (yay) or to whatever group I like—whether it’s property holders (who have a strong legal tradition on their sides) or people with disabilities (who recently have had gains in establishing legal civil rights).

Planners hear a lot of Rights Talk. If somebody has a “right to have a park nearby,” somebody else has a “right to keep Person X out of that park” because they “have a right to keep their kids safe.” Rights claims are in contestation because they concern both the fundamental entitlements of society, but also because they have secondary distributive consequences—particularly in collective good provision in urban life.

Thus for many who would have our cities be socially just in terms of distribution, Henri Lefebvre’s writing about the city has become, as Marcuse notes, a slogan various urban movements. One recent high-profile movement is an anti-gentrification group.

For me, I have never found Lefebvre’s “right to the city” to be a clear concept in his own writing except for his point that the city itself–if a good city–is defined by social inclusion, and in that sense the city does become a metaphor for society. But because cities themselves are geographic and social systems, the right is one of engagement within those to whatever degree is necessary to give legitimate opportunity for engagement and voice in outcomes for the collective space that is the city. These include both the distributive outcomes that usually take front-and-center–for inclusion means the ability to partake of collectively provided services–and in the deliberation.

This means the opposite of “we don’t like certain people and certain ideas” or “those viewpoints or ideas we find distasteful should be eliminated or contained” Instead, these are part of the mix of collective urban furtures; these ideas may or may not govern the allocation of urban services, but they are not used as a rationale for exclusion either.

Work that informed this post:

Dworkin, Ronald. 1978. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann. 1991. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. The Free Press.

Harvey, David. 2008. The Right to the City. New Left Review. 53.


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