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The Urban Revolution(s) in Latin America: Reinventing Utopia

by Chris Hesketh on January 7, 2020
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The Handbook of Henri Lefebvre, The City and Urban Society, edited by Michael Leary-Owhin and John McCarthy, has just been published by Routledge. The volume provides an accessible form of engaging with one of the most innovative Marxist social theorists of the twentieth-century and includes discussion of his influential notions such as the ‘right to the city’ and planetary urbanisation, among others. In my contribution to the book, I explore Lefebvre’s famous assertion that, ‘Today, more than ever, the class struggle is inscribed in space’ by exploring historically what this has meant in Latin America and how this struggle over space continues to inform the present.

Lefebvre argued that three dialectically related elements, comprised the production of space. These are spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces. Spatial practices refer to the spatial norms of any given social formation that ensure a degree of continuity and cohesion. Thus, property relations, the physical layout of areas including factors such as roads and infrastructure, as well as housing would be included under spatial practices, as would generalised work-patterns. This is closely associated with perceived space. In other words, it relates to our reflexive awareness of our surrounding environment. Representations of space on the other hand are tied to ideology, signs and codes. This is the realm of conceived space. Representations of space are thus related to the dominant ideology of society and this element is therefore synonymous with class rule. Lastly there are representational spaces. This is the realm of directly lived experience. Spatial practices and representations of space can combine to ‘facilitate the manipulation of representational space’. However, this component of space is associated with subjective feelings or thought and can be linked to the more clandestine side of life where resistance can begin to emerge from. It is a cultural sphere concerned with our imagination and therefore has the ability to change and appropriate space through our everyday practices. It is here that counter-projects can begin via what Lefevbre called the ‘revolts of the “lived” against abstractions’.

First, the chapter traces the transition from import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) to neoliberalism in Latin America using the above spatial triad as a key tool of research, documenting the changing contours of space such projects were built upon. I argue we can understand the rise of neoliberalism as the export of the costs of devaluation from within the global capitalist system and thus as a spatialised form of class struggle. However, I also note that Latin America has always been at the forefront of creative resistance to neoliberalism and that, furthermore, Lefebvre offers us some germane concepts to understand this resistance, notably through his ideas about autogestion and urban revolt. This is especially important in terms of thinking about how we engage with so-called left alternatives in the region, especially given the contradictory elements of the state-based left in power that has frequently seen the pursuit of neo-extractivist forms of development and the demobilisation of social movement support.

Lefebvre positioned himself firmly against such a mode of emancipation, arguing that the choice we face is to ‘either reconstitute society as society or reconstitute the state: either action from below or acts from the top down.’ Such acts from below were theorised as a process of autogestion (or self-management). Rather than an end condition, autogestion should be conceived as a process that at the same time serves a reflexive, auto-pedagogical function. Thus, ‘Each time a social group… refuses to accept passively its conditions of existence, of life, or of survival, each time such a group forces itself not only to understand but to master its conditions of existence, autogestion is occurring.’

I then move on to briefly trace the numerous examples of influential urban revolution in Latin America. This has included, among others the piqueteros in Buenos Aires, who would later coalesce as the Movimientos de Trabajadores Desempleado or Unemployed Workers Movement, MTD. They arose in response to the economic collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. Issues of urban space subsequently became vital to the unemployed movement. Confined to poor neighbourhoods, agency was exercised through the setting up of roadblocks to stop traffic and disrupt daily life. This action explicitly advanced the claim that the wealthy parts of the city could not continue whilst the poor were ignored. During this time, key neighbourhood associations were set up to attend to everyday needs. These emerged in conjunction with the recuperated factory movement. Meanwhile in Bolivia, the so-called insurrectionary cycle (from 2000-2005), was initiated in cities such as Cochabamba and El Alto that rejected the privatisation of natural resources, and instead provided the reconstitution of collective forms of democracy, including neighbourhood assemblies, rotating representatives and grounding of decision making at the community level. Finally, there the is the example of Oaxaca City which during the summer of 2006, experienced the so-called Oaxaca Commune as an array of trade unions, social movements and civil society groups attempted to declare the city ungovernable.

These examples give credence to Lefebvre’s suggestion that whilst the city can lead to atomisation of social life, it can also create the conditions for the reinvention of community. However, while such examples demonstrate the possibilities of urban revolt and transformation, they also highlight what Lefebvre rightly viewed as the limitations of pre-figurative action that did not have a more wide-ranging counter-project to change space permanently. In each case, autonomous political practices have been restricted and in some cases entirely rolled back and absorbed by the state. It was for this reason that autogestion was never considered a ready-made programme by Lefebvre, but instead was viewed as ‘itself the site and the stake of struggle’.

I end the chapter with a reflection on what is lacking in Lefebvre’s writings to understand contemporary resistance in Latin America. This includes a lack of attention to seeing the urban and the rural as combined sites of transformative political activity. Instead, agrarian struggles were seen by Lefebvre as something largely confined to the past. Furthermore, this view also elides the contemporary relevance of indigenous agency in Latin America.

I conclude that, despite its practical difficulties, the search for utopian space retains a vital pedagogical function in practical experimentation. As the very term ‘utopia’ suggest, such spaces are still not a fully-fledged reality in many cases, but rather should be thought of as ‘the non-place that has no place and seeks a place of its own’.  The struggle for utopian space, is thus a clashing of spatial projects to define the very meaning of utopia. For capital, this means creating new markets and new opportunities for realising profit. For the multiple movements from below this is a broader struggle to define democratic participation and collective rights. This is not a battle that has a definitive end-point (which is all the more important given the contemporary return of rightwing forces in parts of Latin America). Rather the struggle for utopian space is likely to remain a vanishing point on the Latin American political horizon for some time to come.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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