I’d argue that the most important thread running through Henri Lefebvre’s entire work is the notion of fetishism. Almost everything that he worked on can be traced back to Marx’s ideas about the “commodity fetish.” When paired with the concept of fetishism, it becomes much easier to make sense of some of Lefebvre’s main—not only his, of course—keywords (alienation, mystification, reification, abstraction, everyday, social space, the urban, autogestion, the state, time). The radical roots of Lefebvre’s unique and heterodox brand of Marxism are grounded in his critique of fetishism in its various forms; it’s through this lens that one aspect of Lefebvre’s robust understanding of “critique” as a form of social/intellectual political praxis can be best understood.
In The Production of Space, he makes a bold statement: “The successful unmasking of things in order to reveal (social) relationships – such was Marx’s great achievement, and, whatever political tendencies may call themselves Marxist, it remains the most durable accomplishment of Marxist thought” (81, emphasis added). I’ll leave his treatment of (social) space, since that’s one of the things I want to deal with in a later post, but it suffices to say that Lefebvre wanted to do for space what Marx did for the commodity. Space, already mystified and presumed innocent, is produced in capitalism in a way that makes it appear all the more devoid of social relationships. This is what Lefebvre called a spatial fetishism. In his work, space is in a way the “thing of all things,” and taken to its fetishized/reified vanishing point, a non-thing, simply a plane or empty stage upon which “real” things happen.
Whether dealing with space, everyday life, or the state, Lefebvre’s dialectical form of critique perfectly parallels how Stuart Hall describes Marx’s critical dialectical method. Note, for instance, how Lefebvre characterizes Marx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophy of state: “[Marx’s] critique of Hegel is not only a critique of the Hegelian conception of the State in order to substitute for it a Marxist theory of the State; the critique of the Hegelian philosophy of the State is already the theory of the withering away and the disappearance of the State. This is a much more fundamental critique, which goes much further than a simple analysis of some reticent remarks” (State Space World, 80). Hall makes a very similar argument in relation to Marx’s critique of political economy (“Notes on Method,” 141). Indeed, critique, for both Marx and Lefebvre, is much more fundamental than the replacement of one state or political economy by another; their critique is “radical,” because it gets to the original meaning of that word—it grabs at the roots (cf. Goonewardena et al, 7).
What’s remarkable is how Lefebvre manages to bring this form of critique to an incredibly disparate and taken for granted set of fields: space, time, city, everyday life, etc. In Lefebvre’s hands, critique becomes an ethic for being in the world, a praxis with which to fight against the debilitating alienation and mystification of everyday life. Space and everyday life; we are profoundly incapable of getting away from them, and they are key sites of either our erasure or rebelliousness. “Everyday life possessed a dialectical and ambiguous character. On the one hand, it’s the realm increasingly colonized by the commodity, and hence shrouded in all kinds of mystification, fetishism, and alienation…. On the other hand, paradoxically, everyday life is a primal arena for social change—the only arena—‘an inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible’ ” (Merrifeld, 10). And yet, the mystified appearance of “the real” is precisely what shuts down “the possible,” in fact, the very imagination of what’s possible. With this in mind, Lefebvre cherished the irruption and disruption of the festival, as a force already latent in everyday life, for its ability to suspend the burdening weight of the real. Anyone who has been to carnaval can see how festival itself fits Lefebvre’s powerful notion of critique.
Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. State, Space, World: Selected Essays, edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Merrifield, Andy. 2006. Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge.
Hall, Stuart. 2003. “Marx’s Notes on Method: A ‘Reading’ of the ’1857 Introduction’,” Cultural Studies17(2): 113-149.