Lefebvre: State, Space, World

Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press. [Intro, Ch. 1, 2, 3, 11]

So far, as this particular reading confirmed, no other thinker seems better equipped than Lefebvre to form the main theoretical architecture of my investigation.


The introduction situates Henri Lefebvre’s most explicit work on the state within France’s post-1968 politics, emerging as simultaneous critiques of Stalinism and Third Way reformism, while taking into account eruption of novel left politics grounded in the worldwide ’68 uprising. As opposed to the Althusserians of his time, Lefebvre drew from both Marx’s early and later works in building his thinking on the state. He saw these periods of Marx’s work (humanist vs. more “scientific”) in terms of a dialogue rather than breaks.

Lefebvre did not pose Marx’s scattered comment on the state as contradictory views, but rather tried to deploy them in ways that raised different problematics in analyzing the state and political economy. Lefebvre, the editors note, posited the state as Marx’s point of rupture with Hegel:

Like both Hegel and Marx, Lefebvre considers the differentiation of state and civil society to be a fundamental feature of the modern world. Crucially, however, Lefebvre sides with the young Marx in viewing this differentiation as an expression of an historically specific form of political alienation within capitalist society, the result of what he terms “the fissure between man and citizen.” (11)

Marx and Lefebvre both understood this alienation as the productive of historically situated economic developments and political struggles. Such struggles would not and should not be overcome, and Lefebvre offers autogestion as a particular form of the withering of the state into a form of collective, decentralized, grassroots political, and economic self-management and democracy with some kind of “state” institutional architecture (16). As opposed to a liberal utopia or the Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat, social conflicts and struggles would not only remain immanent to this form of collective organization, but also a measure of its vitality.

The State Mode of Production (SMP) was another central pillar of Lefebvre’s state-theorization in which he traced the changing historical role of the state, seeing a new period in which the state became a (historical) necessity in capitalist development, particularly the state’s role in organizing space for capitalist commodification and accumulation. The state made possible production, growth, and accumulation, all for their own sake. This formulation was pointed at distributionist reformism consolidating among social democratic parties that failed to question capitalism itself.

The third pillar (after autogestion and SMP) of Lefebvre’s state-theorization presented in the volume is mondialisation, which the editors define as “the precondition of globalization, its condition of possibility: it is the prior grasping of the world as a whole, both in thought and in practice, which makes possible the spatial extension of economic, political, and cultural phenomena across the surface of the globe” (25). This makes sense to the extent that states claim a monopoly on terrestrial space the world-over and, thus, a constant and ongoing preoccupation in producing the world as such—that is, as an articulated ensemble, at various scales, of social, political and economic relations. The editors conclude with some interesting insights into the application of Lefebvre’s thought for current geohistorical conjunctures.

Chapter 1: The State and Society

Against both reformists and Stalinists, Lefebvre contends that any self-respecting Marxist must strive for a critique of reality, and that this same critical ethic must also apply to the state. . He critiques several thinkers for assuming the state as a reality that simply is, and then trying to work within those same supposedly “real” strictures. “They place themselves on the inside of the State in order to accept its existing frameworks, and in order to judge reality against the standard of the State, rather than making reality the criteria by which we judge the State” (63).

The dialectic between economic growth and political development of the state is varied and historically determined through a series of social and class struggles. Jettisoning a crude base/superstructure metaphor, Lefebvre states: “It is always the social that holds the secret of the political, that holds the reasons of the political and of the state [l’etatique] rather than the political in itself or, conversely, the economic taken separately” (60). And rather than some automatist relationship, he again reiterates that these relationships are determined in and by social struggles.

Chapter 2: Withering Away of the State

Drawing from Lenin’s texts, Lefebvre immediately emphasize the dictatorship of the proletariat as the conquest of democracy—the former has always been emphasized to the utter exclusion of the latter in Marxist analysis and Stalinist praxis. In reviewing Marx’s critique of Hegel, Lefebvre quotes Marx to show the Manichaean bifurcation—and dialectical contradiction—of the individual and his atomization as both a lived experience and a product of alienation:

When the political State has achieved its true development, man leads a double life, a heavenly one and an earthly one, not only in thought and consciousness, but in reality, in life. He has a life both in the political community, where he is valued as a communal being, and in civil society, where he acts as a private individual, regards other men as means, degrades himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. The relation of the political State to civil society is just as spiritual as the relation of heaven to earth. (75)

He sees a state religiosity, an experienced-fiction, which Lefebvre also detects in liberalism as much as Stalinism. Again quoting Marx to convey this state religiosity: “men treat the political life of the state, an area beyond their real individuality, as if it constituted their real life” (76). Lefebvre reviews many more arguments from On the Jewish Question.

And in explaining Marx’s critique of Hegel’s vision of the state, Lefebvre lays out a powerful example of the Marxist form of critique that infuses many of his writings:

The 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. (80)

The notion of critique is especially important in dealing with the state and Hegel’s version of it precisely because of the state’s constitution in philosophy and politics as an abstraction; a withering away entails the undoing of such an abstraction (82). On this point, Lefebvre echoes a parallel to Gramsci’s critique of distinctions between political and civil society (81).

The State must be examined from up close. It cannot be transformed or broken down in just any old way. We must examine it as a summary, as a compendium of social needs, of accomplished or current social struggles, of the truths of society. The critique of the State must begin from the fact that there is a social truth of the State, which contains within it that which the State encompasses, but masks, dissimulates, which is to say transposes: social needs, social struggles, social truths. (83)

These antagonisms are reconciled in appearance through the historically situated production of the state itself; whereas the Marxist critique of the state envisions democracy itself as the state and the field in which social struggles continue to play out but in a real, conscious form.

Chapter 3: The State in the Modern World

In this outline of Lefebvre’s four-volume study of the state makes some interesting indications: He poses the state as the consummate producer of “occultism and fetishism, myths and ideologies” (97-99), which is also initiated and maintained through violent abstractions and bodily/social violence (108-109)—he deems the state a “concrete-abstraction” (cf. Stanek). I think this religiosity and abstraction is interesting to think about in terms of Schmitt’s notion of “political theology.” Lefebvre also sketches:

The capacities of abstraction that becomes concrete: the relation of dependence through identification, hierarchization, etc. How abstraction is embodied: through permanent (latent and confirmed) violence. Reification and/or derealization of the social.

The real/fictitious in the State. Abstraction realized through political power: call to the “affects” of historical, religious, and moral origin-military and police force. (109)

In addition to the contradictions embodied in the reproduction of capitalism and the reproduction of the people, there’s also the contradiction between the lived and the abstracted: “The revolt of the ‘lived’ against abstractions, of the everyday against economism, of the social and civil society against the ‘high rate of growth’; whose demands are upheld by the State” (120).

By tying the revolt to the “lived,” Lefebvre provides a very sensuous, spatial and practice-oriented redefintion of socialism: “Attempt at the redefinition of socialism (through the appropriation, the production, the management of space). Democracy in and through space: the ‘places’ of individuals and collectives in space”  (122). I find it interesting that just a few entries before he ties this grassroots lived-appropriation-of-space (autogestion) to territory: “Autogestion (of material and intellectual production, of territories, which is to say of the entirety of space)” (120).

Chapter 11: Space and the State

As the editors note, Lefebvre lays out homogenization, fragmentation, and hierachization (HFH) as the main elements of the state production of space. State strategies of HFH are aimed at stabilizing and reproducing capitalist social relations across various spatial scales. Both the state and capitalist dynamics are dialectically entwined in this production of HFH space. And he again poses autogestion in terms of territory (223-224). At the outset of the chapter, Lefebvre lays out the tripartite production of state space in terms of his formula for the production of space in general: (material) spatial practices; (mental) space of representations; and (lived) representations of space. “Is not the secret of the State, hidden because it is so obvious, to be found in space? The State and territory interact in such a way that they can be said to be mutually constitutive” (228).

Like Marx’s examination of production in the critique of vulgar economists who examined products, Lefebvre proposes to examine not space, but its production, and he sees the state as playing an important and inextricable role in the process. And like Marx this means examining embodied practices of real people in real historical situations (229). Analytically this means “there is a history of space. The lived gives rise to spaces of representations, imagined, beginning with the body and symbolized by it. The conceived, the distant, gives rise to representations of space, established from objective, practical, and scientific elements” (229).

Lefebvre poses this approach as both synchronic (of the present configuration of space) and diachronic (a history of that configuration), describing the approach as one of a “stratified morphology.” A “morphological analysis presupposes genetic analysis,” he says (235). He uses these terms to define scale as a “hierarchized morphology,” which is interesting because it gets away from a quantitative definition (size of space) of scale to a more qualitative one while retaining a hierarchy. The organization of space in the reproduction and expansion of capitalism—its survival—and the attenuation of contradictions marks, for Lefebvre, a transition from the Capitalist Mode of Production to the State Mode of Production. The regulatory role of state space is manifest in three dimensions: “the ideological—the technocratic representation of the social; the practical—instrumental, a means of action; the tactical-strategic—consisting principally in the subordination of a territory’s resources to political ends” (244). This formulation also suggests the inherent violence in the production of state space:

Hence the strange (alienating/alienated) climate of the modern world: on the one hand, a repetitive and identitarian rationality; on the other hand, violence, whether as a means to affirm lived experience and use, or as a means to extend them. Violence smolders everywhere as this rational world is reduced to the principle of interchangeability. Violence and the tranquility of “regulatory” space strangely intermingle. (246)

In the closing pages of the chapter, he echoes comments made in the Production of Space about the need for a “right to space” and particularly the production of space in the sense that any transformative movement must change spatial morphologies—presupposing their sedimentations—if it wants to avoid reproducing previous forms of domination (248). But such differential spaces, as Lefebvre called them, are repressed by the state: “The catastrophe consists in the fact that state space hinders the transformation that would lead to the production of a differential space. State space subordinates both chaos and difference to its implacable logistics. It does not eliminate the chaos, but manages it” (250).

Again, he poses autogestion as in the withering away of the state in terms of territory: Only control by the base and territorial autogestion—exerting pressure against the summits of state power and leading a concrete struggle for concrete objectives—can oppose an actualized democracy to administrative rationality, i.e., can subdue state logic through a spatialized dialectic (concretized in space without neglecting time—on the contrary, integrating space with time and time with space). (250)

This entry was posted in Antonio Gramsci, Carl Schmitt, Critique, GWF Hegel, Henri Lefebvre, Historical Materialism, Historical-Geographies, Karl Marx, Law, Marxism, Nation/Nationalism, Political Economy, Power, Scale, Sovereignty, Spatiality, Territory, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lefebvre: State, Space, World

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just started going through this book as well, I’m not as well equipped to discuss this type of reading as you are, but I would just like to say I really enjoy your blog and hope that my comments can leave some sort of motivation for you continuing.

  2. Jester says:

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