Fetishistic concrete abstraction, social constitution and social domination in Henri Lefebvre's writings on everyday life, cities and space.

Author:O'Kane, Chris


This article reconstructs the role that fetishistic concrete abstraction plays in Henri Lefebvre's writings on everyday life, cities and space. I begin by distinguishing between Lefebvre's theories of alienation and romantic domination and fetishistic social domination. I then reconstruct the latter showing how Lefebvre interprets Marx's critique of political economy as an account of the social constitution of the fetishistic concrete abstractions of economic social forms, which as supraindividual and autonomous entities invert to collectively dominate, but not entirely determine, the individuals within the social relations that collectively create them. Finally, I show how this conception of fetishistic concrete abstraction runs through Lefebvre's work, where it serves as a 'basis' for his attempts to 'elaborate, refine and complement' Marx's critique of political economy by conceiving how abstract social domination is constituted, embedded and resisted in everyday life, cities and space while also pointing out where it is amalgamated but not reduced to Lefebvre's expansive theory of alienation and romantic domination. Consequently, rather than simply seeing Lefebvre as the 'reigning prophet of alienation' with an expansive transhistorical notion of alienation and romantic domination founded on a problematic opposition between quantity and quality, I show that Lefebvre's work on everyday life, cities and space should also be seen as possessing a historically specific theory of abstract domination based on the critique of political economy.


abstraction, alienation, critique of everyday life, critique of political economy, fetishism, Henri Lefebvre, Karl Marx, the production of space

Recent years have seen a burgeoning interest in and employment of the notions of abstraction and social domination in Karl Marx (Arthur 2004; Bonefeld 2014; Postone 1996; Sayer 1987) Alfred Sohn-Rethel (Bhandar and Toscano 2015; Jappe 2013; Toscano 2008a, 2008b), Guy Debord (Jappe 1999) and Theodor W. Adorno (Bellofiore and Riva 2015; Bonefeld 2016) in contemporary critical Marxian social theory. Yet while Henri Lefebvre has long been seen as 'the "reign [ing] prophet of alienation" in Western Marxism' (Merrifield 2006: xxxii; see also Jay 1984; Shields 1999), his formulation of these ideas has been largely neglected.

This is no doubt due to the prominent role of what I will term the expansive notion of alienation plays in Lefebvres work, which it should be first acknowledged is at the core of Lefebvres thought. As Elden (2004) demonstrates, this expansive conception of alienation draws on other thinkers in addition to Marx--including Hegel as well as Nietzsche and Heidegger--and encompasses other Marxian categories--such as fetishism and reification.

In passages when these tendencies come together, Lefebvres romanticism shines through; alienation is not only equated with the entirety of history but it is also presented as a condition that pervades the whole of modern life that is resisted by the 'human' elements of society--serving as the foundational category of a transhistorical romantic theory of domination. This sets up a transhistorical and dualistic opposition which can be found in his writings on everyday life, cities and space between alienated quantity and humane qualities. Yet, this opposition relies not only on equating the Marxian categories of alienation, fetishism and reification but also on conflating them with different types of alienation that are not self-evidently and inherently dominating while opposing them to an eclectic array of qualitative acts that are likewise treated as interchangeable. Thus, for instance, formal logic, mathematics, reading the newspaper, watching television and the logic of the commodity-form are treated as equivalent types of alienated domination. Conversely, on the qualitative side, phenomena as disparate as festivals, artistic creativity, holidays, LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), debauchery and grass-roots democracy are seen as equivalent and inherently oppositional to this broad notion of domination.

From this perspective, Merrifield's characterization of Lefebvre rings true. Yet it is also the case that this aspect of Lefebvres thought is theoretically shaky as the problem it diagnoses is said to be pervasive; it does not really explain domination in capitalist society, let alone in human history.1 Finally, as Boltanski and Chiapello's (2006) work suggests, the pervasiveness of the New Spirit of Capitalism--in phenomena diverse as Google's employee policies, the 'artisanal economy', the 'sharing economy' dating apps and new condo complexes that provide 'communal' living--calls the validity of this opposition, or at the very least elements within it, into question. From this perspective, it seems to follow that relevance of all the aspects of Lefebvre's thought covered by this expansive definition of alienation and thus its validity for contemporary critical social theory are questionable.

However, as I now aim to show, this dimension of Lefebvre's work blots out the important role that Marx's critique of political economy plays in Lefebvre's thought as well as the particular role fetishistic concrete abstraction plays in his account of the historically specific, abstract domination of capitalist society.

To do so, I draw on and supplement a number of exemplary recent works on Lefebvre by Christian Schmid (2008), Lukas Stanek (2008, 2011), Greig Charnock (2010) and Japhy Wilson (2013) which have provided in-depth investigations of Lefebvre's Marxian interpretation of abstraction and his idea of social domination with especial focus on Lefebvre's concept of'abstract space' and its importance for geography and urban studies. Schmid's (2008) exegesis of the Hegelian, Marxian and Nietzschean aspects of The Production of Space was the first to incisively note that 'the critique of the practical power and force of abstraction is a leitmotif that runs throughout the whole of Lefebvre's work' (p. 32). Following this, Stanek's 'Space as a Concrete Abstraction and Henri Lefebvre on Space showed how Lefebvre's notion of abstract space, as a 'concrete abstraction' draws on Hegel's concrete universal' and Marx's critique of political economy. Charnock's (2010), 'Challenging New State Spatialities: The Open Marxism of Henri Lefebvre' then demonstrated 'how Lefebvre's work on everyday life, the production of space and the state' derived from his 'open approach' to Marx indicating how Lefebvre's work 'focused upon questions of alienation and fetishism' and social domination (p. 1280) in order to criticize the 'new state spatialities literature that draws upon Lefebvre to supplement its structuralist--regulationist ('closed') Marxist foundations' (pp. 1279-1280). Finally, in "'The Devastating Conquest of the Lived by the Conceived": The Concept of Abstract Space in the Work of Henri Lefebvre', Wilson discusses abstract space in relation to abstraction and social domination before using it as a 'nucleus' to which he orients Lefebvre's ideas of everyday life and the state around.

Yet despite the contributions, these works offer in understanding the non-systematic and open nature of Lefebvre's Marxism, as well as the importance that fetishism and concrete abstraction play in Lefebvre's theory of space (particularly for critical geography and urban studies); they do not focus on how these concepts of alienation, fetishism and concrete abstraction are distinguished in Lefebvre's interpretation of Marx or how they are deployed throughout his social theory. (2) This means that their discussions of Lefebvre's interpretation of Marx refrains from differentiating Lefebvre's expansive notion of alienation and romantic domination from his form-analytic (3) theory of abstract social domination. (4) Moreover, their focus on how these ideas pertain to abstract space excludes the presence, and the importance, of fetishism and concrete abstraction in other areas of Lefebvre's social theory. (5)

In what follows, I thus aim to build on this important work by showing how these concerns pertain to Lefebvre's interpretation of the late Marx's theory of fetish forms of concrete abstraction, which are used in Lefebvre's work on everyday life, cities and space to account for the social constitution (6) and constituent properties of capitalist domination and to extend this account of the critique of political economy to areas of capitalist society that Marx did not address. This means, as I show, not only that Lefebvre's notion of fetishistic concrete abstraction relies on the critique of political economy but that its utilization as a theory of social constitution and form-determined domination is also an essential and previously neglected aspect of Lefebvre's theory of abstract social domination that could be very well be developed outside of the more problematic trappings of his expansive notion of alienation.

To do so, I reconstruct this strand of Lefebvre's thought, arguing that Lefebvre's idea of fetishistic 'concrete abstraction' consisted in a non-systematic interpretation of Marx's critique of political economy as a theory of the social constitution of the supraindividual social domination of autonomous fetishistic economic social forms that invert to dominate but not entirely determine social life. As I also show, this construction served as the basis for a number of Lefebvre's different attempts to supplement Marx's critique of political economy by extending and embodying this conception of domination in different facets of capitalist society.7

I begin by discussing Lefebvre's non-dogmatic and non-systematic interpretation of Marx where I outline his Hegelian-Marxist interpretation of Marx's critical dialectical method and his theory of social constitution and social domination qua his interpretation of praxis and alienation. I then show that Lefebvre argues that the late...

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