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Reclaiming Spaces, 14 February 2009

During the World Social Forum January 2009 a number of urban movements and networks agreed on some common framework for cooperation in the context of the WSF during the coming years. They fixed their common approach in a document called “Building Convergences at the World Social Forum“. The political part of that document stresses the parallelism of the financial crisis with other threats for inhabitants and it tries to mark “Right to the City” as an alternative orientation.

Below I want to discuss some implications and obvious divergences in this “convergence”:

Is “Right to the City” the becoming unifying slogan or concept for the “convergence” of urban social movements in the world?Which “Right to the City”?

“Right to the City” was introduced as a book title by the French philosopher Henry Lefebvre (”Le Droit à la ville”) in 1968, long ago. The original idea was not to implement a new level of institutionalised human rights, but to propose some framework for an utopia of urban social struggles, which – as it seemed from this perspective – could not be covered by traditional concepts like class struggles alone. I don’t want to get into details. But it is is remarkable, that this theoretical proposal for understanding urban social movements turned to become a political slogan in some Latin American movements and debates a couple of years ago.

Probably originally motivated by the need to find some conceptual framework to understand the multiplicity of social struggles of marginalized people in Latin American cities, the slogan became something like a container for diverse urban demands, then for reformist urban policies in Brazil, cumulating in drafts for a Charter of the Right to the City which claimed to become an nationally and internationally institutionalised set of rights.

There had been aspirations to globalise this effort, but that broadly failed. Such a plan had to respect that urban life in the world is rather diverse and thus are the conditions for struggles and concrete demands. At this point the question appeared, if and how a universal Charter of the Right to City can be developed from some NGO experts in a top down manner, or if that would not require a broad international campaign of communications and interfering struggles.

At the same time Lefebvres impulse even survived in some leftist urbanist debates in other world regions, like Europe and Northern America. From time to time it served as a slogan for specific local demands. More important was the rise of an active network of movements in the USA during the past 2 or 3 years, which called themselves “Right to the City Alliance” and built intensive linkages with well known critical Marxist intellectuals.

During the last year especially the Marxist geographer David Harvey through his numerous lectures around the world popularised this movement and his version of the “Right to the City”. In Harveys’ version Right to the City isn’t a complex of given human rights but again a slogan of class struggles in the territories, of grass root movements trying to associate in decentralized ways in order to find methods for trans-formative anti-capitalist action. A long term orientated revolutionary movement reclaiming the monopolized surplus in the urban sphere. Harvey always strictly insisted on the difference to any institutionalised right.

Now, at the Belem WSF, where Harvey gave speeches, the different concepts or uses of “Right to the City” directly met each other. The “Urban Convergence” paper can be read as some organizational reflection of that experience. NGOs adopting a revolutionary concept of struggles? No wonder that that did not directly lead to a clear concept without confusion. It is obvious that the conflict between institutionalisation and autonomous struggles reappears in the “convergence document”.

Urban Desire – Change of Paradigm – Convergence

I was told that the Spanish version of the “convergence” paper has been the original. A published Portuguese version is very near to it.

If you read it carefully you find a very brief but quite consistent view on the crisis, the urban threats and the “Right to the City” as a possible movements’ respond.

A respond in three dimensions:

First, “Right to the City” near to Harvey and maybe even others, is described as a “desire for another possible city”, which may mean that it is based in a multiplicity of wishes from the ground of the urban society, the men and women living in bad situations, which accumulate and associate in a common desire for principal change.

Secondly, it is conceptualised as a project of constructing a new paradigm of social-spatial development, which is necessary to overcome the neo-liberal hegemony by a clear alternative.

Thirdly, it is a project for making the urban struggles more “visible” not only at local levels.

All these three moments may be considered as elements for a possible “objective” orientation of a global movements of movements, a “convergence” towards a common horizon, not only by individual and political will but even through the real development of urban conditions, struggles and desires.

In this perspective the organizations which have created this outstanding concept of global urban convergence now had to develop tools and methods to improve the communication among the desires and struggles, facing the complex crisis, giving the movements spaces for self-association and learning through action.

But: practice

It is astonishing to see that, after this high flight, the operational proposals supported by the organizations end up in very institutional plans for just – a few next meetings: Some decentralized “social fora” at the time of the WSF 2009, more visibility at the next real WSF 2010, more participation in the Rio World Urban Forum (WUF) and vague ideas for a larger dedicated urban conference in 2011.

It can be possible and productive to use all these events for a reflection of the convergence of urban desires. But by which methods do the organizers i.e. intend to make the government-sponsored WUF (which has no political say at all, just a large mainstreamed expert meeting) a space of desires and struggles? And what do they plan in the context of the ongoing worsening of the crisis and the started mobilizations for protests?

Divergences?

The picture even becomes more confusing if you look at the bad harmonization of the different language versions of the “convergence paper”. HIC has published an English version which does not only vary in details. It adds whole phrases and sentences which are not in the Spanish version. It is interesting to see how the meaning changes in some most important phrases.

Examples:

– It is a clear difference if you say that this crisis is the effect of an “insufficient regulation of capitalism” (HIC English version) or if you say that this crisis demonstrates the “excessive negligence (,of policies) of de-regulation”. In the first version you are implying that a more sufficient regulation had avoided the crisis and that the politicians just have made some mistakes, in the second you say that this crisis is a result of the neoliberal political will pro deregulation.

– It is a clear difference if you say that the crisis demonstrates “the rush to posses and consume more” or if you say that given “high consumption” is something in-responsible. In the first case it sounds like the popular affects against “gear” (as if capitalism is just a problem of mentality or morality), in the second version you imply that a rescue of capitalism through more consumption isn’t acceptable, because the consumption (of natural goods) already is too high.

– It can be a whole world of differences if you say that the Right to the City is a “composite right” which “emanates from the pursuit of another possible city” or if you say that Right to the City” is made of “desire” towards another city. In the first case RttC is some composition of ethical goals or a container of given rights, something immaterial or institutionalised, in the second case it is part of a real movements of desires in the cities. The first is near to traditional NGO language, the second sounds grass root like. The first is focused on law , the second on process. The first is liberal idealism, the second is materialism plus theory of desire. The first is an affirmation of the US constitution, the second a subversive programme ..

– It is a big difference if you say that RttC just creates or is an alternative to neo-liberal discourses, or if you stress that RttC can make the proceeding alternatives more visible.

As a result you even will read two quite different concepts of convergence: The one is somehow a top down agenda agreed on by some NGOs networks who already know what the rights are, but want to build a larger alliance for improved power for which they need a name and branding. In a second meaning convergence always would mean some convergence of the movements in itself, movements of desire and need, which associate in an objective process, the association of producers of the city….

To be very polemic:

GO and NGO bureaucrats under the RttC-Logo can continue to administrate human rights, count the victims and express indignation.

Transformative movements would use RttC as an experiment to amplify desires for disturbances in the continuity of the legal in/exclusion. They had to think how to facilitate processes of objective convergences through situations in which things become different. They would celebrate clashes , – outside and inside and across institutions.

Harmonious Urban Convergence?

I don’t want to end with such bi-polar polemics.

In fact, human rights and real movements, the pursuit of happiness and the desires for change, immanence and transcendence can be sides of the same coin. Ethical principals are only becoming true through real life and struggles, and the real life and struggles need ethical orientations, which are transcendent to immanent claims and particularities. Demands are directed to institutions, thus relate to them. There is no discourse or struggle which is not affected by institutions or the state. But institutions, state in the dominant discourses cannot change without demands.

Any serious struggle is a struggle for local demands and institutional change at the same time. The Right to the City is neither an anarchist nor etatist ideology . It can be a sphere of diagonal transformations.

Knut

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