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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Mobilisation and right to the city: Analysing collective action of Indian farmers through Lefebvre’s lens | Prachy Hooda

Saturday 7 January 2023

by Prachy Hooda *


The article seeks to undertake a review of literature related to the idea of the right to the city that first emerged in the works of twentieth century French Marxist scholar Henri Lefebvre and the ways in which the concept has been used to analyze social movements and mobilisation processes. The catchphrase of ‘the right to the city’ has been appreciated for its potential for a renewed urban democracy. It seems useful since it helps us envision a more just, inclusive and democratic city that enables social participation and social interaction. The second section of the article looks at certain limitations of the concept, which is then followed by some brief reflections upon the farmers’ movement of 2020-21 in India that was a response to three contentious farm laws (that were later repealed). Through such collective action, farmers recast quotidian spaces like roads, highways and streets as political spaces to engage with larger audience.

Keywords: right to the city, farmers’ protest, Lefebvre, urban space, right to protest


Right to the city: Henri Lefebvre and later interventions

Henri Lefebvre begins his conceptualisation of the city by presenting it as an alternate against the predominant view of the science of the city that considers the city as object. Since what is being studied is a virtual object, he calls for new approaches and thus argues in favour of a comprehensive theory of the city and the urban. By doing so, he intends to attack the reification of the city as a thing. He views the urban street as a place of speech and a site of words, instead of viewing it in terms of simple things. Further, he usually speaks not of cities but of urban society. He does so because the ‘city’ designates a definitive, scientific object and the immediate goal of action, whereas ‘the theoretical approach requires a critique of this “object” and a more complex notion of the virtual or possible object’. In Urban revolution he states that he uses the term urban society to refer to the ‘society that results from industrialisation, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production’. He goes on to say that ‘the term refers to tendencies, orientations and virtualities, rather than any preordained reality’.

The catchphrase of ‘the right to the city’ (coined by Lefebvre in the backdrop of the tumultuous revolts of the late 1960s) has been appreciated for its potential for a renewed urban democracy. It has been theoretically very useful as it helps us envision a more just, inclusive and democratic city that enables social participation and social interaction. Lefebvre has described the right as a ‘cry and a demand’ for a ‘renewed right to urban life’. Central to Lefebvre’s conception of the right to the city is his notion of the city as an oeuvre, or as a work produced through the labor and the daily actions of those who live in the city.

Such a right to the city has both abstract and concrete meanings. The abstract dimension is the right to be part of the city as an oeuvre, i.e., the right to belong to and the right to co-produce the urban spaces that are created by city dwellers. The real dimension is a concrete claim to integrated social, political and economic rights, the right to education, work, health, leisure and accommodation in an urban context.

Lefebvre provides a different (and novel) account of understanding the streets by arguing that the street is more than simply a place for movement or circulation and that the ‘invasion’ of the automobile has upset the urban and social life. He further says that the street is primarily and fundamentally a meeting place that facilitates movement, a form of spontaneous theatre where one might become a spectator or an actor [quite an idealistic way of putting it as streets are particularly unsafe spaces for women, making the right to the city extremely gendered. Public transportation, walking, and accessibility still disproportionally impact women (Beebeejaun, 2017).

Another way of analyzing cities is as sites for the innovation of techniques to monitor subjects and maintain social order (Uitermark et al, 2012). However such differing yet useful conceptualizations are beyond the scope of the paper]. It is through this constant movement and interplay that meaning is constructed. The interaction that results from this movement is crucial to the extent that in its absence urban life would not exist (leading to segregation and extinction of city life). Thus, revolutionary action usually takes place in the street. Hence, whenever faced with a possible threat, the first action taken by those in power is to restrict the ability to move or assemble in the street. The right to the city then is not merely a right of access to what already exists as David Harvey has argued, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire (Harvey, 2003). The street provides us with the potential of creating a new public sphere of active democratic participation.

The idea of ‘space’ is more complex in Lefebvre’s works as he talks about three different kinds of spaces: perceived space (refers to the objective, concrete space people encounter in their daily environment), conceived space (mental constructions of space) and lived space (person’s actual experience of space in everyday life). There is intermingling of social relations and lived space in everyday life. In this context Mark Purcell (2002) has highlighted that,

‘Therefore, social relations and lived space are inescapably hinged together in everyday life. Producing urban space, for Lefebvre, necessarily involves reproducing the social relations that are bound up in it. The production of urban space therefore entails much more than just planning the material space of the city; it involves producing and reproducing all aspects of urban life... This stress on the production of urban space separates the right to the city clearly from present forms of enfranchisement in liberal democracies. Present forms of enfranchisement revolve predominantly around the structures, policies, and decisions of the formal state... By contrast, the right to the city enfranchises people with respect to all decisions that produce urban space. That simple change radically expands the scope of enfranchisement beyond the state structure. Many of the decisions that produce urban space are made within the state, but many more of them are made outside it.’

The right to participation that is entailed in the right to the city thus involves the participation of the citizen in decisions involving the state, capital, multilateral organizations or any such entity, thereby contributing in every decision that is related with or results in production of the urban space. Associated closely with this is the right to appropriation that constitutes the rights to occupy and access urban spaces. It stands against the capitalist notion of viewing space in terms of private property (and a commodity).

Lefebvre uses the term inhabiting to stamp a richer gloss on city life, evoking urban living as becoming, as growing, as something dynamic and progressive. Being in a city, he stresses, is a lot more than just being there (Merrifield, 2006). Lefebvre argued that to inhabit was to take part in the social life of the city (or the village). Downgrading inhabit, reducing it to a mere habitat, signifies a loss of the city as oeuvre, a loss of integration and participation in urban life (ibid). It also involves devoiding ourselves of our capacity to be would-be architects.

The right to the city was later modified and broadened in the writings of David Harvey who defined it as “To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and re-made and to do so in a fundamental and radical way”.

Lefebvre argues that one must look at industrialisation only as a step in the larger process of urbanization, especially in a capitalist economy where the latter becomes much more dominant (‘the urban problematic becomes predominant’ as he says). This is so because capitalism ‘manufactures a very special commodity, an abundant source of surplus value as well as massive means of production’, that is the urban space itself. He urges the reader to not talk of ‘cities’ anymore and rather replaces it with the idea of ‘urban space’ which is a society largely borne out of industrialisation that has destroyed the intimacy of the traditional city. Lefebvre’s argument has been criticised by Harvey who believes that it is rather the other way around as industrial capitalism continues to create conditions for urbanization by being the motor of capital accumulation. David Harvey has argued that urbanization has changed ‘from an expression of the needs of industrial producers to an expression of the power of finance capital over the totality of the production process’.

Both the city and the countryside are victims of the inexorable drive to accumulate capital, a drive orchestrated by assorted agents and agencies of the capitalist state. Industrialisation led to the commodification of the city, creation of cleavages in everyday life and loss of the sense of the oeuvre for the proletariat. What subsists and is strengthened of urban reality in its dislocation, the centre of decision-making, henceforth enters into the means of production and the systems of exploitation of social labour by those who control information, culture and the powers of decision-making themselves (Lefebvre, 1996). The traditional Marxist that Lefebvre is argues that the working class which is dispossessed of the city and shifted towards the peripheries has to take charge of planning for modifying social life and bringing in urban revolution. It is only the proletariat that has the capacity to ‘renew the meaning of productive and creative activity by destroying the ideology of consumption’ (ibid). He further posits that the working class does not naturally have the sense of this oeuvre (which is contained in philosophy as well as other forms of art). Thus, along with economic and political revolution what is also required is a permanent cultural revolution. The concept of urban resultantly transforms in the aftermath of such an urban revolution as it entails a profound change in the social organisation as well as the image of city. He also wrote that “The words ‘urban revolution’ do not in themselves denote actions that are violent. Nor do they exclude them.”

There are, of course, multitudes of diverse social movements focusing on the urban question already in existence. The problem is that they have yet to converge on the singular aim of gaining greater control over the uses of the surplus (let alone over the conditions of its production). At this point in history this must be a global struggle predominantly with finance capital for that is the scale at which urbanization processes are now working (ibid).

Another crucial intervention in this domain has been made by prominent geographer Edward Soja who has further worked upon the concept of ‘space’ and advocated connections between spatiality and sociality by following the works of Lefebvre. Soja has similarly argued about the interlinkages of lived space and societal relations and that social spaces (and cities) are actively constructed by humans (space is again seen as an ‘active force shaping human life’). Since space is socially constructed (though it is a two way reflexive relationship), it can thus be socially changed. He puts forward the concept of spatial justice as ‘all geographies have expressions of justice and injustice built into them’. The concept of justice and its relation to related notions of democracy, equality, citizenship, and civil rights has taken on new meaning in the contemporary context for many different reasons, including the intensification of economic inequalities and social polarization associated with neoliberal globalization (Soja, 2009). He argues that it is this quest for justice that becomes a rallying point for social movements, fostering a sense of solidarity.


Social mobilisation and the right to the city

Lefebvre’s idea of right to the city has been seen as a means of reclaiming urban spaces and has thus been extensively used in the literature on social movements and collective action as highlighting unequal access to the city has become a prominent and critical mode of political action. The idea, as has been argued by Mark Purcell, has immense transformative potential to reformulate power away from the state into the hands of the citizens. In studying contemporary social movements, the idea of the ’right to the city’ is seen to respond to neoliberal urbanism (whereby control has shifted from citizens and their elected governments to transnational corporations and unelected transnational organisations leading to disenfranchisement of the inhabitants with respect to decisions that shape the city) and better empower urban dweller (Purcell, 2002).

In the last few decades, number of protests and demonstrations (in favour of participatory democracy) have invoked and related literature has reinvigorated the right to the city.

Farmers’ protest and the peasant movement in North India

The concept can also be used to analyse the farmers’ movement in North India, especially by evaluating how the farmers’ movement of 2020-21 unfolded as a backlash to the three contentious farm laws. The success of the movement could be linked to the building of solidarity across caste, class, gender and religion as well as the broader coalition of farm and trade unions, civil society organizations and cultural institutions like the khap panchayats. It is also crucial to theoretically look at the peasant movement since it provides us with interesting insights about the issues of materiality and identity and how these help shape collective action as well as solidarity.

Among other things, the farmers were particularly successful in recasting quotidian spaces like roads, highways and streets as political spaces to engage with larger audience. These spaces became sites of resistance where hierarchies as well as prominent discourses were challenged. The everyday lived spaces which were usually overlooked without much scope of political examination came to be seen as sites of negotiation, reclamation, political inclusion and quest for empowerment. Other instances of public spaces as stages for social action help us further analyze certain incidents of street politics (like the siege of the Mini Secretariat in the city of Karnal, Haryana by the protesting farmers) and how it enables further democratization of such urban spaces as these spaces increasingly come to be viewed as accessible avenues where the subaltern can raise their demands. While most protests or movements of collective action aim at doing this, it is the extent or the scale of the farmers’ protests (as well as the longevity) that makes this quest for democratization of the subaltern more prominent.

The ideologies of development and modernisation that are shared by the state as well as private sector (post liberalisation) are inherently top-down. In the name of economic transformation, these paternalistic models of governance do not see the rural poor as partners in the project of development, they are simply considered as the ‘objects’ of development. Another important question that the farmers’ agitation seemed to be responding to in its quest to challenge the prevalent development and governance discourse was: can the rural citizenry be seen as partners in this process of transformation? Do the marginal groups have the ‘potential’ to be subjects of development? This quest for reframing the arena for decision making (by shifting it away from the clutches of the state and towards inhabitants and making it more democratic in nature) certainly enables us to view the ongoing protests from a Lefebvrean lens.

For Lefebvre urban inhabitance is the key to political inclusion; it is those who inhabit the city who have a right to the city. The idea of inhabitance then defines or characterises the political subject. It prioritises the use value of urban residents but does residence as prerequisite not narrow the purview of the right (even though he has a peculiar and relatively wider notion of inhabitance)? How do we then look at social movements (like the peasants movement) which are not urban per se but where the urban space serves as strategic spaces to assert the rights of the protestors? A key (and related) limitation of Lefebvre’s conceptualisation has been pointed by Mark Purcell that he conflates the idea of “inhabitant” with the category “working class”’ and that it is only the working class that is being considered as the agent of the revolutionary transformation in the society.

A debate that has also been discussed by the Supreme Court relates with the juxtaposition of the rights of the protestors to occupy streets or highways with the rights of the residents to freely move across the space. In October 2021, the apex court held that while the farmers have the right to protest, they cannot block roads indefinitely. Justice MM Sundresh argued that, "You may have a right to agitate in any manner but roads should not be blocked like this. People have right to go on roads but it cannot be blocked”. A similar argument was made in response to the anti CAA protests (also called the Shaheen Bagh protests) case that the right to protest should not hamper the right to movement of the public. We are here confronted with the different conceptions of the right to the city. For the right of the protestors to occupy streets to truly be a right (in the fullest sense of the term), it needs to be upheld even when the (democratic) majority views it as nuisance. In these instances, when we call for a right to the city we are not necessarily doing so in the name of democratic management or in the name of ‘collective power’; quite on the contrary, instead we are doing so despite popular opinion, or we are doing so by defining democracy in far broader terms than some might accept (Huntington, 1991). We are then left with (a not so clear) relationship between different variables: the right to the city, democracy, collective power/ action/ decisions, minority rights.


The article has attempted to look at some of the crucial ideas related to the right to the city, a concept initially theorised by Lefebvre, but that has later been modified in many diverse ways by scholars, especially in the study of social movements. Since the literature is too vast, the author certainly does not lay any claim over the capacity of the article to do full justice to the expansive nature of the concept. However, the aim of the article has been to primarily chalk out the various theoretical interventions regarding connotations of the right and to use it to highlight some of the key debates in order to facilitate an analysis of the farmers’ movement from a different lens.

* (Author: Prachy Hooda, PhD Candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi | hoodaprachy[at]


  • Attoh, KA (2011). ‘What kind of right is the right to the city?’, Progress in Human Geography, 35(5) pp. 669—685.
  • Beebeejaun, Yasminah (2017). ‘Gender, urban spaces and the right to everyday life’. Journal of Urban Affairs, 39:3, pp. 323-334.
  • Harvey, David (2003). ‘The right to the city’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 27, pp. 939-41.
  • Huntington, Samuel (1991). The Third Wave of Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Lefebvre, Henri (1996) . Writings on Cities. Translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Lefebvre, Henri (2003). The urban revolution translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
  • Merrifield, Andy (2006). Henri Lefebvre: a critical introduction. New York: Rutledge.
  • Purcell, Mark (2002). ‘Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics to the inhabitant’. GeoJournal, Vol 58, pp. 99-108.
  • Soja, Edward (2009). ‘The city and spatial justice’, September 2009 |
  • Uitermark, Justus et al (2012). ‘Cities and social movements: theorizing beyond the right to the city’. Environment and Planning, Vol. 44, pp. 2546 — 2554.
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