The Production of Space as a Site of Class Struggle

by Caitlin


This essay sets out to explore the relationship between Marxist class theory and Lefebvre’s definition and discussion of social space. The common thread running through both of these themes is cultural and economic production, and the idea that a capitalist system of production can only be understood and dislodged, by analysing the power structures that underpin a capitalist means of production of goods, services and space. Specifically I set out to answer the question “How have Marxist theories influenced Lefebvre’s theory of social space?”

In the first section of the essay I introduce Lefebvre’s term social-space, and introduce his key ideas on comprehension of space at large. I then explore his ideas through a Marxist framework, something that he himself was doing as he was thinking through conceptual definitions, interpretations and critiques of spatial production. I go on to discuss space as a reflection of cultural identity and dominant political identity and argue that, how we define space conceptually, and what we do with it practically is a means of reinforcing or reforming the capitalist modus operandi. Towards the end of the essay I provide a brief criticism of capitalism and introduce the idea of listening in space as a means of political and spatial resistance to a culture fixated on commodity fetishism. I conclude with an attempt to answer the above question.

So let us first introduce Henri Lefebvre (b.1901, d. 1991). Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist. He is best known for pioneering the critique of everyday life, and for introducing the concepts of the right to the city and the production of social space. In this essay I will be predominantly referring to his text The Production of Space (1991). The idea presented in depth in this book, that I will be examining through a Marxist and relational lens is the term “social space” (Lefebvre, 1991). I am also examining his interest in protecting the conceptualisation and dialectics of space from scientific reductionism, and Lefebvre’s interest in space and its social contents as a mirror of dominant socio-economic ideologies, and in particular the injustices and limitations of capitalism. I attempt to link his ideas on the morphology and the “intertwinement of social spaces” (Lefebvre, 1991. p.84) to the act and practice of collective listening, and listening situated with the public realm. Let us now examine Lefebvre’s contribution to taxonomies of space, although I’m not sure he’d appreciate the term. Perhaps concepts of space is better, with a healthy dose of shape shifting thrown in. In The Production of Space (1991) Lefebvre posits three basic definitions of space. He asserts that the broad study of space is concerned with the logic-epistemological notion of space, and building on this theme, he presents three definitions of space that deviate from purely metaphysical conceptions of space. The first definition he presents is the conception of physical space; an idea he claims is equivalent to the notion of the cosmos, in as much as physical space is a microcosm of the universe at large. Secondly there is mental space that can be distilled to logical and formal abstractions, akin to mathematical accounts of space. Thirdly there is the term, social space, which is cultural, linguistic and relational (Lefebvre, 1991p. 12).

At the most basic level social space can be viewed as anywhere, virtual or real where people gather and interact. Lefebvre emphasised that all space is inherently social, and that space cannot be thought of as an empty void, waiting to be filled, or as a receptacle. He argued that social space is the term he uses to describe sites that hold complex relational, economic, and behavioural exchanges. For Lefebvre, social spaces considered in abstraction are redundant. Social spaces are defined by complex “networks and pathways, by virtue of bunches and clusters of relationships” (Lefebvre, 1991 p. 86). He uses the example of marketplaces as an example of social spaces, and at the same time stresses that social spaces are all around us, taking multiple forms and are the site of the everyday. Lefebvre is well known for his work on the critique of everyday life, and we can see his ideas from his interest in analysing the everyday, come through into The Production of Space. “We are talking after all, about the setting in which we live” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 92). For Lefebvre, the everyday, the banal was the site where capitalism reproduced and validated itself both consciously and unconsciously. Lefebvre saw the site of the everyday, the basic material concerns of citizens as a main site for structural and political revolution and for radical self-expression. Like traditional Marxist theory, Lefebvre recognised that culture must be “finally interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production” (Highmore, 2002, p.95 ). It is quite clear that in the Production of Space, by coming up with the term social space, Lefebvre was developing a vocabulary to help define the individual in relation to invisible forces of economic power and privilege that give shape to the very fabric, the materiality of everyday social space. We are referring not only to architectural space, bricks, concrete, glass, steel, rubble, plastic, and chiffon, we are also talking about symbolic, ritualistic, relational and economic spaces. But we are always thinking about how systems of thought, and dominant ideologies shape the materials and commodities that Western society has come to depend on, and define identities by. For Lefebvre, the observation and analysis of social space, of the everyday, was the ideal mirror to hold up and look at, examine and ultimately theorise about ideologies underpinning social behaviour. In a similar line of thinking he recognised that space was not limited to conception in terms of literal materiality, but could also be thought of as the site of power relations, means and methods of economic control and production and ideas of national and local identity. In this sense, he was interested in moving beyond a Marxist analysis of material commodities and means of production, and observe and analyse space itself. He called for a critical method that would analyse not things in space but “space itself, with a view to uncovering social relationships embedded within it.” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 89). Why look beyond objects that are the material outputs of capitalist ideology, why look beyond technological and scientific activity to do with economic production and social power? Why look beyond reductionism? Perhaps for Lefebvre, these already existing conceptual terms failed to account for relational complexity that revealed their forms transiently, and temporarily in specific time based contexts, taking multitudinous forms both material and conceptual.

As we have already seen, Lefebvre identified as a Marxist, and throughout his work had examined everyday life, social space, the home and the workplace, as site for politicization, cooperation and revolt against the capitalist machine. Lefebvre’s argument in The Production of Space is that space is a social product, or a complex social construction (based on values, and the social production of meanings) which affects social-spatial practices and practical uses of, and abstract perceptions of space. This argument reveals the shift of a research interest in exploring the material and relational contents of space, to research and thinking interested in understanding the social, political and economic processes of its production. With this interest in the means of producing space, and taking into account his Marxist position (although he was highly critical of economic structuralism that dominated the academic discourse in his period), we may look to some basic Marxist theories that informed his work. Lefebvre incorporated many Marxist ideas into The Production of Space. He argued that space was a social construct, produced and enacted using dominant ideologies of the 20th century, i.e., Capitalism. For Lefebvre, like many Marxists it was important to analyse what power relations, ideas and interests shaped social space, as the social production and reproduction of space. Space represented a pillar of societal norms that reinforced Capitalist values, ultimately giving more power to the ruling hegemony, and it was therefore important to identify, name and critique complex social exchanges taking place in the formation of virtual and real space. “(Social) space is a (social) product […] the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action […] in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power.” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 26). The ideas put forward by Marx that are important to bear in mind when thinking about the social production of space (school, home, workplace, post office, race track, night club, rave, hospital etc.) are the following; Ideological control, False Class Consciousness, Commodity Fetishism, The Economic Base and The Superstructure. Lefebvre understood that space and the everyday needed to be interpreted through the lens of ideological control; which social groups, and specifically which classes are dominating the validating the production of social space; and how such control shapes what we do, where and how we do it. As well as examining how the production of space shaped by consumerist desires of the working masses, he also referred to the risks of ideological control shaping the ability of theorists and social researchers to understand social space in the 20th century. While he was ultimately interested in looking through the lens of space to understand power relations between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, he was critical of limiting the interpretation of space to a Marxist method interested in materialism. He asserted that preceding thought about social space had been carved and shaped by an overarching interest in material and practical sites of economic production and consumption instead of the more complex, relational, emotional, and banal exchanges that reflected social norms of the time. Through the study of the everyday, endemic and internalised values and ideologies can be interpreted. For Lefebvre, social space and everyday life are “synonymous with programmed consumption” (Lefebvre, 1991, p.89), and he wanted to move beyond a critical analysis of social productivity (economic products, means of production, social labour etc.). He stated that within a material Marxist method of analysis there existed an “ideologically dominant tendency to divide space up into parts and parcels in accordance with social division of labour” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 89). He felt that an analysis interested only in understanding space as a material or economic product, risked reducing the understanding of space to “isolated units” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 90). In The Production of Space, he stated that a science of space was still to be bought into existence. Although Lefebvre has influenced many contemporary academics across a range of fields with his research and thought into the production of space, the calls for a decent science of space could arguably, still ring true. “The search for a science of space is on going….knowledge of space waves between dissection and description” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 91). His concern for a reductionist and over simplified analysis of social and political power relations in the understanding of the production of space could be said to be one of his main critiques of the Marxist method of analysis. Lefebvre was more concerned with the whole, with the pulsing, imbricated, morphing and ever changing social space. “Space is social morphology – It is not a neutral container or a frame for actions that take place within it” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 94).

Having examined the ideas of space as a complex, morphing space, and one that speaks volumes about social and political values, aspirations and constraints, let us now explore the idea of social-space in relation to the idea of culture. Looking at the links between Lefebvre’s concept of social-space and culture as ordinary (Highmore, 2002)I am interested in the radicalisation of social space through spatial interventions of small-scale social listening events and activities. This is done through situating day-to-day cultural practices such as listening, placed in highly symbolic locations, with content that echoes the lived experience of the day to day, framed within a systemic analysis of forces shaping experiences of the day to day. I shall discuss this more in the next section of this essay, where I explore cultural practices for the radicalisation of social-space. For now let us examine social-space through the theoretical lens of cultural studies and in particular, culture as ordinary. There are many, contested terms of culture, but in this setting I refer to Stuart Hall’s definition of culture as a set of shared meanings which enable people to understand and communicate with one another. In his view these meanings are not set things – for example, objects of high culture with eternal value as dictated by the superstructure – nor are they simply a collection of particular behaviours or values that characterize a social group. Like, social-space, cultural meanings are produced and exchanged. Culture, according to Hall is “a process, a set of practices.” (Hall, 1997, p. 2).   Social Space is a site that accommodates cultural processes and practices, it is also a conceptual container for the production and exchange of culture itself. For now, I turn now to the process of examining how the idea of social space has been informed by the idea of culture as ordinary, and everyday culture as the prospective site of resistance and reform. As Hall asserted, culture was not something to simply appreciate or study, but a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled” (Proctor, 2004, p. 2). It is this idea of social –space and culture as means of practicing everyday social action, with the intention of challenging dominant power systems through everyday action; in particular challenging capitalist economics, a pursuit that Lefebvre followed throughout his career. Before we consider how might we as artists, philosophers, workers, family members, and citizens create and engage with radical acts of cultural expression that shape social-spaces, and tie into artists and philosophers that have been practicing such intervention in recent history, we need to look back to a social history that has grown through the systemic exploitation of the working poor. We are also considering a social history that in the same breath has issues a sustained dismissal of customs, community and language that originates in working class community. I refer now to work of Williams who sets out to defend the cultural validity, and indeed importance of the everyday, and the everyday as a means of producing culture and custom, in the context of working class culture. This interest in the everyday, is central to my examination of Lefebvre’s social space, as he was in part interested in the cultural identities expressed through the cultural and economic production of space. He was also interested in how behaviour and use of space perpetuated dominant ideologies and in essence the privilege of the ruling class. It is therefore important to incorporate culture studies, and class studies into our thinking as we attempt to understand how Lefebvre informed his own thinking with the Marxist concern of economic equality, and class struggle as a means to attain such equality. Raymond Williams was a critic and intellectual very much engaged in the class struggle, through his contributions to political and intellectual thought, and indeed his own interest in cultural studies, and everyday studies. In his essay Culture is Ordinary (1958), Williams talks of his education at Cambridge University, as a working class young Welsh man coming from the borderlands. His observation on class and access to pulling the levers of power, are astute, and while he recognises that class relates to an ability to access and affect the centres of power, class does not preclude access to complex cultural practices and identities. This seems to be stating the obvious, but for me there is a striking link between Lefebvre’s concept of social space as a means of cultural and socio-economic production, and his intention for the utilisation and theorisation of space to allow for better interpretation of oppressive economic systems that only serve the interests of the already powerful by silencing and dismissing the customs of the working masses. This is both a Marxist interest and an interest in understanding the politics and the power systems that inform and shape the everyday, and the everyday playing out in space. Here is a quote from Williams’ conveying his ardent defence of working communities, and their dissatisfaction of Bourgeoisie imposition on definitions of cultural identity. “There is an English bourgeois culture, with its powerful educational literary and social institutions, in close contact with the actual centres of power. To say that most working people are excluded from these is self-evident, thought the doors, under sustained pressure, are slowly opening. But to go on to say that working people are excluded from English culture is nonsense; they have their own growing institutions, and much of the strictly bourgeois culture they would in any case not want.” (Highmore, 2002, p 95). I find it useful to refer to this quote as it provides an illustration of until recently, how working class and popular culture has been deemed primitive, undeveloped or broadly of disinterest. As Owen Jones articulates in his book Demonization of the Working Class (2011) what used to be called salt of the earth, is now called scum of the earth. Until the advent of cultural studies and thinkers such as Hall, Williams and Richard Hoggart, who identified culture as a means of social and linguistic expression and construction of identity. Really, what we see here is explicit structural, and coded dismissal of social identity that doesn’t belong to the teashops and elaborate rituals employed by the Bourgeoisie for no other purpose but to spell our their difference, and their supreme difference at that. Understanding this history of perpetuated exploitation of the poor, and the dismissal of the significance and interest of their culture, is the starting point from which I decide to make audio work, situated in public space, with the aim of unsettling the capitalist the status quo. From slavery, to feudalism to Capitalism, the progress of society in intellectual and material terms has come with a great human cost. Crap working conditions, preacarity and exploitation still rule the world, while the divide between the rich and the poor increases. In 2017 it has been stated that Eight billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who form the poorest half of the world’s population, and this figure really is the tip of the structural iceberg in terms of wealth distribution and the impact of poverty on quality of life, and life expectancy (Marmot,2015). Through my own research and practice, I’m interested in shrinking the social and economic distance between the rich and the poor. I am interested in closing the unfair distribution power between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, asserted through expressions of high culture, through drab and dull social complexity expressed by the aristocracy, and today the global elite to signify and convey their difference, their power and their elevation. As Williams passionately asserts “Culture is ordinary; through every change let us hold fast to that” (Highmore, 2002, p.94). Within this frame of the everyday, and in particular everyday, quotidian use and production of space, the ordinary as site for political disruption and reform, and indeed as a site of cultural expression and appreciation, I now link in my interest in the cultural practice of listening in public spaces, and listening as a radical act within everyday culture.

You may well ask, how can listening be deemed a structurally and relationally radical act? For me, listening is a radical act because we exist in a culture fixated with the gaze, and to listen is to move beyond a process of conceptual taxonimisation, distinction and analysis. Through the same means we are susceptible to misinformation, visual bombardment and lean close to the flames of a social history that associates the gaze with the power and the visual preference of the commissioner; be it the church or wealthy mercenaries, intent on portraying women as property equivalent to their other purchases. Ah the dark, dank histories of money as a means of human degradation. Occularcentricity dominates our sense making of the world, and at the same time increases individual susceptibility to consumerism, visual and conceptual seduction, and in the age of digital; a propensity for on going distraction. All these states of arguable decent, are achieved by the eye, through act of looking, and perhaps, not looking hard enough. You many now be asking, how does collective listening relate to the production of space? Sound is spatially defined. How it relates acoustically to surfaces, different spaces, and moisture; space alters the characteristics of sound, and sound alters space. In addition, as I have stated I’m interested in observing and understanding what group listening experiences do to individuals interacting with each other in social space, but also within a conceptual space. By listening together, to a particular topic of ideas and information, the shared encounter with a listening act, creates another sort of space; a social space that is concerned with the same focus; listening, and listening to learn. In the context of social-space, listening can be a means of challenging consumerist methods of mind control (namely through visual advertising and the visual fetishisation of commodities), as well as a process of conceptual and political critique. Capitalism is a means of economic organisation, in private and public spheres that depends on the under paying and over working of people trapped in a world of economic exchange. The system also depends on a skewed system of power, whereby those in possession of private property, inheritance etc. can generate unearned income to assist in the perpetuation of their profit making, and wealth assimilation. This does not need spelling out, we are well aware of the injustice and degradation of capitalism; and the loss is not only one based on the lack of time. It is argued that capitalism also degrades space for complex social ritual and expression that unites people to the environment, each other and place; practices that compound bonds instead of alienating them. Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism states, “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual and symbolic elaboration, and that all is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” (Fisher, 2009, p.4).

This provides a timely Segway into the social psychology, and social affect of listening. I believe it is through collective acts of listening, and listening to experience of the everyday, that the consumer-spectator can become more than a tourist to lost social sites of ritual, enquiry and discovery. Listening provides an alternative means of perceiving the social and material world, but also engenders a slower, more considered, embodied and empathetic means of relating to the world. It is argued to be the communication method most likely to cultivate and express empathy (Fuimara, 1996). Fuimara also argues that Western logo-centricity, concerned with a reductive logic intent of generating nomothetic, universal laws, has departed from the pre Socratic definition of logos, which defined logic as a much more holistic process than dialogic reductionism. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that to listen is to be “fundamentally open” (Gadamer, 2004). He continues to elaborate that without openness there can be no human relation. Herein lies the essence of the term relationship; to see the world through the eyes of another, must be done through listening and experiencing another perspective; meeting the other where they are at. Through facilitating listening events in public social-spaces, that focus on subjects that communicate a critique of a capitalist economy, and the day to day trappings of it (low wage, temporary contracts, alienation from production, housing insecurity and food poverty), I am interested in making sonic interventions that shape social-space in such a way, that it is provocative, lucid and critical of the limitations of capitalism. I am interested in exploring how listening interventions shape individuals interpretation of public space. I am also interested to examine how, and if, sonic art situated in social-space can evoke emotional and intellectual responses to the oppressive forces of ideological and economic oppression; capitalism.

As we have meandered through a range of explorations in this essay, let us know return to the original question. “How have Marxist theories influenced Lefebvre’s theory of social space?” As we know Lefebvre identified as a Marxist, and was concerned with developing a vocabulary and a conceptual apparatus for the analysis and interpretation of social space in with the effort of revealing and dealing with oppressive power relations. He saw space not as a final product or a fixed vessel, but as a series of inter-related, complex, and fluid relations, all specific to their spatial and social context. The link to Marxism here, is to be found in Lefebvre’s commitment to understanding the significance and symbolism of lived space, of everyday life. Such lived experiences are not separate from the political and economic ideologies that rule us, but instead convey the lived reality of policy making, and the shape of political thought on all of our lives. If one is concerned with the pursuit of social justice, then a study of the everyday is a good place to start in terms of exposing the structural injustice that limits all of our choices. For Lefebvre, the site of the everyday was a place to plant a seed to critique the status quo and come up with workable, scalable alternatives. Interestingly, Lefebvre identified that the day to day is a great place to start to express everyday micro expressions of resistance to intense individualisation, alienation through the fetishisation of material goods, and people ensconced in so much work that they have little time to cultivate nuanced and lasting social bonds. Within the quotidian, is the site of resistance; questions people can ask in public, through in depth discourse. For Lefebvre, acts of resistance against a false consciousness and against structural submission of Capitalism were the tools of structural change. We can see his borrowing of Marxist ideology in his concept, the Moment. The concept of Moments reappears throughout his work as a theory of presence and the foundation of a practice of emancipation. Experiences of revelation, deja-vu sensations, but especially love and committed struggle are examples of Moments. By definition, Moments have no duration, but can be repeated and re-lived. Lefebvre argues that these cannot easily be reappropriated by consumer capitalism and commodified; they cannot be codified. In another example of his critique of the oppressive nature of consumerism and capitalist reality, he uses the banal as a site of critique. Another example of Marxist thought influencing his conceptual labelling and exploration of social space, can be seen in the importance Lefebvre gives to the analysis of social space, how it is produced, and who benefits from social, relational, and economic contracts agreed that give material form to the spaces we occupy and use on a day to day basis. The reason this is important, is that such analysis allows all important power relations to be revealed, which in turn provides an opportunity for the proletariat to identify and diagnose their structural oppression, and carve time to re-think how they might redefine their day-to-day existence, and indeed the political and ideological system that incarcerates them. The study of space can be closely linked to the day to day. Think about the various spaces we inhabit daily, the spaces we occupy in the cycle of a week. What do we do in these spaces, who makes us do them? For what purpose? What relational and expressive options are we given in social space; what social spaces are offered to us in a time where we see the systematic and on-going erosion of common space, side by side with the expansion of sites of explicit consumerism, i.e., the shopping centre. Lefebvre didn’t go as far to say that profit was theft, but understood that the unfair distribution of wealth, exploitation of workers and the privilege of inheritance influenced all aspects of social life, and the structure of labour and opportunities for improved and fair living standards, and this included understanding the social impact of the production of social space. There are many conceptual building blocks that were taken form Marxist thought is the development of Lefebvre’s discussion of space, and in particular social-space, and it is impossible to cover them all in this essay. To conclude, it is clear that he borrowed an array of conceptual terms and a diagnosis of the sickness of capitalism from Marxist theory, and these can be seen in his earlier works A Critique of Everyday Life (1947), and indeed in The Production of Space (1991).



Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist realism: is there no alternative? 0 Books: Ropley.

Fiumara, C.G. (1990) The Other Side of Language; A Philosophy of Listening.London: Routledge.

Gadamer, H.G. (2004) Truth and Method. London: Contiuum Press.

Hall, S. & Open University (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage: London.

Highmore, B. (2002) The everyday life reader. Routledge, New York: London;

Jones, O. (2011) Chavs: the demonization of the working class. Verso: London.

Lefebvre, H. & Nicholson-Smith, D. (1991) The production of space, Blackwell.

Marmot, M. (2015) The health gap: the challenge of an unequal world. Bloomsbury: London.