Right to the City – Organizational Realities

The practices of Right to the City-affiliated organizations around the world vary widely, but have much in common. Reports from groups in Europe and the United States, from Greece to Hungary to Germany to France to Portugal to Spain to the United States – presented at a recent conference in New York [1] — revealed both striking similarities and striking differences, with a common impetus behind them and a common enthusiasm in action. What follows is an attempt at a framework to separate out the components of the policies of these groups, and is based on the exploited, excluded, discontented analysis.[2] With hypotheses as to what kinds of answers might be generated. The question might be asked, how each component might relate to the varying readings of The Right to the City listed in an earlier discussion.[3] The listing is not intended to be comprehensive, nor to make value judgments as to a “right” or “wrong” approaches, but to be an aid in furthering the discussion of alternative goals and practices.

1.         Target constituency? How are they defined? As the poor, the working class, immigrants, minority ethnic or “racial” or religious groups? By age? By legal status, by gender, by sexual orientation? By work-place relations, unionization, wage rates, work conditions?

Hypothesis: Open to all in theory, but in practice: groups among the exploited, the excluded, and the discontented, with a  common denominator: ill served by market-oriented capitalism and urbanization, among these groups focus determined by history and existing socio-political situation.  In practice,  “all people” are not the constituency  except in the very long run — some already have the right to the city, and use it to exclude others.

2.         Problem Focus? Gentrification/displacement almost always, directly or indirectly, affordable housing, homelessness, environment, health care, welfare programs, jobs, discrimination based on “race,” ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, immigration status, poverty, globalization, local community development/preservation?

Hypothesis: Community rather than work-place issues, almost always single issue focus among them, most frequently gentrification/displacement or housing/homelessness, but involved in and supportive of other campaigns and groups.

3.         Base of organization?  Issue-based? Community or neighborhood-based? City-based? National? Active as one organization, or coalition of organization? Membership-based, with “allied” non-members? Paid staff and/or volunteers? If local, link to national Alliance? Global links?

Hypothesis: some level of paid staff necessary; membership dues helpful for organizing but not adequate for funding desired activities, principled relationship to finding sources but with tensions. Actions more often organized by individual member groups of Right to the City Alliance than of coalition/alliance itself, but hope for high levels of cooperation and unity. Links to national and global groups boost morale and info, but are essentially separate from local activities.

4.         Internal organization?  Participatory democracy? Formal democracy? Strong leadership? Spontaneity desired?  Explicit self-education and training programs? Use of outside educational opportunities/organizations?

Hypothesis:[ Little direct information available.]   Strong emphasis on participatory democracy, but in practice significantly dependent on extent and quality of leadership, with occasional tensions between effectiveness and democracy. A shared and unfulfilled need for expanded education and internal discussion.

5.         Strategies, tactics? Demonstrations? Picket lines? Public Relations? Petitions? Involvement in electoral politics, around issues? Around candidates? Around parties? Sit-ins? Occupation of public and/or private spaces? Strikes, work-place based?

Hypothesis: All groups learning from experience, their own and each others. Relations with media important, deserving of focused attention. Level of militancy more externally determined (level of crisis, etc.) than by internal decisions. Partially dependent on ideological position as to desirability of consensus/winning conflicts over power..

6.         Historical situation?: How will answers to any of above depend on level of economic prosperity? Economic crisis? Sense of improvement or decline in living standards? Policies of the l1%? Level /position in process of globalization? Historically established legal, governmental, cultural forms? Involvement in War? Role of military? Corruption?

Hypothesis:  Dependent, not on absolute level, but on both perceived change: conditions improving or worsening, and on perceived injustice: inequality increasing or declining, respect accorded or denied?

7.         Role of state? Is state seen as enemy? An (un)-reliable friend? A secondary consideration? A battlefield? A target of action?

Hypothesis: Attitude will depend on policies of the 1%: are they seeking to co-opt and mollify, as in welfare state policies, or to control, and if control, by force, police suppression, criminalization, or by tolerating/encouraging righto-wing oppositional groups, as Tea Party or skinheads?  Austerity measures? Neo-liberal ideological offensive?   Does formal structure of government allow for meaningful influence by groups?

8.         Motivation? What drives the membership: Economic hardship? Insecurity? Loss of benefits, current or prospective? Frustrated present or expanded aspirations? Sense of injustice? Offenses to dignity? Instincts, “consciousness,”[4] theoretical analysis? Belief system, historical or manipulated?

Hypothesis: Certainly material condition for exploited and excluded, built for them as well as for discontented issues of dignity, respect, discrimination, injustice, substantial.

9.         Guiding Theory? What explanation of present conditions guides the strategy? Marxist? Class conflict? Keynesian? Inherent tendency to crisis? Foucault? Lefebvre? Saul Alinsky? Piven and Cloward? Pluralism? New Left? Globalism? Anarchist? Agency vs. Structure? How does theory influence strategy? Is it reflected in a Mission Statement?

Hypothesis: Development of explicit theory largely guided by need to put immediate actions into a context, avoidance of grand theory. Reliance on generalized understanding of lived experience. Often reactive to dominant theory, e.g. austerity promotes growth, minimum wages cost jobs, providing affordable housing undermines work incentive. Limited use of “allies.,“ interaction with discontented. “Anti-capitalist” may be a good common denominator.

Putting the Hypotheses together might be a sort of outline of the collective experiences of the groups.


1. Sponsored by and held at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in New York City, Novmber 22, 2013. See www.rosalux-nyc.org.

2. For an earlier version, see Blog #6 –“For Occupy, What Does 99% Mean”, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

3.  See Blog #40 – “Reading the Right to the City,” at pmarcuse.wordpress.com. [1]

4. See Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation

Leave a comment