Some Introductory Remarks About a New City for a New Society

Z Magazine / ZNet and Porto Alegre 3 present

Life After Capitalism Essays

Marcelo Lopes de Souza

We were asked for two tasks by the organisers[1]: First, we should present a vision about a just city of the future, that is a city in which social justice would reign (which presupposes another society, a post-capitalist society); secondly, we should develop a strategy in order to achieve this just city.

Well, we need a vision, but we must avoid the temptation to develop a normative model. A normative model is a rationalistic exercise; its premise is that we are able to anticipate details about future urban forms and/or that we are able to prescribe how the future city form should be. I think this approach is both intellectually and politically wrong. A genuinely alternative city of the future should be planned and managed by concrete free men and women, not “socialist” gurus, technocrats and party officials acting in the name of the people (or in the name of the “working class” or whatever); history itself and not theory must determine the concrete spatiality of the future. However, we can and should discuss criteria and parameters, with which help we can talk about the question to which extent and under which circumstances spatial organisation can fit to alternative social relations.

A just city needs a just society, but new social relations also need a new spatiality. It is wrong to think that new spatial forms alone can determine social relations (in the sense, say, of Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse), but it would also be wrong to ignore that spatial forms can influence social relations. Capitalist urban forms, capitalist spatial organisation and capitalist territorial division of labour were produced by capitalist social relations in order to serve capitalist interests. A new society needs a new spatiality, but this new spatiality will not fall from heaven: It must be built and conquered on the basis of very much struggle and in the framework of changing social relations.

What is a just society? A just society must be a society which provides equal chances of participation in political processes for all of its members. I mean not only formal or legal equality, but real equality, which presupposes economic and political institutions which must be very different from those existing under capitalism and representative “democracy”. That is, a just society is not characterised by private property of means of production, and it is also not characterised by a structural separation between those who govern and those who are governed.[2]

Political processes in such a society will probably happen on the basis of some kind of direct democracy; urban planning and management will be radically participatory. Even if this alternative city has hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants, it is possible and necessary to adjust it in order to make the practice of direct democracy possible. There are four basic tasks in order to transform this vision into a reality[3]:

1) Delegation must be introduced and expanded. Delegation is very different of representation in spirit: A delegate is only a spokesman or spokeswoman of a social basis, of a social group, and he or she has an imperative mandate, while a representative has the power to decide in the name of other people.

2) Territorial decentralisation must be achieved as much as possible. The only way to manage and govern cities with hundreds of thousands or even millions of people is to decentralise its administration radically on the basis of communes, very much in the sense of Murray Bookchin’s ideas about this question.

3) New technologies of communication and information must be employed. These new technologies have been developed by capitalist interests and not for libertarian purposes, but it is possible and necessary to adjust them to serve human freedom instead of human alienation. From Cornelius Castoriadis to Pierre Lévy, many thinkers have paid attention to the libertarian potentialities of these new technologies.

4) New spatial forms must be produced. The modern equivalents of the Greek agora (a mixture of market and political assembly place) and the Greek ecclesiasterion (a building built as a place for political meetings of citizens) must be conceived and built.

Another important question is that of the regional context in which the city is located. We must overcome the opposition between city and countryside, which is typical of capitalism, as well as the opposition between intellectual and manual work. We can overcome this contradiction by means of two kinds of measures: First, “greening” the city, that is, trying to make it less artificial, less unhealthy, less polluted; secondly, it is necessary to disperse infrastructure and cultural and economic opportunities in space, in order to make the places outside our large cities of today more attractive to people. Many thinkers of the past dedicated themselves to reflect about this question – people such as Friedrich Engels, Piotr Kropotkin and Ebenezer Howard -, but contemporary left-oriented authors have paid much less attention to this problem, or to spatiality in general. In the former Soviet Union there was an attempt in the 1920s to rethink space and spatial organisation in new terms, mostly under inspiration of Engels’ remarks about the subject in some of his works (such as The Housing Question); the so-called “desurbanists” tried to develop a new spatial model radically alternative to the capitalist one. However, Stalinist pragmatism reduced these efforts to ashes, and the so-called “real socialism” was much more concerned with surpassing capitalism to a large extent in its own terms than with overcoming capitalist productive forces (including spatiality).

Of course, only on the basis of new social relations it will be possible to change spatiality radically. However, we should not wait a glorious revolution to begin to change things; in fact, we need not only strategic competence, but also tactical abilities. It is tactically necessary to value positively some instruments and mechanisms which can be implemented here and now, even in the general framework of a heteronomous status quo under capitalism and representative “democracy”. These instruments and mechanisms of participatory planning and management, such as Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting as well as those instruments developed or adopted in the context of the Brazilian urban development strategy known as “urban reform”[4], can help us to prepare a new social order.


Souza, M. L. de (2000): Urban Development on the Basis of Autonomy: a Politico-Philosophical and Ethical Framework for Urban Planning and Management. Ethics, Place and Environment, Vol. 3, n.° 2, 187-201.

———- (2001): The Brazilian Way of Conquering the “Right to the City”: Successes and Obstacles in the Long Stride towards an “Urban Reform”. DISP, n.° 147, 25-31.

———- (2002): Mudar a cidade. Uma introdução crítica ao planejamento e à gestão urbanos. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil.

Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. E-mail:

[1] This text was presented on the 25th of January in the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in the framework of the event “Life after Capitalism” (panel “The City”).

[2] A politico-philosophical framework for radical urban planning and management was developed by me in a number of works, largely under inspiration of Cornelius Castoriadis’ ideas about individual and collective autonomy (the so-called “project of autonomy”). See, for instance, Souza (2000) and Souza (2002).

[3] More about these four tasks can be found in my last book (Souza 2002).

[4] See, about these mechanisms and instruments, Souza (2000, 2001, 2002).