Ari's critique

What is everyday life?


Supposedly, Henri Lefebvre “attributed his whole discovery of the concept of “everyday life” to his wife’s tone of voice, one day in their apartment, when she praised a particular brand of laundry soap”[1]. The concept is, at least nowadays, used in numerous different ways. In this post I would like to offer an interpretation of how it is understood by Lefebvre, particularly in his Everyday Life in the Modern World[2], in order to later extend it into the contemporary context (untheorised by Lefebvre) in my next post. Whilst in a sense the everyday has always been everyday (to state the obvious), the conceptual everyday life that Henri Lefebvre develops is historically and geographically specific. It refers to a series of spatial and temporal structures that are imposed on life by the state and the market. These spatial and temporal structures are not stable, taking on different forms at different times and different places, and do not correspond directly with lived experience. They do however push it in certain directions.

Lefebvre’s everyday life emerges in tandem with, and conditioned by, a series of other factors that are the focus of his other major works: capitalism, space[3], urbanism[4] and the state[5].  Through this prism Lefebvre identifies the emergence of what he refers to as the State Mode of Production (SMP)[6], that is the state geared towards strengthening and reproducing itself. In order do so life itself, and particularly everyday life, becomes the focus of governmental policies as Foucault famously elaborates in his lectures titled Security, Territory, Population[7]. Lefebvre, suggests that these changes lead to the emergence of a managerial state that increasingly runs itself like a business. Following this logic competent state management is what allows the attainment of “modernity”. The strength and possibility of reproduction of the state is seen to be intrinsically linked to its productivity.  State and market thus intervene in the structures of everyday life, rationalising them, gearing them towards productivity.

Urbanism is particularly influential in producing the structures of everyday life that Lefebvre studies. Massimo Cacciari in La città (unfortunately still untranslated) notes how urbanism begins to be orientated around two axis: production and exchange. The metropolis is remade in order to foment these two aspects, marginalising other elements of everyday life. The ways that this is done takes on a plethora of different forms. However, for theoretical orientation it is possible to identify at least main two phases in Cacciari’s analysis (and I will use this differentiation to extend Lefebvre’s concept into the present in my next post): the initial phase, where the state and market disciplines everyday life, orientating it towards productivity and exchange (what Foucault calls “disciplinary society”) and the second phase where these ideals have become internalized and penetrate all aspects of society, production and exchange overflow the designated closed spaces of disciplinary society infiltrating all aspects of our lives (Gilles Deleuze calls this epoch societies of control).

Any genealogy of the government of everyday life also needs to add an earlier paradigm (I will try to delve into this in more detail in future posts): the colonial period. The technologies and discourses generated in relation to indigenous populations are remarkably overlooked by Lefebvre and other authors focused on the government of everyday life. However, it is in the colonies, and in relation to the indigenous other, where ideas about how to run a society rationally are elaborated and tested. Those of us who study the Social Sciences know that a whole array of disciplines were developed in order to understand why indigenous societies failed to be like the west and the ways in which they could be obligated to do so. Lefebvre seems to demonstrate some consciousness when, drawing on the work of Guy Debord, he suggests that everyday life is becoming increasingly colonised in the west.


In this post I will sketch the characteristics of everyday life emerging in tandem with the managerial state, leaving the colonial period and the contemporary context for future exploration.

  1. The managerial state

In his notes of Americanism and Fordism Antonio Gramsci offers some insights into the emergence of the managerial state. Gramsci notes how Fordism gears life towards productivity via emerging ‘hegemonic’ forms of technical knowledge and practice. The tactics of motor car industrialist Henry Ford are seen as the paradigmatic case as he, according to Gramsci, succeeds in making the whole life of the nation revolve around production[8]. The factory is the quintessential space of this managerial logic, “Fordism involved the large production of goods to a standardised design, the concentration of the whole production cycle in a single plant, the mechanisation of assembly (parts moving of belt chains, a high degree of division of labour and the reduction of workers movements and tasks to a simple routine”[9].

Such work was most productive when carried out by a particular kind of individual, “[t]he new methods of work are inseparable from a specific mode of living and of thinking and feeling life”[10]. Thus Gramsci notes how the logic disseminates through numerous facets of life, moulding a way of “living and thinking and feeling life” that is tailored to the requirements of this work. The worker undergoes “a process of psychophysical adaptation to specific conditions of work, nutrition, housing, customs, etc.”[11]

In this process, the control of the worker in the productive space of the factory is not sufficient to generate the new way of thinking and feeling. Thus emerges the interest in intervening in their everyday life. In these texts Gramsci focuses on the government of two aspects of everyday life; alcohol consumption and sexual relationships. For Gramsci the management of these “have the purpose of preserving outside of work, a certain psycho-physical equilibrium which prevent the physiological collapse of the worker, exhausted by the new methods of production”[12]. He notes how Ford attempted to intervene in how workers lived and spent their money in order to ensure the stability of the labour force and its productivity[13]. The ideal worker actively participates in their own well-being. As Gramsci states:

“[i]t is necessary for the worker to spend his extra money rationally to maintain, renew and if possible increase his muscular nervous efficiency and not corrode or destroy it… Abuse and irregularity of sexual functions, is, after alcoholism, the most dangerous enemy of nervous energies, and it is commonly observed that obsessional work provokes alcoholic and sexual depravation”[14].

Thus Gramsci links the new industrialism to alcohol prohibition and stable family values. As he states “the new industrialism wants monogomy: it wants the man as worker not to squander his nervous energies in the disorderly and stimulating pursuit of occasional sexual satisfaction. The employee who goes to work after a night of excess is no good for his work”[15]. The worker is guided to take responsibility for the productivity of the company and the state and thus shape their life accordingly. The justification for doing so seems reminiscent of the recommendation given to women during Edwardian times during unwanted sexual intercourse, to “lie back and think of England”.

Utopias and dystopias

The incursion of the state and the market into everyday life has from the beginning inspired utopian and dystopian visions. The rationalization of everyday life is in itself a utopian project and one that Gramsci was at least partially sympathetic to. Lefebvre’s work is useful as it draws out a key similarity between capitalism and state communism: the rationalization of everyday life at its gearing towards economic productivity. The governing of everyday life and rebellion against it are picked up by popular culture from the beginning (see for example in the song Well Respected Man by the Kinks below). More obviously, two extremely influential literary works of this time period give a dystopian vision of this phenomenon, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

There is also simultaneously a rebellion against this process of rationalisation. The rebellion is perhaps most obvious in art (not to say that art leads the rebellion). The Dadaists, Surrealists and later the Situationists all positioned themselves against the rationalisation of everyday life, rebelling against cultural conformity and attempting to recapture spontaneity through art. The logic with which society was governed and the ills that it created was the target of critique, the Dadaists rejected logic and embraced absurdity whilst the surrealists problematized the distinction between dream and logic.

Lefebvre formed links firstly with the Surrealists and later with the Situationist International. He had numerous meetings and discussions with the Situationists and there are clear connections between their ideas. The Situationists simultaneously rejected the escapism of surrealism into the dream world as well as the commodification of art and culture. They proposed that art should be put to the service of the revolution and the imagining of a new society. The Situationist International was particularly influential in the events of May 1968 in France.

There is also a close correlation between the ideas behind these artistic movements and literary movement such as the beat generation and the counter culture emerging in the 1960s.



Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1977), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking Press).

Foucault, Michel (2007), Security, territory, population : lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Gramsci, Antonio and Forgacs, David (1999), The Gramsci reader : selected writings, 1916-1935 (London: Lawrence & Wishart).

Lefebvre, Henri (1976), L’État dans le monde moderne (Paris: Union générale d’éditions).

— (1977), Le mode de production étatique (Paris: Union générale d’éditions).

— (1984), Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New Brunswick: Transaction).

— (1991), The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell).

— (2003), The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).



[1] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the re-ordering of French Culture,  MIT Press, 1996 p. 73

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1984).

[3] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[5] Henri Lefebvre, L’état Dans Le Monde Moderne (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1976).

[6] Henri Lefebvre, Le Mode De Production Étatique (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1977).

[7] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the CollèGe De France, 1977-1978 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[8] Antonio Gramsci and David Forgacs, The Gramsci Reader : Selected Writings, 1916-1935 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999). P. 278

[9] Ibid. p. 275

[10] Ibid. p. 289

[11] Ibid. p. 281.

[12] Ibid. p. 290-291.

[13] Ibid. p. 291.

[14] Ibid. p. 291.

[15] Ibid. p. 292.


One thought on “What is everyday life?

  1. Pingback: What has everyday life become? | everydaycritique

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