Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Contemporary Relevance of Frederick Engel's Critique of 'Haussmann'.

by Darsha Indrajith, 2012

Frederick Engels’s critique of the ‘Haussmann’ method forms a part of his discussion on an issue that is applicable to many cities today – the housing problem. Thus, it is evident that the problem that Engels discusses is relevant today, but so is the method that is used to deal with it, ‘Haussmann’, and Engels’s critique of it. In The Housing Question though, Engels speaks mainly of housing in relation to the working-class and their employers. In most modern cities though, housing is also a problem for the unemployed. Therefore, in order to make Engels’s critique more relevant to today’s housing issue, the scope of his argument should be broadened to include the unemployed. The general ideas and critiques that Engels articulates can be easily moulded to include the unemployed. 

Contemporary housing problems affect all of the urban poor, not only those who work. The relevance of Engels’s critique is also evident in contemporary literature on urbanization - in particular, David Harvey’s discussion on the right to the city. This idea of the right to the city, as well as ‘Haussmann’ and Engels’s critique of it can be applied to the real conditions of contemporary cities, particularly developing ones. While the case studies used in this discussion are South African, the general ideas of Engels and Harvey can be applied to cities around the world.

Before delving into Engels’s critique of what he calls ‘Haussmann’ and its contemporary relevance, it is necessary to understand what ‘Haussmann’ actually is. The ‘Haussmann’ method refers to the restructuring of Paris in 1853 by Georges-Eugene Haussmann, which was done in a manner that benefited the bourgeoisie and capital accumulation, but marginalized the working-class (Harvey, 2008: 25). Haussmann, under the orders of the government, recreated Paris in order to aid urbanization and capitalism (Harvey, 2008: 26). He created a whole new way of living through his restructuring of the city space, which also resulted in the restructuring of financial institutions (Harvey, 2008: 26). This, however, resulted in a financial crash and the Paris Commune (Harvey, 2008: 26). Even though this ‘Haussmann’ method was clearly flawed, it was repeated across the world. Harvey (2008: 27) points out that the ‘Haussmann’ method was repeated in the USA in the 1940s. Cities had their landscapes changed, financial institutions changed too and suburbs were created (Harvey, 2008: 27-28). In both of these cases the changes in the cities were done in order to benefit a certain groups of people within those cities, and to benefit capital. The urban restructuring also illustrated how governments align their interests with the bourgeois. However, in both cases the elitist restructuring of cities led to social and financial crises. In the US restructuring led to the mass revolts of 1968 and financial crashes in 1973 and 1975 (Harvey, 2008: 28). One has to notice the similarities between these two cases of urbanization and restructuring that led to social and financial upheaval and our current situation in cities across the world. The ‘Haussmann’ method of restructuring still appears in modern cities, which is why Frederick Engels’s critique of this method is relevant today.

In The Housing Question Engels briefly states his interpretation of the ‘Haussmann’ method: “In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion-that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is called ‘Haussmann’” (Engels, 1872). Thus, according to Engels, this process of urbanization is in fact a bourgeois effort to protect elite interests disguised as an attempt at solving the housing problems of the poor. However, because an actual solution to the problem is never reached, the problem ends up being shifted around and is simply replicated in a different place. Engels emphasizes how the ‘Haussmann’ method allows the elite to acknowledge the problematic living conditions of the poor and “fix” these unacceptable living conditions without actually facing the deficient social and economic systems that created the housing problems in the first place (Engels, 1872). Thus the bourgeois “solutions” in fact reproduce the problem over and over again because they are aimed at sustaining the current economic and social systems. As Engels notes, the housing problem was created in the first place by the bourgeois social system (Engels, 1872). The bourgeoisie has no desire to change the system:  “the bourgeois socialist ‘is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society’” (Engels, 1872). Thus, according to bourgeois theories, the housing problem is not a result of the social and economic systems, but rather of the so-called collapse of morality in poorer areas (Engels, 1872). Bourgeois “reformers” therefore place the blame on the victims instead of attempting to fundamentally change the system.

The ‘Haussmann’ method, in which urbanization is an elite task that aims to benefit the elite, epitomizes David Harvey’s idea of “the right to the city” (Harvey, 2008). The right to the city is “ the right to change ourselves by changing the city” (Harvey, 2008: 23). The ability to be a part of the city and the process of urbanization enables people to improve themselves as, for example, schools and work opportunities are better in cities than in rural areas. With ‘Haussmann’, though, many people are unable to have any say when it comes to changing the city. In most, if not all, cases the people denied the right to the city are its poorer inhabitants. Thus, urbanization becomes in issue of class because the right to the city, the ability to change the city, is given to the wealthy inhabitants. Capitalism and urbanization are therefore intimately linked (Harvey, 2008: 24). It is through changing the city that capitalists find ways to invest their money (Harvey, 2008: 24). However, the changes done to the city are to benefit the elite and wealthy. The poor are sidelined in the process of urbanization. For example, in 2008 the then Premier of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), S’bu Ndebele, agreed to sell a large area of land on the north coast of KZN to Dubai-based Ruwaad Holdings in order for the company to create a resort for the rich (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). This resort was to be called Amazulu World and included shopping malls, golf courses, sports facilities, residences, a game reserve and even a large portion of beach (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008).

The problem with this deal, however, was that the land was not Ndebele’s to sell. The 165000 hectares promised to Ruwaad Holdings was known as eMacambini, and had been the ancestral home of the Macambini people for many years (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). eMacambini was home to 10000 families and 25% of the population depended on their land for an income (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). The proposed AmaZulu World required the removal of these families to 500 hectare township (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). Of course, only a certain percentage of the people who lived in eMacambini would have qualified for RDP housing (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). On top of that, the development of the resort would have destroyed 3 clinics, 29 schools and over 300 churches in the area (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). All of these arrangements were made without the consultation of the people who lived on the land that was to be sold (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008). The removal of people from their ancestral land to tiny houses that were not even promised to some and the destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure were seen to be justified by the supposed need to build a theme park. While AmaZulu World has not yet materialized due to the protests of the people living in eMacambini, the intention of the KZN government and the urban development process followed by it illustrate how urban elites have and continue to marginalize the poor by denying them their rights. Development in this example was in no way beneficial to the people who really needed it – the poor. Rather, it was to their detriment. Moreover, the proposed solution to the “problem” was that residents of eMacambini be moved to a township where the facilities would be worse than what they were used to, and would be further removed from the city and its opportunities. The case of AmaZulu World shows that urban class segregation still exists in modern cities, that urban development is dictated by the bourgeoisie for its own interests, and that even when attempts are made to change the situations of the poor, they are done with bourgeois interests in mind. It is therefore evident that the ‘Haussmann’ method is still used in cities today, and Engels’s critique of this method becomes relevant because of its inherent inequality and exploitation. Engels’s critique highlights the pitfalls of ‘Haussmann’, questions the intentions behind it and points to the need for an alternative urban development process.

The ‘Haussmann’ method leads to the denial of rights to certain groups of people within urban spaces. Spaces that should be available to all of the city’s citizens are privatized and limited to the privileged. In fact, citizenship itself and the rights that accompany it are denied to those who are not wealthy (Harvey, 2008: 32). Furthermore, the poor are actually made to suffer additional grief as urban restructuring forces them to move and make way for elite developments (Harvey, 2008: 33). This is certainly the case with temporary relocation camps in South Africa. Temporary relocation camps are used to house people who have been removed by the government from shack settlements (Hunter, 2012). These camps are usually located outside of cities and house people in tiny tin structures (Hunter, 2012). They are meant to be a temporary solution to the urban housing problem, as people are placed there while they await RDP housing (Hunter, 2012). However, more often than not people end up in these camps indefinitely (Hunter, 2012). In 2009 a group of shack dwellers was moved from a settlement in Durban to a transit camp in Isipingo, which is located a fair distance out of the city (Hunter, 2012). This group is still waiting to be allocated to permanent housing. The reason given for their removal was the building of a fuel pipeline (Hunter, 2012). This example illustrates Engels’s point of how the bourgeois “solution” to the housing problem is not in fact a solution because it does not solve the actual problem, the social and economic systems, but rather moves the problem and simply replicates it elsewhere. This is done to benefit bourgeois interests. The example also shows how poor urban people are not included in urban development, and are in fact disadvantaged by it – the urban space segregates classes and bourgeois-led development excludes the urban poor from the city and its opportunities. Residents of the Isipingo transit camp had suffered economically due to their move. While living in the city residents had opportunities for employment, even informally (Hunter, 2012). In the relocation camp, however, employment opportunities are significantly lower and people are paid less than half of what they were in the city for the same job (Hunter, 2012). Furthermore, the sanitation in the camp is worse than conditions in the shack settlement that residents were forced to leave, and the placement of the camp, on a flood plain near a river, worsen the situation due to the camp’s susceptibility to flooding (Hunter, 2012).

The removal of shack dwellers in Durban illustrates the government’s alignment with bourgeois interests. This is typified in the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination & Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act, which aimed to eradicate already existing shack settlements and prevent the creation of new ones (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2007). Interestingly, this was done a few years before the FIFA World Cup took place in South Africa. Ranjith Purshotum, a Durban lawyer, described the situation in almost the exact manner in which Engels defines ‘Haussmann’: “Instead of saying that people will be evicted from slums after permanent accommodation is secured, we have a situation where people are being removed from a slum, and sent to another slum. Only this time it is a government-approved slum and is called a transit area. This is the twisted logic of the drafters of the legislation” (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2007). Fortunately, after years of protest against the act, the Constitutional Court recognized its injustice and declared it unconstitutional (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2009).

It is important to note that the examples described above are not isolated cases. Temporary relocation camps exist in many other cities in South Africa, and become a way through which the government controls not only the topography of the city, but also the people within these camps. “Blikkiesdorp”, just outside of Cape Town, is one of the most well-known transit camps in the country. The case of people who were evicted from their homes in Siyanda, a shack settlement in Durban, was recently in the news. After living in a temporary relocation camp for three years former Siyanda residents, who had been evicted to make way for the construction of a road, won a court case against the Durban municipality (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2012). The municipality had promised the Siyanda residents permanent housing within a year but never delivered (Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2012). Furthermore, cases of authorities evicting people in order to make way for urban developments that do not include the poor are replicated, in the general sense, in cities across the world. Mumbai immediately springs to mind for example. Shack dwellers being given 24 hours notice to vacate their settlements in order to make way for upscale developments is a common occurrence in the city (Khan, 2012). The fact that the urban poor are denied their rights and political agency is evident in the fact that official Indian maps do not recognize “slums” (Khan, 2012). This becomes an illustration of the bourgeois effort to render the urban poor literally and politically invisible. Engels’s idea of employers offering their workers housing in order to control them is particularly evident in Dubai, where migrant workers have no rights. There are no trade unions or strikes and workers are housed separately from the wealthy part of Dubai – they are even banned from spaces that are seen as reserved for the wealthy, such as shopping malls (Davis, 2006: 65). These are just a few examples of cases that concretize the ‘Haussmann’ method, and illustrate Engels’s critique of it as well as Harvey’s idea of the right to the city. Many more cases exist in cities around the world. Though they differ according to context, they all exemplify the ‘Haussmann’ method and how class segregation within cities restricts the rights and development of the urban poor.

The examples above show how Engels’s critique of ‘Haussmann’ is relevant today. It is relevant because modern cities still make use of the ‘Haussmann’ method, although in different ways. Even though Engels’s critique would be relevant without any change, it becomes far more relevant in a contemporary urban setting if its scope is extended beyond workers and their employers. Engels’s contemporary relevance is also evident in the fact that the ideas outlined in The Housing Question are still being discussed in modern literature on urbanization. David Harvey’s The Right to the City incorporates ideas found in Engels’s critique of ‘Haussmann’ in order to illustrate contemporary problems affecting the urban poor and how the urbanization process becomes an elitist endeavour. The integration of Harvey’s ideas into Engels’s original critique makes it more relevant to contemporary cities. Therefore, Engels’s critique of ‘Haussmann’ is most definitely relevant today because, as both he and Harvey note, the concept of ‘Haussmann’ itself entails that it is repeated time and time again, despite its evident flaws. While the contexts may change, the fundamental concept of ‘Haussmann’ remains the same today as it was in 1872, which is why Engels’s critique can still be used to highlight the problems of urbanization and urban housing that are a result of flawed economic and social systems.

Abahlali baseMjondolo. 2007. Eliminate the Slums Act - Original press statement and digital archive. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Abahlali baseMjondolo. 2008. eMacambini March Against S'bu Ndebele, Ruwaad Holdings & AmaZulu World. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Abahlali baseMjondolo. 2009. Abahlali baseMjondolo celebrates as Constitutional Court declares KZN Slums Act unconstitutional. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Abahlali baseMjondolo. 2012. Court Victory Against the eThekwini Muncipality!. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Davis, M. 2006. Fear and Money in Dubai. New Left Review. 41.

Engels, F. 1872. The Housing Question. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Harvey, D. 2008. The Right to the City. New Left Review. 53.

Hunter, M. 2012. Temporary Camps That Become Prisons. Abahlali baseMjondolo. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from

Khan, F.A. 2012. Mumbai Land Grab. Al Jazeera. Retrieved 25 October 2012 from