Lucius Kowarick (1938-2020) – III

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Commentary on the book “Urban Writings”

Urban Writings it is the rare opportunity for the reader interested in the urban issue to follow the plots of a long intellectual trajectory, aimed at unraveling the complex relationships between the economic, territorial and political dimensions of Brazilian urban development.

In the book, the author reconstructs a path inaugurated in the 70s, when, for the first time, Brazilian sociology recognizes the pertinence and specificity of the urban as an object of research and theoretical framework. That moment, influenced by French structuralist Marxist thought, was marked by a reading of the urbanization model resulting from the “Brazilian miracle” based on the role of capitalist accumulation, the State and the means of collective consumption.

From this perspective, Lúcio Kowarick launches the notion of urban dispossession, naming an eminently urban process of exploitation of the workforce, which operates through the precarious insertion of workers in the city.

The concept of urban dispossession influenced a whole generation of studies, but also inspired the strategic vision of leadership and technicians directly engaged in urban struggles that intensified in the country from the beginning of the 1980s. This is perhaps one of the most striking and peculiar traits of the author's intellectual journey: his thought has the vitality of someone who thinks from and for a society in motion. Thus, it allows itself to be positively contaminated by the new questions that populate the universe of struggles for a fairer city (and, therefore, a society).

For this reason, the notion of experience, of social subjectivity, transforms the initial macrostructural determinism into the backdrop of a scene starring actors, real agents. The book that marks this transition is Social Struggles and the City, inspired by the strikes in São Bernardo and São Paulo, from 1978 to 1980.

Likewise, in the following movement, the author escapes from readings that demonize the State and deify social movements, moving on to a deeper discussion of the issue of democracy and bringing up the issue of citizenship.

Once again, the clippings and themes have to do with political conjunctures: the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s bring to light the experiences in Brazil of local administrations that are intended to be democratic and popular. And thus, characters who were clearly in opposition to the State began to assume government tasks, especially in the municipal Legislative and Executive powers. The essays produced by the author in this period – the last of the books – resonate, albeit indirectly, with the new theoretical-political challenges arising from this new configuration. Citizenship and public space then become the core of the author's research. According to him, it is necessary “to reflect on a political system that follows democratic rules, but fails to reduce the vast social and economic exclusions: how can there be political freedom and extreme social and economic inequality?”.

For Kowarick, the key to understanding the political logic of this paradoxical situation are the notions of private citizen and public sub-citizen – the public space is governed not by explicit and universal rules, but by criteria of inclusion and exclusion of rights and duties marked by favoritism, willpower and violence. Thus, the primacy of the private citizen is established, “the one who with his effort and perseverance, won in life, because he built his own house for many and painful years”.

In this way, the logic of self-production of housing, a place for workers in the city, is perversely intertwined with the logic of concentration of power and its perpetuation, even under formally democratic regimes.

Finally, in the last test of Urban Writings (“Urban Investigation and Society”), the author reveals the reasons that led him to publish a book presenting (and re-discussing!) one by one the concepts that were being built throughout his intellectual path. I transcribe his words, which define the position from which Kowarick situates his speech: “The urban researcher is not an agent of social and political transformation.

Its fundamental role lies in the critical production of knowledge in the strongest and most rigorous sense of the term. Its role is subversive, that is, to revolve, disturb, disorder the state of things and ideas, upsetting the consecrated interpretation, the action considered correct and effective, the hierarchy of values ​​and the dominant rationality. Subverting means questioning and checking theories, methods and analytical categories; it also means questioning and unveiling the social practices of the most varied groups present in society's hierarchies, with special attention to the multiple values, symbols, traditions and experiences of the countless components of the popular strata”.

In times of blinding neoliberalism, it is really a pleasure to see that subversive thinkers still exist!

In time: one more trace of the author's sensitivity: the book is punctuated by the strong and precise photographs of Tomás Rezende. These are not illustrations, but a dialogue that the text establishes with another discourse – that of the image –, which also gradually reveals the marks of exclusion in the powerful city of São Paulo.

*Raquel Rolnik is a professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP. Author, among other books, of war of places (Boitempo).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, nº 65, on 12/08/2000.


Lucio Kowarick. Urban Writings. São Paulo, Editora 34, 144 pages.


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