Anarcho-spatialism: Towards an Egalitarian Land Tenure

By Anders Corr

An accurate description of future land tenure after so revolutionary a change as anarchy is impossible. Imagine someone before the industrial revolution attempting to describe the present. Max Stirner writes in the Ego and His Own, "Of what sort is the settlement to be? One might as well ask that I cast a child's nativity. What a slave will do as soon as he has broken his fetters, one must -- await." (344) Nevertheless, if we will destroy the old structure, we must make an attempt to paint a picture, however two dimensional, of the new social relationships for which we strive. "The question of land refuses to go away." writes Peter Lambdeth Wilson (better known by his culturally imperialist misnomer Hakim Bey) in T.A.Z. "How can we separate the concept of space from the mechanisms of control? The territorial gangsters, the Nation/States, have hogged the entire map. Who can invent for us a cartography of autonomy, who can draw a map that includes our desires?" (64)

The Kingsgate Squatters and Rent Strikers Cooperative for Self-Management rises to answer the question flung to published space with a concrete answer: "Territory organised for the joy of living." (Anarchy, no. 16, 1975). Others anarchists answer the question of how to organize land-space as well. In his book On Common Ground, Francis Reed looks to the idyllic pastoral paintings which he claims compensated the 'national psyche' for common lands lost to enclosure during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He posits them as a template for a future anarchist society that will "stand as a record of 'a world of pastoral beauty that could be ours, if we did but desire it passionately enough'; icons to be carried through the desert on our exodus from the land." (44-45) These vague imaginings of the future are important, but they raise more questions than answers.

Anarcho-spatialism: an Ideal

In order to facilitate the discussion of practical and theoretical anarchist land tenures, lets begin with a name. I propose 'anarcho-spatialism.' 'Anarchy,' the first part of our new word, means without rule, government, or domination. 'Spatial' means having to do with space, e.g. land, blank walls for graffiti, and condemned houses for squatting. Francis Reed writes of the importance of space:

Space and psyche can be seen as the basic material of a living process which we at once inhabit

and which inhabits us; apparent in the 'leylines' or 'songlines' of the landscape, in the myths and symbols embodied in cities where there is space both for nature and our own inner nature (and where the flow of water is particularly important) and in the geometry of buildings and the relations between people. (63)

The suffix "ism" denotes an idea, action and condition of being. Thus we have anarcho-spatialism, defined as a spatial system devoid of domination. The struggle for such a system is the same word as the system itself; the means and the end are homonyms. As a system which fits into the larger framework of anarchism, anarcho-spatialism must include a conscious perception of the iniquity of the State, sexism, racism, classism, (speciesism?), and the oppression of children. An equitable system of land tenure must be built upon the foundation of an end to all oppression, and is itself a part of that foundation.1

Anarcho-spatialism is not a section of anarchism such as anarcha-feminism, anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism, because anarcho-spatialism has no essential difference from the former distinct and at times contradictory movements; rather, anarcho-spatialism distinguishes a strand of thought and action within existing anarchist movements and can be used to signify the land tenure for which anarchists strive.

Anarcho-spatialism has as its basis an end to domination. Land will be distributed according to need and equality, effectively ending landlessness and homelessness. The holding of land will be based on use (usufructuary) or for planned use. The producer on land will receive the entire product of her/his labor, leaving none for extraction by landowners.

This will have the effect of leveling wealth. With access to presently unused lands and the entirety of their product, workers will be empowered in economic relations with employers due to the option of self-sufficiency. Individuals will have complete freedom to work for themselves with their own capital or work by contract with the capital of others on free land. Land is for use, not ownership. Anarcho-spatialism will be marked by higher efficiency due to worker control, equitable distribution of land, and a reward to labor of the entire product. Because of heightened income the plague of chronic malnutrition will decrease substantially if not altogether.

Discrimination due to race, sex, sexual preference or ideology must be eradicated. If a system of land tenure discriminated, it could not be labeled as indominative and thus would not be anarcho-spatialism. For radical environmentalists anarcho-spatialism will include animal parity with humans, and thus a balance will have to be struck between humans, as one species, with the millions of other species that exist. Anarcho-spatialism allows for those who want to simplify their lives as well as those who embrace advanced technology, so long as that technology does not infringe on the rights of other individuals.

Impaired Anarchist Land Tenure in an Imperfect World

Anarchists have written a good deal about land tenure and liberated small areas of land for short periods of time, giving them a chance to demonstrate, in however imperfect a way, some of the arrangements they desire. "The extent to which theories are valid," writes historian of anarchist Spain Sam Dolgoff, "can be determined only by the extent to which they are practical. Theories that do not correspond to the acid test of real life are worse than useless as a guide to action." (129)

In an imperfect world, attempts at anarchist land tenure is sporadically discernible. Makhno's Ukraine during the early twentieth century, Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and on a much smaller scale anarchist communes following the revolutions of France, the United States and Brazil (Oved 58). Currently anarchist land tenure is born in squatting communities throughout Europe and the United States in, among other places, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Rome, New York and Philadelphia. All of the above anarcho-spatialist incidents tend towards impermanence, a la Peter Lambdeth Wilson's temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), one example of which is the ten house Mainzerstrasse squat in Germany during 1990. While for a time it functioned as an anarchist community within the shell of an industrial militarist society, it was eventually evicted after a two hour battle between 500 squatters and German riot police (Shadow 12/90). But eviction did not destroy the anarchist autonomy which only temporarily inhabited the Maizerstrasse zone. TAZ is designed to be highly mobile and impervious to massive and cumbersome state apparatus of control. Most of the Mainzerstrasse squatters simply relocated to other squatted buildings in the area.

Even with limited success, there are cracks in an anarchist land tenure situated in a violent world. Where small pieces of land are liberated through purchase or violence, the very means used to secure the land are in contradiction to the concepts of anarchism. In the case of nineteenth and twentieth century anarchist intentional communities, which were often based on communal ownership of land, they were forced into coexistence with larger and often antagonistic populations and legal systems. Revolutionary anarchist armies subjected themselves to authoritarian and time-consuming wars which made inroads on their ideals, energy and the ability to construct new social relationships. The Second Congress of the people in the anarchist Ukraine met on February 12, 1919, but was unable to devote itself to the problems of peaceful construction. Sessions were entirely occupied by questions of defence against invaders (Voline 461). Cultural and political theoretician and active participant in the Makhnovist army Peter Arshinov believed the basic shortcoming of Makhnovist movement to be its unavoidable concentration on military activities.

Three years of uninterrupted civil wars made the southern Ukraine a permanent battlefield. Numerous armies of various parties traversed it in every direction, wreaking material, social and moral destruction on the peasants. This exhausted the peasants. It destroyed their first experiments in the field of workers' self-management. Their spirit of social creativity was crushed. These conditions tore the Makhnovshchina away from its healthy foundation, away from socially creative work among the masses, and forced it to concentrate on war - revolutionary war, it is true, but war nevertheless. (252)

Though anarchists have never experienced utopia, and their communities are constantly subjected to a politico-economic atmosphere not of their choosing, ideals were dreamed of and some achieved.

Distribution by Need, Equity and Use

Perhaps the most salient spatial ideal of anarchists is a call for the distribution of land on the basis of need, equality and use. The first point of Bakunin's "National Catechism" (1866) states: "The land is the common property of society. But its fruits and use shall be open only to those who cultivate it by their labor; accordingly, ground rents must be abolished." (1972: 99). José Vega, an anarchist worker and organizer in the Spanish civil war states:

I believe that God created the light, created the water, created the earth and the air for all equally. Nobody should have a right to usurp a part of these things, these substances. If they are usurped by anyone, it is to the detriment of the rest. (Mintz, 4)

Each individual, present and future, are seen as having an equal claim on the use of the earth. Even in the most adverse of situations these concepts are extremely important to anarchists. Carlo Cafiero, a financial supporter of Bakunin who played an important role in the International Brotherhood, was hospitalized in a mental institution after being found in 1883 wandering naked in the hills near Florence. Writes historian of anarchism Robert Suskind of Cafiero, "He died nine years later, obsessed with the thought that he was getting more than his just share of sunlight through the windows of his room at the asylum." (107) Peter Lambdeth Wilson draws inspiration from the eighteenth century pirate Republic of Libertatia, which he claims held land in common (119). Even in the prolix and erethistic writings of situationist Guy Debord can be found a desire to "subject space to living experience," and promote the rediscovery of autonomous places "without reintroducing an exclusive attachment to the soil." (25)

Joshua Ingalls is a little known North American anarchist of the nineteenth century who dedicated much of his work to the question of land. Laurence Moss paraphrases his writings:

In his pamphlet, Land and Labor, Ingalls argued that the productive powers of the soil were indestructible and did not owe to any man's individual efforts. Therefore, no man had a legitimate right to establish his perpetual dominion over what in actuality belonged to men in common. The only claim an individual had to fencing off a portion of land for his own was that he occupied the land and made use of it in the satisfaction of his individual needs. Upon his death or departure the individual's tenure ends and the next occupant, who employs the land productively while living on it, acquires a similar but temporary right to exclude others from the land. At all times the right of exclusion is temporary and not absolute. (11)

Echoing similar sentiments voiced by Maoris in New Zealand, anarchists also demand not only that land be shared equally amongst the present population, but that living individuals will share the earth with future individuals in an infinite extension of time. Thus none will use the earth's resources in a way that is unsustainable, or for which an alternative would not be available when the resources used are exhausted.

But even by sharing the land with all future generations of humans, this does not address the concerns of eco-anarchists such as constitute the members of Earth First! They demand that land and the animals on it be respected in their own right, not mistreated as resources for exploitation (even if by anarcho-egalitarian modalities). Some go so far as to join the Voluntary Human Extinction Society, which calls for the gradual withdrawal of all human life on earth.

As should be evident from the above, there are many different strains of anarcho-spatialism, many opinions as to how to use and divide, or not divide, the land upon which we live. One major point of agreement, however, is a negative attitude towards absentee land ownership. Those who have little need to use land are commonly told they have no right to charge for what they do not use; holding of land will be for those who use it only. Myrna Breitbart of Clark University promotes land utilization for community need rather than profit.

The use of agricultural land under anarchy would be determined by, on the one hand, its suitability to particular uses, and on the other by local or regional needs. Land would be used not for the purpose which yields the highest money rent, but rather, for that which offers the greatest social utility. (48)

Russian anarchists affiliated with Zemlja i Volja in the nineteenth century called for land to belong to the whole people: land which had been hitherto held privately was to be held only on terms of usufruct, and after the usufructuary's death was to accrue to the village (Masaryk, 466). In an introductory proclamation to Ukrainian peasants, the Makhnovists made clear their position on agrarian issues. "The lands of the service gentry, of the monasteries, of the princes and other enemies of the toiling masses, with all their live stock and goods, are passed on to the use of those peasants who support themselves solely through their own labor." (Arshinov 266) Late nineteenth century French anarchist Elisée Reclus explains his philosophy:

Thus we shall take the land -- yes, we shall take it -- but away from those who hold it without working it, in order to return it to those who do work it . . . what you cultivate, my brother, is yours, and we shall do everything in our power to help you keep it; but what you do not cultivate belongs to a comrade. Make room for him. (Fleming, 146)

According to Arshinov these principles were also put into practice by Makhno in 1917 as president of the regional peasants' union during the period of the Kerensky government and in the October days of 1917:

. . . in August, 1917, he assembled all the pomeshchiks (landed gentry) of the region and made them give him all the documents relating to lands and buildings. He proceeded to take an exact inventory of all this property, and then made a report on it, first at a session of the local soviet, then at the district congress of soviets, and finally at the regional congress of soviets. He proceeded to equalize the rights of the pomeshchiks and the kulaks with those of the poor peasant laborers in regard to the use of the land. Following his proposal, the congress decided to let the pomeshchiks and the kulaks have a share of the land, as well as tools and livestock, equal to that of the laborers. (54)

Not to be outdone, the Whiteway Colony adopted principles of egalitarianism at their intentional community in turn of the century England. According to historian Tom Keell Wolfe,

In 1899 the title deeds were burnt with some ceremony and the Colony's basis was laid down -- there should be no private ownership of land -- control of the land and any business to do with it should be in the hands of the Colony Meeting -- individual plots of land were held on the basis of use-occupation. Plots were allocated by the Meeting, which had no power to take it away. Where the occupier left Whiteway the land reverted to the control of the Meeting, and could be reallocated. (Wolfe 34)

During the Spanish civil war individualists were forbidden to take over more land then they could personally cultivate without wage labor (Guérin 133), and sixty percent of anarchist liberated land in Spain was quickly brought under collective cultivation by the peasants (Dolgoff, 6). The figures in Aragon and Catalonia were much greater at seventy-five and ninety percent respectively (Woodcock 27), illustrating the extent of communalization and redistribution achieved. There were about 2,000 anarchist agricultural collectives involving approximately 800,000 people (Oved 40) all told.

While anarchists generally look on the future formation of collectives as the primary mode of production, and propertylessness as the status of consumables, when pressed they generally make room for individualists, or those who wish to produce without collective association. In their July 1964 issue devoted to land, editors of the British Anarchy point out that anarchist movement is not to confiscate the small home or farm:

The one thing that most people know about the 19th century French anarchist Proudhon is that he coined the slogan "Property is Theft" and later in life modified this to "Property is Freedom." This always raises a laugh, but Proudhon was in fact talking about two different kinds of property. The property of the man who draws an income from thousands of acres, or from the ownership of an oilwell or a factory, or from speculation, is obviously different from the property of the peasant cultivator. There is a difference between owning your means of livelihood and owning ICI. (41: 194)

In any case, it is impossible to know what an anarchist land tenure will look like, and it is most certainly an evolving proposition. If it is implemented by a significant part of the population, and at the same time remains user-developed, it will be subject to massive transformation. By the time we get there, if in fact a there exists, it will probably no longer be called anarchism.

Landownership as Fiction

In order to achieve anarcho-spatial land tenure, it is helpful to interrogate the fictive nature of our present system of landed property. "It is only the abstract mentality which sees space as a commodifiable resource," writes Francis Reed, "to be let by the square metre, a void to be filled, that has thrown the relationship out of balance and spawned a rigid formalism completely lacking in habitable space." Land ownership is a juridical construction with roots in, among other things, the warrior clans of pre-imperialist Rome, feudal monarchies, the Napoleonic Code, English Common Law, and European imperialism. As an imaginative method of domination it has worked well in forcing us to believe that the land upon which we stand belongs to this fictive concept of an 'owner,' but by acts of will it is possible to transcend ourselves and the cop in our head. When you are clear that the present system of land tenure is deeply flawed, when you have a vision of, and act in accordance with a land ethic based on your desire, the system of land ownership will be demoted to the status of a fiction. "Private property lives by grace of the law," writes Stirner. "Only in the law has it its warrant -- for possession is not yet property, it becomes 'mine' only by assent of the law; it is not a fact, not un fait as Proudhon thinks, but a fiction, a thought." (332) Change thought and a revolution takes place.

In a world where fictional paradigms continue, a path is open to action and resistance for those who think outside the bounds of property lines. Whether you choose violence or non-violence, bureaucratic resistance or land occupation, education or theft, disruption or insurrection, we must resist and create if we are to change the present to a land tenure based upon desire.

Anders Corr is an independent researcher and writer on subjects of land, housing, and direct action politics. He invites criticism or comments which can be sent to P.O. Box 7691, Santa Cruz, CA 95061, USA.


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