Once upon a time, long, long ago, land was not property. It was simply land. At its edges it met the sea. It was a soft, wet rug of leaves underfoot; it was snow-capped and loomed high above the grassy plains. Water wandered through it, sometimes rushing and plunging off cliffs. Animals lived on the land and water, exchanging energy with them in seemingly endless cycles of life and death, creation and destruction. Some of these animals were humans.
Today, after centuries of brutal warfare, land has been transformed into property. It is bought and sold, excavated, blown-up, built-upon, paved, and irrigated. A few square feet over here is more expensive than an acre over there. Some of it is called “Super Fund Site,” some is “nature preserve”; other parcels are called malls, schools, roads, farms, and houses. It’s all called property. Some of it is called “public property” but people are not really free to use it however they’d like.
“Public property” is really “state property” and the laws of the state delineate its proper use. Sometimes this means: no camping, singing, sleeping, blowing bubbles, writing with chalk, sitting on the ground, gardening, panhandling, smoking, or drinking alcohol. What is and is not allowed can change on a whim and is generally influenced by the desires of the wealthiest businesses and residents nearby.
In general, one must pay to inhabit the space one inhabits. Most exceptions to this rule are illegal and precarious. All liberated or reclaimed space, be it urban or rural, is hemmed in on all sides by private property. The people who occupy these free spaces are under constant threat of violent eviction and imprisonment by the faithful servants of the owning class, the guardians of private property: the police and military forces. Yet land struggles, slum rebellions, and housing occupations erupt and persist every day across the world. They persist because people’s freedom and dignity depend on their unmediated access to their most basic means of survival: our home, the earth.
From medieval heretical sects to the present-day indigenous Mapuche land struggle, instances of the dispossessed fighting like hell for a free life are countless. And when fighting has not been an option, people have struggled the retain the memory of freedom, passing stories and “old wive’s tales” to their children in secret, hoping that one day, the strength will come. In response, the elites have formed various state and proto-state institutions to criminalize the dispossessed and their traditions, to kill those who resist, and to steal whatever they can as fast as possible. Just as there can be no plantation without its slave-catchers and Fugitive Slave Acts, there can be no private property without the law the protects it, the police that enforce that law, the courts that sentence the lawbreakers, and the prisons that contain them.
All over the world and throughout history, people have attempted to create autonomous, egalitarian communities where land is held in common. Wherever this way of life existed before imperial/capitalist invasion, many people fiercely defended what they had in an attempt to avoid the imposition of waged labor or total annihilation. We are told that domination is human nature, but it seems that the urge to struggle against domination is its inseparable, enduring twin.
In Europe, the transition to capitalism saw peasants battling the nascent capitalist class and the enclosure of common lands. Many of these rebels were accused of evil sorcery, and hundreds of thousands of accused witches were murdered in a killing spree that spanned two centuries. “[The killings] spread fear, destroyed networks and resistance and did not stop until the population was sufficiently subordinated and the emerging state, capitalist social relations, and church had got their claws into the lives and psyches of the people.”* Later, after the Black Plague, a significant labor shortage occurred, which, coupled with a glut of unoccupied land, led to unprecedented peasant power and better living conditions for the lower classes. This caused a crisis in accumulation for the rich, who then turned their eyes towards the so-called “New World.”
European colonial expansion was a direct response to the this crisis. Conquistadors and “explorers” brought to the Americas their own conception of land: as an abundant resource to be exploited and a source of capital to be accumulated. The war on native people was necessary for the privatization of the land, just as the centuries of war against the European peasantry were necessary to ultimately enclose the commons and push the poor into wage labor.
In the Americas, indigenous ways of life were incompatible with the invaders’ desires for greater and greater wealth. Thus, the threat they represented had to be eliminated—first through mass murder, then through cultural genocide and assimilation. This giant land theft project, along with the enslavement of African people and the indentured servitude of poor Europeans, is what this country is built upon. Every nation has a similar history, and though the methods may have evolved, the process of enclosure continues to this day.
Private property is the foundation of capitalism and the state that protects it. It is upon this foundation that wage labor and the entire network of domination find their foothold. Our minds have been colonized for so long that many people accept private property as sacred law, believing it to be the safest harbor for personal freedom. But they are wrong.
To be clear, we are not opposed to personal property, to having personal possessions. We don’t want to share your underwear or your toothbrush. We do want the freedom to choose where and with whom we live, we want free access to what we need to survive, and, most importantly, we don’t want our choices to be limited by the laws of the market or the state. Put simply, we don’t want bosses, cops, prisons, banks, or landlords.
Throughout the history of the United States, the elites have bought off rebels and uncontrollable workers by giving them access to the fruits of plunder—land in the west, a place at the table, pineapples, bananas, the right to vote for their own masters. And when those fruits were rejected and rebels forged bonds of solidarity and multiracial alliances, the hangman climbed the scaffold and the prison cell doors slammed shut.
But they could never snuff us all out.
It seems that something new is happening at last, after these long years of heartbreak, half-measures, and defeat. More and more landless folk are going on the offensive, taking back what has been stolen from us. The roles the police and politicians play in protecting the interests of the rich are becoming clearer by the day. The state is dropping the pretense of taking care of even the middle class, and greater numbers of people are being forced to rely on one another. As such, the idea of stealing back one’s life is catching and spreading like wildfire. May we see the proliferation of free spaces ungoverned by the laws of state and capitalism and ever more daring acts of sabotage and self-defense!
* To learn more about the witch trials, patriarchy, and the birth of capitalism, check out “Burning Women” at ZineLibrary.info or Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici.
The next submission deadline is January 13.