What’s land got to do with it?

If there is one thing that Becoming Poor has come to expect me to say about autogestion or some similar means, my question invariably comes back to the earth. Where, exactly, to we construct these alternative systems? How do we acquire land initially, if we are not currently in possession of any? And with what money? Or, is squatting enough? Does that allow us to flourish, whatever that might mean for us individually, or does it allow us to simply ‘persevere in our being’, to recall Spinoza?

In some respects, I feel a bit misunderstood. It’s not that I don’t believe alternatives to Capitalism can be developed. I think there are countless instances where real alternatives have been built and are actively utilized, either from a marketplace perspective, like Craigslist, or something more immediate, like food growing alternatives, such as Alley Cat Acres, guerilla gardening; knowledge commons like Wikipedia or open-source code sharing, etc. I like thinking about these instances as they do provide concrete examples of something other than… So, when I insist on talking about property, my motivation is to not squash hope. These questions come from a real interest is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than, ‘how will this ever work?’

Harvey mentions two things earlier in the text that strike me as important to this line of questioning. In ‘The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crisis’, Harvey points to one key problem with the Marxist perspective- here speaking to the housing crisis, but also in general, he asserts that while there is much attention paid to the movement of capital, not enough attention is paid to the role the property market had in this crisis. He faults Marx for focusing so heavily on the ‘production and realization of surplus while abstracting from and excluding what he called the ‘particularities’ of distribution (interest, rents, taxes, and even actual wage and profit rates), since these are accidental, conjunctural and of-the-moment in space and time.” (36)

So sure, with the housing crisis there were countless fraudulent or predatory practices that created the wave of foreclosures. But a key element is the use of land as a means to grow capital; land speculation, flipping houses, artificial inflation of the ‘value’ of land; not to mention a perceived belief that land should only increase its value, etc. (Detroit, anyone?) Without doubt, it was a complex assemblage of a variety of actors and forces, from the individual to the government, from the construction to the banking/finance sector, and to reduce it to one element is a failure to understand the conditions in which it was borne.

In the ‘Creation of the Urban Commons’, Harvey points out that the commons is not merely a space in which the idea of the commons comes alive- it is a social relation, a spatial practice, which he describes as ‘commoning’, born out of interactions and engagements in a spatial context, not fixed and not given. This seems in line with a spatial becoming, in my mind… (Which is not to say that this cannot happen virtually, but as embodied beings, we still move through space.) For Harvey, and addressing the idea of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons”, it’s not that the commons are the problem, “but the failure of individualized private property rights to fulfill common interests in the way they are supposed to do.” (75) This key point of contradiction, the needs of capital to produce versus the social character of the land, cannot be simply set aside. Both elements require actual space, and they are at odds with each other, especially given that land is but one element of the machine, bought and sold for a profit.

And this is where I hit a real wall in how we move from the smaller, manageable alternatives to actually breaking free from capitalism. While land is not treated in the same manner throughout the world, in the US, there is a history and an active practice of purchasing and selling of land, or renting as right of use. Unless we are in the UAE or Netherlands, and major land reclamation results in the production of new territory – at no small cost – land is finite. We face a limit of finding a little spot of land ‘free for the taking’ in which we can get out of the circuit of paying rent, which makes us reliant upon earning a wage. For Harvey, and I think worth thinking about, as long as we participate in capitalism on some level, we easily/quickly find ourselves subject to the ‘coercive laws of competition’. (160)

Just for the record, I am so much more in line with Holland’s thinking about potential in front of us –and its inherent uncertainty – given the conditions we find ourselves in, rather than looking for a neat program that we can install and then perform. But I think if we could figure out this element of spatial needs, we’d be on to something, as so many other parts/elements are already in place. And perhaps Detroit really is the first place to look, since capitalism doesn’t seem to be very interested….