For a movement to defend the right to live off of the land

Published online 1 January 2007.

The main social developments in the world over the last thirty years or so have been 1) the imposition of neoliberal economics over nearly every one of the world’s economies, and 2) the fantastic growth in slums that have accompanied the explosion of urban capitalism in the neoliberal era.  Using Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, I outline a “way out” of the resultant social and ecological catastrophe brought on by these developments: a movement to defend the right to live off of the land.

The beginnings: enclosure

In every country in which a capitalist system has been imposed, the beginnings of it all have been with enclosure.  Enclosure, a movement beginning in the Middle Ages in England, meant the privatization of large tracts of land, wherein the peasants living off of said land were kicked off.  Said peasants had to live in cities, where (eventually) truancy laws required them to work for subsistence wages in factories.  Karl Marx discusses this enclosure in great detail here.

The process continues to this day.  Here is an article by “The South Asian” describing how it is done in India.  The government screws the people for the sake of private corporations, and all of a sudden farming is not viable.  Thus huge populations are set into motion from rural areas to cities.  A pre-capitalist society has large populations capable of rural subsistence; in the days of the manorial system, the nobles simply appropriated the surplus from those doing the rural subsisting.  In a capitalist society, these populations will be exploited through low-wage urban factory labor, thus the hyperactive urbanization and economic growth of countries like India and China.

The result: slums

When combined with overall human population growth, the result of this hyperactive urbanization is the incredible growth of slums reported by Mike Davis in last year’s volume Planet of Slums:

The earth has urbanized even faster than originally predicted by the Club of Rome in its notoriously Malthusian 1972 report Limits of Growth.  In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550.  Cities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950, and are currently growing by a million babies and migrants each week.  The world’s urban labor force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population – 3.2 billion – is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.  The global countryside, meanwhile, has reached its maximum population and will begin to shrink after 2020.  As a result, cities will account for virtually all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050.  (1-2)

And, pray tell, what do all these good folks do for a living?  Davis suggests:

Structural adjustment, it would appear, has recently worked an equally fundamental reshaping of human futures.  As the authors of The Challenge of Slums conclude: “Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected, and low-wage informal service industries and trade.”   “The rise of this informal sector,” they declare bluntly, “is… a direct result of liberalization.” (174-175)

The role our current, neoliberal, phase of capitalism has picked out for the slum-living multitudes is that of micro-entrepreneurs – of which Davis, using Breman and Das as a source, cite one typical example:

One of the most telling pictures of this sector is the sight of the “gentlemanly” owner of a garbage shop, sitting in his well-ironed clothes by his gleaming motorcycle, amidst the piles of waste that the rag-pickers have painfully sorted out for him to profit from.  (From Breman and Das’s Down and Out: Laboring Under Global Capitalism, 56, cited in Davis, 181)

Adam Smith’s vision has been spread worldwide, and in the process turned into a cruel joke.  There will thus exist tremendous populations, worldwide, for the movement, which subsist in cities.  Walling off the United States from these populations won’t work; a world of ten billion people with nothing to lose will eventually find its way here, especially if they are performing well in the role of “entrepreneur” which the neoliberal elites have assigned to all of them.  If we really want them to stay home and tend their own gardens, they will have to have a new role (“farmer” would do) and a new relationship to both society and ecology.  Their lives, in short, cannot further be defined by neoliberalism.

What I am recommending in this context is that we, as a political movement, be a movement for the right to live off of the land – but not to live off of the land in the countryside, as the people of the world exist today in cities.  I am suggesting that farms be built in the cities, and that the future of the world’s “surplus populations” be as a sort of neo-peasantry living what Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen call “the subsistence perspective.”

What I am recommending for change

What makes this era especially chaotic, I argue, is that under neoliberalism everyone is regarded, regardless of social formation, as an entrepreneur of some sort or another.  The problem, of course, is that there isn’t much of any surplus for the great underclass of “entrepreneurs” to exploit, and so they must extract profits from, say, assorted pieces of glass to be found in the local city dumps, or their labor as prostitutes, or whatever.  A neat firsthand picture of how this “entrepreneurship” works is written-up in Jeremy Seabrook’s volume Victims of Development.

At some point (and I elaborated upon this in my diary on Kees van der Pijl), however, the world will simply have had enough of this reorganization, and resultant “entrepreneurship,” which I (following van der Pijl) call capitalist discipline.  Crises, most notably ecological crises, will overtake the capitalist system and produce the economic nausea which James O’Connor called the “Second Contradiction of Capitalism.”  O’Connor’s theory is simple: capitalist growth becomes, at some point, damaging to the environment, so much so that environmental damage will impede and perhaps overwhelm the profit rate itself.  It will be time, when the “Second Contradiction of Capitalism” becomes serious enough, for us to form a movement to insure each and every person a right to live off of the land.

Such a movement will start by guaranteeing all the right to grow food.  This can be done through the proliferation of community gardens in unused spaces in parks and parking lots.  Food production must be detached from elaborate transportation networks that use precious reserves of cheap oil and handed back to popular, and local, control.

We need to respect the right of all to housing.  This means allowing people to use unused space to build their own housing, using the techniques of sustainable architecture.

This movement will need to have as one of its aims the inauguration of ecologically responsible government.  Depending upon geographic and economic circumstances, government powers of eminent domain will have to be exercised here and there to permit the otherwise disempowered to carve a living out of forbidding urban landscapes.  Just as capitalism used the powers of government to enclose the land, so we will have to use the powers of government to unenclose some sort of commons for people to live on.

Eventually this “right to live off of the land” will have to supercede capitalism.  Capital today is out of control, and the people will have to rein it in (at some point).  The reining-in of capital will create a struggle in which, for the majority to win, decentralized, community-based economics will have to become a way of life for most everyone.  As Paul Prew points out, capitalism is a “dissipative structure” which divides the world into centers of accumulation (the cities, the First World) and zones of extraction (the countryside, the Third World).  What I am suggesting is a partial withdrawal from the zones of extraction from within the centers of accumulation.  At some point, a full pull-out will end this division altogether, and we will have a world based on ecological discipline and not capitalist discipline.  (See Joel Kovel’s concept of “ecological production” or Enrique Leff’s concept of “Green Production” for further elaboration).

Clearly this vision is not for the world as it exists now.  It is far too early in the building of such a movement.  But one can imagine a future point at which, if current trends go unheeded (or papered over with corporate PR efforts and aggressive Republican diversions), it will be necessary for all to form a movement to defend the right to live off of the land.


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