Black Flag #208, June 1996, covered a land squat in London done by "The Land is Ours". This article is the critical evaluation of this by someone who participated.
THE LAND IS THEIRS
or, pace George Monbiot, "This Land Is my Uncle's"
Hailed as the next big thing since Newbury, 'The Land is Ours' provoked surprisingly little police interest. In fact the police had to be called and told that a bit of land had been taken, with the response, "Oh that sounds interesting - I'll send a couple of officers down to have a look." On arrival the two officers seem satisfied, "this seems to be a civil matter" and walked off.
Considering that we could have occupied anywhere - a minister's garden perhaps? - and that the police had shown interest at earlier, maybe they were quite satisfied that we had enough cops of own to prevent any naughty ideas. (This is not to say that a confrontation with the cops is necessarily what makes a campaign politically challenging.)
We were about 300 people at the meeting place in Hammersmith. The first 100 piled into the coach and went on their way to secure the location before the next 100 could join them. This was all jolly fun. After learning the location, the writer jumped in a van and went off to see. About half way there we were followed by two police vans who after arriving at the Shell garage next door turned around and drove off!
The site had a large wooden fence around it with a strong metal gate which had been painstakingly hack-sawed through the previous day. The location itself was a derelict piece of riverside land opposite a housing estate in Wandsworth. It was probably the only piece of green land the children from the estate could see from home... [cue violins!]
It was also nesting ground for ducks and it seems we were about to trash it. In fact the whole action had the appearance of being fundamentally ecologically unsound. It seemed that little thought had been put into taking the existing inhabitants (i.e. plants, animals and insects) into account - the site was divided up on the basis of suitability for construction projects.
The task of turning it into an alternative scout camp was well under way. With all the necessary middle class concern we had our own health and safety officer to make sure we were all doing it properly. Yes, an extremely tall scaffold tower was being constructed on site for conversion into a house. This fearsome construction, which reached the staggering height of 15 foot, could potentially harm all those involved in its building, and so we all had to wear hard hats!
We were also shepherded over to the other side of the field so as not to upset the neighbours, because our talking could supposedly be heard over the fuck-off big road next to us.
After complaints about egotists ordering you to plant the potatoes the right way up, there were inevitably a few disillusioned activists fed up with being ordered around by Oxbridge graduates. Why did we resent this campaign so much? Is it because George Monbiot sounds too much like Prince Charles?
Unlike last year's Land Is Ours event, this year we did actually go to the place that we planned to go and we were to stay longer than last year. George attempted to do the decent thing and step down from his usual media pulpit. However the five who volunteered to take over were shoved aside by the media vultures who went straight to George, undeterred by the great man himself, and yet again the reports acted as a launch pad for broadcasting George's personal socio-political interpretations.
So what did the locals think of it all? A good point of the campaign was that attention was given to going out and leafleting the local estates. It seems that most were pleased with what we were doing except for the usual couple of nutters who get wound up about anything.
It was indeed unfortunate that the initiative to regenerate this land came from an abstract group and not from the locals. There seemed to be little we could do about this. Perhaps the kids from the estate were dying to get on the land but couldn't. Maybe we unlocked a desire that had been in the minds of most of the locals who didn't want a supermarket there and wanted it for themselves. As with any permanent project that is to be successful it needs the full participation of local people as opposed to remaining securely in the grip of lifestylists, theorists and specialists. Increasingly as the week progressed, more locals showed an interest and were getting involved.
So what were the aims of this campaign? According to its leaflets, they were to house the homeless, i.e. make affordable housing, and to boost employment, i.e. create jobs. Both of these aims were to "bring the community together." To follow on from these points, there are already enough empty homes in London for all the city's homeless. However sustainable these new houses are, we don't need to be building them on London's few remaining green spaces.
The campaign claims that we need concentrated, centralised cities in order to prevent destructive urban sprawl. But the fact is that people who actually live in cities need green spaces for their well-being. Shouldn't we try to make empty houses sustainable? There are approximately 860,000 of them in the country after all.
There is an obvious contradiction in building sustainable communities - which should not include alienating work for the capitalist system, i.e. turning labour into a commodity- and yet advocating "full employment". The term "employment" is riddled with capitalist assumptions. Surely advocating employment in these terms only serves to perpetuate alienated social relations - the antithesis of the authentic community that we all seek to build.
In the context of the rest of their aims it is implausible to assume that this term is being used in a subversive way.
The general impression was that the campaign, as well as having reformist demands, was still very middle class, which had put some people off from attending the planning meetings. It seemed as though what we had all thought of as being a part of the movement was becoming increasingly alienated and away on its own trajectory, becoming seriously assimilated into dominant culture.
It seemed we were less into challenging authorities and more into putting a reasonable argument across and winning the hearts and minds of the Guardian-reading public.
We were not about radically confronting private property.
And what of Monbiot's "working in partnership with Guinness" theme, where both the campaign and Guinness can come to some compromise? After all, it would provide wonderful P.R. for their environmental record, making it easier for them to destroy other areas of land. Guinness have so far not come to some "amicable agreement" despite the campaign's pleas. Admittedly campaigners went and told Guiness what they had done and invited them to have a look thus in their action there was no compromise, only in the campaign using the talks to look reasonable to the media.
According to the leaflet we also need:
"some physical and political space. This means:
New planning guidelines, bolder targets for derelict land use, banning off-site planning gain".
Where is the physical space in this? Who decides what is derelict and what does it mean? Is it taking over the few remaining green spaces in the city? and what's all this legitimising the power of the state?
With the campaigns own submission of a planning application to the council and with the campaigns "make cheques payable to Land Reform" it is clear that what the campaign is really asking for is a reform in planning policy.
They are not saying this land is ours.
They are not challenging the issue of private property.
They, like so many others, are tinkering with the system demanding concessions, trying not to induce panic into the minds of all capitalists, and mocking the whole land rights issue. Meanwhile in Third World countries these same capitalists they are trying to compromise with daily extirpate land from people in a bid for economic growth.
In so doing they become another form of oppression against which the dispossessed must fight. The Land Is Ours is making the land issue safe, ridding it of any potential of changing anything.
The campaign attempts to unite what squatters and travellers have been doing for years, with the permaculturists' ideas of sustainability.
The campaign uses two methods to do this-:
2) symbolism and media representation
If we are talking about real content when it comes to solving "homelessness" etc., we are talking about taking over some of the empty buildings in London and making them more sustainable to cut down the suburbanization of our countryside, not using the few green spaces in the city.
The problem with taking over houses would mean that although this type of action could be turned into a media spectacle it would hardly be original and for media interest it would have to be novel e.g. turning Westminster into a squat. The idea to take over a building was also mainly turned down by the permaculturists who wanted to show how to grow things in a more sustainable way.
The symbolic part is supposed to get more people involved and to educate the public about the issue so that they become sympathetic to their aims...
As regards to symbolism the campaign turned "The land is ours" into something intelligible to the public. The campaign's way of doing this was to turn it into a digestible media package. We could launch into a critique of the media but this is hardly necessary. The danger is that representation becomes more important than that to be represented leading us into the realm of virtual politics.
The other side of the coin not mentioned is confrontation (note this could also have a side effect of media spectacularisation). This type of action for example could be taking over a bank or ministers house and filling it with grow bags. This would not be the soft option of taking over a remote piece of land that no one's particularly bothered about, it is certainly more challenging to the Property ethic. Impinging on the personal property of land owners would be more confrontational, questioning the whole property ethic. Taking over vacant corporate property is something of a neutral territory for a company the size of Guinness. In terms of their annual profits the value of the land in question is next to nothing. Their corporate image, as well as maintaining an appearance of environmental conscience, could potentially benefit, and give their sterile corporation a human face.
We can see that no action is without its flaws and simply because we live in a capitalist society, the campaign balanced the two points well. We should obviously seek to improve our actions but it is equally important how the participants perceive their action in terms of the relationship between its nature and its aims.
So let's get to the real issues here. No one can deny that the event was mainly a demonstration model for the purpose of influencing future government policy.
The fundamental concepts underpinning the land issue are totally ignored by this campaign - i.e. class struggle (approximately 95% of the land is owned by 5% of the population).
Let's look at the specifics of this campaign that have led many to feel that unlike any other perceived single issue campaigns in our movement this is specifically liberal.
Monbiot's line is that direct action at present (including by implication The Land Is Ours) "transcends class and traditional loyalties."
The only reason direct action nowadays has such an interesting alliance e.g. workers and hippies, capitalists and the exploited is that it focuses on the green issue (primarily environmentalism not ecologism- see footnote) which is seen to affect everybody. The thing that stands in the way of realising a sustainable ecological future is the organised power of the state. Unless this is taken on board no real change is possible.
In common with most others of his type, Monbiot sees his ideas as being apolitical, this is a fundamental error in that liberal democracy is as much a political ideology as any other. It does not cease to be so when stained Green.
He puts the neglect of environmental concerns as-
"In the absence of meaningful initiatives from government, local authorities and business, it is left to activists to do what these sectors have neglected."
To suggest that we are just a reaction to government incompetence and not that government laws such as the CJA are a reaction to our struggle is a staggering statement for a direct action group to make - essentially saying that the state/capitalism is somehow inefficient i.e. its not doing its job properly - that we can somehow fill this gap and help them.
This is all based on the completely incorrect assumption that capital cares! Within this context the very concept of Direct Action becomes hijacked and used as a tactic to change government policy. Direct Action is not about negating individual responsibility but instead about empowerment to take control of your own life.
It is very difficult to call for revolution from one isolated action, some may say they have transitional demands but it's a different story altogether when the very nature of those demands inhibit any chance of real change i.e. inhibit other peoples struggle against the state.
"Reasonableness" is one of their key themes - based on the liberal view that society is simply composed of individual human beings who share common human interests; hence any conflicts which arise are simply the results of misplaced fears or misunderstandings.
The Land Is Ours is made up of respectable and honest human beings who are making a valuable but unorthodox contribution to society (i.e. have been forced to take action because government, its agents and business are not doing their job properly). Within this context the way forward is to demonstrate to the rest of society (or the section of it that reads the Guardian at any rate) the reasonableness and positive nature of their demands.
The Land Is Ours was about overcoming prejudice, showing the state that we were positive - the campaign was thus apolitical.
ïŒ The Land Is Ours denies the state as a social force
ïŒ The Land Is Ours falls into the trap where the representation becomes more important than that to be represented.
ïŒ The Land Is Ours is defeatist i.e. notably not thinking about building a movement to smash capitalism because we are too weak to do so.
Liberalism presupposes democracy as a freedom to choose. However our choices have parameters, we are not allowed to argue fundamentals like the choice of whether we have a government or not, only which government to have and the forms of oppression they will use on us. Liberalism is an attempt to disguise these given laws.
The Liberal is someone who is complicit with the system, who understands and is sympathetic with all points of view, even those of a radical. However, the liberal draws a line which the radical must not cross. That line is when the actions of a radical challenge the system. The radical is then dismissed as being violent, extremist, unobjective. You can be sure that if the police did wade in on the demonstration and some people defended themselves, the liberal would be the first to turn you over to the police, as you would be accused of discrediting the campaign and therefore not being reasonable.
You would be provoking the police to be violent. You become the negotiating tool. Monbiot and his Oxbridge friends identify with the system. They are not the dispossessed they claim to represent. They can see no conflict of interests.
Taking the land issue seriously means stopping it being hi-jacked by opportunists like this.
ïŠ Note-You'll have to push the destructive nature of this rambling aside. After all the divisive and counter-productive theoretical pettiness of the left it's refreshing to see people going out and doing something. We believe that the land issue is vitally important struggle which has unfortunately been taken over by those with little or no intention of changing class relationships in society and as a result becomes a safe and toothless part of the very system that oppresses us. Both action without theory and theory without action are equally destructive what is desperately needed is effort towards a unity of theory and practice. The purpose of this criticism is therefore to be constructive.
[Footnote] Environmentalism studies the world in a dualistic and reductionist way having little bearing on relationships in reality. It is purely set up in a way that serves capitals needs. Ecologism assumes relationships in a more interdependent way.
"There is no such things as species" see E.O. Wilson's Diversity Of Life for an in depth description
Written by infantile, paranoid ultra-leftist