“Libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but… in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private… Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system.”
~ Karl Hess
“Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters. This is as true of the Queen … as it is of all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights.”
~ Colin Ward
Mikhail Bakunin warned that if you make plans for after the revolution, you are a reactionary. Therefore, the following is a speculation to better understand the conflict between anarchist practices and what in our society is held to be the sacred right of property, with the aim of shedding light on how we might agitate and organize to actualize our praxis immediately in our daily lives.
How does squatting – the occupation of disused land and property without legitimate consent – figure in an Anarcho-Capitalist society? And subsequently: can ownership continue in perpetuity despite neglect of the property, or can ownership be legitimately transferred by, as John Locke calls it, ‘the mixing of one’s labour’ with property or land?
In the UK it is a criminal offence to live in a residential property without consent of the owner, however it remains a civil dispute between owner and occupier if that property is registered for commercial purposes. This means that any persons found in occupation of residential buildings can be arrested and criminally prosecuted, whilst those in a commercial building can be summoned to a magistrate’s court to resolve the dispute.
Before this legislation was passed, so-called ‘squatter’s rights’ allowed people without capital or property a reasonable amount of time to prepare for evictions by locating new properties to live in. This established a semi-nomadic community whereby people could shelter themselves for periods ranging from a few days to years in each successive property. The criminalization of squatting in residential buildings has reduced the number of available options for people, but this is still a minimal change when estimates of squatters are conservatively at 20,000 in London alone with over 100, 000 empty properties.
There is also the argument that with the absence of a State, and with the factor of original appropriation, the question of ownership of huge areas of real estate would become debatable. If a historical view is taken of the theft of commonly-owned land during the period of enclosures where armed elites appropriated previously communal property, then the question of original appropriation is thrown wide open. The anarcho-syndicalist perspective is that these lands would be collectivized by groups and retained in commonwealth, whereas an AnCap view may allow for the idea of original appropriation and use rights to come to the fore. Specifically, that lands of questionable ownership would be open for a person or persons to claim the right to use in the absence of property of their own, and that through mixing their labor with the property, they would be able to build a strong case for making a claim.
Fundamentally, the condition of ‘use it or lose it’ would be applicable, and ‘squatting’ would be better known as ‘homesteading’.
Within an AnCap society, any dispute between claims on land could be resolved within one of the private courts of the land, and ideally the ownership decided along the lines of least harm, and most benefit, in accordance with the rule of necessity – that those with needs will do everything they have to in order to fulfil those needs, irrespective of legality. Simply put, ‘use it or lose it.’ As private institutions these courts would be dependent on the support and consent of the people who attend them for adjudication. Thereby a large, organized group of people with common interests – people without land or property for example – would attend and support courts that promoted their interests. Conversely, individuals with large amounts of property would prefer courts sympathetic to their situation. The sheer imbalance of haves and have-nots would lead to certain courts flourishing and others languishing in a truly free market, until equilibrium was reached. Without a State-sponsored police force, and with the threat of coercion through violence removed, the vast abundance of disused property could be redistributed for use by persons in need, for them to attain the capital they need through their labor, and this would be recognized for its value by their societal peers under the principles of property ownership. This will naturally evolve a judicial system very close to how ‘common law’ exists in the UK – a body of precedents evolved from the judgments of peers and respected members of the broader community, rather than dictated by a parliamentary class as in all democracies.
For example, the gutted metropolis of Detroit. What if, upon declaring bankruptcy, the authorities decreed that all the empty properties could be confiscated from their owners – largely multinationals and faceless conglomerates – and given over to whoever can put them to use. The ‘mixing of one’s labour’ would be the defining condition of claim for ownership, as in the days of homesteaders across the American West.
There is a precedent for this. In Holland, up until 2010, it was legal to occupy a building that had been left empty for twelve months. This was a response to a crippling housing crisis in one of the most over-populated areas of the world. It created a pressure on property owners to put buildings they owned into meaningful public use, and allowed those with the need and ability to appropriate empty property for their own purposes.
Currently, the judiciary system in the UK and most other countries are bound by the laws of State that insist that private property is sacrosanct, regardless of the harm and waste it creates. People cannot be allowed to house and shelter themselves if it threatens the interests of capital ownership and development. If it was commonly held that society should be built voluntarily, without permission, then the majority of disputes would be resolved between private individuals without recourse to a court or the authority of the community. As anarchists I would hope we can agree that people, as a commonality, are reasonable and operate along lines of mutual aid and cooperation. It is the insanity of the bureaucratic State that violently defends properties to be left in disuse when the multitude requires them for their own advancement.