At Issue

28 05 2009

Browsing the interwebs a few days ago, I found an article that discussed a situation in Cambodia where a whole community is being evicted because it is claimed they are squatting on the property of the French government.  My reason for posting it and the relevant text is that in my mind, it highlights the three tiers of disagreement between Anarchists.  It’s also interesting as looking at the problem from the confines of orthodox statist reason, the only argument that can be legitimately made against the action is that it is an abuse of human rights or that it is ‘just wrong’.  It is, of course, yet the problem is that any solution to the situation is limited by the positive law of governments.  It is clear, in my own eyes, that given an Anarchist society such a situation would never come to fruition and would find itself peacefully resolved immediately.

Now the Lycee Rene Descartes wants to expand.

And along with its landlord, the French embassy, it has asked the local authorities to clear Limsreang’s building so that it can be used for the school.

The lycee insists that the building belonged to the school before the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975; now it is merely taking back its rightful property.

The residents, however, say they were ordered to live behind the lycee after Vietnamese-backed forces ousted Pol Pot’s government in 1979.

When peace returned to Cambodia in the 1990s, so did the Lycee Rene Descartes. At first the school co-existed with the residents, but an expanding demand inspired the lycee to seek the removal of the community

At first the school co-existed with the residents, but an expanding demand inspired the lycee to seek the removal of the community.

“This site belonging to the embassy must go back to the school,” says Pierre Olivieri, the co-ordinator of a parents’ committee pressing for the move.

“We’re the only French school in the world with a squat – even nations at war like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan don’t have that.

“It’s not good for the image of France or Cambodia.”

The residents resent being labelled as “squatters”, and they were unwilling to leave for the compensation on offer – a few thousand dollars and a plot of undeveloped land on a reclaimed lake on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Limsreang says that City Hall made a series of threats to evict his community – and said it would give them nothing if they did not accept the terms.

Optimistic future predictions aside, this real-world situation can be used as a test to draw out the differences between influences and theory for Anarchists.  This test comes in three tiers; Government, Corporate, Individual.

Government

If we approach the scenario as it is, we come to understand the key problem being government.  Regardless of persuasion, each Anarchist will universally recognise that a state cannot own property.  To take the statist position that governments can own property, we essentially fall to the impasse that befalls the Cambodians right now.  Strictly speaking, this is the Anarchist argument; the French government cannot legitimately claim a right to property, and eviction by force of its current occupants is wrong.

Of course there exists a principle that if I walk into your house, punch you in the face and kick you out, that house can never be mine and should be returned to you when I am no longer around.  This is in spite of the fact that your being removed from your own home breaks any chain of possession or ownership.  However this does not apply to the current scenario, except for the consideration that the state is the one doing the forceful taking of property.

Corporate

The second tier involves a slightly different scenario:

Suppose the group performing the eviction with the help of the Cambodian government is a multinational corporation and the building currently owned is not a school but a factory.  The corporation wish to expand their factory into land which is occupied by squatters, who like in the real-world scenario, had been living in the place for up to 40 years.

Here we begin to see a divergence within people’s theory.  Some individuals will resolutely jump-ship and take the side of the corporation, arguing that the ‘squatters’ are, in fact, trespassing and nothing can justify their presence as the property was owned by the corporation before the take over by the Khmer Rouge.  It doesn’t matter that 40 years have passed.  They’re simply required to move out as the corporation has an unquestionable right to remove them from the area, as their occupation of the building was precipitated by the force used by the Cambodian government of a previous time to force out its occupants.

Whereas another group might argue from a different perspective, that the choice by the corporation to leave constitutes abandonment, for some property rights theorists, and the occupation by the people who have worked together to build a community constitutes ‘homesteading’.  Or words to that effect.  The problem is here that the principle mentioned above, invariably, seems to be in support of the corporation.

The same people may then start questioning whether the corporation has any right to property in the same way taking up the Anarchist label, in part, depends upon the individual’s willingness to question whether the government can actually own property.  So the same question may be applied to the corporation, along with the same tests, such as coercion/exploitation, origin and even public good.  Those people may than take note that the corporation, under current legal systems, is an entity created by the state, which directly seeks its benefit in some capacity.  Such an assertion bleeds over into the origin of property, and how the corporation actually comes to claim ownership to what it does, questioning how you can legitimately own something when your ability to acquire those goods comes through coercion, even if that coercion is outsourced to a hierarchy maintained by violence.  There is no better evidence of this then the hypothetical corporation’s employment of the Cambodian state and its thugs to evict people living in their homes.  Lastly, public good may be appealed to as it certainly stands to reason what turning out a community from the homes they have occupied for the last 40 years to expand a factory has significantly less benefit than leaving them there.

In such a case the principle referred to above may be said to apply not to the corporation, but to the people being evicted.  As there are hundreds of cases of this very same scenario going on world-wide, irrespective of whether the people being evicted are Chinese, or Americans or whether the company doing the evicting is a manufacturing company or real estate developers looking to build condos, given Anarchism, we could see their homes protected.

Either way, this scenario begins to separate out the participants in such a debate.

Individual

Let us change the scenario a third time:

Consider a situation where it’s an individual who ‘owns’ the land, and not a corporation or government.  This owner owns an apartment block and wishes to expand it.  Before the Khmer Rouge, he also owned the area now inhabited by the community, but left during the trouble.  The Khmer Rouge came in, ordered the people to stay in their area where they now live and the Khmer Rouge left, leaving behind the people.  Our individual returns, and takes direct control of the land not occupied by the people and, a few decades later, wishes to force them out.

Here we see a wide divergence in ideals with people pledging allegiance to either party based on a variety of arguments and theory.  Some take the side of the the new inhabitants, others take the side the of the individual who owns the land.  However, all arguments and subsequent solutions come back to the question of limits.  Where do you place the limit in regards to property?  The one giving the answer has a number of possibilities ranging from no limits, to express abandonment, or mutualist occupancy and use as a definition of abandonment or even limit it all and deny property, or even your views on rent may come into play. Whatever your take, here the debate gets messy and is where the most conflict lies.

Personally, I would argue that property is useful in that it serves as a bulwark against the state and other statists.  However, I counter argue that there needs to be a limit, as it is ridiculous to believe that there exists a theoretical possibly that one man may own the world or even a particular resource with which to hold all to ransom.  For this reason I favour occupancy and use to define abandonment, but then a question arises as to whether this conflicts with the principle stated earlier.  Rather than place a limit on the principle, or abandon it all together, perhaps it is more accurate to point out that there are vitiating circumstances where the principle cannot apply; such as in the above case.  If the individual is turning out a community, and looking to the state in order to enforce his claim, can we safely respect his claim to any sort of ownership under occupancy and use with respect to principle?  I’m inclined to say we don’t.

What, I believe, these scenarios show, is that there is more to being an Anarchist than being anti-state.  Although it is certainly a key element, it leads to new ideas and new levels of thinking that require you to confront the fact that coercion, aggression are perpetuate amongst institutions that maintain their power in a hierarchy where they seperate themselves and their allies off from the rest, in order to live parasitically at their expense.  How we define property rights may very well provide a bulwark against the state and external oppressors, or it may be an instrumental tool in perpetuating oppression.

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