“The first theft shows up as rightful ownership” – Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in ‘All Incomplete’.

During this second episode of the series ‘Speak to your imagination’, we reflected on the concept ‘Past the Possession of Place’. In other words, we reimagined how the world would look like when land is not owned. We’re currently living in a country where every square metre is framed and owned. The ability to use space freely is lost, where people and non-humans are not a match for the interests of big capital. Think about the current housing crisis and overpriced rent people need to pay to their landlord. Space is thus made inaccessible to common use through capitalisation. How do we move beyond this? During the session, three cases were presented that acted as fuel for inspiration: the Cuban farming revolution, the ADM community and Al Masha. Ultimately, these are practices with both intersecting ideas and contradicting notions.

From commons to privatisation: violence as a starting point

At the beginning of the programme, a father explained that his daughter desires to live in a self-constructed camper. However, various regulations and high financial costs are preventing her from finding a suitable location. He continued saying: “It is a strange thought that you cannot use land that seems to be there, and that nobody is using it at that moment, so why can’t I put my camper there”. Free use of land does not seem possible anymore in the Netherlands and surrounding countries.

So, what led to this bureaucratic management of land? During the 15th century, the privatisation of common lands, known as the commons, started in Europe and specifically rural England. Commons are accessible land areas such as pastures, forests, lakes, wild meadows, which serve as crucial sources to sustain livelihood for communities. Landlords and wealthy peasants used the method ‘enclosure’ to abolish communal landholding. This method included legal changes and using fencing and other barriers. This made it impossible for smallholders to use land without permission or payment to the owner, and therefore lost the ability to use the commons and collect their resources. This loss of the commons forced them into low wage labour to be able provide for themselves. This reinforced the division between the capitalist class and the working class, which fueled the development of the capitalist system we know today.

This rise of capitalism through enclosure was an unnatural process. Then, how did this unnatural thing come to exist? The answer is “violence”, according to Max de Ploeg, founder of pan-decolonial network Aralez. Max directed his attention back towards the father of the daughter who wishes to use her camper: “If your daughter wants to camp there, what will be the problem? The problem is that the police will be sent to make sure that property is respected in the way that the government designed it or the people that own the land. This institution is violent to maintain inequality”.

Thus, capitalism is able to thrive on violence and inequality. Over time, additional rights emerged — such as labour, human, feminist, and gay rights — aimed at enhancing inclusivity within the capitalist system. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that these rights were layered upon a foundation rooted in violent appropriation.

The Cuban farming revolution: gaining sovereignty and establishing connections to land.

Then, what does a post-capitalist relation to land, or in other words, the (re)introduction of the commons, look like? Max presented the first case: the Cuban farming revolution, starting in 1989. Back then, Cuba had a monocrop culture. The country was dependent on the Soviet Union to import products to diversify their intake, because they were part of the communist regime and therefore heavily sanctioned by the United States. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the oil crises taking off, Cuba was required to develop an independently driven and diverse agriculture. Because the majority of the population lived in urban spaces, the government invested in urban farming. “They took the land to the city”, Max illustrated. By raising farms on rooftops, giving away free land or educating people on how to grow their own food, this transition became rather successful. Nowadays, around 70% of the vegetables consumed in Cuba are produced in the cities.

Why is this case important for rethinking the way we use land? Currently, the majority of the world lives in big cities instead of rural land. By 2100, 80% of the world will live in cities. If we still want to sustain ourselves and make agricultural resources accessible, we have to reconnect the urban with the rural. This gives people the possibility to participate in food production and choose what they want to produce. Even though the Cuban farming revolution was a top-down state intervention, the people still (re)gained some sovereignty over their production. It’s organised in such a way that some form of ownership goes back to the people, instead to just one centralised power.

Bringing the rural to the urban also means that we have to respect the rhythm of nature. Now, a lot of agricultural products are always available in the supermarket, it does not matter what the climate or season is. But when you grow your own food in the city, one needs to care for the land to not exploit it. One can be inspired by Indigenous ways of relating to the land that are based on reciprocity. For this, Max raised the question: “How do we contribute to this web of life?”.

ADM Community: Care, community and security.

Max also said that changing your relationship to land comes with a communal culture. Culture comes from the word cultivate”, he said. To communally hold that land, you have to work together.

This resonated with Sara and Wiebe, residents of the ADM community and the second case of the evening. ADM is a cultural free space that started in 1997 by 100 people with anarchist ideals squatting a 45-hectare shipyard in Westpoort. However, because they did not formally own the land, they were evicted in 2019, as economic rights prevail legally. The municipality of Amsterdam did offer a two-year contract as an emergency shelter at the Slibvelden in the North. Here, the community now organises cheap culture and festivals accessible for everyone to attend, whilst living there themselves. The residents have the time to do this because they pay low rent. They maintain the land themselves, by making use of each other’s skills, tools and knowledge. “What brings these people together is that they want to have ownership over their own lives”, Sara explained. Together, they find alternative ways of living. Ultimately, social ties are essential when caring for land and being more self-sufficient.

That being said, is one able to fully care for land when it is not rightfully yours? An audience member raised this as a discussion point. Because why would you want to invest time and money into a temporary and insecure place, where one is at risk of eviction and not secure? In the case of ADM, even though the municipality owns the land, from the perspectives of Wiebe and Sara they still have enough autonomy about how their land is managed. Wiebe said that this autonomy makes him take better care of the land, despite not owning the land and thus not having full security of staying there. But not everyone in the room seemed to agree. Someone said that you love and care for a space because you believe in the cause. So, the question remains: Does one need security in order to feel responsible for caring for a place? Or, can the internal feeling of motivation or believe in the cause be enough reason to invest?

Al Masha: a decolonial approach and nomadic relationship to land

It was the concept of Al Masha that brought new light to this discussion. Al Masha, an Arabic term signifying ‘commons’, represents a Palestinian and decolonial approach to land, emphasising the absence of ownership. The entirety of the land is collectively owned by all members of the community, avoiding division into individual plots. This results in equal distribution and can never be called private property. It thrives when people choose to collectively cultivate the land, granting each person the right to plant. The moment one stops cultivating, one loses its possession. The process involves the periodic redistribution of land portions, occurring every 2 or 5 years, contingent on the land’s quality. This dynamic use ensures a continual change of who will cultivate which part of the land. Consequently, working on the land remains in a state of flux, aligning with a nomadic lifestyle.

With Al Masha, ownership is abolished. “Ownership stems from a brutal and violent settler colonial mindset”, PHD researcher Zouhair Hammana explained. This violent thinking emerges out of modernity. “Ownership was stolen from the commons, from the people. Individual property, understood as rightful ownership, would then be viewed as theft”. Another audience member related this to ‘Terra Nullius’, which is Latin for ‘nobody’s land’. This concept pertains to the territory already inhabited by Indigenous peoples, yet it wasn’t acknowledged as (rightfully) theirs due to a colonial perspective that exclusively recognised white Europeans as legitimate landowners. And this colonial mindset is still present in contemporary thought. As Max pointed out, globally, 2.5 billion people live in commons. However, their land is sold and land grabbed by European industries, making them dispossessed in a colonial way.

During the discussion, an audience member raised a concern: “How do you justify defending the land when faced with potential threats?”. Zouhair responded, highlighting that the very dynamic of needing to defend something stems from a larger issue. The concept of securing possessions through ownership is rooted in a colonial and capitalist mindset. The forced privatisation of commons gave rise to a fixed sense of place and security. In contrast, those connected to Al Masha don’t claim ownership but rather engage in cultivating and nurturing the land—a practice of befriending the land. So, maybe we should disentangle the link between taking care of a place and ownership.

Tensions on ownership

Then, how do we move beyond the possession of place? The evening ultimately showed recurrent tensions. Where Al Masha rejects ownership entirely, Sara and Wiebe do not overthrow ownership, given the municipality still possesses the land, housing the ADM. Likewise, the Cuban farming revolution illustrates self-autonomy of space shaped by top-down policies. In both instances, complete ownership for the commons or a complete lack of ownership doesn’t seem to be the prevailing approach. Instead, a nuanced sense of sovereignty in land management remains the current norm.

However, one does not have to sit and wait for the government to grant ownership. An audience member expressed how:

“I felt the most free when I took back place in the city. There is a lot of scarcity, in the terms of housing, place. It is difficult to live here. But I think kind of, rethink, thus, post-capitalist. Past the possession of place, it is important to think from the ground up. but: what can I do to take back space?”

She related this to squatting, which according to Max sounds similar to Al Masha. Squatters move around between different places, relating to the nomadic lifestyle. They also befriend place, and take care of a building even though it is not rightfully theirs. Squatting and Al Masha are thus examples that move around or overthrow the standard notion of ownership, by rethinking our relationship to land in a bottom-up manner.

More on Speak to Your Imagination

The evening was a collective thinking session. The speakers were sitting amongst the visitors, all beside each other in a big circle of chairs. No hierarchy nor divide, but solely common inspiration. This set-up seems to symbolically related to the disclaimer Zouhair made: “My thinking emerged out of a collective”, he said. It reminded us that ideas, as well as land, are not to be owned.

If this set-up sparks your interest, the last episode of the series: ‘Speak to your imagination’ will be on the 20th of December, in which we will reimagine sex-work together with sex-workers in Amsterdam. Reserve a free spot here.