Reflections on property within the OMEN project by Rubén Santiago
The neoliberal rationality, which in recent decades has imposed its dominance on all areas of life, persuades us of the benefits of private property as a structuring element of our reality, even beyond the strictly economic. We have become used ‒as if it were a natural phenomenon‒ to understanding that the territory, all kind of resources or the bodies, as a labour and emotional force, must necessarily have an individual owner ‒ and here I mean both natural and legal persons (mercantile companies), in a process of totalising the world's privatisation. Since the time of the original or primitive accumulation, back in the 14th century and described by Karl Marx in the first book of Capital as a precondition for the emergence of the capitalist system, privatization technologies and their consequences on the subjective configuration have not ceased to spread globally. Later, and linked to the triumph of the bourgeois conscience of the world, private property would be enshrined as a fundamental right, underpinning the aforementioned process, as expressed in article 17 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the French National Constituent Assembly in 1789, and later also in article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.
Leaving aside the debate on whether, as is the case with a large number of formal and abstract declarations of rights, the application of these guidelines is de facto governed by a constitutive principle of inequality, we can observe how the system of private property is based on a source whose legitimacy is more than reasonably questionable, especially at a time when everything is likely to fall into the territory of the private sphere. In this sense, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published in 1840 What is Property? or a research on the principle of law and government, where he categorically states that "property is theft". Proudhon, however, will distinguish between property as tyranny, which is most widespread and consists of the possession of land (or, by extension, any other means of production or life), and that which preserves freedom, associated with the product of the individual's labour. If the property, the tyrannical property, is a theft, it is not accessible without violence. It is precisely in violence that Walter Benjamin, in Towards a Critique of Violence, 1921, made gravitate both the establishment and the maintenance of law, which obviously includes property. One cannot imagine the privatization of spaces and resources without an original exercise in violence that must be maintained for their conservation. Such circumstance will always raise suspicions about the natural legitimacy of the ownership principle. An example of this is the forced expropriation of medieval communal lands as a consequence of the primitive accumulation and the wave of repression suffered by European peasants who, in one way or another, resisted this process.
In her book Caliban and the Witch, Women, Body and Original Accumulation (2010), Silvia Federici analyses how a large number of the processes of witchcraft, which invariably ended in torture and bloody executions and for which women were especially condemned, were motivated mainly by their opposition to the privatisation of uncultivated lands, forests, mountains and lakes that provided them with their own sustenance and, once the process of accumulation was advanced in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the attacks on private property caused precisely by this dispossession. By the 16th century, the nobility and the rich English peasants had already appropriated a large part of the communal lands through the "enclosure" mechanism. The possibility of a certain self-sufficiency of survival would be practically closed without the mediation of the private property system. Federici comments on how this process has been repeated in other historical and geographical moments, highlighting the example of Nigeria which, between 1984 and 1986, was forced to apply a programme of economic adjustments, imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which was aimed at the destruction of the last vestiges of property and communal relations, in order to implement a model of intensive exploitation.
Gradually, as this privatizing phenomenon has progressed, communal forms of property and cooperative lifestyles, not explicitly hierarchical, have been abandoned, not without resistance as it has been indicated, thanks to the successive waves of repression and the ideological formatting of the populations, and the idea that what is not subject to private property is necessarily badly managed or, as a consequence of this lack of economic efficiency, sooner or later, falls into neglect.
These arguments are not exactly new. During the insurrection of the Paris Commune in 1871, when the notion of private property in favour of collective property was deeply questioned in practice, the provisional government of the Third French Republic, installed in Versailles and presided over by the infamous representative of the order Adolphe Thiers, launched a propaganda campaign against the communal people based on the idea that a communal system could only bring about the distribution of misery. In opposition to these approaches, the notion of"communal luxury" will be proposed, which will appear in the Manifesto of the Federation of Commune Artists written by Eugène Pottier, author of The International. Community luxury" will be referred to, as Kristin Ross argues, in Community Luxury. The political imaginary of the Paris Commune (2016), a way of sharing all the best, to equality in abundance.
Another risk pointed out by those who distrust the self-management of common goods, in connection with the aforementioned idea of abundance, is precisely over-exploitation or, in more extreme cases, its destruction, if there is no direct intervention by the State or individual private interest. This is the position expressed by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article Tragedy of the Commons, which years later, in 1990, was refuted by Elinor Ostrom in The Government of the Commons. The evolution of collective action institutions. Ostrom, from a much more ideologically tempered perspective regarding private property than the anarcho-communist orientation that marked the Commune, analyzed how the communal cooperative mechanisms of the Common Use Resources (CUR) in many cases, diverse among themselves in relation to their functioning and geographic-cultural location, were much more efficient and sustainable than those of a centralized state or privatized type, by virtue of certain forms of normative self-regulation of the communities. Possibly, as Richard Sennett indicates in the second volume of his trilogy on the Homo Faber: Together. Rituals, pleasures and cooperation policy (2012), the viability of the modes of Community cooperation revolves around their orientation towards quality of life in the daily experience of individuals, whose well-being depends on sustainable ways of relating to the social and natural environment.
The superstition organized around the cult of private property, always sanctioned by economic arguments of scientific pretension, has led in recent times to the acceleration - once the population is convinced of the supposed veracity of this narrative or simply accepts its inevitability - of the privatizing machinery that, at present, reaches spaces whose collective nature was unquestioned not so long ago. This applies not only to public services but also to resources which, in the past, were not even considered as such, given the openly commercial nature of the term, such as water and air. These elements, which are essential for survival and were taken for granted, are now at the heart of a"planetary civil war", as Hito Steyerl calls it in his text Arte Duty Free: art in the era of planetary civil war (2018), causing numerous conflicts in various communities worldwide; the most prominent example regarding water is found in Cochabamba (Bolivia).
Particularly interesting is the case of air, which, despite the fact that its privatisation process is less developed, has recently been the subject of economic speculation. Beyond the initiatives, which could be considered anecdotal, such as the sale of fresh bottled air that the Canadian company Vitality Air has introduced in the Chinese market, given the high pollution rates of the Asian country, air quality management is under negotiation. Since 2005, a mechanism called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) has been established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which establishes a marketplace where corporations can obtain a range of carbon credits. Its operation allows speculation by purchasing pollution quotas through these bonds, which in turn are backed by the acquisition-privatization of forests (in Latin America, Africa and Asia) by virtue of their power to absorb the aforementioned polluting particles. This is a process of expropriation of communal lands traditionally inhabited and cared for by indigenous peoples such as the Lencas of Honduras who, for some time, have been denouncing and fighting against this privatization of their territories. The voracious appetite of a"disaster capitalism" (adopted by transnational corporations and national governments), following Naomi Klein's terminology in The Shock Doctrine. The rise of disaster capitalism (2007) promises to take economic advantage of any emergency situation (the climate situation in this case), showing an apparently friendly face of the neoliberal solver of global problems. And the latter provided that there are no pockets of dissent in the face of privatisation measures, in which case state and corporate violence will appear on the scene with the intensity necessary to put them out.
The conflict over the ownership of the common goods is, precisely and in relation to the above, the subject that articulates the project carried out by Rubén Santiago who, under the title of OMEN (O Monte É Noso in its original title), reflects on the collective experiences of the use of forest in the context of Galicia and northern Portugal. In his work he refers to the confrontation between the villagers of the Salcedo Mountains (Pontevedra) and the Spanish Army over the occupation of some land for the construction of a training base for the Airborne Infantry Brigade (Brilat) known as the"Afghan village" because its function was to train the troops for their participation in the war in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission
The management and use of these lands have historically been linked to the local community, and since the 19th century these ways of life have been heavily harassed by both the State and private interests. This phenomenon can be traced back to the nineteenth-century government expropriation in the framework of the so-called "liberal revolutions"- which pretended to place these lands at the service of the general interest (an abstraction that very often hides specific, material and particular interests of the dominant oligarchies)- to the planting of foreign species, such as eucalyptus, pine and mimosa, for their exploitation in an industrial agricultural model during the Franco regime. The collective forms, however, did not cease to be dormant and were strongly visible from the communal protests against the establishment of the aforementioned shooting range, starting in 2008. The neighbors finally won this war, which beyond the disputed forest lands, faced two different conceptions about the property; on the one had, its privatizing aspect and on the other hand the communal and open to the participation nature of the neighbors in the use and care of the environment. The"Afghan village" was demolished and moved to other land for which the Ministry of Defence pays a fee to the mountain community. This victory of the local cooperative model, however, was not achieved without strong resistance to the apparatus of systemic violence cited above, which included a spectrum ranging from threats from the Ministry to direct repression by the military police. Nowadays, the villagers have recovered their collective rights over the mountains and are trying to erase the traces left by the successive expropriatory waves, repopulating them with leafy species and recently initiating projects that conserve and promote the rocky heritage of the place.
Rubén Santiago uses this case to elaborate a narrative that contradicts the inevitability of the process of centralized or privatizing expropriation. Despite the fact that in this episode the forces at odds were those of communal management and the State, we cannot ignore the powerful private interests that were also at stake, if we take into account the enormous dimension of private business linked to the contemporary war, stimulated by the military-industrial complex. The OMEN project marks a moment in history that deserves being told, especially in a context, such as the present one, where cultural (ideological) warfare seems lost and there are few gaps for the development of alternative ways of life to those proposed by the neoliberal logic that governs us.
Rubén Santiago tells us this story to be used in vital practice and as he suggests in relation to the title of the project, OMEN works as an acronym in Galician (as previously stated) whereas in English this word refers to something that is likely to happen. A vision of what may happen, beyond the narratives with hegemonic pretensions that strive to discredit non-aligned vital postures. Perhaps telling other stories, united in constellations, as Benjamin proposed in his 1940 text On the Concept of History, can draw a landscape that allows us to imagine in a radical way, other ways of living and relating to the world. This narrative work, with more general analytical implications, is present in the work and experience of Rubén Santiago. Aware of the very limits of the artistic, whose action is limited to the symbolic, he does not seek neither to teach an audience - which has often been treated as ignorant and passive by certain practices of political and/or social art - nor to intervene in the construction of the vital - as it has been often sought, for the greater glory of an exhausted art system - from revitalising artistic alternatives in their relational or collaborative variants. On the contrary, he uses, not without some distance, the ornamental grammar of the decorative arts, which have traditionally involved the forms of expression of the owner classes.
In the option chosen by Rubén Santiago, however, we can recognize the importance of non-hegemonic narratives to stimulate, rather than to illuminate or provoke transformations resulting from the direct reaction to exposure to them, a productive imagination for life. The stories are, in short, as symbolic beings, fundamental for defining the parameters of possibility in which our life experience runs, since, as Eduardo Galeano insisted in the presentations of his book Los hijos de los días (2011), despite the fact that "the scientists say that we are made of atoms (...) a little bird told me that we are made of stories". But it could be added, as Ross said in relation to the Commune, that"it is actions that produce dreams and ideas, and not the other way around". This could also apply to the artistic projects that deal with these stories and that, as in the case of OMEN, contribute, from a cooperative point of view, to tracing those constellations of actions, turned into stories, that allow us, like omens, to open up to other possibilities of the world.