Anarchist Geographies: The Spatial Foundation of Anarchist Theory and Practice

Space is important to the social anarchist revolutionary project in several key respects. Social injustice, oppression, inequality, and the sources of power that underlie these relationships are often reflected in, or reveal themselves through, the structuring and appearance of the landscape and built environment. Anarchists also recognize the importance of creating social and physical spaces in which to develop strategies of resistance to the exercise of political and economic power, and for experimentation with alternative social formulations. Finally, the transformation of space plays a key role in anarchist conceptions of a new society built upon a foundation of cooperation and exchange rather than hierarchy.

Inciting Protest, Building Desire: Spatial Reflections of Domination and Inequality

Under capitalism, the study of the underlying forces behind the structuring and appearance of space reveal how many social needs are ignored, and ecological balances disturbed, by land use patterns that promote the rights of property over need or the public good. Anarchists believe that ‘reading’ a landscape in such a fashion enables conceptual connections to be drawn between social inequities, the exercise of power through public policy, and space. It is thought that the stark visibility of injustice inscribed in the environment can motivate a desire for greater knowledge of the underlying causes, as well as spark protest and direct action.

In pre Civil War Spain, inequities and manifestations of the centralized power of the state and church were clearly reflected in the landscape. Peasants with few means of survival were crowded into small villages while large landowners left most of the countryside uncultivated. In other regions, a limited capitalist agrarian and industrial economy produced massive unemployment, housing crises, and the need for the presence of the Guardia Civile in every neighborhood of most large cities. A more contemporary example of how space can be used in organizing to draw attention to conditions of domination and inequality involves the use of public art and memory in anti-gentrification struggles. In presentday Liberty City, Miami, images of once viable workingclass neighborhoods and the names of the residents displaced by urban renewal strategies were recently displayed in the spaces undergoing change. Housing activists and residents believed that the placement of such disruptive elements in a gentrifying landscape that itself depended so heavily on projecting an image of upscale transformation could subvert the redevelopment process by revealing and tainting hidden agendas and stirring public protest.

Strategies of Resistance and Transformation: Insurgent Place Making

Efforts to create alternative, place based development scenarios follow closely from the kinds of tactics of resistance described above. Social anarchists do not draw precise blueprints for a new society or the built environment that supports it, believing that alternative social and spatial formations must emerge from precise historical circumstances as well as local preferences, needs, and assets. The broad objectives of a decentralist vision are nevertheless clear to: underscore the importance of personal freedom within the context of social responsibility; allow the free development of self while supporting the freedom of others; and enable continuous growth and change in environments that have the ecological and social capacity to sustain present and future generations.

To move closer to this ideal, anarchists encourage the creation of insurgent citizens and organized grassroot mobilizations that are designed to subvert the agendas of the state or private developers by claiming rights to such necessities as affordable housing, quality education, healthcare, and other social provisions. Anarchists also seek to identify positive tendencies and assets that already exist in a society (or place), and to enlarge the space for these tendencies to grow and percolate even while situated within an otherwise oppressive set of social constraints. In social anarchist theory, it is believed that the contradictions unleashed by creating ‘free’ spaces that nurture resistance, hope, and experimentation with alternative ways of living and working, will contribute to productive dissidence and the spatial imaginary. It is then hoped that the contradictions between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’, as well as the visibility of well functioning collective social institutions and noncapitalist work settings, will move people beyond their more limited experience, and support their belief in the possibility for change. The alteration of space is, in this way, meant to become a key part of a process of bringing new visions of the future into the present and motivating action.

Spatial Alternatives to Hierarchy: From Small Scale to the Mobile and Networked

Bringing imagined spaces of active participation, freedom, and cooperative production into being within the hierarchical strictures of present day society necessarily places emphasis on the local and small scale. The idea is that by reducing the scale of institutions and enabling people to establish collective control over them, more intimate and egalitarian social relationships, and caring approaches to the environment, will result. Less understood but equally important to the theory and practice of anarchist decentralism is the utilization of the geographic constructs of mobility and networking in the formation of more efficient and sophisticated alternatives to hierarchical structures for organizing business and the social and economic base of community life. Social anarchism challenges many notions of economic efficiency by demonstrating how various forms of technology, divisions of labor, and workplace organization are not based on scientific principle, but rather on property interests and modes of production that allow enormous discrepancies in wealth and power to exist. Smallness of scale, selfmanagement, networks, and federations are posed as alternative ways to both structure the economic landscape on a more egalitarian basis and produce alternative avenues to efficiency in systems of production, distribution, and consumption.

As applied in Spain during the anarchist social revolution of the 1930s, villages and neighborhoods were not expected to become self sufficient entities. Rather, they were made part of elaborate space economies that promoted interregional exchange and cooperation. While greater regional self sufficiency was sought to reduce dependency and facilitate more equal relationships among people, limited specialization became part of the active interchange of information, products, knowledge, and even labor as facilitated by multiple federative structures. To avoid cultural isolation and enhance the environment for innovation, many extra territorial linkages of people were also established to enable the collaborative exchange of ideas and cultural endeavors. In a contemporary vein, while the potential of transnational networks of resistance and collective enterprise may not be fully realized, anti-globalization efforts have recognized and begun to utilize new communication technologies to forge ever more effective extra local connections among relatively autonomous groups in their organizing strategies.