Colin Wards Political Philosophy – the Property Rights of the Propertyless

A friend of mind told me yesterday he is editing a collection of Colin Wards writings – who sadly died last year, but at a ripe old age.

I only met him once and sadly never had much chance to talk but his writings had a great influence as he was a very different voice within town planning.

In environmental education he has had an enormous influence and a a secret hero of many teachers;  A whole conference was dedicated to these ideas in March of this year. In town planning too he was a subversive voice, under the the equally subversive patronage of the TCPA. He would be angry and amused im sure after a lifetime promoting the ‘path not taken’ (to quote the name of his best article) – on the welfare state – of basing it on structures of mutual self organisation, that localism was now finally and ironically being used to fill the void for a retrenching welfare state.

Im sure he would have pointed out that as spontaneous organisation always works better that, after seeing what radicals and working people could get up to, the range rover owning classes would work out that they could make use of the same tools to secure their property rights, and differential advantages in job opportunities, schooling and healthcare.

It is easy to see him as a nostalgic, and end of the pier type of radical. This would be unfair. He despised zeitgeist views of the left for sweeping aside valuable traditions of self organisation.

In most spheres his skills lied more in exposition than originality. He was a key feature of the ‘new anarchism’ (as described in works by Andrej Grubacic and David Graeber), strongly influenced by Herbert Read – adjusting to the ending of mass movements. His most influential philiosopical writings were on spontaneous self organisation, the ‘seeds under the snow’ emerging in all societies had being a different way of human behaviour than that which replicates state and oppressive power. These ideas were taken from Landenauer, Paul Goodman and further back Proudhon and Kropotkin.

His true originality lay two fold. He was fiercely critical of the eurocentrism of traditional radical thought. His writings going back to the 60s – and in one of the last thing he wrote – anarchism in the 21st century – always took a global perspective. Heavily influenced by Walter Segal he championed the third world.

His second source of originality was never properly enunciated but always implicit. It has been troubling me how his and similar writers ideas are different from figures on the libertarianism right – such as Hayeck – who similarly stress principles of spontaneous order.

The difference I think lies in the concept of property rights. Deontological libertarianism, of the like of Rothbard, Nozick, or Ron Paul is based on the homestead principle. If property is not owned then you have the rights of the fruits of the labour you apply to land – a principle that goes back to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. The problem with this view is endowments, what happens after the first generation? Does it then give those with unequal endowments the right to secure the labour, and accumulate the fruits of the labour, of others simply because they have no other means of subsistence? The deontologists would say that despite these problem any action to seize the use of property owned by another is intrinsically wrong.

The deontologists are thrown back to a unreal original state, of homesteading and occupation, both as justification and ideal future. Even the market anarchist Benjamin Tucker had to abandon this view recognising as historical fantasy as property arose through force and occupation (what Marx would call primitive accumulation).

Consequential libertarians view ownership and structures as being justified by their outcomes. Hence it could be justifiable for example for the dispossessed to seize land. Ward argued that not only does this lead to better outcomes but it will happen anyway -a pragmatic anarchism . Where the poorest have no other means they will seize them. Indeed in the faellas we now see that within 20 years majority of the worlds population will be in land established by this very principle. An ‘actually existing’ anarchism.

This social phenomenon poses real problems for right libertarians. Following initial occupations gangsterism typically parcels up and sells on land without formal title. What is their attitude to this? Do the ‘illeagal landlords’ have a right to the rewards of their actions? Should instead the rewards go to the formally allocated state plots – even if as in Lusaka or Bahrain elites allocate land to themselves? Wards ideas are the seeds under the snow for a better world.

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