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Revolution in space and time

Social movements and social spaces are absolutely necessary to each other. Without alternative spaces our movements will never succeed in changing the world. But without movements our spaces will remain isolated, elitist, boring and/or self-indulgent. In this article I want to focus on the relationship between social movements and social spaces. In particular, I’m thinking of squatted social centres, anarchist infoshops and other political organising centres – but hopefully these ideas are relevant to other spaces too. I’ll offer some arguments about what makes these spaces succeed or fail, and how we can improve them.

Where on earth is ‘space’?

The word ‘space’ often gets used as a metaphor for everything from a culture to a language to an idea. But for me, the most exciting thing about talking about space is its concreteness. Space is where abstract notions like ‘community’ and ‘power’ actually become real – in the shape of buildings or the spatial routines of everyday life for example. So when I use the term ‘space’ I’m talking about the most grounded, material aspects of society. Space is the product of social processes; space is created by our practices and our representations. The space of a city, for example, is the built environment, but also the way we are channelled through it and the way we think about it. Space is not an empty container, it is a social artefact, produced by social relations. And this means that space can be changed. Capitalism, patriarchy and the State become real in space. The coming anarchist/communist/feminist society will also become real in space. Spaces show quite clearly that we are constrained and shaped by society, but also that we can change our spaces, and we can change our society.

Social movements and space

Social movements use space in at least four ways:

> Contesting dominant spaces: eg refugees and protestors attacking the fence of the Woomera detention in 2002.
> Disrupting the usual routines and meanings of spaces – rallies, pickets, occupations etc.
> Detournement – revolutionary re-use of spaces, giving them new meanings. Reclaim the Streets turns the street into a space for a party.
> Creating alternative spaces – appropriating and building new spaces, which are in some way outside of dominant capitalist space: eg squats, social centres, workers organising centres.

All of these strategies are important, but I’m most interested in the last one, because it offers the potential to really nourish social movements and cultural/political alternatives, and it offers transformative possibilities in the present moment.

The good things about the spaces we create

Why do we appropriate spaces at all? Why do we set up squats and social centres and bookshops, when it’s so difficult and time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous. At a basic level, there are at least three good reasons for creating alternative spaces:

> Safety. Movements need safe spaces in order to exist. We need to control spaces where we can organise ourselves and involve more people, where we can escape (at least partially) from the surveillance, repression and confinement of the State and capital.

> Social interaction. In spaces, we can meet each other and turn strangers into communities. In spaces, people have meaningful encounters which change their ideas and their selves. People can come together in a space even if they have different ideas – in a space there can be community and difference at the same time. And gathering people together creates a certain energy and momentum that is essential to social change.

> Autonomy. Autonomy is about political self-determination, but also about controlling our own identities, cultures and agency. And it’s also about rejecting engagement with the State. Anarchists sometimes propose fighting for ever-widening spaces of autonomy as an alternative to fighting for state power. Autonomy also means doing-it-yourself – often in relation to practical everyday things like housing and food. Clearly if you want to create any of these aspects of autonomy, you need a place to do it in.

The problems with our spaces

But despite these good things, social movement spaces often fail and disappear. And even when they last they can be pretty disappointing. They can be can be under-used and lifeless, or uncomfortably trendy and clique-ish or just plain boring. This can’t be blamed entirely on capitalism, other people’s apathy or the police. Often the problems are a result of our own politics or strategy.

Let me describe what I see as the 4 biggest stumbling blocks for our spaces: instrumentalism, fetishizing a certain form, localism and romanticising ‘openness’.

> Instrumentalism. Instrumentalism means thinking of the space purely as a tool or resource. Think of trade union offices, political party headquarters or university student associations – they are seen by their occupiers as nothing more than a means to an abstract political end. The problem with this is that the space becomes dominated – just like a road or office block – and is treated as if it were an empty container instead of a socially produced set of relationships. Because the instrumentalist approach sees the ends as more important than the means, it can result in spaces which are ugly and unexciting, or even oppressive and authoritarian.

> Fetishizing a certain spatial form. This means seeing a certain type of space (such as a squatted social centre) as an end in itself. It’s dangerous to see the value of our spaces purely in themselves. It’s also a problem to focus on creating spaces just because they are experimental and fun.

Part of the problem is that fetishizing a certain spatial form can divide us from our context. Spatial forms such as the rally, the bookshop or the squatted social centre are only appropriate to certain social contexts. At other times and places they are simply not relevant. We need to be honest with ourselves, and choose a spatial form that makes sense here and now.

The other part of the problem is that focussing solely on fun can translate to an apolitical and individualistic approach to pleasure. If we make a certain type of space just because it’s fun, then what’s the difference between it and a capitalist space like Sega World or a patriarchal space like your local pub? Is the only difference that our space is illegal and caters to a certain small subculture? Just because a spatial form or type of fun is illegal, does not mean it will produce social change.

> Localism. Squatted social centres etc can all too easily become isolated, sectarian ghettoes, as our critics frequently point out. Localism is tempting in the face of capitalist globalisation, but the basic problem is that the local scale is no less oppressive and capitalist than the global. Local residents groups can be racist. Local struggles can be easily crushed. We need to be able to engage with the wider society and other struggles. We need to be able to connect spaces, scales, and political struggles. 

> Romanticising ‘openness’. In order to avoid fetishizing a form and localism, we sometimes romanticise ‘openness’. Calling a space ‘open’ suggests that people and ideas can move in and out, and that everyone’s welcome. But this can often mean refusing to define the politics of a space and therefore accepting damaging behaviour such as violence or oppression. The retreat to ‘openness’ can also allow us to avoid presenting any actual alternative to capitalist space. It can lead to disguising and justifying bourgeois privilege, as it does in the liberal idea of the ‘public sphere’ (which is actually elitist and oppressive).

Instead of ‘openness’ our spaces’ politics must be concretely defined, and defined as opposed to capitalism etc. This is not just about the ideology ‘in’ the space, but also the spatial practices, and conceptions that create the space. Safer spaces policies are a great example of doing this. Perhaps we could use similar structures to help define other aspects of a space’s politics, while still keeping the process accessible, creative and positive?

Space and time

Part of the solution to these problems can be found in the relationship between time and space. Another way to understand the problems I’ve mentioned so far (particularly the last three) is as a focus on space to the exclusion of time. When we accept the temporariness of our spaces we may also be rejecting long-term struggle for change – a rejection of time. There’s often a hint of defeatism in the anarchist demand for ‘freedom in the present’ – it’s as if we accept that the world will never truly be free, so we must settle now for a few hours or weeks of freedom. In our appropriated spaces the question of future revolution and of engagement with the state is often pushed aside (even at the very moment that our space is being crushed by the state). I don’t believe in Hakim Bey’s ‘temporary autonomous zone’ – if we really want autonomy we can’t settle for temporariness. The revolution must be built over time.

However the prioritisation of space over time is no less problematic than the Marxist privileging of time over space. According to some Marxists all forms of spatial appropriation are utopian, and the only valid strategy is to build a state-focussed-revolutionary-Party. In fact, this strategy is often about idealising temporal processes such as History and Revolution in an attempt to control space. If we accept that space has an interdependent relationship with social change, then this approach to space and time is also wrong, and cannot succeed. The revolution must be built in real spaces.

If we think about time and space like this, then what we need to do is connect time and space in a constructive way. We need to connect form and politics; present means and future ends. I want to propose that the anarchist idea of pre-figuration is a useful key to this juggling act. If we can make these connections, then we can realise the powerful potential of our appropriated spaces.

Pre-figurative politics

Pre-figurative politics means modelling in the present a future alternative to capitalism. It’s about using modes of organisation that deliberately demonstrate the world we are trying to create. And pre-figuration needs space: a person or group can propose an alternative system, but a space can materially present that alternative. Pre-figurative politics is bound up with the anarchist concern for congruence between means and ends. We generally agree that the means of struggle shape its ends, but sometimes we forget that they are not the same thing. We need methods which match the vision of a free and equal society (eg squatting, collectivising our possessions, being non-violent), but we mustn’t lose sight of the revolutionary goal of actually getting to that society (which might require owning property, or taking up arms, and will certainly require handing out leaflets and talking to strangers in capitalist spaces). Pre-figurative politics is about bringing together means and ends, present and future – but without conflating the two.

Social and spatial

We sometimes treat our spaces either as an inferior instrument of revolutionary struggle, or as a substitute for that struggle. What we really need is both social struggle and political spaces. Part of our pre-figurative agenda must be about achieving this double act. We need to combine a material alternative with a transformative agenda. Organisations can help make this connection. Tranby college provides one example of a space successfully connected with a social movement. Tranby was started up with funds from unions and churches for the purpose of Aboriginal education, but over the years became a meeting point for indigenous activists from around the world, as well as the starting point of the ‘Survival’ concerts and of the movement against Aboriginal deaths in custody. Alternative spaces must be embedded in social struggle, and at the same time social movements must take seriously the project of creating alternative spaces.

Geographies of power

When places are part of a broader social movement they can transcend their local point in space and time. We need to take advantage of this and work to connect the different sites, different scales (local, regional, global etc), and different types of space (web, real, legal, illegal) that we operate in. The Zapatistas have done this brilliantly, waging their struggle in the mountains of Chiapas, in the streets of Mexico city and on the web.

When we create spaces, whether they’re squats, social centres, info-shops, union offices or whatever, we need to put energy into more than one strategy at once. We need to bring together (but not confuse) spaces and movements, the local and the global, present survival and future revolution. A politics based in pre-figuration can be useful – as theory and practice, and as ethics.

Our appropriated spaces can become nodes in a web of power – nodes where different movements and sorts of power can aggregate, grow and ultimately win.


Some of the ideas in this article came from:
H Lefebvre, The Production of Space
D Harvey, Spaces of Hope
A Grubacic, Towards another anarchism
R Wolff (INURA), Possible Urban Worlds
M Kohn, Radical Space: Building the House of the People


Jeremy, March 2008.