Property as both an idea and a practice has been interpreted through the prism of a liberal, law and economics paradigm since at least the 18th century. This dominant (and domineering) perspective stresses the primacy of individualism, the power of exclusion, and the values of private commodity. By contrast, concepts of property that evolved out of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s challenged this hegemony. Countercultural, or Aquarian, ideas of property stressed pre-liberal, long forgotten property norms such as sociability, community, inclusion and personhood, and contested a private uniformity that seemed “totalizing and universalizing” (Blomley, Unsettling 102).
This paper situates what it terms “Aquarian property” in the context of emergent property theory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the propertied practices these new theories engendered. Importantly, this paper also grounds Aquarian ideas of property to location. As legal geographers observe, the law inexorably occurs in place as well as time. “Nearly every aspect of law is located, takes place, is in motion, or has some spatial frame of reference” (Braverman et al. 1). Property’s radical yet simultaneously ancient alter-narrative found fertile soil where the countercultural experiment flourished. In Australia, one such place was the green, sub-tropical landscape of the New South Wales Northern Rivers, home of the 1973 Australian Union of Student’s Aquarius Festival at Nimbin.
The Counterculture and Property Theory
Well before the “Age of Aquarius” entered western youth consciousness (Munro-Clark 56), and 19 years before the Nimbin Aquarius Festival, US legal scholar Felix Cohen defined property in seminally private and exclusionary terms.
To the world: Keep off X unless you have my permission, which I may grant or withhold.
Signed: Private citizen
Endorsed: The state. (374)
Cohen’s formula was private property at its 1950s apogee, an unambiguous expression of its centrality to post-war materialism. William Blackstone’s famous trope of property as “that sole and despotic dominion” had become self-fulfilling (Rose, Canons). Why had this occurred? What had made property so narrow and instrumentalist to a private end?
Several property theorists identify the enclosure period in the 17th and 18th centuries as seminal to this change (Blomley, Law; Graham). The enclosures, and their discourse of improvement and modernity, saw ancient common rights swept away in favour of the liberal private right. Property diversity was supplanted by monotony, group rights by the individual, and inclusion by exclusion. Common property rights were rights of shared use, traditionally agrarian incidents enjoyed through community membership.
However, for the proponents of enclosure, common rights stood in the way of progress. Thus, what was once a vested right (such as the common right to glean) became a “mere practice”, condemned by its “universal promiscuity” and perceptions of vagrancy (Buck 17-8). What was once sited to context, to village and parish, evolved into abstraction. And what had meaning for person and place, “a sense of self; […] a part of a tribe’ (Neeson 180), became a tradable commodity, detached and indifferent to the consequences of its adverse use (Leopold). These were the transformed ideas of property exported to so-called “settler” societies, where colonialists demanded the secure property rights denied to them at home. In the common law tradition, a very modern yet selective amnesia took hold, a collective forgetting of property’s shared and sociable past (McLaren).
Yet, property as commodity proved to be a narrow, one-sided account of property, an unsatisfactory “half right” explanation (Alexander 2) that omits inconvenient links between ownership on the one hand, and self and place on the other. Pioneering US conservationist Aldo Leopold detected as much a few years before Felix Cohen’s defining statement of private dominance. In Leopold’s iconic A Sand County Almanac, he wrote presciently of the curious phenomenon of hardheaded farmers replanting selected paddocks with native wildflowers. As if foreseeing what the next few decades may bring, Leopold describes a growing resistance to the dominant property paradigm:
I call it Revolt – revolt against the tedium of the merely economic attitude towards land. We assume that because we had to subjugate the land to live on it, the best farm is therefore the one most completely tamed. These […] farmers have learned from experience that the wholly tamed farm offers not only a slender livelihood but a constricted life. (188)
By the early 1960s, frustrations over the constrictions of post-war life were given voice in dissenting property literature. Affirming that property is a social institution, emerging ideas of property conformed to the contours of changing values (Singer), and the countercultural zeitgeist sweeping America’s universities (Miller). Thus, in 1964, Charles Reich saw property as the vanguard for a new civic compact, an ambitious “New Property” that would transform “government largess” into a property right to address social inequity.
For Joseph Sax, property scholar and author of a groundbreaking citizen’s manifesto, the assertion of public property rights were critical to the protection of the environment (174). And in 1972, to Christopher Stone, it seemed a natural property incident that trees should enjoy equivalent standing to legal persons. In an age when “progress” was measured by the installation of plastic trees in Los Angeles median strips (Tribe), jurists aspired to new ideas of property with social justice and environmental resonance. Theirs was a scholarly “Revolt” against the tedium of property as commodity, an act of resistance to the centuries-old conformity of the enclosures (Blomley, Law).
Aquarian Theory in Propertied Practice
Imagining new property ideas in theory yielded in practice a diverse Aquarian tenure. In the emerging communes and intentional communities of the late 1960s and early 1970s, common property norms were unwittingly absorbed into their ethos and legal structure (Zablocki; Page). As a “way out of a dead-end future” (Smith and Crossley), a generation of young, mostly university-educated people sought new ways to relate to land. Yet, as Benjamin Zablocki observed at the time, “there is surprisingly little awareness among present-day communitarians of their historical forebears” (43).
The alchemy that was property and the counterculture was given form and substance by place, time, geography, climate, culture, and social history. Unlike the dominant private paradigm that was placeless and universal, the tenurial experiments of the counter-culture were contextual and diverse. Hence, to generalise is to invite the problematic.
Nonetheless, three broad themes of Aquarian property are discernible. First, property ceased being a vehicle for the acquisition of private wealth; rather it invested self-meaning within a communitarian context, “a sense of self [as] a part of a tribe.” Second, the “back to the land” movement signified a return to the country, an interregnum in the otherwise unidirectional post-enclosure drift to the city. Third, Aquarian property was premised on obligation, recognising that ownership was more than a bundle of autonomous rights, but rights imbricated with a corresponding duty to land health. Like common property and its practices of sustained yield, Aquarian owners were environmental stewards, with inter-connected responsibilities to others and the earth (Page).
The counterculture was a journey in self-fulfillment, a search for personal identity amidst the empowerment of community. Property’s role in the counterculture was to affirm the under-regarded notion of property as propriety; where ownership fostered well lived and capacious lives in flourishing communities (Alexander). As Margaret Munro-Clark observed of the early 1970s, “the enrichment of individual identity or selfhood [is] the distinguishing mark of the current wave of communitarianism” (33). Or, as another 1970s settler remarked twenty years later, “our ownership means that we can’t liquefy our assets and move on with any appreciable amount of capital. This arrangement has many advantages; we don’t waste time wondering if we would be better off living somewhere else, so we have commitment to place and community” (Metcalf 52).
In personhood terms, property became “who we are, how we live” (Lismore Regional Gallery), not a measure of commoditised worth. Personhood also took legal form, manifested in early title-holding structures, where consensus-based co-operatives (in which capital gain was precluded) were favoured ideologically over the capitalist, majority-rules corporation (Munro-Clark).
As noted, Aquarian property was also predominantly rural. For many communitarians, the way out of a soulless urban life was to abandon its difficulties for the yearnings of a simpler rural idyll (Smith and Crossley). The 1970s saw an extraordinary return to the physicality of land, measured by a willingness to get “earth under the nails” (Farran).
In Australia, communities proliferated on the NSW Northern Rivers, in Western Australia’s southwest, and in the rural hinterlands behind Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and Cairns. In New Zealand, intentional communities appeared on the rural Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland, and in the Golden Bay region on the remote northwestern tip of the South Island. In all these localities, land was plentiful, the climate seemed sunny, and the landscape soulful. Aquarians “bought cheap land in beautiful places in which to opt out and live a simpler life [...] in remote backwaters, up mountains, in steep valleys, or on the shorelines of wild coastal districts” (Sargisson and Sargent 117). Their “hard won freedom” was to escape from city life, suffused by a belief that “the city is hardly needed, life should spring out of the country” (Jones and Baker 5).
Aquarian property likewise instilled environmental ethics into the notion of land ownership. Michael Metzger, writing in 1975 in the barely minted Ecology Law Quarterly, observed that humankind had forgotten three basic ecological laws, that “everything is connected to everything else”, that “everything must go somewhere”, and that “nature knows best” (797). With an ever-increasing focus on abstraction, the language of private property:
enabled us to create separate realities, and to remove ourselves from the natural world in which we live to a cerebral world of our own creation. When we act in accord with our artificial world, the disastrous impact of our fantasies upon the natural world in which we live is ignored. (796)
By contrast, Aquarian property was intrinsically contextual. It revolved around the owner as environmental steward, whose duty it was “to repair the ravages of previous land use battles, and to live in accord with the natural environment” (Aquarian Archives). Reflecting ancient common rights, Aquarian property rights internalised norms of prudence, proportionality and moderation of resource use (Rose, Futures). Simply, an ecological view of land ownership was necessary for survival. As Dr. Moss Cass, the Federal environment minister wrote in the preface to The Way Out: Radical Alternatives in Australia, ‘”there is a common conviction that something is rotten at the core of conventional human existence.” Across the Tasman, the sense of latent environmental crisis was equally palpable, “we are surrounded by glistening surfaces and rotten centres” (Jones and Baker 5).
Property and Countercultural Place and Time
In the emerging discipline of legal geography, the law and its institutions (such as property) are explained through the prism of spatiotemporal context. What even more recent law and geography scholarship argues is that space is privileged as “theoretically interesting” while “temporality is reduced to empirical history” (Braverman et al. 53). This part seeks to consider the intersection of property, the counterculture, and time and place without privileging either the spatial or temporal dimensions. It considers simply the place of Nimbin, New South Wales, in early May 1973, and how property conformed to the exigencies of both.
Legal geographers also see property through the theory of performance. Through this view, property is a “relational effect, not a prior ground, that is brought into being by the very act of performance” (Blomley, Performing 13). In other words, doing does not merely describe or represent property, but it enacts, such that property becomes a reality through its performance. In short, property is because it does. Performance theory is liberating (Page et al) because it concentrates not on property’s arcane rules and doctrines, nor on the legal geographer’s alleged privileging of place over time, but on its simple doing. Thus, Nicholas Blomley sees private property as a series of constant and reiterative performances: paying rates, building fences, registering titles, and so on. Adopting this approach, Aquarian property is described as a series of performances, seen through the prism of the legal practitioner, and its countercultural participants.
The intersection of counterculture and property law implicated my family in its performative narrative. My father had been a solicitor in Nimbin since 1948; his modest legal practice was conducted from the side annexe of the School of Arts. Equipped with a battered leather briefcase and a trusty portable typewriter, like clockwork, he drove the 20 miles from Lismore to Nimbin every Saturday morning. I often accompanied him on his weekly visits. Forty-one years ago, in early May 1973, we drove into town to an extraordinary sight. Seen through ten-year old eyes, surreal scenes of energy, colour, and longhaired, bare-footed young people remain vivid.
At almost the exact halfway point in my father’s legal career, new ways of thinking about property rushed headlong and irrevocably into his working life. After May 1973, dinnertime conversations became very different. Gone was the mundane monopoly of mortgages, subdivisions, and cottage conveyancing. The topics now ranged to hippies, communes, co-operatives and shared ownerships. Property was no longer a dull transactional monochrome, a lifeless file bound in pink legal tape. It became an idea replete with diversity and innovation, a concept populated with interesting characters and entertaining, often quirky stories. If property is a narrative (Rose, Persuasion), then the micro-story of property on the NSW Northern Rivers became infinitely more compelling and interesting in the years after Aquarius. For the practitioner, Aquarian property involved new practices and skills: the registration of co-operatives, the drafting of shareholder deeds that regulated the use of common lands, the settling of idealistic trusts, and the ever-increasing frequency of visits to the Nimbin School of Arts every working Saturday.
For the 1970s settler in Nimbin, performing Aquarian property took more direct and lived forms. It may have started by reading the open letter that festival co-organiser Graeme Dunstan wrote to the Federal Minister for Urban Affairs, Tom Uren, inviting him to Nimbin as a “holiday rather than a political duty”, and seeking his support for “a community group of 100-200 people to hold a lease dedicated to building a self-sufficient community [...] whose central design principles are creative living and ecological survival” (1).
It lay in the performances at the Festival’s Learning Exchange, where ideas of philosophy, organic farming, alternative technology, and law reform were debated in free and unstructured form, the key topics of the latter being abortion and land. And as the Festival came to its conclusion, it was the gathering at the showground, titled “After Nimbin What?—How will the social and environmental experiment at Nimbin effect the setting up of alternative communities, not only in the North Coast, but generally in Australia” (Richmond River Historical Society). In the days and months after Aquarius, it was the founding of new communities such as Co-ordination Co-operative at Tuntable Creek, described by co-founder Terry McGee in 1973 as “a radical experiment in a new way of life. The people who join us […] have to be prepared to jump off the cliff with the certainty that when they get to the bottom, they will be all right” (Munro-Clark 126; Cock 121).
The image of jumping off a cliff is a metaphorical performance that supposes a leap into the unknown. While orthodox concepts of property in land were left behind, discarded at the top, the Aquarian leap was not so much into the unknown, but the long forgotten. The success of those communities that survived lay in the innovative and adaptive ways in which common forms of property fitted into registered land title, a system otherwise premised on individual ownership.
Achieved through the use of outside private shells—title-holding co-operatives or companies (Page)—inside the shell, the norms and practices of common property were inclusively facilitated and performed (McLaren; Rose, Futures). In 2014, the performance of Aquarian property endures, in the dozens of intentional communities in the Nimbin environs that remain a witness to the zeal and spirit of the times and its countercultural ideals.
The Aquarian idea of property had profound meaning for self, community, and the environment. It was simultaneously new and old, radical as well as ancient. It re-invented a pre-liberal, pre-enclosure idea of property. For property theory, its legacy is its imaginings of diversity, the idea that property can take pluralistic forms and assert multiple values, a defiant challenge to the dominant paradigm. Aquarian property offers rich pickings compared to the pauperised private monotone.
Over 41 years ago, in the legal geography that was Nimbin, New South Wales, the imaginings of property escaped the conformity of enclosure. The Aquarian age represented a moment in “thickened time” (Braverman et al 53), when dissenting theory became practice, and the idea of property indelibly changed for a handful of serendipitous actors, the unscripted performers of a countercultural narrative faithful to its time and place.
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