The Squatters' Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism

The Squatters' Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism

by Squatting Europe Kollective

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The Squatters' Movement in Europe is the first definitive guide to squatting as an alternative to capitalism. It offers a unique insider's view on the movement – its ideals, actions and ways of life. At a time of growing crisis in Europe with high unemployment, dwindling social housing and declining living standards, squatting has become an increasingly popular option.

The book is written by an activist-scholar collective, whose members have direct experience of squatting: many are still squatters today. There are contributions from the Netherlands, Spain, the USA, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the UK.

In an age of austerity and precarity this book shows what has been achieved by this resilient social movement, which holds lessons for policy-makers, activists and academics alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783710416
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 05/20/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Claudio Cattaneo teaches ecological economics at the University of Edinburgh and the Universita Carlo Cattaneo in Castellanza, Italy. He is that author of The Squatters' Movement in Europe (Pluto, 2014). He is a squatter, bicycle mechanic and olive farmer.

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Squatting as a Response to Social Needs, the Housing Question and the Crisis of Capitalism

Miguel A. Martínez and Claudio Cattaneo


Is squatting a feasible alternative to housing problems in the capitalist system? Is squatting only a marginal activity undertaken by people in need who are motivated against the rule of capitalism? Is squatting no more than a temporary reaction to the unsolved 'housing question' in the current crisis caused by the malfunctioning of capitalist mechanisms?

These questions deserve a careful analysis. The capitalist system has experienced crucial shifts all over the world. Neoliberal policies and increasing global flows have been pervasive since the 1970s. The global elites and corporations have enjoyed new privileged and flexible ways to accumulate capital. In the meantime, the poor, the underpaid, occasional workers, undocumented migrants and the working classes have suffered new forms of dispossession. These have included cuts in public services and subsidies, looser regulation of working conditions, rising costs of living in urban settings, and police surveillance and repression in order to keep the wealthiest segregated from the deprived. Housing needs and other kinds of urban dwellers' social needs fall under that general umbrella. Therefore, the practice of squatting empty properties should not be dissociated from such an overall context.

In particular, we are now interested in understanding how different expressions of squatting are closely interconnected as a result of the constraints of the capitalist context in which they occur, although sometimes individual squatters or groups of squatters do not form an organised movement. The squatters' class position, the political ties between squatters and the urban value of the occupied buildings may be highlighted as three substantial aspects in order to distinguish the relationship between capitalism and types of squatting. We argue that 'social' and 'political' squatting is an extremely simple way of classification which obscures how social needs in general, and housing needs specifically, are determined by contentious interactions between those who rule the principal capitalist mechanisms of accumulation and those who are excluded from them. Any form of squatting, thus, is both 'social' and 'political'. What makes the difference, in our view, is why squatting is undertaken, what its different goals are, and how can they be understood in relation to prevailing capitalist ways of managing and allocating urban goods. In particular, in this chapter we analyse how the different types of squats, squatters and owners, on the one hand, and the ways that squatters take in order to satisfy their own and other social groups' needs, on the other hand, can contribute to understanding the most relevant reasons behind squatting.

Given the housing shortage, the lack of affordable and decent housing compared with available income, the stock of vacant buildings and the practices of real estate speculation, it is evident that squatting is a direct response to the failures of both capitalism and the welfare state. The key question is whether squatting is a sufficient and efficient response. If we consider the imaginary situation in which all the empty buildings are occupied, then the question would be: are there still housing and social needs to be satisfied? If so, squatting would not be the answer since all the built places would already be in use. The whole set would be divided into those occupied in conventional ways (by state or private owners, private tenants, housing cooperatives and so on) and those occupied in unconventional ones such as squatting (that is, the occupation of a property without the owner's permission). However, the size of the unconventional sector might be so limited that squatters and the homeless do not represent a threat to the whole real-estate system. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that the homeless and squatters may be self-housed, unacceptable social inequalities may remain within the conventional housing system, so these are not necessarily challenged by the persistence of squatting. The mere fact of occupying empty properties does not entail a change in the rules of the game, but only represents a partial transgression of some of them.

Squatters may solve their own housing dilemmas by exploring alternative or illegal practices, and they can also spread their example to others with similar concerns. Notwithstanding that, the core of the real estate market, whether under the rule of private agents or state managers, might not be touched by those who promote alternative ways of solving housing needs for a minority of the population. Squatting, lastly, could not be a useful alternative for the broader society unless all the housing stock was empty or all tenants stopped paying rent (assuming tenancy is the dominant mode of access to a home).

A different approach to our initial questions needs to take into account the specific historical periods and political-spatial opportunities. We observe that the numbers of squatters keep a narrow relationship with the most critical moments of the economic cycles in terms of unemployment rates, housing prices, privatisation, gentrification, urban renovation and industrial restructuring. There are also significant variations from one city and country to another. Squatters develop their own skills to explore these opportunities and to perform tactical means of action. Obviously, many of them are also encouraged by strategic views and anti-capitalist prospects coming from previous and contemporary social movements. Every local squatters' movement, then, covers a particular section of urban conflicts according to both the political coalitions in which it is embedded and the expressions of the capitalist crisis in everyday life.

Tradition states that where there is a need, there is a right. Each of these words – 'need' and 'right' – holds very controversial meanings, and to disentangle them would bring us too far from our present goals. In a rough manner we can conceive that housing needs are not restricted to having a roof over your head and having the money to pay for the acquisition of that roof, and for rent, maintenance, taxes and/or the regular costs of external supplies. A good life at home is connected with a good life in a social, urban and natural environment. It involves the spatial location of the house but also the available social resources at hand, beyond the domestic space. If squatting constitutes an essential claim to satisfy housing need as a right to housing, at the same time it is also a claim to satisfy social needs, which is linked to seeing housing need as a broad 'right to the city', in the Lefebvrian sense (Lefebvre, 1968).

Most squatters do not aspire to own the property they occupy. Neither do they define the practice of squatting as theft or usurpation, since they emphasise the right to use and occupy abandoned properties and keep them in a liveable condition. If anything, according to Proudhon, it is property which is based on a primal theft. Squatting, at its best, supposes a sort of symbolic and eventual expropriation of the property of owners who are perceived as illegitimate because of their excessive wealth compared with the dispossessed. It is not the right to private property that is reclaimed by most squatters, but the right to a more just and equal distribution of the resources that allow a decent life. Expropriation thus involves an exercise of turning private goods into common goods. Housing needs, therefore, are accomplished alongside social needs. Squatting becomes, in the end, a form of class struggle where the housing question is a crucial one, but not an exclusive one. In fact squatting is more than just living under a roof, because it is a collective process of self-organisation to get access to an affordable space, a cooperative way of repairing and preserving the building, an alternative way of living in the margins of the capitalist patterns, and a political experience of protesting and mobilising through direct action.

Squatters Strive for Housing Needs and Social Justice

Every human need involves subjective aspirations and a lack of material resources according to conventional or underlying social agreements about the basic conditions for enjoying a decent life (Leal and Cortés, 1995: 4–12). Homeless people need a home, above all. Home seekers in contrast are those who need a new or a better home, such as young people, residents in substandard houses, families that grow in size, divorced couples, those who demand space for working at home, as well as migrant newcomers (Bouillon, 2009; Leal, 2010). People who aspire to live in communes or in co-housing initiatives, for instance, may also contribute to the expression of housing needs in the form of a demand.

Homes are not exactly the primary need, but they represent a way to satisfy many basic human needs such as protection, shelter, identity, affection and subsistence (Max-Neef, 1994: 58–9). There are other means to satisfy basic human needs, but without the satisfaction of at least the need for physical health and personal autonomy, it is quite difficult to participate in social life and to pursue your own goals (Doyal and Gough, 1991; Gough, 2004). Adequate shelter may be conceived, then, as an 'intermediate need' or a 'cultural satisfier' that helps other needs to be fulfilled. [This becomes evident in Chapter 2, which analyses how squatters' counter-cultural critique to capitalism is made possible in the special relationships that are developed within communes, like the Berlin house projects, or in the way well-being is achieved by the freedom to refurbish a home according to the different and evolving needs of its members, or even by the services that the existence of a house can offer to activists.]

As has been frequently noted, these processes addressing the satisfaction of needs involve an exercise of social power (capabilities) because there are observable and implicit conflicts between individuals and groups trying to influence, shape and determine others' needs and desires (Lukes, 1974: 23). This opens the door to political action in the field of housing and social needs. Squatters exercise their power, their capabilities, in aiming at satisfying their own needs, and also support the struggles of those who are excluded from the dominant housing system. Solidarity with the homeless, the substandardly housed, the poor and young people who cannot afford a decent and well-serviced house, is also a political aim of all kinds of squatters, those who self-house themselves and those who run squatted social centres. This is another substantial reason for not separating housing and social needs, and pro-housing and pro-social-centres squatters.

The satisfaction of human needs depends on many factors. Squatters, for example, can only represent the interests of those excluded from the capitalist housing system (although they often deny the politics of representation and prefer the politics of autonomy, direct democracy and self-representation). However there are environmental limits to the size of the population to be housed and the materials and energy employed in the construction of houses (Riechmann, 1998: 310). Squatters can only operate within the already built stock, regardless of its inherent environmental sustainability. They leave aside the claim for housing all the excluded by demanding new constructions. In both cases, there are also social, political and normative principles to deal with. Who has a priority right to be housed? What are the criteria used in practice to produce an equal and just access to a squatted place? How do we overcome the barriers faced by particular social groups as a result of their gender, class, ethnicity or abilities (Nussbaum, 2003)?

These aspects have received some criticism from outside the squatters' movement since the very beginning (Lowe, 1986). Priemus (1983), for example, argued that only 'bona fide squatters' could contribute to adding empty dwellings to the housing stock by improving their premises. They also 'place the housing shortage on the political agenda, expose abuse of ownership and increase the pressure on the authorities to tackle speculation in real estate effectively, to gear the programming of house-building better to the demand and to improve housing distribution policy' (Priemus, 1983: 418). These squatters practise self-help, help others to find accommodation and use squatting as a means of protest against housing shortages, vacancy, speculation and housing policies. However, there are many squatters who occupy social housing at the expense of the groups who have priority of access according to the official regulations. For instance, squatters typically house young people, single persons and (in the case Priemus is discussing) Dutch nationals, a clientele that is different from the deprived social categories like families with children that are supposedly favoured by the state agencies (ibid.). Among the responses to this criticism, some argued that 'the largest part of the houses occupied were taken from private owners who preferred, for motives of profit, to speculate with empty dwellings, or to turn houses into offices' (Draaisma and Hoogstraten, 1983: 410). Also, 'squatters rarely prevented people in greater need from being housed because most squatted houses were not intended for immediate use' (Wates and Wolmar, 1980: 61).

There are many autonomous groups which deliberate, fix norms and take their own decisions about where to squat according to the location, the type of building and their knowledge about the owner. They also recruit members or back other potential squatters by relying on trust, political affinity, needs, opportunity, capacities, skills, information and so on (Adell and Martinez, 2004; Bailey, 1973; Corr, 1999; Sabaté, 2012; SQUASH, 2011; Thörn, Wasshede and Nilson, 2011). [The Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam, is a clear case where the articulation of the squatters' movement reached a high level of complexity and organisation, as Hans Pruijt presents in Chapter 4.] Therefore, the controversy about the squatters' awareness of the social, urban and environmental context leads to the internal diversity of the movement and the single initiatives that any group takes. The issue of social justice, then, needs to be debated according to each autonomous group of squatters, since there is no central organisation that can impose general normative criteria. Nonetheless, it cannot be skipped because it affects the core argument about the legitimation of squatting to satisfy housing and social needs.

Another source of the legitimation of squatting has to do with the type of owner and the features of the empty properties that are taken over. The final decision to occupy a specific building depends on a limited amount of information. Whether the owner is a large corporation, a small company or a private proprietor, the major issue at stake is the owner's class situation, which can be measured here in terms of their economic power and also according to the speculative operations they develop. The more distant the owner is from the squatters' class situation, income and ideological principles, the greater the legitimation of the conflict as a class struggle. However, this does not mean an immediate confrontation, because the owner's reaction after the occupation may follow different strategies. Sometimes, for example, the owner avoids a direct confrontation for a certain period of time while preparing documents for launching a judicial attack or while negotiating with interested buyers. If the legal owner belongs to the middle classes (or, in some exceptional cases, to the working class) and the property is crucial to their own economic survival in terms of simple class reproduction, the conflict with the squatters tends to be more direct, and is usually quickly channelled through the courts. The class dimension of the conflict thus plays a secondary role compared with the rest of the dimensions concerning the value given to the eventual speculative actions and the specific condition of the building.

The same applies to state-owned properties, with the addition of the squatters' assessment of the policies carried on by political authorities and state officials. The squatted building is considered as a public resource and the justification of its occupation must address the particular sector of public policy in which that building is managed. Less clear is the case of private associations, foundations, religious and political organisations and the like. The legitimacy of these groups may vary greatly in the squatters' eyes, so a combination of the previous arguments and new ones related to the particular organisation can be used to justify the occupation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements Introduction: Squatting as an Alternative to Capitalism - Claudio Cattaneo and Miguel A. Martínez 1. Squatting as a Response to Social Needs, the Housing Question and the Crisis of Capitalism - Claudio Cattaneo and Miguel A. Martínez Part I: Case Studies 2. 'The Fallow Lands of the Possible': An Enquiry into the Enacted Criticism of Capitalism in Geneva's Squats - Luca Pattaroni 3. The Right to Decent Housing and a Whole Lot More Besides: Examining the Modern English Squatters Movement - E.T.C. Dee 4. The Power of the Magic Key: The Scalability of Squatting in the Netherlands and the United States - Hans Pruijt 5. 'Ogni Sfratto Sarà una Barricata': Squatting for Housing and Social Conflict in Rome - Pierpaolo Mudu Part II: Specific Issues 6. Squats in Urban Ecosystems: Overcoming the Social and Ecological Catastrophes of the Capitalist City - Salvatore Engel Di Mauro and Claudio Cattaneo 7. Squatting and Diversity: Gender and Patriarchy in Berlin, Madrid and Barcelona - Azozomox 8. Unavoidable Dilemmas: Squatters Dealing with the Law - Miguel A. Martínez, Azozomox and Javier Gil Conclusions - Miguel A. Martínez and Claudio Cattaneo Appendix: The Story of SqEK and the Production Process of This Book - Claudio Cattaneo, Baptiste Colin and Elisabeth Lorenzi Notes on Contributors Index

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