Amy Starecheski, "Review of Squatting in Europe"

Review of Squatting in Europe
Amy Starecheski, City

Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles is a collection of 10 essays edited by the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK). SqEK is a network of activists and scholars that formed in 2009 and has been remarkably productive over the past four years, convening nine gatherings and supporting the development of numerous research projects. This is their first book. SqEK’s organization mirrors that of the movements they study: horizontal and open. Both the SqEK project and this volume have intertwined activist and political aims, and these authors see the production and dissemination of knowledge about squatting as an essential part of their activism. In the service of that goal, the book is available as a free download, but has also been published as a printed volume. SqEK seeks to marshal the power of social scientific academic knowledge production to intervene with authority in current political discourse, and the essays included here largely fit within that frame. Most are written in the third person, and in a neutral, professional tone. While many participants have been involved in squatting and take their inspiration from those experiences, they are also serious researchers who ‘work together in order to develop a thorough, systematic and critical knowledge about this so frequently forgotten social movement’ (273). Much of the research in this volume would not have been possible without the authors’ direct participation in the movements they document, and it is one weakness of the work that the authors do not draw more directly upon their own experiences and personal insights.

Squatting in Europe opens with a preface by political scientist Margit Mayer, whose writing on urban social movements, including squatting, the right to the city and neoliberalism, is an important foundation for much of the work in this volume. This preface, the introduction and the section describing SqEK all place this research in the context of neoliberalization, the post-2008 crisis and the anti-austerity movements in Europe and elsewhere (including Occupy and the Spanish Indignados). Squatting movements are often prefigurative and horizontally organized and have influenced these and other contemporary struggles (see Mudu and Martínez López for case studies of the relationship between squatting and alter-globalization movements). At the same time, the history of squatting in Europe has the potential to inspire new action today, as ‘the call to squat is raised more widely and acted upon with increasing frequency’ (1). Mayer writes that aspects of new social movements, including squatting, have been ‘hijack[ed] and incorporate[d]’ into the project of neoliberal urban governance: participatory decision-making, self-regulation and urban cultural production are some examples (4–5). At the same time, repression has intensified. As these strategies of cooptation and criminalization are implemented simultaneously, cultural and political elements of squatting, previously intertwined, may become separate and even opposed (5). The relationship between countercultural and political practices in squatting, introduced by Mayer, becomes a focus of the volume.

The opening essay, by Dutch sociologist Hans Pruijt, provides an analytical framework taken up by many of the SqEK researchers. Pruijt is the most senior scholar contributing to this volume and this essay is based on over 30 years of comparative research on squatting as a social movement. Here he uses cases from the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Italy. Pruijt derives the axes along which he analyzes squatting movements from the categories of New Social Movement theory: activists’ goals, class, form of organization, cultural and political embedding, and types of buildings. He uses contingency theory, an ecological approach which ‘explains diversity as the result of adaptation to optimize efficiency and effectiveness’ (19), to develop a typology of five different configurations of squatting, each with its own logic and niche: deprivation-based, squatting as an alternative housing strategy, entrepreneurial, conservational and political. Pruijt succeeds in creating a structure that transcends overly simplistic dichotomies such as cultural vs. political, or need-based vs. lifestyle. In fact, he argues compellingly that all squatters seek to fulfill unmet housing or space needs, and that all squatting combines some elements of political and cultural expression. This nuanced, flexible framework facilitates the kind of comparative research SqEK aims to support, and is one of the most valuable contributions in this volume.

Other essays either take up a particular aspect or provide an overview of a squatting movement in a single country or region. For example, Piazza looks at ideology and decision-making in Sicilian squats, Cattaneo studies the ecological impacts of urban and rural squats in Spain, Holm and Kuhn analyze the intersections of urban policy and of squatting in Berlin, Owens documents the international mobility of Dutch squatters, Bouillon describes the experiences of French squatters fighting eviction in court and Dee studies the portrayal of English squatters in the media. Mudu’s analysis of Italian social centers, Martínez López’s research on squatting in Spain and Aguilera’s study of squatting in and around Paris all combine qualitative and quantitative approaches to provide overviews of squatting in those countries.

One recurrent concern throughout is legalization and institutionalization. This research focus takes up the debates happening among squatters on these same questions, which have been a consistent issue for decades. Is legalization a cooptation (and eventual neutralization) of squatting’s rebellious energy, or a useful path to continuing the political projects (including that of providing housing) for which squats provide essential space? Both? As Mayer notes in the introduction, and as Pruijt has documented (2003), governments and property owners use various combinations of repression and cooptation in combatting squatting movements. Squatters’ responses to these forces can be used to divide them into ‘good’ squatters (usually deserving, valued citizens, earnestly seeking housing, desiring legalization) and ‘bad’ squatters (often multiply marginalized, countercultural and confrontational). Both Bouillon and Dee provide fine-grained case studies showing how these categories are produced in the courts of law and public opinion. Research on the repression and legalization of squatting can provide important insights into the changing relationships between the state and its citizens and residents in a neoliberalizing world. This research asks who deserves housing and space for social life and why, and what, if any, is the state’s responsibility to provide it? Holm and Kuhn make particular contributions in this area, noting how squatters’ actions shaped the regime of urban governance in Berlin at crucial moments of transition between models of urban renewal. As Mayer notes, squatting movements can contest both the neoliberal emphasis on private property rights in real property and the neoliberal attack on less tangible common property rights such as access to housing, social welfare or support for the arts (3–6). By asking what the relationship is between the creation of autonomous spaces and the illegality of squatting, research on squatting provides a means to access otherwise obscure connections between property rights, the state and the social world.

Together, the essays in this volume provide an overview of the history of squatting as a movement in Europe. (It is important to note that for the most part SqEK’s research focuses only on long-term squatting as part of social movements, leaving out most ad hoc squatting by unorganized homeless people, crash pad squatting and temporary civil disobedience squatting which has protest as its primary goal. In two exceptions, Bouillon and Aguilera’s studies include both overt and covert squatters in France.) While SqEK generally seems to assume that there is indeed such a thing as a ‘squatting movement’, this work also amply demonstrates that to be the case. For example, Linus Owens’ essay on Dutch squatters’ mobility documents how knowledge, tactics and relationships to support squatting spread through Europe as squatters travelled. While this collective project explicitly aims to develop research on squatting in Europe, it would be productive to compare European squatting movements to those in other places. Pruijt has written on squatting in New York City and Amsterdam (2003), but little work has been done comparing squatting movements in the global north with those in the global south. For example, my research with squatters in New York City and Copenhagen has shown that they have real connections with and draw inspiration from movements such as Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the South African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. This type of comparative international research is challenging to organize and undertake, and is clearly beyond the remit of SqEK, but the fruitfulness and success of the more modest project they have created hints that it could be worth the effort for researchers to develop even broader collaborative frameworks.