Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why the sudden attacks on Europe's squatters?

Why are several European cities, which have great histories of tolerance, suddenly going after squatters? The two squats mentioned in a previous post--Rhino in Geneva and Christiania in Copenhagen--are everything people say they want squats to be: orderly, long lasting, well-run, communitarian, good neighbors. Christiania, in particular, is a huge and stable community. Over the decades, it has become part of the city's fabric, even serving as a tourist attraction, pulling in an estimate million visitors a year.

So why are the authorities moving to wipe these communities out?

Here are some thoughts. Please feel free to argue with/extend/add to this is comments. Let's have a robust political dialogue.

1. A loss of spirit: The original squatters, who were political, communitarian, and highly motivated have largely lost that fervor. More and more, the squats became simply places to live, and squatters themselves more individualistic.

2. Losing a public profile: The squatters also have ceased to have a high profile public presence and have mostly lost the support of the rest of the city. We are in an acquisitive, consumerist time, and people see the squatters as getting something for nothing, rather than as standing for a noble cause of a better life for all.

3. Fear of violating public order: Politicians like keeping people fearful of terrorist attacks and threats to public order, because with fear they will turn naturally to the security of concepts such as the strict adherence to property rights. Anyone standing counter to that is, in this thinking, a kind of terrorist.

4. Property values: Cities have become much more expensive (we should also be thinking about why this is, and why we accept it) and increasingly people are buying into the landlord-led argument that apartment buildings that are held out of the market (squats, rent control, public housing, etc.) are actually making rents higher for the rest of us. This is nonsense, of course (my landlord is illegally overcharging half the people in the building, but he has yet to offer to lower my rent), but it seems to be seductive nonsense for many people.

A century and a half ago, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said property is robbery. Half a century ago, Andre Gorz modified him, noting that in the highest forms of capitalism, robbery is poetry. Today, property rights seem to be considered the route to salvation. Why? Come on guys: pile on. Just what is going on in the developed world that has made these communities suddenly so undesirable?


Artful Dodger said...

I spent a few months travelling to squats in Europe. Somes friends of mine suggested the reason squats were being cracked down on now was due to the political strategies of cities in the first place. Many of the social centers around Europe were gained through entrenched street battles and social unrest, the cities were playing the battle of attrition. The city governments around Europe conceded to the squatters as a political move to pacify them. My friends were insinuating that the current generation of squatters did not know how to struggle for squats as they did in the past, and maybe the fires that fed this social phenomenon are not burning so bright these days.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it has something to do with the bigger picture?

There seem to be plans on granting property deeds to slum dwellers in some third world cities. International finance may be finds it hard to honor credit against these deeds if squatting remains strong at home.

rn said...

Thanks, artful. I'm wondering whether there's also a government policy to create controlled scarcity. Have cities deliberately kept the supply of affordable housing low? Over time, this serves to manipulate the blame pattern, making people feel competitive with squatters rather than supportive.

Also: are we dealing with the escalating expectation of profit. Back in the years when New York City builders were creating lots of middle income housing, earning 10% a year on a building was considered a solid return. Would that satisfy anyone today? Developers want more money, and they want it quick.

Finally, do you think there's any possibility of solidarity between the squatters and the immigrants currently rioting across France, whose grievances also involve the tight housing market and a deliberate government policy of ignoring their needs.

rn said...


I certainly understand the almost all-encompassing power of big capital. But in Europe we're talking about a relatively small number of buildings--most of which have been squatted in for years. It's hard to believe that international finance doesn't have other more profitable places to park its money.

Also, regarding title deeds in the developing world: studies show that banks have not lined up to offer credit to squatters who have been transformed into legal owners. Even in Peru, Hernando de Soto's great test case, squatters-turned-owners have not been able to access the capital market. It seems the banks are just not interested.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget governmental scapegoating. I think that the squat as an alternative lifestyle breeds people that think for themselves and understand to a degree that morally is not necessarily always in accordance with the law. Because of this the squatting community frequents protests sometimes political in nature. If not protesting through action I would argue that squatting itself is a form of protest. It doesn't seem unheard of that the government would connect the squats with dissidents. In order to stop freedom of thought government must limit free spaces where alternative thought can occur. Hence the gradual elimination of squats new or old. All just conjecture - Tell me what you think; and keep the squats alive!