You are currently viewing Nazima Kadir, The Autonomous Life? Paradoxes of hierarchy and authority in the squatters movement in Amsterdam

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016; 216pp; ISBN 9781784994112

This book, developed from Kadir’s PhD research in the squatter scene in Amsterdam, tackles the issue of unspoken hierarchies within anarchist groups and movements. This is a very worthwhile topic, and some of Kadir’s descriptions are very insightful. However, the useful aspects of the book are obscured by Kadir’s positioning as a researcher, which generates some troubling undercurrents.

A condensed version of Kadir’s research appeared as a chapter in The City Is Ours (van der Steen, et al (eds) 2014) which was reviewed in Issue 1 of The Just Books Review. In that review, particular offence was taken to Kadir’s typology of squatters and its open disdain for punks. This anti-punk stance is on display again in The Autonomous Life (which perhaps predisposes this reviewer to a less-than-favourable response) – but the book contains other objectionable aspects as well. Even though Kadir spent some three-and-a-half years amongst the Amsterdam squatters, she deliberately maintains an outsider research position and does not share the political ideals of her ‘anthropological subjects’. For example, class is a recurrent theme throughout the book, and is one of the core ‘paradoxes’ identified by Kadir, in that people from non-working class backgrounds are involved in a movement struggling to create and embody a classless society. However, the uncritical regurgitation of liberal sociological distinctions results in a muddy class analysis. For example, terms such as ‘upper-middle-class’ (p. 142) and ‘lower-middle-class’ (p. 146) are used without any critique or explanation, and in Kadir’s class schema ‘bourgeois’ and ‘upper-class’ are used interchangeably (p. 120). The influence of class background in the interpersonal dynamics of the squatters is interesting, and speaks usefully to debates around privilege, but the ‘class identities’ here are surmised from tenuous evidence. This lack of nuanced critique is symptomatic of Kadir’s fundamental lack of engagement with the underlying motivating principles of the squatters, and results in a superficial, disinterested analysis.

Kadir discusses sexual gossip at length, with some insightful description of its deployment, especially in relation to the sexual partners of ‘squatter bosses’. But again, Kadir’s lack of engagement with the ideas behind the squatting movement results in some jarring comments – such as Kadir’s identification of one squatter as ‘Jennifer (who is obese)’ (p. 124), with this ‘obesity’ held up as proof that she is lying about having had sex with a ‘squatter boss’ (!). The main concept here, ‘the homosocial’, rests on pseudo-Freudian analysis and, in contrast to the more grounded descriptions elsewhere in the book, comes across as an academic flight of fancy. By far the most harrowing episode is Kadir’s deliberate and calculated ‘bullying out’ (p. 157) of numerous inhabitants of a squat in which she was living. Kadir is candid about her (frankly appalling) behaviour, but rather than express regret, she concludes that this is proof of ‘the necessity for leadership within a squat’ (p. 158) – though the logic for this, if there is any, is unexplained.

Kadir’s cynical analysis is only fleetingly broken towards the very end of the book, with a brief recognition of the ‘unspoken ideal … [and] practice of quotidian solidarity’ (p. 202). She even appreciates that her stay in the Amsterdam squatter scene was enriched with this everyday display of anarchistic solidarity, despite failing to show the same to those she ‘bullied out’. The otherwise insensitive representation of the squatters stems from a lack of engagement with their core motivations. There are insightful moments here, but they are undercut by this fundamental flaw.

Jim Just Books

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ben Shu

    While there has been a lot of reactions to this book, your review stands out mainly because you a seem to have the attention span to actually read it (parts of it anyway)

    Yet, like with many others, it seem to be mainly the title that has caught your attention. And while those ‘unspoken hierarchies within anarchist groups and movements’ are indeed described in the book, they are by no means at the
    discursive center as a problem to be ‘tackled’. In fact , they seem to be (painfully obviously) far more a problem for you and the many others with so called ‘anarchist politics’, notably not so much when they occur in real
    life, but mainly when they are described and discussed publicly.

    I keep wondering, what those true adherents of such ‘anarchist politics’ believe those anarchist politics to be. Is it really the warts and all believe that anybody who sews an circled A on their outfit and is willing to do
    direct action to defend their ‘right’ not to have to clean up their mess should be extended furthermore unquestioned ‘solidarity’ towards them ? Or those shaking their fist while smuggling cheap drinks into bars but would not
    muster the discipline to set up an autonomous venue and clean it every night ? And their doggies on a string to be sure ?

    I find it quite disturbing that any effective critique is not in first instance perceived as a welcome dialectic challenge, but a sacrilege like betrayal of sort, especially when , like in the case of the book, it’s not even
    formulated as such. Why is an accurate analytic description of social relations within this group immediately perceived as a threat ? And why is it namely that part that sticks out for you ?

    Reading the ethnography (available copyleft, like any publication by an author with real Anarchist politics should be), I found that it starts at the dodgy fringes (your ‘punk’ bodies), moving towards the description of a quite
    formidable group of ‘socially central’ activists, whose range of political action goes way beyond organizing a pissup or sheltering temporarily in abandoned buildings. Their core skill ( the author describes it as ‘strategic
    manipulation ) being the conquest of narrative terrain in mainstream public opinion ( the press, neighbourhood groups, even political parties ) while using the full range of direct action supported propaganda of action as a TOOL
    to achieve that political goal, rather than a life style.

    From there things fall into place so to say: how such skills are indeed based on a wider range of the social profiles of those developing them. How that fact is not really discussed internally BECAUSE it might shatter the illusion
    of an achieved ‘classless society’, how that may or may not stand in the way of making such skills available to be acquired by people from DIFFERENT backgrounds, but how they are, whatever the reason is some people have them and
    others not, essential to the success of the actions and (finally) how they lead to a hierarchy based on competency. Not to mention the rather awkward attempts to talk about them in weird euphemisms (including gossip).

    What strikes me in all this: how come that those skills which are portrayed rightly as ESSENTIAL to the success of the movement and not even mentioned in your review ? Maybe because you do not have any such skills and do not
    really understand what they are ?

    Last not least: all through you blog, you appear to decorate yourself with the the symbolism and name of the FAI. One wonders: how would your punk friends look like in the light of the moral rigor and revolutionary disciple that
    the FAI promoted ?

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