Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013; 274pp; ISBN 9781570272578
& Oakland: PM Press, 2014; 313pp; ISBN 9781604866834
These two edited volumes share a remarkably similar focus on the contemporary squatting movement in Europe, and both profess to examine it from an autonomist-Marxist perspective. Happily, the majority of the contributors across both volumes are, or have been, active in squatting movements, so there is a wealth of nuance and great depth of understanding on display throughout. The Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK) offer a collection of sociological analyses of squatting in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and England, while The City Is Ours (TCIO) deals with oft-researched squatting contexts such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, and London alongside less-famous squat locales such as Brighton, Poznań, Athens, and Vienna. The spread of contexts in TCIO is arguably stronger, since in the SqEK volume, aside from some mentions of East Berlin, the Eastern European squatting experience is largely absent. TCIO also benefits from more timely and contemporary contributions, with each chapter offering a history of the subject city’s squatting movement, generally starting from the 1960s or 1970s (though the squatting history of the Polish city of Poznań starts as late as 1994, owing to the particular history of Soviet-sphere communism there), but concluding with contemporary perspectives right up to 2012. In Squatting in Europe however, six of the chapters have been previously published elsewhere – only four are actually newly available here, and some of the reprinted articles are very dated as a result. For example Pierpaulo Mudu’s chapter was published in 2004 (nine years before this volume!), and in other instances the data being analysed dates back to the late-1990s (the empirical data collected for both Florence Bouillon’s and Miguel A. Martinez López’s chapters began in 1998). Lynn Owens’s and ETC Dee’s chapters at least grope their way towards timeliness with information from early 2011, but many of the other case studies are around ten years old. But while The City Is Ours is more contemporary and addresses a wider range of European contexts, the SqEK volume does usefully bring together a body of work that serves to illuminate some of the common challenges faced by squatters across Western Europe, as well as identifying the peculiar contexts of various countries.
The Squatting Europe Kollective write that they are interested in how ‘academic boundaries [can be] continuously crossed’ (SiE, p 274) to ‘shed light on [the repression of squatting in European countries] through the analysis of its different sides, contributions and involve[ment in] social conflicts’ (SiE, p 273), which takes the form of what they term, ‘necessary scientific intervention into current political debates’ (SiE, p 273). This emphasis on science is very apparent. Most of the chapters are laden with typologies, configurations, lists, and tables – which is par-for-the-course in many sociological approaches – but this often detracts from the analytical content. In particular, Thomas Aguilera’s chapter on Parisian squats includes one diagram (SiE, p 217) which is an utterly unintelligible mangle of boxes, axes, lines, and arrows. Another of his figures (over which Aguilera asserts copyright, by the way) is a pie-chart which is rendered useless by being coloured entirely in one shade of grey. In fairness, this latter problem is probably more attributable to a printing/editing error than to impenetrable diagram-fetishism. The City Is Ours is less affected by scientific-minded sociological approaches, though Nazima Kadir’s chapter provides at least one instance of a neat scientific typology being imposed onto the squatting movement in Amsterdam (TCIO, chapter one), which includes the categories ‘crusty punks’ and ‘baby punks.’ According to Kadir, crusty punks are ‘lazy, disorganised, unreliable, and irresponsible’ but are valuable to the movement because of their ‘willingness to participate in potentially violent actions [and] their enthusiasm for rioting’ (TCIO, p 56), while ‘baby punks’ are ostensibly similar to crusties, but are younger and apparently choose not to wash out of political commitment, rather than sheer crusty laziness. Kadir contrasts these awful punks with the hippies, who benefit from a ‘gentler and kinder demeanour [which] distinguishes them from punks’ (TCIO p 57). Any typology which includes such absurdly sweeping generalisations is likely to raise an eyebrow or two, but perhaps this bare-faced bigotry against punks is preferable to the studied ignorance displayed by the likes of Alex Vasudevan’s chapter on Berlin (TCIO, chapter four), which mentions punk just once.
Vasudevan also manages to get through twenty-two pages without mentioning anarchism at all. The SqEK volume suffers from a similar lack of engagement with anarchism. While the spectre of anarchism inevitably appears in many of the chapters, the authors tend to skirt around it with vague nods to squatting as ‘anarchistic’ (SiE, Holm and Kuhn, p 170) or even with unexplained terms such as ‘neo-anarchism’ (SiE, Martinez López, p 130). Rather, squatting is recast here, for the most part, as a manifestation of autonomist-Marxist politics, while anarchism is heavily downplayed. For example, Martinez López’s examination of Spanish squats identifies ‘a common magma of libertarian and autonomous principles … [in] promoting an assembly-orientated self-organisation independent of political parties, trade unions and more formalised organisations’ (SiE, p 125). This ‘magma of principles’ might be more obviously read as classic anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist tenets (though perhaps that is what is meant by ‘libertarian’). In a more explicit example he argues that during the post-Franco ‘transition’ and ‘post-transition’ periods in Spain anarchist trade unions ‘adopted’ ideas such as libertarian organisation, assemblies, direct democracy, consensus, anti-authoritarianism, and direct action (SiE, p 130). To suggest that the likes of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) stumbled upon these basic anarchist underpinnings in the aftermath of the fascist dictatorship is erroneous at best, and wilfully misleading at worst. While it cannot be denied that explicitly autonomist squats do exist (especially in Italy), and that the autonomist perspective on squatting is certainly a useful and interesting one, the lack of a meaningful engagement with European squatting’s anarchist tendencies seems like a substantial omission. The editors of The City Is Ours, as mentioned above, also approach squatting from an autonomist-Marxist perspective. But, while autonomist-Marxist analyses and vocabularies are strongly emphasised in the book’s preface (by George Katsiaficas), foreword (by Geronimo) and introduction (by the editors: van der Steen, Katzeff, and van Hoogenhuijze), many of the case study chapters actually undermine this framing with a very much looser definition of ‘autonomous’ or an explicitly anarchist focus. Anyone who has spent any time in European squats will be aware of the preponderance of anarchist imagery, ethics, and practices within their walls.
There is, of course, plenty of scope for overlap between autonomous and anarchist politics (the terms are used interchangeably at some points in TCIO), and the squatting movement is not associated exclusively with one political approach. The diversity of the squatting movement’s politics are reflected in Josh MacPhee’s cover art for The City Is Ours, with the anarchist circled-A and Marxist hammer-and-sickle alongside symbols for anti-fascism, Crass, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, veganism, a clenched fist, and a raised middle finger. MacPhee is also responsible for the book layout, and the stylish two-page photo spreads and series of smaller images embedded within the text really convey an appreciation of the European squatter aesthetic and the vibrancy of the movement, while providing a useful sense of scale (of the squatted buildings and police repression – both usually massive). The overall presentation of Squatting in Europe is less ‘slick’ than The City Is Ours, with many of the chapters littered with typographical errors and clunky phrasing. This might be excused since many of the contributors are writing in a second language, but in one instance (SiE, p 70) the description tag from a table on the previous page reappears smack in the middle of a totally unrelated sentence. However, many of the chapters are very well written indeed, and even where blunders are obvious, this need not diminish the value of the content. That said, a thorough proofing might have picked up on these kinds of errors.
Squatting in Europe is a highly enjoyable book, written and edited by people with an obvious passion for the movement. The publisher, Minor Compositions, also deserves high praise for making the whole thing freely available online. It’s always refreshing to see an academic publisher putting their money (or lack thereof) where their mouth is. (Visit www.minorcompositions.info to access the pdf). The City Is Ours offers a better general overview of European squatting than SqEK’s Squatting in Europe, largely because the autonomist-Marxist focus is far less exclusive, but is also because the case studies present a wider range of contexts (Piotrowski’s chapter on Poznań is especially enlightening) and are much more contemporary and timely (this is especially apparent in discussion of squats in London and Brighton in the wake of the UK’s 2012 anti-squatting legislation). Of course, anyone with an especially keen interest in European squats will likely read both volumes, but for a fuller engagement with the anarchist underpinnings of most squats, a wider range of contexts, and more contemporary material The City Is Ours is recommended, despite not being freely available.
Jim Just Books
(separate reviews of these books previously appeared in
Anarchist Studies 23.3 and 24.1)
Both books are available in the Just Books Library!