[EN] Margit Mayer Preface to ‘Squatting in Europe’

Preface to Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Margit Mayer

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the call to squat is once
again raised more widely and acted upon with increasing frequency.
The movements of the Arab Spring and the 15M movement in Spain,
which catalyzed similar “real democracy” movements of ‘Indignados’
in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece, as well as the
Occupy movement in the US all started out with taking over – not
buildings but – public and private squares and plazas. Most of these
movements used the (re)appropriated spaces to set up tents, kitchens,
libraries, and media centers to collectively organize their assemblies
and working groups, their rallies and marches, as well as their everyday
lives in a horizontal, self-managed, and direct-democratic style. In the
process, they have transformed public spaces into commons – com-
mon spaces opened up by the occupiers who inhabit them and share
them according to their own rules. As with squatters of social centers or
large buildings, the occupied squares represent(ed) not only a collective
form of residence on the basis of shared resources, but also a politi-
cal action: in this case laying siege to centers of financial and political
power. Importantly, they have also served to explore direct-democratic
decision-making, to prefigure post-capitalist ways of life, and to de-
vise innovative forms of political action. As with squatting, the prac-
tice of occupying has enacted a democratic (re)appropriation of public
squares epitomized by their inhabitation. As with squatting, the power
of bodies that continue to be present – that don’t go home at the end
of the demonstration and that speak for themselves rather than being
represented by others – exerts a forceful message as it gives ongoing pres-
ence to political protest.

In today’s situation of the worldwide spread and the open future of
the Occupy movement, it is helpful to take some lessons from squatters’
movements as they have influenced the trajectory of many contemporary
movements and struggles. Squatting is a unique form of protest activity
that holds a potential of unfurling energies; it focuses action in a way that
is prefigurative of another mode of organizing society and challenging a
paramount institution of capitalist society: private property.

The special features of squatting

Squatting – simply defined as living in or using a dwelling without the
consent of the owner – occurs in many different circumstances, and as
such, even if it occurs with the intention of long-term use, is not neces-
sarily transformative of social relations. Most forms of stealth squatting
or other forms of deprivation-based squatting, whether carried out by
homeless people themselves or by advocate activists opening up build-
ings for destitute would-be squatters, are not part of transformative
progressive social movements.

Thus, squatting as a tactic can be used by individuals to improve
their housing situation outside of any social movement, or it can be
used, as a technique or action repertoire, by a variety of different social
movements (including right-wing movements). Of the many different
types of squatting, the one highlighted in this book is part of wider
progressive or radical social movements. This squatting movement as-
sertively operates in the open (rather than stealthily), engages in net-
working and coalition building with tenant organization and urban or
environmental and/or other social justice movements; it makes explicit
demands on the state, calling (most often) for affordable, decent hous-
ing and social centers, but also for (more or less) radical solutions to the
underlying causes of the lack of adequate housing and social infrastruc-
tures. Crucially, it uses the occupied space not only for collective living
arrangements, but also for collective self-organization and empower-
ment, in the case of the self-managed social centers for political and
counter-cultural activities.

Thus, for these movements squatting is a two-fold experience: it in-
volves, first, the actual act of civil and social disobedience, which then
allows other counter-cultural and militant practices to take hold, pre-
figurative free spaces to be built, and thick bonds of solidarity to be
forged. Horizontal and assembly-oriented forms of self-organization
and political participation are as essential to this practice as cooperative
management and direct democracy. But since the movement is also
making use of the illegal act of squatting (also as a way to draw public
attention to massive social and housing problems, the high social cost
of speculation, or the waste of public land and buildings), this chal-
lenge to the primacy of the individual right to private property puts the
movements at risk of repression, even when they enjoy broad legitimacy
and popular support. Repressive or containment strategies of the state
often force the movements to ‘choose’ either eviction or some form of
legalization. But under specific circumstances, some squatting move-
ments have been able to experiment with double track strategies and
been able to go back and forth between (or even apply simultaneously)
direct action and negotiation, most often in some kind of division of
labor between radical core groups and more moderate supporters, and
thereby managed to extend their squats and with them the infrastruc-
tures for their collective living, working, and political organizing.
Even where squats have been evicted with more or less police force,
their actions have often led to saving old buildings from being demol-
ished; in many European cities squatters movements have enhanced
political participation of tenants and residents, and led to new forms
of institutionalized participation and “careful urban renewal” instead of
“urban removal.”

Observers have also begun to identify certain patterns and waves of
squatting that correlate with movement cycles and different phases of
urban development and urban politics, shifting from fordism to neo-

What’s new about squatting in neoliberalism?

The neoliberalization of capitalism has reintroduced “accumulation
by dispossession” as a way to solve the problems of flagging capital ac-
cumulation (cf. Harvey 2005). As with original accumulation, it in-
volves the conversion of common, collective, and state forms of prop-
erty rights into exclusive private property rights and the suppression of
rights to the commons. Neoliberal forms of dispossession complement
the (intensification of) the older, time-tested forms by also chipping
away at common property rights that have been won in the course of
the Fordist class struggle (such as access to education, health care, wel-
fare, and state pensions) and reverting them to the private sector.
However, neoliberalization dissolves forms of social solidarity not
only in favor of private property, economization, and marketization,
but also in favor of unbridled individualism, personal responsibility,
and entrepreneurial activation. These latter dimensions resonate in
some ways with movement values of self-determination and empower-
ment, and with its critique of the bureaucratic and paternalistic Fordist
welfare state. In both neoliberal as well as new social movements’ vi-
sions instead of the state, individuals, communities, and voluntarism
should be playing stronger roles so as to create more vibrant societies.
Both view ‘too much state intervention’ as hindering not only personal
development and self-realization, but also societal self-regulation –
which the neoliberals, of course, prefer to see happening via the market
and economic rationality, whereas progressive movements would like to
see happening through alternative networks.

In the course of the neoliberalization of urban governance, a series
of political demands as well as organizational forms of the new social
movements have become incorporated into the neoliberal project. With
new public management and the shift from public to private and semi-
public institutions via outcontracting, not only established third-sector
but also oppositional organizations were integrated into this regime;
and with the shift from centralized to local and more differentiated
modes of decision-making, more consensus-oriented and participatory
modes found their way into local governance.

What’s more, with intensifying interurban competition, cities have
discovered cultural revitalization and creativity-led economic and ur-
ban development policies as a useful strategy to enhance their brand
and improve their global image. Becoming a ‘creative city’ is increas-
ingly seen as necessary to attract tourists, global investors, and affluent
middle and upper classes. Politicians have thus become keen to instru-
mentalize dynamic local subcultures and harness them as a competitive
advantage in the interurban rivalry. In this context, the cultural milieus
of artists and other ‘creatives’, subcultural scenes including squats and
self-managed social centers, have taken on a new function as they mark
urban space as attractive. They charge them with cultural capital, which
in the scheme of ‘creative city’ policy then becomes transformed by
investors into economic capital.

Clever urban politicians harness the cultural production that goes
on in squatted centers as branding assets that contribute to the image of
‘cool cities,’ ‘happening places’ or sub-cultural magnets. Many German
cities offer contracts for interim use of urban space (see for Berlin’s
example Colomb 2012), while Dutch cities have created a so-called
‘Breeding Grounds’ policy in order to “maintain and recreate the cul-
tural functions previously performed by large squats” (Owens 2008,

Not just in Holland, but also in the UK, an industry of anti-squat
agencies has sprung up, where interim use of vacant private property is
managed on the owners’ behalf on the basis of “guardian angel” con-
tracts that require payment of utilities but not rent, and that strictly
control the rights of the temporary tenants: they are in a very weak legal
position, the agencies barely respect their privacy, often neither visitors
nor pets are allowed; the tenants may be prohibited from contacting
the press, and they can be evicted with 14 days’ notice. About ten times
more vacant spaces in Holland are occupied by such “anti-squatters”
than by actual squatters thanks to this clever commercial strategy, and
in spite of the infringements of the residents’ rights, most appear to ap-
preciate living in high-value central city real estate (cf. Priemus 2011;
Buchholz 2011).

Neoliberal urban policies thus on the one hand manage to hijack
and incorporate alternative and subcultural activism including the cre-
ativity of squatters (who, in the process, may find it difficult to main-
tain their political autonomy), while on the other they entail intensify-
ing repressive strategies, stricter laws, tougher policing, and hence more
evictions and fiercer criminalization of squatting. Often local authori-
ties implement both strategies simultaneously, which tends to sharpen
the differences among and create collisions between cultural and politi-
cal squatters. As a result, radical political action and alternative cultural
production that before had been part and parcel of the same move-
ment increasingly become differentiated and sometimes even opposed
to each other. Such processes can be observed in all European cities,
and have accelerated in the wake of the economic crisis, which has
provided a rationale for dismantling alternative infrastructures and for
cutting back on funding for self-organized projects of all kinds – at the
same time as neoliberal urban regeneration and hyper-gentrification of
central city land accelerates displacement pressures and threatens leftist
“free zones” and alternative infrastructures, seeking to displace them
with trendy bars, chic new designer stores, and expensive condos.
This hostile environment has been making radical oppositional poli-
tics far more challenging than in the past.

Even while critical of neoliberal urban policies and resisting ‘creative
city’ programs, the activities of squatters often end up contributing to
upgrading and valorizing such contested urban areas – the more so
where cultural experimentation has displaced political radicalism. At
the same time, demands for self-management and self-realization have
lost their radical edge, as participation and self-management have be-
come essential ingredients of sub-local regeneration programs as well
as in the public discourse (if with the purpose of encouraging activa-
tion and self-responsibilization rather than political empowerment). In
this situation, struggles for the recognition and legalization of auton-
omous squats are taking on a qualitatively new political significance.
Withdrawing these spaces from neoliberal utilization for profit-making
and disrupting the private property-based logic of capitalist urban-
ization puts the struggle over the proper conception of rights on the
agenda. And claiming the currently secondary rights – such as the right
to economic security, education, or housing, the right to organize,
or rights to freedom of speech and expression – as primary over and
against the right to individual private property and profit, would “entail
a revolution” (Harvey 2006: 57) because the latter is essential to capital
accumulation as the dominant process shaping our lives.

The more people comprehend the logic of this system the more they
see housing being speculated upon while their own access to adequate
shelter becomes precarious. Claiming housing as a right has a great po-
tential to win mass support. Once that argument has entered the collec-
tive imagination (re)appropriating vacant buildings becomes a logical
and defensible next step.

New opportunities opened up through the
crisis and through Occupy

The financial crisis created a situation, where more people are with-
out (adequate) housing, while more than enough buildings owned by
the 1% sit vacant awaiting better yields. The “market” as well as the
political and legal system favor those owners and stigmatize those who
struggle to find shelter. In this situation, occupying is not only the logi-
cal response, but is increasingly resorted to, politicizing previously apo-
litical squats by foreclosed and homeless people.

After their eviction from squares and plazas all over the US, the
Occupy movement has fanned out into neighborhoods to (re)claim
abandoned and foreclosed properties for ordinary people. The Spanish
15M movement, after it was pushed off the Puerta del Sol in Madrid,
joined community groups and came to the defense of homes threatened
by foreclosure, occupied an abandoned hotel and more than 30 build-
ings, and secured, through negotiations with the federal government,
a vacant tobacco factory and turned them into social and community
centers. “Occupy the ‘hood!” became a new rallying cry, spin-off or-
ganizations (such as Organize4Occupation, O4O – with the second
O crossed through with the squatting sign) were formed, direct action
events at bailed-out banks and the physical presence of Occupiers at
threatened buildings have prevented evictions, and re-taken and refur-
bished homes, while other actions have disrupted auction sales of fore-
closed houses.

With these actions, new connections are forged between the Occupy
movement and community-based groups that have been resisting evic-
tions and displacement for a long time, lending more visibility to those
struggles. As these campaigns become more coordinated, they scale up
local struggles, turning them into regional movements that protest the
same banks at the same time or go to each others’ rallies; and partici-
pants increasingly see themselves as part of national and international

SQEK and this book

Mainstream research has paid scarce attention to the unfolding of
squatting movements, their dynamics, their differences, their transfor-
mations, let alone their new challenges. With careful observation and
analyses of squatting movements and the development of self-managed
social centers in a variety of European cities this book provides a huge
treasure trove of insight into the differentiated experiences, path-
specific developments, internal operations, unique achievements and
challenges of the politics of occupying – from the period of Fordist
growth via deindustrialization and urban restructuring all the way to
the current neoliberal era and austerity politics. With an emphasis on
comparative research and the involving of activists in the research, the
Squatting Europe Kollektiv has chosen the most productive methodol-
ogy to push our understanding of this extremely important yet under-
researched movement.

Several chapters in this book do a great job identifying the radical
and transformative potential of those squatting movements that chal-
lenge the neoliberal market logic and are political while at the same
time providing movement infrastructures. Especially the large squats
that serve as (self-managed) social centers along with places of resi-
dence (integrating counter-cultural, political and productive activities)
and that strengthen the political activities of the local movements, are
analyzed in order to comprehend how they offer not merely spaces for
performances, happenings, concerts, exhibits, community organizing,
and homes, but also for organizing protest and political events, and
how they manage to be open not just to movements and the alternative
scenes, but also to urban residents beyond those circles, which allows
them to serve as “recruiting” spaces.

Much still needs to be better understood – about the containment
strategies of the authorities, the management strategies of the squats
themselves, the local and global sides of this movement and its relation-
ship to the anti-globalization and Occupy movements. But the chap-
ters brought together in this book by the Squatting Europe Kollektiv
provide an excellent base for gaining a better understanding of these
questions and for building the power of this movement, by researchers
and activists together.


Buchholz, Tino (2011). Creativity and the capitalist city. The struggle for afford-
able space in Amsterdam (film) http://www.creativecapitalistcity.org/
Christie, Les (2011). Occupy protesters take over foreclosed homes,
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Colomb, Claire (forthcoming 2012). “Pushing the urban frontier: temporary
uses of space, city marketing, and the creative city discourse in 2000s
Berlin,” Journal of Urban Affairs.
Gabbat, Adam and Ryan Devereux (2011). “Wall Street protesters to occupy
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