[EN] Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective
Claudio Cattaneo

In the light of the present energy, climate and economic cri-
ses, it is important to consider the relationship between the ideals of
the autonomous squatting movement and the practical effects that its
activity have in terms of reduced material and energy consumption and
of economic performance.

This article highlights the ecological economics of the squatting com-
munity. To a large extent independent from capitalism, wage labour and
monetary circulation, it is based more on self-organization, mutual aid,
recycling, use of renewable energies and renewable materials; as well, agro-
ecological practices and permaculture principles are applied when pos-
sible. This system, partially independent from financial and man-made
capital, is based on human and natural capital and it can work beyond
capitalistic market arrangements: a type of social ecology (Bookchin,
1997) where the central element is the material environment (be it a city
or the rural and natural countryside) and where people are not separate
because they form part of this living environment.

Going further with this intuition, this article also shows that squat-
ting goes beyond urban movements. As a result of urban growth, an
exodus that has left many rural tenures abandoned, combined with
radical ideals, are the base of the neorural movement which, in many
cases, takes the characteristics of rural squatting. This allows even better
the development of a natural economy.

The principles of squatting rely on political motivations (Martinez-
Lopez, 2002), squatters are related to counter-culture and radical poli-
tics (Prujit, 2004) and the phenomenon, largely present and sometimes
even institutionalized within Western societies, forms part of autono-
mous and political social movements. The underlying hypothesis is that
squatters, because of their radical political vision, want to get free from
certain forms of capitalist control -for example from being employed
on a routine base, or from paying a mortgage to a bank, but also by
keeping some anonymity over the internet. By doing so, they learn
how to satisfy their needs with a great degree of autonomy from the
conventional patterns of paying for rent, of needing a paid job, of con-
suming and spending money. The thesis I defend is that while urban
squatters are to a large extent autonomous from money, rural squatters,
who satisfy most of their needs directly from the surrounding natural
environment, also achieve higher degrees of autonomy from the system
of man-made products. In this way both urban and rural squatters pro-
vide a micro model for local solutions to the ecological and economic
crises such as making the best use of urban waste materials, skipping
for food, developing ingenious DIY applications, promoting coopera-
tion, sharing know-how, practising mutual aid, farming with organic
agriculture, integrated ecosystem management, sharing of experiences
in communal life and challenges in its organization. All these solutions
can be considered social innovations: alternative to many technological
innovations, which increasingly depend on complex artificial systems,
social innovations stem from within personal capacities and social or-
ganization, which is particularly relevant in those cases where the sense
of community is stronger.

In synthesis my positive argument is that, stemming from the politi-
cal, there are further levels of autonomy that squatters can achieve; my
normative argument aims at the inclusion of these experiences within
the spectrum of sustainable solutions both innovative, resilient and
practical against the ecological and economic crises.

Throughout this article I will make wide use of an little known
expression: technically speaking, rather than “economy” – which is
generally too often understood only in relation with money, markets
and capitalist accumulation – it is proper to talk of oikonomy. This, in
Ancient Greek terms means “management of the house/community”,
for Aristotles it represented “the art of living well”. Polanyi (1944) also
considered the distinction between the familiar embedded economy
and the socially disembedded market economy. In the former, typical of
pre-industrial non-capitalist societies, the economy must be considered
in a substantive way, in the sense that it simply looks at how material
needs are met in relation to the social and natural environment, and
where the formal economic principles – such as utility maximisation
or scarcity – cannot apply. Similarly, Weber (1905) considered that the
self-interested acquisitive economy based on rational utility maximiza-
tion was strongly influenced by the Calvinist religious belief oriented
towards the duty of diligent application in labour and of self-restraint
in consumption, with a result in unprecedented capitalist accumula-
tion. On the other hand Oikonomics is only a means to an end, namely
need-satisfaction for a good life; money can be useful, but the squatting
example shows that is not fundamental for a good life. For instance,
rather than selling most of their time on the labour market and rather
than participating in the competitive capitalistic system, when possible
squatters directly employ their time to satisfy their own needs; they do
so by using and developing their own social and personal capacities as
well as by making the best use of the materials supplied by their local
environment, be it urban waste or renewable natural resources.

From this oikonomic perspective it is important to acknowledge
that the squatting movement includes rural phenomenon. The study
of rural squatting is now particularly interesting because, due to the
growing energy and economic crisis, life in the cities – largely based
on non-renewable resources (like agro-industrial food production and
long food miles) – will become more difficult. It is likely that the right
to the land and the issue of how to access it will gain increasing im-
portance. Reclaim the fields! is the example of an autonomous rural
movement recently raising across Europe (www.reclaimthefields.org).
As fossil fuels become extremely expensive, the present global territorial
structure based on urban growth could radically change while living
alternatives, based on renewable energies, re-localized economies and
land exploitation for subsistence purposes will likely become more fre-
quent. To this extent, the practice of rural squatting can well represent
a degrowth society, in which Latouche’s “8 Rs” – namely re-evaluate, re-
conceptualize, re-structure, re-localize, re-distribute, reduce, re-use and
recycle – are manifest. In case of an enduring economic crisis, access to
both a roof and a land represents an opportunity which can allow for
the satisfaction of basic needs with a higher degree of autonomy from
the global economic system: working the land is in fact a source of self-
employment and of natural income. For the future, it is likely that the
urban movements will be joined by rural movements in their social and
political struggles against the respective powerful elites, being bourgeois
or aristocratic.

The rest of the article develops as follows: section 2 presents the
theoretical legacy of squatters’ life-styles and their main characteris-
tics. Starting from the moral motivation towards not paying for rent,
it explains how less money is employed for need satisfaction and why
this behaviour is low-impact, therefore, ecological. Section 3 is a novel
contribution from an Iberian case-study presenting how different rural
squats and neorural communities are collectively managed and orga-
nized across two dimensions:
1. the line between monetary and non-monetary oikonomy and
2. the line between personal economies and communal integra-

In fact communal living can assume different characteristics so that
different degrees of communitarianism and of autonomy – namely,
from the money and from the system of man-made production – are
exposed. The case shows that neorural ideals behind these real-life expe-
riences tend towards the communitarian rural way of life and towards
organic agriculture principles related to material autonomy. Section 4,
finally, offers some insights over the steps that follow political auton-
omy and that differ between urban, rurban and neorural squat com-

This work is the result of participant observation (Cattaneo, 2006
and 2008) during nearly a decade, in which I have been participating
as an academic observer, but primarily as a member of the Barcelona
squatting community and of the Iberian neorural movement.

1. A side effect of squatting:
money-free, low-impact living and
communitarian organization

Among themselves squatters build links not mediated by tradi-
tional parental or social-class rules nor by the market. These links are
extended to the outside social and ecological environment, be it the
local neighbourhood, larger urban movements or the local territory
in rural areas.

Although a rising evidence of urban sites squatted for gardening
shows that the rural phenomenon is entering into the hearth of the cit-
ies, urban squatters’ main occupation does not relate to the work of the
land – they live in the midst of a metropolis, with other political, social
and subsistence priorities. However, their economy has a small envi-
ronmental impact because they tend to shun the market and the mate-
rial impacts associated to market production and distribution. Rather
than buying new products, they prefer to recycle goods and materials,
eventually they buy second-hand; they show a set of ethics opposed to
consumerism, beginning from the fact that they “recycle” abandoned
buildings – in which to live or carry on social activities – and that they
reform them employing simple tools, primary materials and voluntary
semi-professional work.

In contrast with the modern tendency that could be restated as
“become independent, live by yourself, be free”, urban squatters live
instead in a community and consider independence at another level.
They do not need to depend on banks, real estate business or a paid job;
rather, they develop their personal capacities and promote cooperation
within the squat and the local community. They make extensive use of
natural oikonomic means more than monetary or financial ones. To the
extent possible, they also grow their own food and collect rainwater.

Theoretical legacies to autonomous life-styles.

If the conventional economy is characterised by a production side and
a consumption side –supply and demand – which are connected by ex-
ternal and often impersonal markets, in the squatting oikonomy these
elements tend to melt into the same, into a micro embedded economy
as Karl Polanyi (1944) named it. If market action is characterised by
self-organisation, this primarily refers to human processes: the market
is said to be self-organized because there are human beings behind it
acting accordingly to their own interests. The principles of self-organi-
zation however, do also apply to cooperative and social processes such
as squatting or autonomous social movements, and where individual
interest of the market agent is substituted by the communal interest of
the collective.

The squatting self-organized oikonomy is nothing more than a return
to pre-capitalist origins, where market exchange is fairly limited and
is often sought as barter, with face-to-face relationships and common
trust dominating the transactions. Primarily, it is a return to household
modes of production and -in the urban gardens and neo-rural cases- to
communal land management. These are historical economic institu-
tions which are independent from the market and from private or state
property. The original point of squatters’ economies, particularly urban
ones, is to live next to the market and yet to be capable of reviving
an alternative economic system, typical of a time when competitive
economic dynamics were only marginal aspects of life. Neorurals’ and
squatters’ organizations have similarities with Malinowski’s (1922) gift
economy and Sahlins’s (1974) Domestic Mode of Production and re-
late to Becker’s (1976) theory of allocation of time and Kropotkin’s
(1915) biological and historical analysis of mutual aid as a factor of
evolution in social life. The key to understanding these processes is to
consider them as a self-organised bio-economy.

“Tornallom” is a Valencian farmer’s expression which literally means
“return the back” and constitutes the reciprocal exchange of physical
work: “one day you help me, another day I will help you”: this physi-
cal effort, which serves the oikonomic purpose, becomes the reciprocal
currency, without the need of money. This need is an indicator of in-
sufficiency, as opposed to self-sufficiency, with respect to access to the
skills and means that are required for subsistence production for a good
life. Money, originally a concrete means to ease the exchange of goods
and services, within the capitalistic economy and the dominance of
the financial dimension becomes immaterial, more artificial and, there-
fore, impersonal. Its counterpart, a remunerated job, also does so when
is related to alienating economic processes such as the industrial ones
applied both in factories and in farming. The means employed in pro-
duction and the working environment adapted to their optimal func-
tioning are increasingly artificial. In Tools for Conviviality Ivan Illich
highlighted the impossibility of certain complex technologies and of
related production systems to be good for a convivial and well-lived
life (Illich, 1973). Georgescu-Roegen, one of the fathers of Ecological-
Economics, argued that more social inequalities among workers, and
among citizens who can or cannot afford certain consumption patterns,
are a consequence of the ecologically unsustainable industrial economic
processes. He therefore added a political issue to the ecological one
(Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).

On the other hand, the squatters’ self-organised bio-economy is
based on a political reasoning in line to the above mentioned intellec-
tual criticisms, and closely related to the independence of their thought
from the mass behaviour that industrial economic processes promote.
As Marcuse (1954) already sought in his One Dimensional Man, self-
determination of needs and their satisfaction is an act of freedom,
which also seeks to improve autonomy against external control (be this
at the work place or in the determination of standardised living pat-
terns). Moreover, this independence of thought reaches the extreme
point where squatters – if this is coherent with their ideals – are ready
to commit a crime. Direct action and civil disobedience can be traced
back to David Thoreau (1849). Squatters’ independent ethical base is
the necessary condition to be ready to commit the crime of squatting.
The sufficient condition is to be collectively organised towards mutual
political support and to be able to resist repression. By not paying rent
and through collective organization, the doors to a radically different
lifestyle are opened.

The case against paying rent:
the Spanish evidence of real estate speculation

Squatting alien property is a criminal act. However, dignified hous-
ing -which is a democratic right- is still far from common people’s pos-
sibilities, with increasing rent prices that make housing extremely ex-
pensive, so that most life-time needs to be sold on the labour market,
creating a spiral towards individualism, monetary dependency and a
scarcity of free time.

Here follow six statements (Taller contra la Violencia Inmobiliaria y
Urbanisitca, 2006) showing the temporal trend in some aspects of the
“housing question” in Spain.

1. From 1960 to 2005, the percentage of flats for rent of the total
decreased from 40% to 10%.
2. In 1973, 34% of new housing constructions were destined to
be an officially protected home (VPO), but in 2005 it was only
3. While in 1997 industrial credit was 3.3 times more than real
estate credit, in 2005 the credit to the real estate market became
higher than credit to industry.
4. From 1990 to 2004, the average debt of a home increased from
45% to 60%. This means that lenders – mainly banks – virtu-
ally own the majority of the value of all Spanish homes.
5. From 1997 to 2005, the average cost of a flat increased 150%
while average salaries increased only 34.5%. This means that in
one generation (1980-2005) the price of a home equivalent to
lifetime salary increased from 14 months to 14 years.
6. The price of land as a share of the final price of a house in-
creased, between 1985 and 2005, from 25% to 55%. In par-
ticular, banks own 350 million m2 in Spain.

Facing this trend, many people would claim that leaving abandoned
properties, although protected by the law, is an immoral act. However,
squatters also have the capacity to do something against it, by free-
ing spaces for the development of collective living and social projects
which, in turn, allows them the possibility of free time away from the
labour market.

An opposite spiral is created towards the free collective development
of personal capacities and of social capital. A non-consumerist life-style
is likely to occur where not only homes and spaces for social centres
are recycled, but also food, clothes and many other objects that can be
somehow useful. Do-it-yourself becomes the leitmotif of a squatter’s

An explanation of how squatting allows living with less

The following explanation is an oikonomic analysis focusing on money
only as a means and on need-satisfaction as the real goal. The hypoth-
esis is that time availability and different ways to employ is the main
means of production available to all. Time can be sold on the labour-
market – in exchange for money – or can be employed directly for the
satisfaction of needs. All humans have the same basic needs, Maslow
(1954) and Max-Neef (1992, 1993 and 1995) dealt with this argu-
ment. Although what is defined as a basic need varies over time and
space, what is required for survival are the physiological ones (i.e. food,
sleeping) and basic material ones (i.e. a shelter, clothes); then there are
immaterial ones that might, or might not be satisfied through market
or material consumption: in fact needs, particularly immaterial ones,
are satisfied in different ways: how are squatters’ needs met? How do
they get them from outside the market? What is their material nature?
How do they employ their personal and collective working time? This
deep economic issue, central to tackling the ecological crisis, will be
presented here and, with respect to neorural communities, in the next

With respect to conventional lifestyles, squatters adopt several time-
viable non-money alternatives. The first and foremost is housing: with-
in a single night, a squatter can have a home that can last from a few
hours only to -in the best cases- several years. With some luck, a lot of
time and money are saved from paying a landlord or a bank’s mortgage;
the financial costs of squatting mainly refer to the materials required to
refurbish the place and to the legal costs.

The ecological economics of squatting can be said to be free from
barriers to exit from the labour market. Rent is in fact such a big over-
head cost that make it almost impossible for an average person to live
without constant monetary income, which makes the sale of labour
time a very relevant aspect in a person’s life.

Individualism in society and nuclear families of, on average 2 or
3 members, make life more expensive because of the many overheads
that cannot be shared. On the other hand, living in relatively large
communities of around 10 people or more – which is quite common
in many urban and rural squats – allow for economies of scale: costs
are reduced when things are done or purchased in bulk. Therefore,
household economies of scale are guaranteed by the division of ac-
tivities over a large number of community members to contribute to
time-use efficiency in household tasks. For instance in Can Masdeu, a
20-people rurban squat in the hills of Barcelona, communal living im-
plies cooking a meal once a week/fortnight, food shopping once a year,
working to raise money for the communal economy twice a year in a
group of four, working another 10 hours per week maintaining the or-
chard, house and/or social centre, etc. One person is in charge of buy-
ing food, one of keeping the accounts and paying the bills (telephone,
internet, vehicles insurance, magazine subscriptions, etc.), three are in
charge of the orchards, another of organizing household maintenance
and cleaning tasks, six are dedicated to the social centre, community
gardens and environmental educational activities.

Common to many squats is the provision of a “free-shop” where
unwanted clothes can be freely left or taken; the setting up and the
maintenance of home-made squat infrastructure (electricity, water,
kitchen, sanitation, furniture) is very diverse because normally different
people, with a wide range of skills and knowledge, have contributed
to it: no-one has to know each and every skill but still has the poten-
tial to learn them all. No professional services are paid to set-up and
maintain a housing project or a social centre. Moreover, the peculiar
economies of scale enjoyed in a community allow the services provided
by such infrastructure to be enjoyed by many: for instance, not only is
setting up a kitchen is cheaper because it is done with voluntary work
and employing basic tools and materials, but its costs are divided over
a larger number of persons who share it; the same is true for vehicles
which, far from being status-symbols, are used for transportation and
are commonly shared by a larger amount of people. While mainstream
culture is based on individualism, associated to the idea of indepen-
dence, collective organization represents an enriching alternative from
the personal point of view, with positive side benefits in terms of living
with less money and, consequently, with a lower ecological impact.

The third relevant aspect of a squat’s oikonomy is its upstream inte-
gration of production processes (do-it-yourself). This means that rather
than buying a product, this or parts of it can be self-produced. For in-
stance bread is self-produced and only flour is bought. Home and social
centre infrastructures are self-assembled and self-installed (provided the
technical know-how): only the materials are required, and might be
freely recycled from the urban environment. Because its members have
the know-how and the basic skills of a welder, a carpenter, a farmer, a
painter, a mechanic, a plumber, a baker, “do-it-yourself” becomes in a
squat the most basic opportunity for money-saving and collective self-

Differently from conventional households where consumption oc-
curs irrationally and is often driven by consumerism, mass-fashion and
manipulative advertising, living in an urban or rural squat requires a
certain attention to the “how to do it” in a different way. It is at no cost:
collective organization requires an effort towards enhanced communi-
cation and horizontal processes of decision-making (see, for instance,
Piazza, this volume), which can be time-consuming, but that at least
leave open the possibility towards the self-determination of how to live.

2. Rural squatting in the Iberian Peninsula:
self-organized communal systems.

The ecological economic perspective of squatting is even more evi-
dent in the rural context, whose presentation contributes to the con-
figuration of autonomous life-styles. Rural squatting is present in Spain
already since the Revolution, between 1936 and 1939, with large-scale
processes of land collectivization. The Spanish countryside is widely
characterized by rural abandonment. Migratory trends towards the cit-
ies have occurred since the late ‘50s as a consequence of the mechaniza-
tion of agriculture and of the arrival of fossil fuels. With the birth in
the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of the neorural movement the first rural vil-
lages were occupied by groups of people interested in self-organization
and eco-socialism as well as oriented towards economic self-sufficiency.
Magazines such as Integral or AjoBlanco, which focussed on ecological
and communal living and on the return to the country, inspired these
young generations in their moves. An extensive description of the ethics
and realities of neorural squatters is given by Badal (2001), while some
ideological foundations of rural squatting can be found in Colectivo
Malayerba (1996).

In this context, I highlight the value of oikonomic organization
within rural squats because it represents an interesting case of material
autonomy. This is characterized by the combination of a highly com-
munitarian sharing of labour time and a prevalence, over individual
paid work, of non-monetary self-employment within the community
and money-raising collective activities.

Looking from a time-use perspective, the neorural oikonomic activ-
ity can be characterized by:

• labour time employed within the community for the generation
of a monetary income;
• labour time employed within the community for the direct sat-
isfaction of personal and communal needs;
• labour time employed outside the community, sold in the la-
bour market.

As well, individuals undertaking these labour activities can do them
according to their personal needs or to those that are collectively pro-
vided, in a proportion that varies according to how they are organized.

In general the collective project tends to be more communitarian the
more isolated is the community.

In summer 2009 a rural squat gathering (Jornadas de Okupación
Rural) was organized in Sieso, a squatted village in the Aragon Pyrenees.
An afternoon debate was dedicated to sharing knowledge on how dif-
ferent communities organize their economy, which productive activi-
ties are undertaken and how the communal sphere is integrated with
the personal.

Presentations came from the participants in 4 rural squatted vil-
lages (the hosting village of Sieso and, from Navarra, Lakabe, Rala and
Arizkuren); 3 rurban squats (Can Masdeu and Kan Pasqual in Barcelona
and La Casa in Valladolid) and 3 other neorural communities related
to autonomous social movements (Alcoy, in Valencian Community;
Escanda in Asturias and Manzanares in Castilla). The diversity of the
forms of organizing and the different weight of the communal econo-
my among the participating projects was great.

All projects share a collective way to earn and to manage money,
but with large variations. In some cases the community is financially
self-sufficient, in other cases financial support is granted from external
institutions (one case), or through the formal contribution of its mem-
bers (three cases, 20, 50 and 100 Euro/month respectively) who find
individually the way to this income.

How collective income is generated also varies among neorural com-
munities: it can be from primary production (orchard, honey, meat, 3
cases) with direct sales to the consumers; bread making (3 cases, direct
sale); hosting events (international summer camps, courses, bar and
restoration services, local celebrations, 4 cases); or other services (i.e.
horse-keeping). Also, and particularly in the more isolated communi-
ties unable to easily access markets and consumers, some of its members
look for temporary jobs away from home (seasonal recollection, brick-
work) and pass the income to the community once they return.

In general, communal labour time is organized mainly in a collec-
tive way, where everybody contributes equally -there might be systems
to enhance that, like communal working days during the week- and
where work is not remunerated. The most common activities are or-
chard and food production and elaboration; building and infrastruc-
ture maintenance, rehabilitation and construction; energy supply (the
main one is fire-wood collection, chopping and storing) and water and
irrigation system maintenance. All communities have different types
of communal infrastructure and activities, which contributes to the
direct satisfaction of personal needs and communal requirements, thus
diminishing the dependency on monetary income. All have orchards,
chickens, in some cases, bees, goats and sheep, all have access to a bak-
ing oven; they have many tools and at least one general workshop, as
well as capacity to store recycled and construction materials, wood and
primary agricultural products. They are organized to participate in sea-
sonal recollection (i.e. for olive oil) or to collectively manage agricul-
tural crops elsewhere (olive and almond trees). As long as an “income”
of natural products and resources is secured, autonomy from money
and from the system of man-made production is possible.

The weight of the individual economy within the community is also
quite different, ranging from where all kind of income is communal
to mixed-economies, where people can have their own income as well
as a communal income for the community’s expenses. This last case is
particularly relevant within rurban squats because different individuals
might have a preference towards particular personal consumption pat-
terns, which the proximity to the city makes it more possible. In general,
given the precarious situation of squatting -and also of land tenure- the
property of personal capital is not collectivized, although the use of this
capital (which could be a car, or some tools) is widely shared.

The amount of money that the collective economy of these squat-
ting projects requires varies from very little (one case, 20 Euro/per-
son/month), to more considerable levels (250 Euro/person/month,
for one community which is not squatted), although this depends on
how many needs the community is able to satisfy, summing up, from a
minimum where only basic housing and food are provided, to a maxi-
mum where any kind of personal expense is included (such as tobacco,
education or travels).

The two most isolated places rely on extremely little financial needs
(around 200 Euro/person/month, all included), moreover it has to be
acknowledged that a good part of these expenditure is invested in the
re-construction of the villages, with returns on a less precarious quality
of life. Newer communities tend to have higher re-construction costs
and less capacity to self-generate this income.
Marginal barter exchange is often present, particularly among iso-
lated projects relatively close to each other and, if it exists, through the
participation in a barter network.

From an energetic point of view, in the rural cases fuel-wood is
used for almost all basic needs (cooking, heating, baking), and elec-
tricity comes from renewable sources (PV panels in most cases and
wind-generators in 3 cases – 2 of which have been self-made); in very
few cases closer to the city, electricity is freely taken from the grid.
Table 1 shows, as a summary, the difference in energy use -as an
indicator of ecological autonomy- among neorurals, rurban and urban
squatters, and the relevant facts on the importance of human endo-
somatic energy. Table 2 offers a comparison of how vital elements are
supplied in a sustainable community -similar to a rural squat- and in
the commonly known petrol-based civilization. These are the different
points towards a human ecological economy which the squatting expe-
rience shows to be possible.

In synthesis, the rural squatting experience results from the applica-
tion of the traditional squat ideology based on political antagonism,
anti-capitalism and autonomous self-organization, combined with the
neorural perspective, inspired by a return to simpler and more commu-
nitarian lifestyles and by the minimization of human impact on nature.
The evidence of this radical application of the squatting principles is a
political action rehabilitating abandoned villages and the rural way of
life. The life-styles of rural squatters represent an alternative system
with different degrees of autonomy from the main political economic
system characterized by industrial capitalist production. This issue is
discussed in the following section.

3. Urban squats, rural squats: what kind of
autonomy? The steps beyond the political.

Literature on the urban squatting movement can highlight its socio-
political aspects (Adell and Martinez-Lopez, 2004; Martinez Lopez,
2002; Prujit, 2004; Reeve, 1999 and 2005). Within these contexts the
main ambition is built upon motivations that have originated in an
autonomous way from the conventional mentality of the average soci-
ety, which is mainly influenced by the State system (its laws and edu-
cational system), by the capitalist spirit, by social norms often rooted
in religious beliefs which are in turn supported and enhanced by the
mass-media. Be it a counter-culture movement, a housing strategy, or
a direct action with an antagonist political message, they all represent
behaviours very different from mainstream ones, typical of western cul-
ture and life-styles. I intend this as political autonomy, in the sense that
its subjects are able to think in an autonomous way and consequently
they act accordingly, realizing radical and antagonist ideas. In particu-
lar, in the case of rural squatting, a commonly understood paradigm,
contributing to shaping the political perspective, is the necessary inter-
connectedness of the human with the natural milieu which can be char-
acterized as a political ecology. The defence of the environment, its val-
ues and the discourse over the rural way of life play a strong role among
rural squatters, more important than the defence of social-class values,
typically a more urban struggle. Rurban squatters, in particular, act as
a bridge transmitting political ecological ideas to networks of urban
actors. These political avant-gardes, like many other social movements,
generate novel discourses which are independent from the mainstream
ones, rooted in the western-based consumerist imaginary. As seen, in
the context of this autonomy of thought, one can find justifications
for breaking the system of State legality, which is clearly a political act.

However, I have highlighted that this autonomy of thought, mani-
fested in radical political (and ecological) thinking and motivations,
representing the ecological economics of the urban and rural squatting
movement, evolve through direct action into real behaviours. The
resulting reality can be described by two further types of autonomy,
namely economic autonomy (and its relation to employing time for
living with less money) and ecological autonomy (for living with more
natural and less industrially produced means).

Concerned with the capacity to maintain the squatting experience,
I have observed (Cattaneo, 2008) that this relies on the maintenance of
the capitalist system of waste production (and of rural abandonment):
if there were no more abandoned buildings, current forms of squatting
would not be possible; the sustainability of the experience is, paradoxi-
cally, closely interconnected with the existence of a system that produces
waste. The squatting phenomenon can therefore be said to be ecological
insofar as it makes an efficient use of a waste product; insofar as it can
recycle – like in a natural cycle – useless waste into a useful product, by
means of social organization, creativity and originality. Literally, an “au-
tonomous spirit” that manifests into autonomous spaces.

In particular, a relationship exists which proves that, the farther away
from the city, the higher the levels of autonomy that are achieved: pro-
vided that urban squats have limited access to primary natural sources,
in case of a drastic reduction in the amount of products that are gener-
ously given and of real-estate waste that urban squatters can re-use, it is
likely that they would have a harder time to survive than the more resil-
ient rural squats, although their autonomous spirit will make it easier to
adapt and survive than average people. Although largely depending on
the system of industrial production (and waste) urban squats gain easy
access to a large number of people and can be an example of money-free
low-impact living/development of social and political activity/social-
izing, based on non-consumerist ethics and largely working, from the
material perspective, on the recycling of urban waste: in fact, in the
case of people squatting for living/housing, squatting culture can be an
inspiring and visible source of ideas of how to slightly move away from
more conventional life-styles. From the purely socio-political perspec-
tive, the source if inspiration comes from knowledge sharing, solidar-
ity, horizontal relationships and all those cultural traits that, although
integrated within some fringes of civil society, are mainly not common
traits to the dominant political perspective: they have the potential to
manifest radical political aims directly at the core of where the estab-
lished power is set.

On the other hand, more isolated rural squats, although often un-
known – and the aim of this contribution is to start lifting this veil
– have strong socio-ecological values, as highlighted in the Iberian case
study. They are set in physical places geographically isolated, abundant
in land (and capacity of primary production) and are organized in a
way that achieves higher degrees of ecological and material autonomy:
neorural squatted settlements have lower population density, rely on
photosynthetic primary production and develop local systems indepen-
dent from the energy, food and material inputs generated in the urban

To explain it in a similar way, the oikonomic system of urban squat-
ters can be characterised by what they do not consume of the capitalistic
system of production and labour; they are “ecological” because they con-
sume economic waste so to extend the life-cycle of artificial products and
materials; the neorural oikonomy instead is characterised by patterns of
ecological production and consumption and by the management of the
rural landscape where they live in: neorurals are ecological because they
produce and consume less and in a more ecological way.

In the middle between the urban and the rural environment, and
just a few kilometres away from cities, lays the potential of rurban
squats. Here the perspective is that offered from a bridge between two
different squatting realities. For the case of Barcelona, Can Masdeu
and Kan Pasqual are antagonistic projects from both a political and an
ecological perspective and, beyond some autonomy from money, they
show a slight degree of autonomy from the economic system: like in
rural communities, they carry on farming activities and generate energy
from renewable sources; as well, endosomatic (human) energy is largely
employed instead of machines. Cattaneo and Gavaldá (2010) show that
endosomatic energy accounts for 16% and 38% of total energy con-
sumed in Kan Pasqual and Can Masdeu respectively, while the share of
non-renewable energies -mainly coming from cooking gas, petrol for
vehicles and, only in Can Masdeu, electricity- is of 10% and 29% re-
spectively. Yet rurban life is not so fully rural because of the proximity to
cities: notwithstanding the orchards, most food is still introduced from
outside because the land available is not enough for pastoral activities
or cereal cultivation. Neither is food autonomy their mission: higher
achievements towards ecological autonomy must be traded against the
potential for social transformation and political activism within the cit-
ies, so to contribute, among may other political objectives, to the rural-
ization of cities and against further territorial sprawl.

In general, it can be said that the re-vindication of use rights over
certain types of “built capital” of alien abandoned property is visible
both in the urban and in the rural environments. Rural squatting con-
nects with other aims beyond housing and political social activity, such
as living in relationship with agro-natural capital. It implies a particular
relationship with the means of subsistence and capital employed, which
means a further interpretation of autonomy, whose radicality can be
understood as a literal “going back to the roots”.

Table 3 represents in a synthetic form the different typologies of au-
tonomy here considered. Further degrees of autonomy imply previous
ones: a rural squatter’s ecological autonomy implies also an autonomy
of time and money, as well as an autonomy of political thinking char-
acterized by a morality that breaks a law. Common to all is this kind
of law-breaking political autonomy, manifest in choosing certain life-
styles, closely related to vibrant autonomous spaces. The oikonomic
means employed under different squatting modalities are shown in the
last column.

4. Conclusions

In this article I have introduced the ecological-economic perspective of
the squatting phenomenon, by looking at the oikonomic means squatters
employ to live with less money. Doing this, I have also attempted to
bridge the case of rural squatting, less known in the literature. The sub-
stantive findings of this article answer the guiding question: “to what ex-
tent are squatters autonomous from the economic and political system?”
At least as it regards the difference between urban and rural squatters,
the answer shows that urban squatters, able to live with little money and
capable of collective self-organisation, are more autonomous than the
average urban population, both in economic and socio-political terms.
Rurban and rural squatters achieve also increasing degrees of ecologi-
cal (material) autonomy: neo-rural settlements constitute a system with
greater autonomy than urban squats, which are still dependent on the
energy inputs and material recycling of the urban system. Urban squats
are not as ecologically autonomous as neo-rural communities but they
contribute in the shaping of antagonist social and political values.
In analysing the squatting phenomenon, the ecological perspective
cannot be dissociated from the political and economic vision. To this
extent, as an alternative to increasing social control and the erosion
of democratic freedoms perpetrated by the State and its connection
with capitalist interests, the incoming energy and economic crises is
an opportunity to look for the constitution of more decentralized and
autonomous communities, inspired by radical ideals and based on col-
lectivism and self-organization.

For further analysis I see questions related to driving social change
-another fundamental role associated to squatting- and the relation-
ships that rural autonomous experiences can have. What kind of so-
cial change is necessary? What kind of adaptations to more sustainable
lifestyles and relationships are necessary, as a response to the ecological
crisis? These are questions that the ecological economics of urban and
rural squatting can help in addressing.


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