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Taking What’s Ours

by Anitra Nelson on December 6, 2014
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In general, the laws of capitalism protect the interests of property owners and big bosses, particularly the one per cent. As capitalism expands and intensifies, the laws multiply. Writers have difficulty claiming copyright and earning their just rewards. Australian federal court judges recently threw out an appeal from Cancer Voices Australia about a decision that DNA and RNA can be patented. Bailiffs turf you out when you stop paying your rent or mortgage off. If the bosses decide, thousands of us can be made redundant—essentially, forced not to work.

But capitalists’ exploitation of nature and people is the subject of increasing resistance, as life on earth is threatened by the climate change caused by capitalism. Two very readable recent books explore anti-capitalist practices: 1) The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2014), written by scholar-activists of the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK) and edited by Claudio Cattaneo and Miguel Martínez López and 2) The Village Against the World (Verso, 2014) by Dan Hancox. Following on from my post on Overland, this post examines each book in turn.

PlutoThe first is a pioneering work on a relatively neglected topic: squatting as a political action and to fulfil otherwise unmet needs for housing. Despite the book’s European focus, some chapters draw on examples from the US, with authors discussing the cultural diversity within squats, their meaning for our urban environmental crises and legal codes.

The observations and experiences are easily transferable, except that Australian squats are neither as extensive nor as visible: see the Australian Museum of Squatting created by squatter enthusiasts Iain McIntyre and Shane McGrath who run 3CR’s SUWA (Squatters and Unwaged Airwaves) show, and the international site Squat!net for SqEK and recent Australian news.

The second work is a journalistic account of an extended stay in Marinaleda, a village in southern Spain, east of Seville and north of Málaga, where – after a struggle to reappropriate their land – agriculture and local processing has been cooperatively worked for decades and mortgages are just 15 Euros per month. The town became particularly well-known internationally in mid-2012, when its charismatic revolutionary mayor Sánchez Gordillo led raids on supermarkets in Seville and Cádiz to satisfy locals made poor and hungry by austerity measures. After the Global Financial Crisis, Spain had been left with unemployment levels of 25 percent, and 34 percent in the region of Andalusia surrounding Marinaleda (where, however, unemployment was only 5 percent).

VersoTogether, these analyses represent practical examples of autonomous, self-managed spaces that portend post-capitalist futures. At the same time, both authors question whether such experiments lead to change or are simply havens.

I find discussions around whether such experiments are moribund islands particularly annoying: surely in many cases it is as much the lack of imagination or hope of observer-critics who make such a call—and the rigidity of the systems which they attempt to transcend—that determines whether they remain singular oddities or become a model for revolutionary change? It’s relevant to note the subtly distinct approaches of the authors—one a collective of political activists explaining and reflecting on their practice, and the other an individual voice who probably sounds a little too much like sympathetic critics of Cuba. For instance, Hancox treats Mayor Sánchez Gordillo rather like Fidel Castro, as if the imagination and energy of the community relies on his leadership.

At the same time, Hancox is to be congratulated for his enjoyable rambles integrating the background of Spanish political and cultural revolutionary currents to explain the flowering of Marinaleda into a ‘communist utopia’. We get a cinematic sense of the town, its inhabitants, the Catholic and anti-clerical currents, the anarchist and socialist movements, the Guardia Civil, the feudal and Franco impositions. Hancox takes us into the fields and bars of Marinaleda. He shows how ‘work’ has dissolved from serving a local duke or doing what managers ask and being paid per hour, into decision-making over both political and productive spheres to meet basic needs and a good deal of volunteering, especially for communal celebratory, social activities. Hancox’s perfectly timed travels incorporate the uprising which has come to be known as 15-M. In mid-2011 the Indignados occupied Madrid’s Puerto del Sol square, and their protest against crisis austerity measures spread all over Spain, including to Barcelona, where skilled squatters settled like spiders building and re-building their webs over its central square for literally months on end.

Likewise, one of the key achievements of the SqEK is to acknowledge the importance of context in a collection that seeks thematic continuity through a sequence of contrasts and comparisons between nations, and cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, New York City, Amsterdam and Rome. Squatters impact on urban environments through outreach such as social centres, with cultural to gardening foci, through modelling strident opposition to private property and the police who protect them, through hosting artistic programmes and creative entertainments, through supporting the erstwhile evicted and homeless (including migrants and refugees), through creating pop-up workshops (say, mending bikes) and extensive communities that experiment with open, free, democratic, tolerant and sharing practices prefiguring non-capitalist ways to relate and value one another and nature.

The SqEK analysis is bookended by the cultural and political events of 1968 and the recent criminalisation of squatters, which occurred at different points of time in different countries and has been differentially implemented (or not) and responded to by squatters in a variety of ways. Thus we read of squats broken by raids sometimes leading to deaths and other times involving literally thousands of police. Yet squatters forcefully evicted—or abandoning their squats just in time—often simply settle somewhere else, reinhabiting the urban landscape.

As SqEK points out, the data on squatting is sparse and hardly does justice to measuring their effect. Their illegality means incomplete formal counts, which need to account for rotation in and out of squats to represent all involved: the students, the artists, the migrants, the culturally- disaffected, the racially-persecuted, the socially-marginalised and ardent political activists. Even if such data were reliable, it does not indicate whether or not their neighbourhood influence is either superficial or profound.

These books are powerful records of ‘ordinary’ people like us, taking what is ours and building wondrous things from occupations. They are communications from the 99 percent to the 1 percent, saying, ‘Your laws are not our laws’. More than that, they are not just saying—they are doing.

Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist scholar, currently a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011, Pluto Press) and Honorary Associate Professor at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research.
2 Comments
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  • Neale
    December 16, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    I think the key point about Marinaleda is exactly the anarcho-syndicalist histories of Spain and how this village links strongly to that, AGAINST communist and socialist views, as Hancox shows quite clearly in his wonderful, hopeful book. Sure the Mayor is central but he has maintained strong support in many battles over many years, and the historical background on rural Spain is central to the people’s ways and means. The Eurocrisis has proven to be of a different order of magnitude because the local state has been subsumed by the European juggernaut.

  • December 22, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Very good point, Neale. I love the way Hancox integrates the diverse history and culture of resistance into his story. Strategically I wholly support a focus on local collective sufficiency. I think it’s the only way forward globally. In Australia we could more-or-less eliminate the states immediately and operate with national and local governance, working towards progressively smaller and more powerful neighbourhood governance at one end of the spectrum and progressively more coherent and united principles and processes between national and international spheres. Imagine!

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