October 1st marked the 10th anniversary since squatting was criminalized in the Netherlands. This infamous decision by the Dutch state led to an immense increase of speculation in the housing market, doubling the average cost of housing in just 10 years. ‘Coincidentally’, over the same period homelessness has also doubled, and social inequalities have skyrocketed. All of this before the effects of a global pandemic have even started to set-in. To commemorate the anniversary the Dutch squatting movement organized a nation-wide protest action, emphasizing squatting as a form of resistance against the multidimensional crisis we are currently facing.
Squatting = the occupation of empty/unused buildings or houses to satisfy housing needs or to develop social activities. Degrowth = a vision of societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. For some the links between these two anti-capitalist approaches seem self-evident, for others they are less tengible.
In this blog post we will first explore how squatting and degrowth are interlinked, followed by a brief history of squatting in the Netherlands in order to contextualize, in the final part, the innovative mass action that took place across the country on the 10-year anniversary of the squatting ban.
Squatting and degrowth
Economically, squatting contributes to a degrowth transformation by allowing collectives to reduce their material and energy use. On the one hand, the ‘economy’ of squatting collectives is usually marked by limited resource availability – electricity, water, food, heating, clothing, building materials etc. On the other hand, it is also distinguished by the highly innovative use of those resources through sharing and a DIY mentality – off-the-grid renewable energy systems, rainwater collection, dumpster diving, urban gardens, clothing repair and exchange etc. In addition, if we account for the material and energy expenditure of demolishing old buildings and the construction of new ones that squatting directly prevents, we can start to comprehend just how aligned squatting is with degrowth – even from this very materialistic perspective. What is more, squatters usually have much lower monetary needs. By avoiding rents/mortgages, and actively engaging in sharing and cooperation, they can satisfy their needs directly instead of relying on wage labor and the market to do so. Arguably, such processes of decommodification could be our best chance for a degrowth transition.
Politically, as a form of direct action, squatting is an act of reclaiming autonomy and self-determination over our lives. In the active self-management of a squat, in terms of both the space and the collective, a new political consciousness is developed. The experience of setting-up, managing, organic reorganizing, and defending of a collective space where a different way of being and doing is practiced, can be profoundly transformative for those involved. It is often claimed that we need to decolonize our imaginaries in order to envision a future beyond the imperatives of growth. Squatting provides one avenue for engaging with, and embodying, the process of constructing new imaginaries based on care, solidarity and autonomy. It is a way of actively creating degrowth imaginaries, and of experiencing that another world is really possible.
Philosophically, by challenging the notion of ‘property’, squatting strikes at the root of capital accumulation – at the root of the growth imperative! The need to access the market in order to secure the basic necessities of survival is quite literally what drives the ‘grow-or-die’ logic embedded into the current politico-economic system. In order to break this spell a solution outside of the market (private property) and the state (public property) must be sought. What a degrowth transformation will need to rely on is what George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici referred to as the anti-capitalist commons, or what others alternatively refer to as the practice of commoning. Squatting is an excellent example of what this looks like in practice. It allows for experimenting with forms of social organization that function outside of the logic of the market and the state – outside of the logic of growth.
A brief history of squatting in the Netherlands
Squatting has a long and rich history in the Netherlands. Significantly, this history can be traced to the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s when unemployment rose drastically and many people were unable to pay rent. As a result, occupying houses became a tool for forcing rental agreements and securing a roof over one’s head. Even though the squatting movement in its modern form would take shape only a few decades later, its beginnings are intimately tied to a capitalist system in crisis forcing people to seek alternative ways of satisfying their basic needs. Given that we are currently experiencing the worst economic crisis on record, it is important to remember and validate resistance methods of the past, especially those as effective as squatting has been.
During the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s squatting in the Netherlands grew into a full-fledged social movement. This time the trigger was an acute housing shortage combined with a rising tendency in speculation that kept many properties unoccupied. During this time squatting started taking on increasingly political overtones, focusing on collective action to oppose negative social trends instead of solving individual basic needs. In other words it became a struggle for wide-ranging social transformation, challenging the notions of what it meant to be a valuable member of society. During the 80’s in particular the character of the squatting movement became explicitly anarchistic and the confrontation with the state became so fierce that during some high-profile riots the military was sent in to suppress them. This is also the period of the biggest expansion of the movement and the establishment of some of the most iconic alternative spaces across the Netherlands, such as ACU, De Blauwe Aanslag, De Grote Broek, OCCII, ORKZ, Poortgebouw and Vrankrijk.
Jumping a bit ahead, on October 1st 2010 a new law came into affect that made squatting illegal, with those convicted of the offense facing criminal charges. It was the result of the all too-familiar neoliberal turn in governments and the trickle-down of the corresponding toxic values throughout the rest of society. Values which place property rights and profits over basic needs of the most marginalized in society, and over the right to alternative forms of social organization. The results were as disastrous as predictable: the number of squats has been decimated and the remaining squats are increasingly pushed out of city centers, homelessness has doubled as have housing prices, the waiting lists for social housing have mushroomed with the average waiting time being nine years. Even before the current pandemic plunged the global capitalist system into its biggest crisis in more than a century, the housing crisis in the Netherlands had become so acute that it was beginning to be referred to as an emergency. We almost do not dare imagine how much worse it will get with COVID-19 wreaking havoc.
Squat the crisis!
With this context in mind, we could say that the anniversary of the first decade of squatting being criminalized in the Netherlands couldn’t come at a more needed time. As we are witnessing the perverse logic of placing profits over people collapse in on itself in real time, we need to collectively remember how to resist and rebuild.
The slogan ‘Squat the crisis’ (‘Kraak de crisis’) was chosen in order to highlight squatting as an effective strategy for resisting the multidimensional crisis of capitalism that we are currently facing. A crisis that manifests itself not only as a housing emergency, but also as a multitude of other social and ecological catastrophies. Squatting as a strategy has the ability to directly address basic needs, to construct political subjectivities around an entirely different set of values, and to create spaces where alternative forms of social organization can be put into practice. To tackle this crisis we will need to squat the crisis! #kraakdecrisis
This year the anniversary was commemorated differently than in previous years. Whereas before the usual approach was to make high-profile squatting actions, this time the focus was on increasing visibility, “advertising” the sheer magnitude of unused buildings, and inviting others to join the movement. The action was decentralized and took place simultaneously across the whole country (Amsterdam, Groningen, The Hague, Leiden, Nijmegen, Rotterdam, Utrecht etc.) with posters and banners being placed on abandoned buildings. The posters advertised buildings as empty and ready to squat, while the banners held messages reminding the public that “you cannot live on a waiting list,” that “squatting is still an option”, and that “squatter’s rights are housing rights”.
At the same time a new website and social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) were launched where squatting is explained in more detail to those that are interested, where positive examples of squatting are showcased, and where practical information about squatting is given to those who wish to join the movement. As the need for squatting is likely to expand in the coming months and years, reclaiming visibility in this way will be needed in order to reach as many people as possible and offer them the tools of their own liberation.
Access to housing should never be illegal, especially so when having an adequate amount of space is the best method of containing the spread of a global pandemic. It is in everyone’s interest that the buildings that already exist are used to the largest extent possible. It is in everyone’s interest that we squat this crisis!