'The similarity of squatters' cultures in various Western European countries is remarkable', I wrote in a report of a tour of my band in May 1995 through four or five different West European countries. The buildings, music, clothes, codes, and of course, the inevitable dogs, are practically the same everywhere. Can it be that the dominant West European mass culture produces its own subculture? Isn't it time for something new?' This observation points to the existence of a West (and increasingly East) European network of people who do not necessarily know each other, but share ideals, practices and preferences that are different and opposed to the dominant culture. A network of bands, squats, zines, labels, mail orders, newsgroups, and people.
The '70s are generally considered to be the last 'utopian period'.(1) After the failure of the near-revolution of 1968 it became clear that the spectacle transforms each of our desires into something it can cope with. The spontaneous explosion of desires was absorbed through student councils, democratic reforms, wage increases, employee participation and freedom of the press. In the Netherlands, the actions of the Provos and Kabouters were overruled by Marxist student leaders and the politicians of the New Left. The desires became harmless, the utopian moment passed by.
After the utopian period of Love and Peace, the '80s with all its 'No Future' attitude can be considered to be an atopia. With their dark clothes and nihilistic attitude, punks were not exactly flower children. They had no poetic vision of the future. Only the here and now existed, and the notion that you have to make the best out of that. If the system sucks, create something yourself, something different, something better or at least something more fun.
When mainstream punk died a few years after it appeared on stage, the punk movement could start. Bands sprouted like weeds because according to the DIY ethos of punk anyone can play: you're a musician if you want to, not because a producer of a record company or journalist says so. With the bands came the venues, labels, rehearsal rooms, mail orders, zines. An inspiring underground culture appeared, while the media had lost their interest.
The same can be said for the squatters' movement. In Holland, and also abroad, the punk and the squatters' movements of the '80s were very much interwoven. Especially in the beginning, punk bands depended on squats for their gigs. If a huge house was occupied, the first thing you did was open a bar and try to create a gig space where (punk) bands could play. Famous in Amsterdam were the Emma - a huge warehouse, and the music studio - Jokes Koeienverhuurbedrijf. Not just Amsterdam, but many other towns had their own squats with gig spaces as well. Some of these have been legalized, others still exist as squats, or have disappeared. Nowadays they don't only feature punk bands, because in the end, even squatters learned to dance to techno and jungle.
The squatters' movement did not only offer space for bands but for a lot of other things as well. It was supposed to have died in 1984, after the eviction of a huge squat called the Wyers.(2) I always considered this notion funny, because I arrived in Amsterdam in 1984 and since then the main part of my life has taken place in squats or legalized squats. Most of my friends used to live in squatted houses, and we frequented squatted bars, discos, gig venues and restaurants. Almost everything you needed or wanted could be found in squatted buildings, from grocery stores to saunas. Some of these facilities were especially directed at squatters, but a lot were also accessible to the general public. Back then it was no problem at all to live in what might be called a squatted zone for almost 24 hours a day; you could even travel to squats in other European countries in your holidays. You only dropped in at the dole office for this month's cash, or sometimes you got yourself a job (although this was not done back then).
Some people just squatted out of necessity, and for some it fitted into a broader ideology. But no matter how many squatters flirted with revolutionary ideas - for example, there were many support committees for the guerrillas in Central America, and some people went to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista revolution - most of them dissociated themselves from the theoretical discussions of young anarchists and communists in the '60s and '70s. Most squatters didn't want to change the world, but live their life here and now the way they chose to. If we can speak of any ideology, it was the ideology that there was none. As a female squatter said to a journalist of the newspaper de Volkskrant:(3) "Not an abstract ideal, nor the adherence to an ideology, or even a better society, but the improvement of a lousy personal situation. That is why I am involved."
Just as in the women's movement, the slogan 'the personal is political' was in vogue. Squatting and direct action became an attitude to life. Politics starts in you daily life, where power relations take hold, where you can start changing things and create room for different ways of living, working and relating to each other. In the squatters' magazine Bluf!,(4) someone said in an article called 'Utopia': "I feel at home in the squatters' movement because I can live and work there and be politically active, together with people who generally have no illusions, without getting stuck in a 'no-future' attitude. People who have no illusions about the welfare state regarding housing, work, culture, love and whatever else is for sale. No illusions about parliamentary politics. People who resist nonetheless, not against the establishment, nor randomly, but because they have their own ideas about how they want to live and who want to fight for a space to realise that. In short: people who do not want the patterns and perspectives of their lives being dominated by what society has to 'offer', but by their own insights and desires."
There are altogether less squats now than in the '80s, due to hassle through new laws which have resulted in quicker and easier evictions. A lot of squats only exist for a few months. The problem with this is that it's harder to create gig venues, cafes, shops and other facilities. At the end of the '80s and the beginning of this decade a lot of the projects and infrastructure of the squatters' movement disappeared or chose some legalized form to continue their activities. Some of the initiatives now make use of state-subsidized jobs, employing each other on workfare schemes. Squatters are idealistic, but also pragmatic, or perhaps 'strategic' is a better word here. In order to survive you have to use the various possibilities the system unintentionally offers you. But in Amsterdam it's still 'squatday' (squats are being opened) almost every Sunday, and many young people opt for the uncertain but exciting life in a squat.
According to social scientists and journalists,(5) social movements are considered important when they play a role in the political arena, the media or both. The squatters' movement did so between 1976 and 1984, at least in Amsterdam. Squatters were large in number and well organised into neighbourhood groups; they had political impact and staged spectacular riots, and because of that, gained a lot of media attention. The squatters' movement disappeared as a political factor and as a media event after 1984, but the (new or legalized) squats and networks survived, and they turned out to be fertile soil for other initiatives and experimental ways of life.(6)
Out of the squatters' movement came a network of squats, communally owned houses, food co-ops, LET-systems, soundsystems, bands, mailorders, festivals, direct-action groups, research groups, no-paper (immigration) groups, publishers, magazines, internet providers and newsgroups, infoshops, people's kitchens, mobile kitchens etc. Within this movement, a few thousand people are on the move. A lot of people are disappointed that there isn't a shared utopia anymore, no expectation of a better future. According to some of them, the shared utopian vision has always been 'the core of left politics, and that has to stay that way.'(7) Well, if this is true, then perhaps the movement isn't 'left' anymore. But the dischord with the existing order and the desire to create something different here and now still remains. The shared utopia disappeared, but the utopian practices didn't.
At the moment, when 'neo-liberalism' is the only ideology and the market economy has colonized everything - even our genes - these practices show us possibilities for other ways of living, other economies, or even the end of economy. There is an ongoing discussion about the necessity of creating an alternative economy that is less dependent on the mainstream market and the state. The Dutch VAK-group, for example - a federation of houses, studios, work places, companies, a farm and financial institutions - strives towards an alternative infrastructure based on anarchist ideas, such as local democracy and federation. By supplying financial means, skills, experiences and other services, new projects can be supported and existing projects can network. Another example of an alternative economic system is the flourishing LET-schemes, local exchange systems without money, based on trading skills.
Desire, however, doesn't know exchange, but only theft and gift. The market economy expands by appropriating things which were freely available before. It is only after claiming exclusive ownership that things can be bought and sold. In this context, de-economizing is the breaking down of exclusive ownership: the reclaiming of public and private spaces, goods and provisions. The struggle against the economization of our daily lives is not merely a struggle against the market, but against economy itself, against the notion of scarcity. Most of the movement's practices are based on this notion of abundance.
According to the squatting movement, there are enough places to live in; you only need to occupy them. Punk and DIY culture show that anyone can make music, records, organise gigs, make 'zines, just do it. Like primitives, travellers are the hunters and gatherers of contemporary wild nature: the technological megacity, which offers more than enough waste to live on. The refugee aid movement or no-paper groups (supporting illegal immigrants) show that hospitality 'costs' nothing, but is a way to meet new friends, come into contact with other cultures and enhance your experience. Queers show that there is more than heterosexuality or homosexuality, more than man and woman. A collective like Rampenplan, which consists of a mobile kitchen, a publisher and a direct action video group, shows that it is possible to cook organic meals based on the principle of a 'fair' price and in doing so generate money for other projects, without expecting anything in return. Even the LET-schemes, which use the principle of exchange, are based on the notion that everybody has some skills to offer somebody else, on abundance instead of scarcity. But most important is that the movement shows that you can have fun doing what you do. That you can play instead of work.
So what kind of community is the Dutch movement? It is clear that people participate together in direct actions and demonstrations, read the same magazines, go to the same bars, gigs and festivals and some of them live together in squats or communally owned houses. They certainly meet. But they also meet people 'outside'; they attend schools or universities, or have a job. Hardly anyone is a full-time squatter anymore. You can live in a squat and study and work and play in a band and make love with men and women...
Although there are always people who try to formulate criteria as to who is 'inside' and who is not, the 'movement' of the '90s is relatively open, and because of that also lacks the sometimes suffocating pressure towards uniformity, which was characteristic of the social movements of the '70s and '80s, like the women's and gay movements, and also the squatters' movement.
What we see here is not a community, nor solidarity groups, but configurations of desire: networks of friendship and expression which undermine the prevailing relations of production, society, politics, family, the body, sex and even the cosmos. Lacking a single clear goal or programme, we see a multitude of struggles. There is no utopian tree from which readymade ideas about another world can be picked, but endless rhizomes on which at unexpected moments flowers appear.
The concept of rhizomes, modelled on the strange root systems of certain plants, was introduced by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They're opposed to the tree, which stands for the dominant Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, and also gnosticism, theology, ontology, philosophy. The tree exists in a hierarchical order of a central trunk with larger and smaller branches. The trunk forms the connection between all parts, thus in a way limiting connections. A rhizome, on the contrary, can be connected with any other at any point. A tree can be cut down, whereas rhizomes are much less subject to destruction. Rhizomes can grow again along another line if broken at some point. Rhizomes are abundant; if weeded out in one place, they will definitely show up somewhere else. Rhizomes are endless, as are desire and the imagination.
So utopianism didn't disappear after the '70s, it's everywhere - sometimes hidden, sometimes exposed. It can't be exterminated, because it's like a weed. It's the voice of desire and the imagination in a world dominated by material interests and reason. Like weeds, desire can be 'cultivated' for a shorter or longer period, it can be locked up within political organisations or single issue groups, but it can never be weeded out. In some periods it's more underground, voluntarily so or because the state or political organisations (right or left) force it to be. But it will always find a way to break out. It will always find a hole to break through and flow free, a hole in the spectacle, temporarily or permanent.
submitted by 'Ravage', bi-weekly magazine, Van Ostadestraat 233n, 1073 TN Amsterdam, Holland
- Saskia Poldervaart, 'Anti-utopisten maken zich er gemakkelijk vanaf' in 'de Volkskrant', June 1998
- See Virginia Mamadouh, 'De stad in eigen hand', Amsterdam 1992.
- 8 March, 1980
- No. 79, 28 September, 1983
- Scum [editor's comment]
- I prefer not to use the word 'lifestyle', because its meaning has been obscured, both by marketeers and the American social ecologist Murray Bookchin. See his essay 'Social anarchism or lifestyle anarchism, an unbridgeable chasm', AK Press 1995.
- Ronald van Haasteren et al in 'Het Gelijk...uitnodiging tot een debat', Papieren Tijger 199