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Housing for People, Not for Profit

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Anyone attempting to rent or buy a place to live in the past several years has noticed that costs just seem to keep on going up.  Even after the crash of 2007-2008 that was fueled by manipulation of mortgage debt by some of the largest financial houses in the world caused a downturn in the real estate market, the fact remains that most houses cost more than they did ten years ago.  As for rents, they just keep on rising.  In some US cities, rents are so high that working people find themselves living in cars and shelters because they cannot afford to pay rent, even for a closet in an apartment.  The reasons given for this situation by the mainstream media are many, but they all lead back to one root cause: financial speculation.  In other words, property owners are being offered incredible sums of money for their properties, so they force the current tenants out and sell their property.  The result is some rich people get richer and lots of humans have no place to live.  This is why so many people live in tents in many US cities, especially in the southern and western parts of the country.  While this phenomenon may seem to be fairly recent, the truth is that it has existed in varying degrees for decades.  Alexander Vasudevan’s new book The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting is the most recent book to tell this history.  It does a fine job.

The book begins its historical survey by discussing the film of a movement among Puerto Ricans living in squats in New York City in the 1970s.  It ends with an examination of a more recent series of home occupations in that same city.  In between, the reader is presented with a history and analysis of squatting movements from Copenhagen; this chapter discusses the beginnings of the world famous Christiana neighborhood which has recently been under serious attack from the state.  From there he takes a look at Britain and the squatting scene in some of its cities.  Then various building and house occupations that existed in 1970s Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg in what was then West Germany are discussed; it was these squats which both influence the Autonomist movement and was influenced by it.  Indeed, one of the primary aspects of these squats was the social centers most of them included.  I spent a few nights as a teenager living in Frankfurt in the early 1970s at one particular social center in Frankfurt’s Westend listening to music, smoking hashish, and watching political theater. From western Germany, the author takes the reader to Amsterdam and Berlin—both sites of some of the longest lasting and most successful squats in the history this book covers.  At the same time, the squats in those cities were the targets of some of the most brutal police and army assaults on the squatting movement ever seen in the west.

Without any aspersions to the rest of the book, it is the chapter on the Italian squatters’ movement that this reviewer found the most interesting.  Firmly situated in the independent left-anarchist workerist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Italian movement was about much more than housing.  It was a revolutionary movement that, together with factory occupations, university disruptions, alternative media and culture, autonomouscitypushed the establishment of Italy up against a wall and changed Italian society.  The uncertain economy of Italian capitalism, combined with massive corruption and an official communist and socialist movement which was more part of the established order than in opposition to it, was the reason for the revolutionary upsurge in Italy.  The creativity, determination, and marginalization of many of its young people were the reason its effects were so widespread and earthshaking.

What becomes very clear while reading this history is that housing in capitalist societies has very little to do with providing people shelter and plenty to do with exorbitant profiteering. In today’s world this has been made even clearer in the wake of the 2007-2008 stock market crash brought on by the effects of housing speculation.  In many cities and towns, rents are higher than before if one can find a place to rent.  Tens of thousands are finding themselves homeless while speculators from high tech, Wall Street and the banking sector force longtime tenants out of their apartments and sell their properties at exorbitant prices.  No one in power seems to care; rent control is not even discussed and tenants attempting to protest are even met with forceful evictions.  Politicians of almost every stripe join in the frenzy of profiteering; rejecting any claims the more liberal ones among them may have once made regarding the right people have to shelter.  Oftentimes, the reason for this turnabout is the fact that so many of these politicians have a financial stake in the current system of speculation and profiteering.

Besides the activist history and the economics of housing, the author also discusses the cultural reality of the squats he describes.  Indeed, as mentioned above, many of the occupations in this book began as attempts by countercultural youth to create a cultural space.  Besides this aspect, the meaning of squatting in western North America is examined in relation to its role in pushing out the indigenous peoples of those lands.  Equally important to these discussions is Vasudevan’s commentary on the roles played by feminist squatters in squats where young men often dominated the conversation and the building.  This latter dynamic is one left untouched by most other texts that have written about the squatting phenomenon.

The Autonomous City is a detailed and sympathetic history of squatting movements in Europe and the United States. In addition, it is a discussion of its meaning in the ever fluctuating meanings of urban living.  Part academic treatise and part action-packed history, Vasudevan’s text provides the reader with a nuanced look at the nature and meaning of the housing crisis in the capitalist West and the solutions housing occupations can provide.  In doing so, he brings in the political, cultural and historical meanings behind the squatters and the communities they occupy and create.  This is an essential book for anyone interested in the meaning of housing in modern society.  It is also a sort of a guidebook for those tired of waiting for the economic and political systems of their respective nations to resolve the crisis that exists in almost every urban zone and who are willing to take matters into their own collective hands.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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