Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

The Politics of the Crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-1977

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

The Politics of the Crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-1977

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

A squatter is someone who occupies an uninhabited building unlawfully. Once it has been occupied this building becomes a squat. Squats are usually occupied with the intent of relatively long-term use. The modern squatters' movement developed as a response to the housing crisis across the UK, particularly in London, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.2 Beginning in 1968 as a family rehousing scheme, the squatting movement involved moving people into abandoned buildings as a direct action solution to the British government and local councils' inadequate response to this crisis. The 1971 census showed that there were over 675,000 empty dwellings in England and Wales. In the Greater London area alone in April 1973 there were 51,365 privately owned residential dwellings that had been empty for over three months. In Greater London over 99,700 dwellings across the public and private sector were vacant. At the same time 189,900 people were listed on the Greater London Council (GLC) housing waiting lists, another 15,805 were housed in Part III accommodation and bed and breakfast hotels, 15,000 were in insecure hostel accommodation and at least 2000 people sleeping rough.3 Given these conditions the squatting movement quickly diversified not only beyond the initial aim of rehousing families, but also in demographic makeup as many different sorts of people such as students, the unemployed, punks, and others took to squatting.

People squatted for many reasons, including the inability to find affordable housing and as a base for political groups and projects. Both participatory accounts and sociological studies suggest a false dichotomy between deprivation squatters and political squatters. I critique this binary, and argue instead that squatting is always a political act. In section one I explore the binary that squatters and scholars have constructed to explain the differences between those who squat out of necessity (non-political) and those who squat from choice (political). This binary ought to be discarded both because it is false, and because its propagation has negative ramifications for squatters as it tends towards the legitimation of some squatting actions and squatters, and the condemnation of others. In section two I outline how squatting is inherently political. Using a radical democratic approach to politics, I argue that politics is defined by a conflict among and between various actors over what is considered just.

Applied to the context of squatting, I argue that squatters enter into a political conflict with the state and landowners who enforce the rights of the propertied above the property-less. I then situate the challenge to property in the broader historical and geographic context of the fight for the commons, looking at how there has historically been resistance to the expropriation of public space and privatisation of common land, and how similar conflicts over squatting and public vs. private space were taking place in other European countries at the same time. I then offer examples of how this conflict manifests in various forms of state aggression towards squatters: through legal procedures, evictions, and the withdrawal of resources. Finally, I conclude by suggesting that the reconception of all squatting as political can help establish a new historiography of squatting and return agency to those previously dismissed as 'non-political' as well as recognising the significance of the reclamation of space as a political act. For no matter whether you are squatting for a roof over your head or to produce insurrectionary literature in your basement, squatting ought to be seen as a political engagement, the diversity of its aims and make-up only reinforcing the fundamentally radical nature of occupation in itself.

THE PROBLEMATIC BINARY

The squatting movement that grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s originated as a movement primarily oriented towards housing those in need: the homeless or badly housed. …

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