Amsterdam: “Free” Space and Squatting. No More Caged Chickens

Free Space Now. The slogan of ADEV in 2018 – an annual street rave organised by squatters and artists in the city of Amsterdam. The slogan refers to a lobbying initiative called the Free Spaces Accord (vrijplaatsenakkord). Inspired by the looming eviction of the ADM and by the new ruling coalition of the municipality’s rhetoric in support of counter-culture, the stated aim of the Accord is twofold: the legitimisation of existing Free Spaces (vrijplaatsen) and the stimulation of new Free Spaces.

The initiative emerges from an influential part of the Amsterdam squatting movement. This loosely defined faction, which includes the ADEV organisation, the Free Spaces Accord, parts of the ADM community, and many legalised squats, believes in integration with the city, rather than attempting to oppose the authoritarian power structures and the social degradation they are responsible for.

This faction campaigns for “the fringes”, hoping to secure a few buildings where a small minority (elite groups?) of artists and “free thinkers” can escape the rat race and be “free”. Only then, the argument continues, can such people make a contribution to the city and – according to one end of the faction’s political spectrum – to capitalism and wealth creation.

It is telling that the narrow, questionable interests represented by the free spaces faction would choose a slogan – ‘Free Space Now’ – that reflects an individualism and lack of political substance that would not be out of place in an ad for the latest pair of Nikes. They represent a tendency within the Amsterdam squatting movement towards political incoherence and submission (in some cases with pleasure) to cooptation and repression.

But the Free Spaces Accord/ADEV organisation are not alone in expressing such sentiments. They are commonplace (though by no means universal) in the Amsterdam squatting scene. So the first question is this: How did the Amsterdam squatters’ movement become largely reduced to a pressure group lobbying for more publicly subsidised, semi-commercial spaces for artists and their followers?

Divide and Conquer

In 1999, the city of Amsterdam introduced the breeding grounds (broedplaats) policy.
The primary focus of the policy was to create workspaces for artists and cultural entrepreneurs. Specially designed to encourage creative industries, the city viewed the policy as a way of making the city ‘vibrant’ – urban planner marketing speak for ‘profitable’.

The city probably didn’t make the decision to divide and co-opt the squatting scene consciously – at least not all the people involved – but it made sense to them. It fitted into their understanding of the world. It appeared to be logical. And that’s because they are a part of the state, and so their interests are the state’s interests, and the state doesn’t accept opposition.

The breeding grounds concept offered the city a way to exploit the squatting movement for its own ends: principally, to facilitate the growth of creative, or cultural industries, but also as a tool for pacification and cooptation. A huge pot of money was created and used, partially, to buy the cooperation of ‘good squats’ and ‘good squatters’. Those that could become the “first link in the creative (thinking) process” [1], which ends in industry. In effect, the policy turned receptive squats into providers of cultural services.

When implemented, the Amsterdam squatting movement had already become fragmented and weak, due to internal struggles as much as external repression [2]. The breeding grounds policy only exacerbated the divides. By providing opportunities to squatters the city deemed useful – the ‘good squatters’ – they automatically labelled the rest as ‘bad’ [fn:1].

Despite their change in status, the threat of eviction did not necessarily decrease for those squats that became breeding grounds [3]. As it turned out, squatters who thought siding with the city would protect them from eviction, were fooled.

The city chewed them up and spat them out. One academic writing on the subject summed up the attitude of the city as follows: `Squatters were great pioneers of breeding places, but we do not need them any longer’ [3]. And that was back in 2004…

In 2010, squatting was made illegal. Since then, the last long-standing squats have been slowly, but steadily evicted. Not a single eviction was prevented by the cultural value of the squat. Even the Slangenpand, arguably one of the most integrated into the breeding ground logic, was not spared (unsurprisingly, unlike their neighbours, they left with the door open, thus showing zero solidarity with the rest of the squatters on the street).

The Case of the ADM, among others

The same story is playing out once again with the ADM. In vain, they have attempted to defend themselves against eviction by invoking the breeding grounds concept.

The ADM describes itself as, “the largest cultural free-haven in the Netherlands” and, “one of Amsterdam’s biggest cultural assets.” They say they have made a massive effort to, “convince the council of the value of the ADM,” and to demonstrate all the ways the ADM fits “exactly into the brand new coalition priorities.” The description continues, “ADM is a fertile, vibrant space for local and international cultural climates, as well as playing a leading role in the Creative Industry.” [4] In essence, the ADM is claiming to be compatible with the state and an asset to the capitalist economy through its contributions to the creative industry. Hardly a radical position, or one that suggests much solidarity with those repressed by the city’s policies and capitalist exploitation.

One banner created by the ADM and hung up around the city read: “Defend Autonomous Spaces: Because a city without free spaces is like a circus without a clown”, implying squatters are performing monkeys, existing for people’s entertainment, rather than a political movement focused on housing issues. Equally, the slogan devalues the notion of autonomy, presenting it as something frivolous and marginal rather than a radical assertion of principle [fn:2].

If the ADM were to take a radical stand, it could describe itself as follows: “The ADM is a stronghold of squatting in the city of Amsterdam. An example of horizontally structured community endeavour. We call for the decriminalisation of squatting, an end to property speculation, and for houses and workspaces to be owned and managed by the people who live and work in them. We are an example of what can be achieved under such conditions. As such, we stand in solidarity with those who resist the oppression of the state and who reject its legitimacy.”

Instead, “There is no culture without subculture!!” and “Free Space Now”, are the slogans of the ADM generation.

Despite their best efforts to fit in by standing out, the city callously set the date of eviction for Christmas Day. After that, all bets are off.

Considering this example, we see the problem isn’t even that squatters team up with the city by making use of the breeding grounds fund, but that a large segment of the movement has adopted the language of the ‘creative city’ concept – which inspired the policy – without considering the broader impact. As such, they have been working towards the city’s goals, rather than their own. And they are defending themselves by invoking the city’s own arguments rather than pushing their own agenda.

Meanwhile in the real world…

While artists fight for a cupboard under the stairs where they can go to “be free”, the rest of the city is being gentrified – full force! Social rents are going up, while the supply of social housing declines (waiting lists for a house are about 13 years); anti-squat and temporary rent contracts have become the new norm, as has building luxury accommodation for the middle classes and the rich. Communities are broken up to make room for developments and renovation projects, and in the process people are forced to abandon their homes and relocate to cheaper areas further out of the city.

And all the while the social housing corporations, and property developers and speculators of all kinds, are having a party – with champagne, caviar, and Maseratis! The social housing corporations of Amsterdam are no longer social (if they ever really were!) – they are private and run for private gain, while continuing to receive preferential treatment from the state [fn:3]. Under the auspice of crisis, the housing corporations and property speculators have been making a killing.

Some people call this phenomenon gentrification. We prefer to call it extortion, theft, and racketeering.

The strangest part is that most of the squatting community are fully aware of this reality. Yet somehow, the majority remain incapable of articulating a clear critique of the situation and continue to allow themselves to fall into the creative city trap. They seem happy to remain breeding chickens (a derogative term for squatters who use, or try to use, the breeding ground funds supplied by the government), trapped in little cages, laying creativity eggs for the industrial capitalist culture system [fn:4].

Now that the eggs have hatched, and the city is reaping the rewards, the caged hens are being sent to the slaughterhouse, apparently unable to understand why.

Cornered

The long and the short of it is this: the squatting movement has allowed itself to be backed into a corner, defending a narrative it didn’t write. In doing so, parts of the movement abandoned their principles – or proved they never had any – and have been parroting the goals of the breeding grounds policy in an effort to secure a bit of “free space” for themselves. Now that the government’s priorities have changed, it is taking every opportunity to remove the remaining squatters from the clinically clean city scape it has created.

Divided and conquered by the combination of cooptation (creative city concept & breeding grounds policy) and repression (evictions & criminalisation), it is not really accurate to talk of a squatting movement any longer. What we see in Amsterdam is a squatting scene, or community (as pretty much everyone involved acknowledges). The scene reacts to threats to its existence but expresses no coherent political agenda of its own.

Learn from the Past. Plan for the Future.

Squatting is first and foremost about housing, not ateliers, or concerts, and certainly not about creating a ‘vibrant’ creative city. Squatting can facilitate social activities, but it would be preferable to do so within a political framework that emphasises social emancipation – as a few short-lived squats in Amsterdam have done, or tried to do, during the last few years – rather than assimilation into the existing (authoritarian) social order.

Those places that have become breeding grounds – along with the places that have adopted the narrative of the creative city without necessarily receiving the breeding grounds subsidy (a phenomena that could be called voluntary cooptation) – have submitted to the interests of the state and, consequently, largely abandoned radical politics, along with all those people suffering the consequences of living in a profit-driven, authoritarian city.

1980: NO HOUSING, NO CORONATION | 2018: FREE SPACE NOW. [fn:5]

While it may be too late to save the last ‘cultural free spaces’ of Amsterdam, it’s never too late to start building a counter movement.

A New Agenda of Resistance and Attack

We’re on the back foot, taking punches left and right. It’s time to duck and counter. It’s time to write our own narrative, to reframe the situation, and to formulate our own agenda.

Organising Ourselves

In order to create a new agenda, we need to begin a discussion about our principles, our priorities, and our options. A debate has already been initiated by the Free Space advocates with the introduction of their Free Spaces Accord (Vrijplaatsenakkord). While the Accord amounts to little more than a watered-down version of the breeding grounds policy and echoes all the negative attributes of that policy, it does provide an opportunity for discussion. A discussion we desperately need to have if there is to be any hope of future success for the social struggle in Amsterdam and for squatting in the city.

Consider this a small contribution to the conversation.

Let us consider other possibilities rather than blindly jumping onto the Free Spaces bandwagon. One option could be described as a push back strategy or offensive strategy, while the Free Space Accord, in comparison, could be labeled an integration strategy. Let us examine the options.

The Free Space Accord

The Free Space Accord is an attempt to extend the categories of state-sanctioned creative zones. According to its proponents, the goal is to create Free Spaces that can develop “organically”, without regulations or influence from the city council, while receiving their blessing and implicit protection at the same time.

According to the Free Spaces Accord website, Free Spaces are living and work spaces in the mould of commercial/semi-commercial venues such as NDSM and OT301. As such, they are primarily intended for people who consider themselves artists and are designed to encourage small-scale creative industries. The Free Spaces Agreement group hopes to achieve their goals through lobbying and negotiation with city authorities.

The Accord calls for indirect financial support for Free Spaces, a dialogue with the city, and protection of the frayed edges (rafelranden). This means filling empty buildings with cultural, social, or sustainable initiatives for as long as possible and recognising existing free spaces (read: ADM). Their broadest goal is an end to large scale vacancies and a return to the policy of no evictions for emptiness (which was Amsterdam’s policy in relation to squatters for many years, but which seems to have been dropped in practice over the last 5/6 years).

It is unclear how Free Spaces will benefit those without housing, in precarious housing situations, or suffering from extortionate rents. In fact, it may even undermine what little support they have left by legitimising the city authorities directly responsible for their situation. Even the broad goal of ending large scale emptiness will do little for those in precarious situations, if the answer to emptiness is ateliers and petite bourgeois creative industries. After all, not everyone wants to be (or can be) a state-sanctioned creative capitalist.

Based as it is on a small glimmer of political hope offered by the city council’s new ‘left leaning’ coalition, the Free Spaces Accord has focused on lobbying politicians to achieve its aims. During a recent public debate on Free Spaces, a representative of the Accord argued in favour of talking to politicians using the old adage, “someone’s got to do it”. They also suggested we frame our demands in a way that will appeal to them (the politicians). Inevitably, we will have to deal with politicians, but there is a difference between catering to their desires and us demanding what we want. We can choose to work with our enemies or negotiate when it is strategically useful [fn:6].

Indeed, recently the left coalition’s state appointed leader, (the Mayor of Amsterdam) Femke Halsema, demonstrated just how naive people have been to expect anything will be given freely by her and the city council. In an interview, Femke said she appreciates what the ADM has done for Amsterdam culturally, but the ADM residents should not squat other empty terrains. They are supposed to go to the Slibvelden in Amsterdam north; a temporary space available to residents of the ADM for just 2 years. The city went as far as to warn neighbours of the ADM of the possibility of squatting actions being carried out by residents of the ADM in their area [6].

In the same interview, Halsema went on to repeat the breeding grounds logic, “especially in the free spaces or fringes, a culture arises, which in a later phase is profitable for the city”. She clearly demonstrates that her interest in the ‘fringes’, if she has any at all, is motivated by the same goal as for those who created the breeding grounds policy before her.

If supporters of the breeding grounds policy are caged hens, then the Free Spaces Accord advocates are campaigning to become their free ranged sisters. Still under the thumb of an exploitative, authoritarian system, but with a little more space to run.

Given the obvious flaws in the Free Spaces Accord, and the concept of Free Spaces generally, it is clear we need another plan.

The Offensive Path

Instead of asking the city, which has been systematically rejecting us and oppressing its inhabitants, to make a token gesture, we should aim to push the state back, to retrieve some of the ground we have lost and gain new ground in the process.

An obvious starting point is the decriminalisation of squatting, and with it the eradication of anti-squat (anti-kraak) as a legitimate form of housing. Under such conditions, it is conceivable that those currently living without tenant rights, freedoms, or protections under anti-squat contracts, could squat their residences. This would offer them the chance to live far more freely, releasing them from the burden of paying for their precarity, and provide them with the opportunity of creating bigger living groups, thus better utilising the sparsely occupied square metres currently under the management of anti-squat companies.

Unlike the Free Spaces Accord, calling on the state to decriminalise squatting is not asking for something. It is demanding the state back off. We aren’t asking them to support us in our efforts. We don’t want their money, or their political backing. We are simply telling them to fuck off.

If we reject such approaches in favour of the Free Spaces/integration strategy, we will abandon the possibility of solving – or at least alleviating – some of the problems regarding housing in return for a few creative workspaces. Hardly a good deal, wouldn’t you agree?

And we cannot follow both paths. We cannot pander to the city, highlighting all the ways we can live up to their expectations of us, while simultaneously demanding they change their expectations and take a step back. The city will not be keen to surrender the tremendous gains it has made against a movement it has always considered a nuisance and, at times, a threat. Decriminalisation and the end of anti-squat will not be achieved by cosying up to politicians and politely requesting “free spaces”. It will only be achieved through pressure.

Turning the Scene into a Movement

To have any chance of success we must start to view the squatting scene as a housing movement (and definitely not as a Free Spaces movement) – where squatting is one strategy among many, albeit a central one. Calling for a repeal of the squatting ban is certainly justifiable, but it does not count as a social or political agenda, rather it should be considered as a way to open up space for action. A battle to be fought rather than the war in itself.

We don’t squat for the sake of it. We squat for housing. Housing where we control our living space and where we don’t have to pay for the privilege of having a roof over our heads. A house where we can live our lives the way we want to, rather than be forced to accept societies deranged expectations: work hard for someone else, pay rent to someone who has too much, buy things you probably don’t need, consume rather than connect, retire (maybe), and then that’s it.

The conditions we pursue through squatting should be universal. Every inhabitant of the city should have (shared) control over their living space, and no one should have to contribute to the wealth of a landlord, capitalist, or housing corporation to have it. Our position is an ethical one, before it is a political one. This, in short, should be our agenda. Organised resistance, not compliance, is how we get there.

A Final Word

If we are able, through dialogue, to create a shared perspective and a shared vision of our future, the immediate steps will reveal themselves. We will be able to turn what remains of our infrastructure towards the achievement of our shared vision. This could include a revitalisation and reorientation of the KSUs – to emphasise campaigning and consciousness raising activities alongside the traditional functions – and perhaps the creation of new informal and voluntary organisations directed at specific aspects of the task ahead, such as challenging anti-squat companies and owners who hire them, supporting active squatters, and working with other groups dealing with precarious housing issues. This will require us to work with people not currently connected to squatting, people we may not always agree with, but with whom we share a common enemy. These are only suggestions, the details must be hammered out together.

And for those of you who so predictably claim this plan to be unworkable, unrealistic, and so on, remember this: Capitalism has not always reigned supreme, and cities have not always been hotbeds of authoritarianism. Liberty was wrested from the people by force and deception, we must set ourselves the goal – however remote it might be – of taking it back.

The fear is that it may already be too late for this discussion to be constructive. That the city of Amsterdam has already gone too far down the path towards political and social obsolescence. That it has become devoid of meaning and substance; no more than a play pen for the creative middle classes and rich tourists, presided over by an affluent authoritarian elite. Amsterdam, it’s time to break out of the creative cages.

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Footnotes

1. It’s not uncommon to hear, at a squatting action involving people from outside of the Netherlands, neighbours complain that the people are “not even Dutch”. As far as we are aware, no such hostility is directed at rich expats, despite the fact they outnumber non-dutch squatters by tens of thousands. There are good squatters and bad squatters, good foreigners and bad ones.

2. Before you get all offended and start accusing us of attacking a beloved Amsterdam squatting institution, let us point out that we are merely analysing how the ADM has presented itself. We do not know whether the position presented by the ADM accurately represents all the people living there, we doubt it. And we also understand that they are desperate to prevent their home from being taken from them and are doing, very understandably, everything they can think of to stop this from happening. Clearly there is not a strong enough opposition to the current narrative for it to be altered. And that’s all that matters in the context of this article. We are also not saying that the ADM isn’t a fun place to hang out, it certainly is. But that’s not what a movement is all about really, is it?

3. The chief executive of housing corporation Vestia, Erik Staal, is reported to have been paid nearly half a million per year, before being forced to resign for causing a financial disaster at the company in 2012 [5]. Hubert Möllenkamp, ex-director of Rochdale was seen driving a Maserati – in an effort to save face, Möllenkamp was fired from the company. And that is to say nothing of the excesses enjoyed by private property developers and speculators.

4. A stellar example of the cognitive dissonance that pervades the squatting movement and would-be radicals of Amsterdam, appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Amsterdam Alternative – a magazine created and funded by a coalition of creative spaces, most are former squats or, such as the ADM, still squatted. This article exemplifies the way in which art takes precedence over all other considerations in the minds of ‘alternative’ types in Amsterdam. In a flurry of contradiction, the article starts out by condemning the public and private funding of art claiming that under such conditions, “you can succeed as an artist, just as long as you’re clean enough for corporate sponsors, or talented at jumping through the hoops of accessing public funding”, before going on to call on the city council to make public funds available for the support of artist workspaces through the creation of a “Space Force”, which, the author argues, could be, “a reinvigorated version of the broedplaatsen [breeding grounds] policy, looking for ways to help spaces that make creative opportunities for younger people, older people, minorities, and so on.” [7]

5. A poster from 1980 demanding housing for the people of Amsterdam, otherwise there will be no coronation. Since there was, of course, no housing provided, squatters rioted on the day of the coronation. The event was described as “civil war” by segments of the press. Next to it, the ADEV 2018 poster, “Free Space Now”.

6. Right now the Amsterdam squatting movement (or rather the housing movement) are no threat to the status quo, and will therefore not be taken seriously. The city holds all the cards. In France, the Gilets Jaunes are demonstrating what is obvious: one must negotiate from a position of strength, not submission.


Some squats in the Netherlands: https://radar.squat.net/en/groups/country/NL/squated/squat
Groups (social center, collective, squat) in the Netherlands: https://radar.squat.net/en/groups/country/NL
Events in the Netherlands: https://radar.squat.net/en/events/country/NL


Sources:

1. Futurologic Symposium and xx birthday ADM (2017): https://amsterdamalternative.nl/articles/4602
1. The Co-optation of Squatters in Amsterdam and the Emergence of a Movement Meritocracy: A Critical Reply to Pruijt (2004) Justus Uitermark
2. Squatters in the Creative City: A Rejoinder to Justus Uitermark (2004) Hans Pruijt p.700
3. ADM website: https://adm.amsterdam/about
4. Dutch housing sector in crisis over Vestia’s €20bn rate swap gamble (2012): https://www.socialhousing.co.uk/news/dutch-housing-sector-in-crisis-over-vestias-20bn-rate-swap-gamble-21216
5. Halsema wil geen nieuwe kraakacties ADM-bewoners (2018) AT5: https://www.at5.nl/artikelen/189087/halsema-wil-geen-nieuwe- kraakacties-adm-bewoners-meldt-u-zich-bij-de-slibvelden-in-noord
6. Amsterdam Needs A Space Force (2018): https://amsterdamalternative.nl/articles/5980