The Autonomous Life Re-examined

A recently published book the -Autonomous Life: Paradoxes of Hierarchy and 
Authority in the Squatters Movement in Amsterdam- by urban anthropologist 
Nazima Kadir, takes a close up look at the underlying social dynamics the Dutch 
squatting movement. It remains a fascinating and important movement that shows 
the value of fusing the pragmatic need for housing with anarchist approaches to 
life and politics. I got to know this movement in the 1980s before Kadir’s 
direct involvement. My contact was not through housing but through their Pirate 
Radio, TV and publishing as well as the squatter bars. They represented a kind 
of parallel universe promoting anarchist values but shot through with a 
characteristically Dutch “radical pragmatism” that sought to realise these 
ideas through the practical day to day challenges of living together in 
squatted housing under constant threat of eviction. I wrote about this at some 
length in the 1990s (e.g Amsterdam a Pirate Utopia for Tactical Media.

 Although the book’s sociological lens is useful as an analytical tool its 
emphasis in the inconsistencies and flaws sometimes miss the true achievements 
of this movement. This is particularly important at a time when the nature and 
importance of transgressive sub-cultural movements are again in the spot-light. 
 Indeed the difficulties of the movement insisting on its own normative 
structures around the acquisition of specialist squatting skills from DIY to 
legal expertise to which members were expected to conform, far from being a 
weakness might hold important lessons for future movements.

 The highly organised squatting had a long tradition of squatting in the 
Netherlands facilitated by a specific law brought in in 1971 that in effect 
meant that the police could not evict squatters without going through many 
legal hoops. A great deal of a radical left youth culture was encapsulated in 
the housing issue and various forms of idealistic lifestyles were explored 
through this lens of housing.

 Although the book is full of interesting and close up analysis of the movement 
along with some useful history. Some of the analysis of paradoxes of living out 
idealistic lives while hierarchies, conformity and disguised forms of 
leadership are both interesting but also somewhat shallow in its analysis and 
similar issues around the emergence of new understanding of the nature of 
leadership in social movements have been investigated with greater originality 
and insight by Paolo Gerbaudo in Tweets on the Street. But the detailed 
interviews and case studies from someone who was to a degree embedded certainly 
adds a great deal of new empirical data from which to draw our own conclusions. 

 Below I have transcribed this interview with Kadir from a Social Science BBC 
radio program- Thinking Out-loud. Its an interesting snapshot but the book’s 
perspective is much richer..

 Laurie Taylor- How would you characterise the movement? As a life-style or a 
political movement? 

Nazima Kadir- I think the term squatting in the Dutch context encompasses a 
number of different kinds of communities.. There are some who are doing it to 
live a certain “life-style” and some who are doing it for politics and some who 
are doing it for a mix of both.. There are a huge range of reasons why people 
are in the movement and why they squat.

 Essentially I lived in four different squats over a period of two years. It 
was an amazing experience. It shaped the person I am. But prior to the period 
of living as a squatter I spent a year doing interviews and spent a few months 
as a cook in a squatted restaurant that’s where I got to know a lot of people. 
And due to personal circumstances I found myself without housing and I had lot 
of squatter friends who invited me to live with them.

 LT - You describe a great many ambiguities into the way the people who live in 
these squats behave I mean one features that you capture well is the concept of 
authority and authority figures and how that is dealt with by the squatters. 
Can you elaborate?

 NK - To be very clear this is an anarchist social movement. And the ideology 
is against hierarchy and against authority. But it was also a complicated 
social movement that was under a lot of stress.  And requires a tremendous 
amount of organisation. And so in order to be considered a “good and real 
squatter” there are a bunch of different types of skills and performances that 
one must inhabit and demonstrate. To be an authority figure in particular means 
that you have to be recognised as a “good squatter”. You have to be good at 
particular things like “campaigning” being able to deal with politicians around 
legalistic issues. As well as being a very aggressive and outspoken public 
speaker. Although no one calls these authority figures the boss.

 LT- so its like “squatter capital” and different figures have different 
degrees of squatter capital.

 NK - yes you need a variety of practical skills and many also require skills 
that draw on education and competence.

 LT -  They sound like class attributes requiring a certain level of education. 
What about class and education in the community? How is this handled?

 NK - IAuthority figures allows people to feel excited by them, and have 
confidence in them and must believe in them. But at the same time in this 
community there is a very strong ideology of equality and although people come 
from all kinds of backgrounds in the movement every one is supposed to be 
equal. And so there is a taboo against using education or status as a 
hierarchical tool. However habitus of authority is to a degree unconscious it 
is something we recognise without ever talking about it.

 LT - there is a whole range of typologies you talk about the wild squatters, 
the crusty punks, the baby punks, the student squatters ?

 NK - These typologies are not real people they are essentially ways in which 
people in the movement talk about other people in the movement. The idea of a 
“baby punk” is someone who is really enthusiastic someone who really loves 
actions someone who is 100% in the movement. They are not cynical enough right?

A “crusty punk” is bodily really dirty.. is someone who doesn’t care about 
anything but is really good at rioting!.

A student squatter is someone who looks like a “normal person” but is actually 
a squatter who is squatting out of political conviction. But the assumption is 
that they are transient. They will not be in the movement long term but will be 
really good while they are in it.

 LT s-o people who regard themselves as true squatters define themselves 
against these typologies that are somehow seen as inadequate or not proper 

 NK -More that the idea of having all these sub groups is a way of 
understanding what the ideology of whatever particular group that is. For 
example the group I spent a lot of time with in the book I call them “the 
campaigners” but they were referred to disparagingly by the other groups as the 
“social democrats” and the worse thing that an anarchist can call you is a 
“social democrat”. So essentially because its an oppositional identity the most 
dominant pose is that of this negative identification or negative 
classification which is the number one “other” is this idea of the 
“mainstream”. And then there is a whole world of others.. the “press” is an 
“other” the “Yupies” are an “other”. And then within the movement there are 
also all these groups you are identifying yourself against. In this way you are 
constantly setting yourself up as authentic, whilst seeking recognition from 
other people that you yourself are authentic. So moments of eviction.. moments 
of violence with police or with an owner.. those are the moments of ultimate 
performativity.. And there is literally a set of things that you are supposed 
to do in order to be a resistant as possible.

 LT- were you there at a nostalgic time when there was a sense in which people 
were not squatting in the sense that it had been done before?

 NK- In the historical research I did there was this constant refrain that in 
the past things were better.

 LT- You are suggesting that there was a degree of conformity that is at odds 
with the ideals of autonomy and self realisation.. an opposition to the staus 

 NK- I struggled with the fact that the idea in the community was that you were 
free from society but there were a great many norms and rules that you were 
meant to abide by and were often more strict than the society from which you 
were fleeing. A lot of the book looks into the ways in which individuals in the 
community were constantly seeking ways to accrue capital essentially gain the 
love and respect of their peers. Within both an individual house and the wider 

 Another version here-
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