Published at Left Unity (under ‘Alex Reich’ moniker)
As the housing crisis deepens, squatting is likely to increase, out of necessity more than as a political act. Since September last year, squatting a residential property in England and Wales is a criminal offence, potentially carrying a prison sentence. The new legislation was supported by the Labour Party. Alex Reich from Haringey Left Unity talks to a young squatter in London.
“I don’t want to be a rock star”, says Nico as he skilfully works the neck of his Epiphone semi-acoustic, “but I’d like to go to college and become a music teacher”. For a good-looking, long-haired London musician in his early twenties, that’s an atypically modest statement. But then Nico comes from Portugal – and his life has been caught up in the turmoil that the economic crisis has inflicted on southern Europe in particular. Just as his metal band was getting offers to play festival slots back home, he decided that his finances would not permit him to stay another month. In London, so he was told, he could at least find jobs working in bars and music venues.
Initially things seemed to be working out better than expected: Nico found a “proper job with contract and all” and a room in London. He even managed to save up some £5000. But none of this was to last. When he visited his home town, Nico found that the crisis had left both his parents jobless and destitute. Instead of living off his savings as originally planned, he gave them the bulk of the money and headed back for London.
Nico’s situation is far from rosy now. For the past two years, he has been living off poorly paid cash-in-hand jobs and moving from one London squat to another. As I speak to him, we sit in the basement of his latest abode, an abandoned Methodist church in South London. Old Bibles, disused priestly robes and other religious relics gather dust among the rubble; among them, a sad looking black Jesus statue and a door sign prohibiting women from entering god’s house during their monthly period. I’m here with my band to shoot a music video on a shoestring budget.
Despite the morbidly romantic setting, squatting is not a lifestyle choice, but a question of necessity for Nico and his half dozen friends: indeed, their hyperactive Staffordshire bull terrier seems to be the only one positively enjoying the rough-and-ready ambience, as well as being a reliable guard to keep the rats out.
Nor does Nico think of this as a form of political protest. But he is outspoken about the political circumstances that have brought him here. There are few jobs, yet at the same time benefits are being cut across Europe. Landlords want no tenants that aren’t in steady employment and check if your income meets their ungenerously set thresholds. Last year, British squatting laws were tightened – occupying residential premises is now a criminal offence. Quite what is someone like Nico supposed to do? Something has got to give, we agree – and, according to Nico, “this society will collapse sooner rather than later”. What will replace it, however, he is not sure.
I’m a Marxist communist, and my vision on what I would like to see happen may be a bit clearer than Nico’s. Even so, we see eye to eye as we discuss the internal dynamics of squats. There are no small-scale communal utopias in the here and now. If people are brought to up to compete against each other, these attitudes tend to inform their social lives in almost any environment. Although Nico and his friends sit in the same boat, the general feel is that of everyone looking out for themselves.
Tensions abound under the roof of the derelict church. Nico tells me about the man who entered the building first and now more or less considers himself to be its owner. A paranoid drug dealer, he demands absolute quiet when sleeping off his high. His proprietarian stance extends to the religious relics scattered about in the church: they arehis and may not be touched by anybody as he is planning to sell them. I am reminded of my own squatting experiences as a teenager: in almost every house, there would be some belligerent old punk arsehole wielding a baseball bat and riding roughshod over everybody else. I can’t remember why we never managed to simply kick such types out.
There existed also so-called ‘political squats’ where I lived, occupied by autonomists who regularly held lengthy meetings. From what I gathered, they were usually tearing each other apart over alleged privilege, sexism, or racism. As a teenager, I didn’t find this atmosphere particularly attractive and preferred to put up with sundry maniacs in ‘apolitical squats’ – though in hindsight, I do admire how the autonomists decided upon actions or ejected seriously anti-social elements by majority vote.
Now most ‘political squats’ in Europe are gone, and to my knowledge, they have not brought any fundamental change regarding the housing situation anywhere. It was different in post-war Britain, when Communist Party activists helped launching a massive squatting campaign across Britain. At its peak, more than 45,000 people were involved in occupations, with some 1,500 taking over flats and hotels in Pimlico, Kensington and St. John’s Wood alone. Although most of the squats disappeared after a few years, local governments bowed to the pressure and granted serious concessions in housing.
Today, as the housing situation deteriorates, one can well imagine a squatting campaign taking off. But for such a campaign to bring any gains – and not just on an individual level – it would have to be well organised and linked to a broader political struggle. Now, as in 1946, a party is needed. By this, I don’t mean a docile, legalist formation modelled on the German Left Party, which bowed to market pressure and raised the rents once it entered local government in Berlin. I mean a party that acts as a battering ram for the interests of the working class.
Later that evening, as we pack up our instruments, Nico tells us that he and three fellow squatters have decided to move out – apparently, things came to a head with the drug dealer upstairs as we were filming. Has it got anything to do with us, I wonder? “Not directly”, Nico assures me, “but when he wanted to charge you money for using ‘his’ basement, it triggered an argument about lots of other things. He’s unbearable. We’re sick of him.” Nico politely refuses the beer I offer him – he needs a clear head now. The four of them know a derelict building nearby. Since entering it is now a criminal offence, they will have to be extremely inconspicuous.
I ask why they cannot simply kick out the drug dealer. “There are more of you”, I argue, “Why do you allow him to tyrannise you?” But Nico is tired of fighting, he says: “this guy will have trouble running the place on his own. Maybe it will teach him something.” Neither does Nico care about the abandoned religious relics, which I suggest they stuff their bags with. At this point, he just wants some peace and quiet – and something resembling a dignified existence.