“I’m not sure what the fatal secret is”Mathilde in The Castle of Otranto
The recent media campaign against the occupation of homes was not the first, but one of the most intense in recent times. Its launch, on the eve of a probable intensification of the housing conflict, does not seem to be coincidental. The economic and health crisis has put the sectors involved on alert, and this seems to be a first move on one side. This campaign is beginning to have answers, especially in the form of articles and social networks. In these responses, it has been denounced that the phenomenon of home occupation is less widespread than the media suggests with an alarmist tone. The data and statistics reinforce this denunciation. Moreover, it has been rightly criticised that squatting is being deliberately confused with breaking and entering. Finally, an attempt has been made to refocus the debate on the problem of access to housing, which is the primary cause of property occupation.
The tense situation of calm that we are experiencing seems to be the prelude to greater social conflict, also around the issue we are dealing with. That is why defensive responses are essential, but it would be better to try to go a little further and take the initiative in the conflict, for which it may be useful to examine less visible or less explored aspects. Moreover, when faced with campaigns of this kind, data and statistics are often only half useful, because the issue here is whether or not occupying homes and premises is legitimate.
The campaign has been launched with sensationalist headlines, which fill the desktop programmes and spread through the social networks, causing concern among the audience. We are presented with situations typical of a horror story, in which the ghost of squatting can take over any house, at any time, to torment its tenants. This ghost of squatting is suspiciously similar to another one that appeared three centuries ago, then the spectre had another name.
In the 18th century modern states began to be established, industrial capitalism was gaining momentum and the bourgeoisie was becoming the new dominant elite. Labour was needed in the factories and the countryside, and recruits were also needed to keep the colonies under control. With its rise to power, the bourgeoisie imposed its model of the ideal citizen: enlightened, dedicated to work, thrifty and patriotic. To better define this ideal, a negative model was created, which personified the primitive, the corrupt and the evil. One of the main manifestations of this negative model was the figure of the bum (also embodied by the Gypsy population, the foreign population, the revolutionary sectors…). Studies and analyses were carried out, proposals were made and, finally, laws and punishments were established to pursue the ghost of vagrancy.
All these initiatives were aimed at forcing the integration into the wage-earning world of sectors of the population that maintained a certain economic autonomy, . These sectors preserved traditions and community practices, which allowed them to have relative control over their income, and with it, over their lives. The Vagrancy Laws were the main tool of this lobbying campaign. They began to distinguish between true poverty or poverty of need (due to illness, childhood, old age…) and false poverty (due to laziness, evil…). The distinction involved different treatments. True poverty had to be assisted by charity, assigned work in communal works and monitored. In this way the role of victim was imposed on it, the victim of a biblical curse; the curse of poverty. Victimization dehumanized these people and made them passive subjects, but above all it freed the social model from responsibility for their situation. False poverty and laziness, on the other hand, had to be punished by flogging, forced labour (in galleys or mines) or even death. Day labourers who spent time serving no one, people who lived from street vending or handicrafts, fairground workers, artists and others who combined informal work with survival strategies based on mutual support, were all singled out as lazy.
The Law of Vagrants was decreed in Spain in 1745, and consisted of a campaign of discipline whose objective was to adjust the population to the needs of modern capitalism and the state. This law was followed by others, with similar names and provisions, which were adapted to each historical moment. State managers of all political hues have since imposed their own lazy laws. In the twentieth century, the Vagrancy Law of 1933 was introduced during the Republic, the 1954 law with Franco, then came other repressive laws both during and after Franco’s regime, and more recently, the laws on foreigners and the municipal civic ordinances were passed, which pursued the same objective by similar means; to order the labour and consumer market by force.
The ghost of squatting that is presented to us today is an update of the old ghost of vagrancy. Now, the institutions want to support the housing sector in the face of a probable increase in evictions. The urgency of maintaining discipline among those who live by renting or paying a mortgage, drives the new campaign. Legally, the issue of occupation appeared in 1995, in the new Penal Code approved by all the parties (including Izquierda Unida and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya). It agreed, among other things, to punish the crime of occupying homes and abandoned spaces with prison sentences. The institutions thus responded to the dynamics of occupation of housing and social centres that were taking place in those years. These dynamics, which arose in a context of crisis and youth unemployment, inspired the housing movement a few years later.
The economic crisis of 2008 generated some sympathy for the housing movement. That is why in its last appearance the ghost is again presented in two versions, like its ancestor. The disciplinary nature of the campaign bases its effectiveness on the division between squatters by necessity and squatters by interest (political interest when referring to social and economic activism when talking about mafias). This division is false, someone who decides to break the law and take a house, because (s)he refuses to accept the blackmail imposed by the real estate business, is executing an act of political disobedience. In the same way, anyone who occupies a house or premises does so to cover needs that the current economic model does not satisfy. The phenomenon of housing occupation cannot be dissociated from the effects of the real estate business, so the distinction between types of squatters only contributes to their dehumanisation, as passive victims or malicious people. The division helps to isolate those who decide to disobey the law.
Every horror story has its protagonists, who fight for the return to normality, confronting the ghosts. The real estate sector, banks, construction companies, politicians and security companies are all part of a web that has allowed the elites to sustain their profits for years. Profits achieved at the expense of the effort and income of a large part of the population. In recent years, some sectors of the middle class have been inserted (more or less legally) into this network as landlords of rented flats (tourist or otherwise). And then there is the issue of the so-called mafias, which in most cases are precarious people who charge for opening a house, in others it is somewhat more organised. These dynamics reproduce on a small scale the logic of the legal real estate business, causing some precarious sectors to exploit others. Miserabilism is easily spread when the social model is based on the “every man for himself” model. Even so, the term mafia is abused in this case. If any real mafia were to be singled out, it would be the one that forms the real estate business, as was proven by the cases of corruption that gave rise to the last real estate bubble. In any case, this type of activity reproduces on a Lilliputian scale the dynamics of the legal real estate business, on which they depend for their existence. The squatting mafia is being treated in the same way as the so-called immigration mafia; the migrant group is being stigmatised by being linked to criminal activities, in order to have an alibi to punish them. In the story presented in the campaign, these people (from the legal real estate business) appear as victims of the ghost of squatting, when they are the main cause of the problems related to housing (abusive mortgages, expensive rents, urban development business…). Behind the campaign, there is a strong sense of interest in imposing more severe penalties on those who break the law, but also in hiding the real role of the housing sector in the coming housing crisis. The real monster is quoted on the stock exchange and is running for election, pointing it out publicly would focus attention on those who are really responsible for the problem.
The appearance of the ghost of squatting, like that of any other ghost, finally reveals a great secret that gives meaning to the whole story. The ghost condenses the nightmares of the affluent citizenry, yesterday and today. In those nightmares there is a thread that communicates the culture of resistance of today with that of other times; a resistance to the ways and conditions of life that Capitalism tries to impose on that part of the population from which it extracts its profits.
This culture of resistance is expressed, sometimes in a fragmented way and in not very explicit ways, in the mistrust of authorities, in the confidence in one’s own capacities, in the cunning and courage of those who refuse to swallow with the impositions of Capital. Defaults, hookups, occupation of space and mutual support are part of these strategies that try to put life above economic interests and institutions. Recognising oneself as part of this tradition and claiming it as one’s own reconnects us with the population that has been victimised by the laws of vagrancy, aliens or civic ordinances. In doing so, it puts back on the table what it was then, which is: to lead more dignified lives there is the possibility of daily and collective opposition to the impositions of the elites.
The campaign of the ghost of squatting is supported by and reinforces existing fears around us. In order to respond to it, it is necessary to demonstrate the evil intention of its propagandists, and their falsity. It is also necessary to know who they are and how to deal with them. The distinctions they try to impose on us only strengthen their position and weaken us, so we should not reproduce them. Each person or group that occupies a house or premises does so for their own reasons, but they all have their origin in the effects of the property business and are part of a tradition of resistance that has never completely disappeared. Reinforcing that tradition is to do justice to the people who are being victimised, and it can serve to turn the nightmares of the elites into reality.
Ana Coluta, September 21, 2020
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