Free School

The changing times of squatting culture
195 Mare Street Hackney London, 18 - 24 November 2013

We are in the front room of the reoccupied 195 Mare Street in open discussion to map out a Free School programme. Three weeks of Sunday sessions brought together activists from all parts of London, sat in a circle on an assortment of reclaimed and recycled sofas. As the temperatures drop with each week, the circle gets a little tighter, and more engaged. 195 Mare Street is a crumbling pile of a Georgian mansion, the second oldest building in Hackney, a local landmark with an illustrious history. The past decade it has fallen prey to property speculation with an exchange of owners who choose to leave it empty and decaying. The years of neglect have turned it into a semi-ruin - missing floor boards, peeling plaster not to mention the wilful vandalism by hired agents of real estate trying to render it unusable. The state of it is sorry to say the least, but at least now it's being used. The electricity has been restored, the toilets and plumbing repaired. Returning such a large derelict space to social use is always a challenge for under-resourced communities. It involves not only the volume of free labour needed but also specific kinds of social organisation to create a shared resource and a Free School without money. As such the Free school is an extension of its community; as a school it has no set curriculum. The way it operates doesn't lend itself to any coherent storyboard but here's one take on it.

 

The Commons in the Anti-commons
I have offered to contribute workshops on the political value of the Commons. With that perspective the project of creating social centres in squatted spaces can be seen as a way of creating the 'Commons in the anti-commons'. The notion of an anti-commons ironically comes from a former property lawyer Michael Heller with his book The Tragedy of the Anticommons.
'An anticommons results when too many people own property rights of a given resource – land, electro-magnetic spectrum, biomedical knowledge – resulting in an inability to initiate new creative and commercial activity'. Heller may see society through the lens of economic optimisation but questions the overreach of private property and suggestively opens up an undefined space within the role of ownership. 'Private property can no longer be seen as the end point of ownership. Privatization can go too far, to the point where it destroys rather than creates wealth.
'Underuse can be just as costly, it’s hard to see but it can be just as costly as overuse. .. it’s hidden because it is a part of the anticommons tragedy'.
An example is property left empty amidst the scarcity of housing in this city. If such wastage is one of the 'externalities' of financial capitalism, the putting back into social use of empty property should be rewarded. That is to follow market logic as it provides housing, resources and social facilities at very little cost to the taxpayer. Instead it is the target of legislation to criminalise it. And that sadly reflects a reverse morality that denies the heritage of squatting culture. From the preserving of derelict buildings to the producing of new forms of social institutions with minimal resources. Think of Bonnington Square or Arcola Theatre as just two examples amongst thousands. But the reverse morality is needed because anything else would undermine the system's keystone that is property today. Thus the value of squatting to society which more than any other activity brings this to surface and cuts to the core of our social contract through the medium of property - in that vital space between legality and illegality, between the State and the individual.

Free School from the Outside
The Daily Mail likes to sniff out hard-working Londoners who are affronted by rent-free squatters 'living it large' whilst they must 'work to pay the rent'. They need to hear this story, again and again, to feel the reassurance and to affirm the faith in the system. It's the treadmill of one form of anti-commons, the substitution of homes by property, propping up another anti-commons, our corporate-owned media. We have a society ring-fenced by a series of these anti-commons. From their perspective anything that runs counter to their material interests would be illegal. And there's another more deep-seated reason for their antagonism to the use of empty property: the forms of self-organisation that squatter culture and all its associations involve. At its root is the word Anarchism writ large. Get rid of it and their private enclosure would be complete.

There are copies of the latest issue of the Occupied Times floating around the Free School. I notice an essay by Mackenzie Wark that alludes to the Culture Industry as being 'capital's counterstrike'.
In that vein it's worth considering other responses that the squatted Social Centre triggers, in particular from the newer forms of media. A sort of 'vulture' media that has emerged with our hipster-ism and now feeds exclusively on a diet of subculture; as in this take in Vibe.
Further along the contemporary cultural ecosystem are quieter forms of co-option which distance the lived realities of the disadvantaged and their ways of organising by turning them into subjects of discourse i.e. sort of de-fanging the political. But the distinguishing feature of the squatted school is resistance as practice. This means it actively contests the status quo and also counters the accumulation processes of social capital. That's why it's oppositional and is the critical difference between the Free school in a squatted autonomous venue and the alternative schools that extend out from institutional structures. Lets say they come in from fundamentally different angles to end up using the same keywords (Free, Open, Radical, Alternative, etc).

 

School of Practice
The 'What is school?' aspect of the Free School lies less in critical approaches to education per se than in the informal exchange of skills and experience through peer culture that a loose church of social and political activists in gender, sexuality, homelessness, migrant rights, etc - can congregate to. But the Free School is essentially about escaping everything about school.
To underpin this the first evening of the Free School was a Noborders Calais infonight, on the situation in Calais migrant 'jungles'. Workshops on the State oppression that each day there involves and on the practical ways activists can intervene in the face of adversity.
As with property, the economic order is a viral production line of human subjects with a non-legal status – non-citizens, anti-citizens who do not 'exist' legally but are a consequence of the way the global system works. They are the living products of it. Without the presence of activists, the violence of the situation in Calais would not only be invisible but very different in scale.

 

On my next day at the School, much time was dedicated to housing, hunger and homelessness in the post-welfare era. Housing struggles are at the centre of London life and creating new forms of organising - mutual support groups, radical housing networks, coalitions aligned to novel occupations. Along with more traditional know-how on how to secure access to empty property, how to construct barricades, how to pick locks...

If all this implies a School for Do-erism, activism = action, as opposed to reflection, that infact imposes itself through necessity with the workshops on Sustainable Activism. In the new political order, the weight of being an activist has increased - with burnout and depression, then cynicism, then possibly drop-out. New social movements are met by militarised policing measures along with increasing cases of post-traumatic stress. The Dale farm experience in particular was the catalyst for the creation of self-support groups to develop 'sustainable' activism.

 

These workshops bring out the real-politics of activism as a form of labour. What makes an activist and who does such work. Activism is not labour analysable in terms of an economic base. As work the practice of resistance is unrewarded,and not only that, often it's punishable. The unwritten law of activism as work is that of inverse social capital. Building social capital is key to professional survival; then how does it square with long-term social responsibilities to oneself, partners, family etc and what are the personal costs?
External pressures aside, there are equally pressures within the activist trench lines. These can be just as demanding with limited resources, limited manpower, everyone much too hard-pressed by the reality of just keeping things going. That's how it is. On the inside, it's a case of being either 'on it' or 'flaky'. Outside the old-school choices of being 'spiky' or 'fluffy'.

 

Coming out of the Lost Decade
Trying to establish some continuum between current debates and the great wave of concerted activism that was the 90s antiglobalisation movement which culminated with Seattle 99. Then came September 11. Post 9-11 marked a lost decade when neoliberalism advanced with the War on Terror, bringing surveillance and informational policing into every aspect of ordinary life.
This was the decade of 'impotence'. Whilst the relationship between political theorists and activists on the ground is not readily definable, retreat was marked both in practice and discourse in captivating ways.
As with Andrew X, self-doubts on the self-appointed role of the activist as a specialist of social change, and the sense of alienation from society.
With Bifo Berardi, the 70s activist with Radio Alice and Autonomia effectively deserting the field of the future declaring that 'militant will and ideological action had become impotent' (2008 Dialogues with Felix Guattari).
With Simon Critchley and Infinitely Demanding 2007: the practice of resistance had to maintain an interstitial distance from the State (an intro video). It was futile to confront the State directly. This produced its own chain of critique and chatter.
But on the ground the decade stood for the disconnection between the resistance and power, Subject and State. Squatting culture and practices of resistance moved towards self-defined autonomous zones. If resistance for the sake of resistance is a vital part of squatting, it was within that political space. Anarchy like everything in practice had become spatially contained.
Then there were the assumptions at various points within the radical spectrum. Many a meeting with hard-talk of capitalism brewing its own perfect storm with the financial crisis of 2008. Instead the recipe now is greater austerity and greater policing. Command and control neoliberalism.

 

The triangle of resistance
Cap in hand with the State, neoliberalism seeks a spatial closure, to enclose all space within its domain and remove blindspots. And it's systematic. It senses its own 'now or never moment'. That's why today we see new laws such as Section 144 to criminalise the squatting of empty property. What it really wants is to flush resistance out of the social circulation and it uses the media to mark out the social carriers. So these are not easy times for the squatting fraternity.
In anarchist terms it might be heretical to think of the squatted social centre as an institution but it's this quasi-institutional status that's proved resilient however. For several reasons, but in particular the making of an activist community to interchange struggles. Through its open structure the community produces generalised dissent as a form of practice. The squatted social centre has been integral to this process. The social centre creates the space for the other key aspect of squatter culture – Solidarity economics.
Activism, Anarchy and Solidarity economics: that's the structural triangulation that enables the squatted social centre to survive, to produce its community, to mobilise resources in that vast urban matrix of generalised repression and generalised resistance.
What the neoliberal State can't pin down is generalised resistance. It can target issue-based resistance because it knows where it's coming from.
 

 

Politics and Community
With today's reality the squatted social centre has to find new ways of connecting with other embedded forms of resistance as its operating life span is 'Here Today Gone Tomorrow'....
It's becoming more and more of a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone), caught between pessimism and optimism: the LRB piece explained the drift. This temporality signifies the critical change in the 'material base' of the squat. The other involves the way agency is being described.
In collective meetings nowadays, activists may introduce themselves as political activists, or as community activists which was never the case in the anti-globalisation meetings in the 90s at East End warehouses. The politics of community was somehow too small and complicit with capitalism.
How do we read the change? Would it be Politics in Community, Politics of Community, Politics and Community? But if these point towards a greater distribution between squatted and community based practices, the role of the Social Centre squat as a nexus has been changing. The cultural politics of its resistance doesn't necessarily always cross over with the space of community and when it does, not always in expected ways. But the value of the squatted social centre as a durable switchboard for different ways of resisting remains vital. The critical thing is that all-important question, as posed in one workshop:
Where can we continue to have agency over the things that affect us?

 


/
postscript: 195 Mare Street was evicted morning 16 December 2013