- Cracking Under Pressure: Narrating the Decline of the Amsterdam Squatters' Movement
Lynn Owens's Cracking Under Pressure is one of the few books devoted to the analysis of the squatters' movement published so far to advance an academic approach to this topic. The appearance of this book contributes to filling a gap in scholarly research on squatters, social centers, and autonomen.
This book studies the decline of the Amsterdam squatters' movement. The author wants to understand how the decline in the subjectivity of activists occurs, how this subjectivity crafts a narrative, how this narrative evolves over time, and the consequences of this process for the subsequent developments of this movement. His departure point is quite the opposite of most research on social movements. As the author correctly points out, the literature has generally assumed that the failure of social movements is somewhat the reverse of their success: "if something is required for movements to emerge, when it is gone, movements will decline" (16). If decline is symmetric to success, then the former has been simply put aside in theoretical explanations.
The author offers a fascinating account of the rather short history of the [End Page 144] squatters' movement in Amsterdam. He puts a number of relevant issues at the center of the scholarly debate. First, Owens makes a case for the analysis of social movements' demise. His argumentation in favor of a theory of decline, as the concept invites us to consider the whole cycle of political contention from its beginnings to the end(s), is well argued and pertinent. Second, and despite claiming that his primary purpose is not to understand why but how decline occurred, the author advances an appealing hypothesis of the decline of the Amsterdam movement: its own narrative of emergence and original power turned out to be a myth that constrained the options for new strategic decisions. Third, the boundaries between the public and private spheres, and subsequently the balance of politics and culture, are key aspects for understanding the trajectory and outcomes of countercultural movements.
In the first chapters, Owens narrates the birth of the contemporary squatters' movement from the intersection of the housing, the youth, and the countercultural movements in Amsterdam during the 1960s and 1970s. His description begins from the original period when squatting was essentially a means for living, until it becomes the sign of identity of a new social movement. The decisive turn in this process is represented by the appearance of a specific narrative that defines the boundaries of a new subject. As defining moments, squatters chose a bunch of events of open confrontation with the state, particularly those occurring between the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980. This narrative of radicalization established the limits within which the new members framed the strategic problems of the movement in the following years. Owens suggests the metaphor of the auto-pilot to understand what happened next: if radicalization, open confrontation, and violence provided the movement its foremost and sounded victories, it follows that further radicalization and confrontation had to be the tactics for achieving new victories. Weakness, fear, and hesitation could be faced and overcome by employing the old, original recipe.
The following sections of the book describe the growing tension between the two souls of the movement (the "politicos" and the "culturellas"), which will end in blatant hostilities that will severely affect the last traces of the squatters' reputation. In the final chapters, the author refers to the role of the local government and public policies in undermining the sources of urban strain that were at the base of the squatters' influence. This situation penalized the political wing, but—paradoxically—paved the way for the [End Page 145] regeneration of the movement. If the former movement based its identity on political struggle, the new squatters' movement has built its identity on the cultural-artistic dimension. Its demands point at the development of spaces for artistic creation and experimentation, out of the (free) market...