Voices from an okupation: The assembleia de occupação de Lisboa

Ongoing reflections on an okupation in Lisbon (continuing a discussion) …

The essay below, which we share in translation, is by Tiago F. Duarte, a member of the Assembleia de occupação de Lisboa, a collective responsible for the recent occupation of a residential building in Lisbon’s centre.  We share the essay not because we agree with everything that is stated therein – for example, its overly marxist reading of history, of the opposition of the city and the countryside, of class conflict, and its reduction of occupation to a means or tactic of anti-capitalism when it is as much an end and a strategy (that is, these distinctions are in the end not only meaningless, but problematic) – but because of its insistence in reading “okupation” as a radical politics. 

The city begins where the metropolis ends

(Revista Punkto 21/09/2017)

Questions regarding access to housing in large cities seem to have become critical in the last years, acquiring an unprecedented exposure in the public sphere.  Neighbourhoods where rents were formerly accessible to large segments of the population witnessed an unheard of speculation around housing prices, making evident a continuous destructive re-composition of ways of life in the city.

The phenomenon is global: San Francisco, Mexico City, Barcelona, Porto, Lisbon, and numerous other cities.  However, the ensemble of phenomena that came to be called gentrification is not a new phenomenon.  In its current version, it gained form with the re-valorisation  of urban centres in the United States, beginning in the 1980s, linked to the emergence of “creative economies” and of a relatively comfortable professional class who, breaking with the cultural conservatism of previous generations, appreciated the cultural, ethinic and social diversity of the city centre and saw these elements as contextually appealing.  The diffusion of these emergent socio-cultural forms becomes global with the idea of “creative cities”, thus rehabilitating the idea of urbanity in the eyes of the middle strata of the professional classes.  It is only after the crisis of 2008, though, that the globalisation of this dynamic to cities other than those in the nerve centre of global capitalism becomes noteworthy.  The dynamic behind urban transformations ceases to have as its principal motive changes in the sectoral composition of capital, to instead mirror, in the most brutal way, the emergencies of financial capital.

Contemporary gentrification, contrary to common opinion, has less to do than is thought with the fluctuations of the housing market.[1]  Vulgar economics affirms that the prices of commodities are determined by the fluctuations of supply and demand, and that therefore it is the abnormal flux of elements foreign to the local economy that would provoke the rise in prices: tourism, temporary accommodation, foreign residents, the influx of the high middle class into the centre of the city, etc.  All of these elements certainly contribute to influencing prices, but the determination of the price of real estate obeys more complex rules.  Part of the value of a house is defined by the expected profit that can be periodically extracted from it.  This value, speculative value, of future rent, is included in the fixing of the final price of the real estate.  This dimension has as its agents economic groups who trade products precisely on the basis of their speculative value, that is, the expected return on the investment is not based exclusively on future rents, but also on the possibility of new sales of real estate and the speculative profit associated with it.  In producing a real-estate bubble, buildings are bought and sold at prices significantly higher than those that would be ideally set by the “real” economy.  The economic and financial crisis of 2008 however underlined the global fall in profit levels.  In the face of a generalised crisis of profit in the various financial and industrial sectors, the large financial groups have at their disposal few minimally secure options to render their capital profitable.  Given the imperative necessity of continuous reinvestment, the financial agencies encounter serious difficulties in knowing where to invest.  It is in this context that the realm of real-estate appears as a refuge for ever larger quantities of money.[2] Having always been a sphere of relatively “safe” investment, the international flows of capital find in the real-estate market a place where to “park” their money while no better options for investment appear.  Becoming a focal point for appetising global investment, capable of attracting foreign capital, the profits to be made in local real-estate stock increase, and accordingly, the prices of rents and sales increase proportionately.  The increase in prices occurs not only because of a distortion in the market caused by external factors (tourists, foreigners, immigrants, etc), but because of a speculative use of the markets.

When a call is made to return to the old economy of the city, or when the demand is put forward to regulate the housing economy, we are incurring two mistakes: the first is the naturalisation of the property relations that preexisted the “distortion of the market”; the second is the acceptance of the belief in the regulatory function of the markets, that is, the idea that the protection of the right to housing rests upon the defense of things which are foreign to it – be they socially undesirable tenants who reduce the values of property or well-off buyers who increase excessively the entry sums of money appearing on the market.

The modern city, as we know it, as our grand-parents knew it, developed contemporaneously and organically with capitalism.  It arose, changed and expanded in step with economic and political trends that concentrated workers in a specific territory, while, out of this same emergence but in an opposite direction, it made the emancipatory promise of dissolving traditional social and political constraints.  The modern capitalist city is the ultimate stage where the daily class struggle plays itself out: if in one corner power demolishes whole neighbourhoods to make way for broad avenues, elsewhere the inhabitants organise themselves to make common, abandoned lands; if in one neighbourhood, local authorities and private interests organise themselves to make way for a wave of gentrification beginning with new artistic and cultural spaces, in an another,  excluded populations begin to outline and invent their own creative languages.

What appears as relatively unprecedented, in the last decades, is that the common processes which the city inhabitants organise among themselves become in turn commodities: urban subcultures, from Punk to Hip Hop; the spontaneous occupation of squares by youth; the cultural displays of ethnic and sexual minorities; the bohemian life of artists and the marginal; sexual emancipation, etc.  All of these expressions of forms of life that sought to construct a world beyond the culture of work and money were absorbed by capital.  The other side of everything having become a commodity, of the so-called “consumer society”, is that we have all become producers – we are all proletarians in every moment of life.  Social and cultural relations became a field of commercialisation.  Despite the fact that this is a process which installs itself within previously existing social relations of production, modern capitalism eventually became a social force that created its own world, that designed its territory, that planned the ways in which to circulate within it.  A centrifugal force that turns upon itself, seeking to attract everything that tries to escape back to its centre.  The modern city outlined itself as the material, physical and concrete expression of capitalism, inscribing in everyone of its nooks and corners the inherent contradictions of this mode of production.

For centuries, urban cultures were cultures of resistance.  It was in the cities that the men and women of the countryside could escape from the heavy patriarchal constraints of rural societies, it was there where they could conquer the possibility of survival beyond feudal or family servitude.  It was in the city where thousands of industrial workers were concentrated  and where spaces of conviviality would arise that served as the stage for the emergence of the first revolutionary movements.  It was in the cities where those who for one reason or another could not be accepted into the reigning paradigm of citizenship were able to meet each other, creating areas of security and recognition.  It was in the city, abandoned by the middle classes in flight, that the countercultures found the space to launch their attack on the dominant culture.  From the beginning of the 90s of the last century, with the rehabilitation of the city within the bourgeois imaginary, this idea of the urban territory as a place of wild and dangerous freedom began to change.  The centres, formerly dangerous, are cleansed and opened to the leisure classes.  Modern systems of video surveillance and police control are deployed in the territory; creative professions emerge and their progressive yuppies; the idea of the “typical”, the “authentic”, half way to being transformed into “gourmet” appears and the sons and daughters of the middle class, sheltered in suburbs, can barely wait to join the great party that announces itself in the historical centres.

The idea that an extraordinary combination of factors – tourism, return to the centre, golden visas [See the BBC for a brief account of Portugal’s “golden visa” scheme], relocation of foreign pensions and including in international financial real estate markets – would provoke something like a “perfect storm” hides an important dimension.  The naturalisation of the process as a natural cataclysm – “the storm” – suggests that there exists something like a natural homeostasis of economies, in other words, that the “invisible hand” effectively works, as long as it is corrected, supported, managed.  In truth, the composition of the elements and the terms of operation of an “economy”, as well as its constitution, were always politically deployed elements.  There is no “storm” in housing; what exists is a situation where all of the elements that frame life are defined by capital.

What the “left” in general has difficulty in understanding is how the process of the commodification of the city and its cultures depended from almost the beginning on the domestication of urban populations.  The gentrified city is that city which under the pretext of citizenship was previously mapped, accounted for, cleansed, organised and deployed first as a collection of social apparatuses and then as commodity.  The city that can be sold to tourists and to investors is that whose flows were normalised and homogenised by the political action of local authority, marked by the opening of the museum of contemporary art X or the inclusive festival Y.  The citizens’ metropolis is little more than a network of social entrepreneurs, surrounded by islands of precariousness and poverty.  The city, by contrast, possesses the potential to affirm itself as a rhizomic  network of forms of life that organise themselves beyond the political and economic frameworks of capitalist planning.  This seems to be the question that is absent from most of the criticisms of “gentrification” and “touristification”.  In addition to repeating the fundamentally Keynesian argument that it is necessary to regulate the markets, that is, to accept “the markets” as something inevitable in the collective management of lives, the vulgar criticism of gentrification hesitates in understanding the connection between the contemporary developments of capitalism and the political forms of the management of populations.  The mere legal regulation of the problems of housing may help to momentarily break the escalation in prices, but this will only serve to, on the one hand, oblige real-estate capital to find ever more sophisticated forms and, on the other hand, to deepen and develop the apparatuses of control of that which is the political potential of the city.  The rebel city, the autonomous city, that city which rises up as one of the principal protagonists of the insurrections of the last 250 years, disappears as much before the onslaughts of capital, as before the apparently more praiseworthy organised interventions of political power.  It is enough to look at the ground zero of gentrification in Barcelona: the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona) which at the same time as it houses the most radical artistic deconstructions of the bourgeois aesthetic of the 20th century, promotes the total pacification of the political territories of the 21st century.

The common criticism of gentrification, that which is obvious in the electoral programs of the left and in the discourse of various organisations, is a tendentially de-politicised criticism.  It aspires to little more than “just” capitalist relations, without ever understanding the way in which economic domination is linked to political domination.  Present in the idea of the political, in the idea of politicisation, is the idea of an opposition between forms of life.  A political criticism of the city, of tourism, of gentrification is that which can assert an insurgent power – that seeks to oppose to the processes of metropolitan normalisation and homogenisation the creation of a collective and collaborative way of inhabiting the territory.  When resistance is reduced to indignation, when it is reduced to lamentations for the skewed functioning of institutions, when it can aspire to no more than a call for justice for what cannot be just, then it is a resistance reduced to the social that cannot be considered political: because it has nothing to oppose to what it contests except lamentations and indignation, and finally, resignation.

Resistance, in the city, organises itself through the constitution of forms of life that inaugurate combative forms of inhabiting space.  These forms of life gain shape through what they are materially capable of carrying out, through the autonomy that they are capable of essaying within a territory that, comprised as it is of commodities and exploitation, is hostile to them.  Resistance to gentrification, to the commercialisation of all fields of life, to expulsion from the city, to the surrender to naked valorisation, takes place from within the organisation that we oppose to the political-financial management of the city.  It is comprised of occupations, blockages, means of collectivisation, the act of making common what power atomises and capital separates, the act of abolishing what separates the urban territory from the the rural territory and the act of ceasing to see the city from its historical centre and from the spaces where the apparatuses for the accumulation of power and capital are concentrated.

In occupying a house, a space, a street, these cease to be a mere means of profit and a simple box in which to sleep between workdays, to become a place where a political process is born.  This political process occurs when the participants in the occupation come to have the possibility of inhabiting the space in a collective relation that goes beyond mere individual use, in a relation that begins to immediately dissolve capital’s forms of command.  The question of organisation, of the organisations that we want to oppose to the dominion of capital, is a material question.  “Organisation” is nothing but the strategic and collective use of material forms of power that we are able to gather together.  The contest for the city occurs in the multiplication of these moments and in the multiplication of the knowledges and methods engendered by these moments.

The question of occupation as a method of struggle is not however reducible to the rejection of property relations, nor to the process of common subjectivisation that takes place in the struggles that express themselves territorially and spatially.  The determination to occupy as a mode of struggle, its emergence as a diffuse and shared tactic, follows on the material transformations that occur within capitalism.  The total immersion of life in the infrastructure of capital has as a consequence that the relation between ourslves and commodities ceases to be mediated by the “means of production”, because, at least in the parts of the world where we live, it is the totality of our existence that is in itself a means of production.  To this immediate relation with the commodities produced corresponds the imposition of a series of levels of political mediation that aim to separate this continuous production of goods from their use.  Occupation is thus a means of appropriation of goods socially produced, a means that dispenses with and rejects the mediations by capital itself and which turns these goods over to a common political and shared use.

Contrary to how it has been expressed, the “right to the city” is not a right to urban infrastructures that transport us from home to work, nor the few social services that soften the hours between work shifts.  The right to the city can only be thought of as a process through which are determined, autonomously and in opposition to power, the methods of collective organisation that make it possible for the city to cease to be dependent on a right, that is, on a power which authorises, controls and manages it.  The city begins where the metropolis ends.

  1. gegen-kapital-und-nation.org/en/gentrification-economy-land-and-role-politics/
  2. peoplespolicyproject.org/2017/08/09/massive-rise-of-top-incomes-is-mostly-driven-by-capital/

Tiago F. Duarte (member of the Assembleia de Ocupação de Lisboa)


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