Peer-reviewed articles Hungary The constitution of the “political” in squatting

This paper presents the constitution of the “political” in two cases of political squatting in Hungary after 1989: the Centrum squatter group’s occupations in 2004–2006, and the homeless advocacy group The City is for All’s occupations in 2013–2014.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 80-88
Published on on June 23, 2016

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This paper presents the constitution of the “political” in two cases of political squatting in Hungary after 1989: the Centrum squatter group’s occupations in 2004–2006, and the homeless advocacy group The City is for All’s occupations in 2013–2014. In the case of the Centrum group, the political significance of squatting was defined by a position allocated to squatters within a larger global justice movement coalition. As soon as that allocated position changed, the political perception of the Centrum group vanished. In the case of The City is for All, the constitution of the politics of the occupations was kept under control by a conscious long-term strategy, which defined squatting as a tactical element. Drawing attention to the shifting political ontology, the paper argues for a context-sensitive definition of political squatting.

Keywords: squatting, social activism, post-socialist countries, Hungary, urban studies.

The idea of political squatting has been codified in the practice and self-reflection of Western European radicalizing movements, which turned, following the downturn of the 1968 movement cycle, to conflictual strategies in urban settings, to voice problems of housing, youth unemployment, and various countercultural values. In defining political squatting, researchers rely on these historical backgrounds to grasp the political dimension that makes squatting more than simple occupation. In doing so, they tend to raise elements of the Western European historical context as evident corollaries of the phenomenon. For example, in a new comparative study on Western European squatters’ movements in 52 large cities, Guzman1 summarizes the literature on political squatting, identifying typical elements of the political context of squatting in phenomena such as support by the New Left and the Greens, squats serving as platforms for the extra-parliamentary left, involving Marxists, autonomists, anarchists, and a left-libertarian subculture, and being part of campaigns for affordable housing or minority rights, or against war, neo-Nazis, unemployment, precariousness, urban speculation and regeneration projects, gentrification, and displacement.2 The present paper analyzes how the idea of political squatting that is codified in Western European contexts can be transferred to other contexts where many of the contextual elements integrated in the very definition of a political squat do not exist, but where, instead, the process of squatting feeds into different dynamics of local politics. It describes the political context of two cases of political squatting in Hungary after 1989, pointing out the specifics of the local political context and the transnational processes that leave their mark on it.

The paper relies on a field study among global justice movement (GJM) groups in Hungary (2004—2009), including the instances of squatting by the Centrum group in 2004, 2005, and 2006. It also draws on a follow-up of the main events of both GJM and housing activism since 2004, including the 2014 and 2015 occupations by the housing activist group “The City is for All”. The descriptions of the two groups are based on interviews with activists, information material produced by the groups themselves, and news from national and social media. The paper is not aimed at attain a monographic description of the groups. It attempts to answer the question how the “political” in political squatting is constituted in the two cases.

Squatting as politics

From a perspective open to non-Western European and non-political squatting practices, Hans Pruijt3 differentiates between types of squatting according to their aims. While a simpler method would be to differentiate between mere occupations and occupations with a political or protest aim,4 Pruijt claims that, in fact, all forms of squatting have a political aspect.5 I will take his approach as a base to define what I call “political squatting” in the three Hungarian cases described below.

In Pruijt’s formulation, political squatting implies that “the involvement in squatting is driven by an ulterior anti-systemic political motive”.6 What he codifies as antisystemic political motives in Western European environments is typically the political agenda of radical leftist, autonomist, or anarchist movements.

Because of the different historical constitution of Central and Eastern European (CEE) politics and movements, defining political squatting based on the political content of Western European movements poses some problems. One of the most evident would be the relative lack of movements that correspond to Western European ones. As Grzegorz Piotrowski notes in one of the few comparative studies on political squatting in postsocialist CEE,

Squatted social centers in post-socialist countries are a sort of litmus paper for the condition of the whole alternative social movement. Their small number in my opinion reflects the weak vibrancy and condition of such groups in the region. […] if one considers squatted social centers as part of a broader scene, it shows that the latter is not fully developed.7

Asserting the weakness of local movements that correspond to Western European ones fits into a broader stream of social movement research on post-socialist CEE.8 However, it could be argued th at the impression of weakness does not necessarily come from the lack of social and political struggle locally, but is rather a result of optics focusing on phenomena similar to Western European cases. The history of social struggle over ownership of land or real estate throughout the modern history of CEE, and its living heritage in the dynamics of postsocialist politics and of the local history of Marxist or anarchist politics of real estate, may be lost when we focus on squatting only as small contemporary movements similar to West European models.9 The very status of such “minority” movement scenes in local political dynamics may need to be defined according to the actual roles they play, instead of being confined to definitions from West European contexts and then indexed as weak or lacking. Therefore, to grasp the “political” in political squatting in CEE, I propose to abstract the definition from the concrete forms of politics linked to squatting in the Western European contexts. If we are to grasp the “political” in political squatting without reducing it to the substantive qualities present in Western contexts, then we may reformulate the logical core of Prujit’s definition thus: political squatting is the type of occupation in which the main aim of occupation, as conceived by squatters, is not contained in the direct consequences of the fact of occupation (such as access to space for living and various activities, or stopping the demolition or renovation of the building). This is not the same as stating that the act of occupying and the space occupied are not key elements of the political gesture, or that such acts do not have political implications and consequences by themselves. The distinguishing element, I claim, is whether the occupation is conceived by squatters to be a tool for aims that are not contained in the fact and the direct consequences of occupation. If it is so conceived, the focus on abstract aims is prone to open up the conception and the process of squatting to a broader sphere of relationships within the field of formal and informal (i.e., movement) politics. This paper started with the intervention that the field of formal and informal politics is not the same in different locations, and hence political abstractions at work in squatting practices can differ from those identified by research on Western European squats. What follows is an analysis of how the “political” is constituted within that broader sphere of political relationships in two cases of political squatting in Hungary after 1989.

While, in social terms, deprivation-based squatting is a far more significant issue in postsocialist Hungary than squatting conceived in political terms and with political aims, the present paper concentrates only on explaining the context of the conception of the politic s of political squatting, in order to contribute to a comparative understanding of political squatting without a bias towards Western European historical contexts. In the case of Hungary in the period after 1989, no occupation advertised publicly as having political goals was sustained over a longer period. While social squatting (occupations for housing reasons, typically kept secret for the sake of sustainability) had been going on throughout the postsocialist period, only a few cases of occupation received publicity, and ever fewer for political reasons — while the rest were limited to temporary artistic projects, such as the 1991 occupation of a former transformer building by a French artist group, or the 2010 occupation of a gallery space by the artist group Boulevard and Brezhnev. While the lack or weakness of local movements similar to Western European examples that would connect housing, cultural, and political issues is an argument at hand, two additional contextual factors need to be mentioned in regard to the low levels of political squatting in Hungary. First, in formal politics, the coalition of Socialists and Liberals after 1994 explicitly became the locus of neoliberalism, leaving no space for support for alternative leftist projects from above — a kind of support that was common elsewhere. Second, as the privatization of apartments in the early 1990s reduced the number of state-owned apartments, and made apartments the most expensive asset of families across the country, any attack on real estate as private property resonated negatively. This was not the case in Poland, for example, where real property was restituted to its presocialist owners, so that a higher number of tenants remained tenants in buildings retroceded to their previous owners’ heirs, a situation which allowed a strong tenants’ movement and favored the overlap of interests between tenants and political squatters.10 This means that in Hungary, the zone where the aim of physical occupation (for housing or a social center) overlaps with more abstract political aims (i.e., radical political ideologies), a zone to which most of what has been categorized as squatting in the West belongs did not evolve. Cases of political squatting were doomed to a short lifespan, which worked towards an even more marked separation of political aims and actual occupation in activist practice. The very idea of “squatting” as possessing a place for political reasons could only work when the political aim was abstracted from the actual occupation.

The political nature of the global justice movement in the mid-2000s

With just one big stone upheld in his hand and intense eyes, he now moved slowly to the scene in a menacing fashion, with swift and commanding reactions to any movements around him, and with just me as his totally ineffective backup. From a three or four-meter proximity he ordered the officers back into their cars, all while holding the big stone above his head, pointing it now to this agent and then to another. […] It was not a military victory but a moral one. It presupposed a history of increasingly rough fights around the legitimacy of property speculation, around housing policy and urban politics. It also could not have happened without a clear left-right division in urban public culture, nor without the gradual tipping of the moral and physical balance of power in the bigger cities, and in particular in Amsterdam, against the rights of property and the state.11

The above vignette from an anthropological essay demonstrates how a broad political context is inscribed within the practical gesture of a squatter in 1980 Amsterdam, a context that builds up and constitutes the power of the gesture as much as the very fact of its physicality. Let us look at the context of the Centrum group’s political squatting in a similar vein by tracing the relationships within the formal and informal political spheres that constitute the political nature of the occupation.

What was the “symbolic drama” set in motion by physical occupations in the case of the autonomist group called Centrum? In 2004, 2005, and 2006, Centrum organized three main occupations, the first being the Pioneer Mall, an emblematic location of socialist consumption on one of the main boulevards of central Budapest. The Pioneer Mall occupation was the first publicly advertised case of political occupation in postsocialist Hungary, and in the eyes of many activists, it represented the peak moment of the political movement which the Centrum group fed into: the global justice movement of the mid-2000s.

In social movement studies, the GJM has been conceptualized in relation to the issues of sovereignty, democracy, participation, and economic justice. It has been treated sympathetically by researchers as a legitimate critique of economic globalization and a promising experiment to construct global civil society as the democratic counterweight to the powers of global market.12 Critics of these interpretations have argued that the activity of civil society groups relies not only on the base of their own moral decisions, but is itself produced by the context of neoliberalization, a process that involves the creation of civil society.13 This approach warned that an autonomous global network of civil society does not possess the tools to produce relevant change. Another line of criticism, coming from the classical left, claimed that the movement’s horizontal, networked, deliberative form of organization does not enable it to exert power over the forces of global capitalism.14 By the end of the 2000s, the movement arrived at a phase of fatigue. Autonomous action and the use of the public space had not produced the desired effects. However, its members, values, and repertoires returned in the new movement cycle of the 2010s, demanding economic justice and horizontal participative democracy.

Regarding the integration of other Hungarian movement groups into the GJM, Gagyi15 argued that, beginning with the eastern enlargement programs of the European Social Forum, that integration took place in a hierarchical way, which made it impossible for Hungarian activists to address the problem of general GJM frameworks’ inherent inability to address postsocialist contexts in the agenda of European discussions. The practice of identifying Eastern partners for the movement established an environment of competition in which local fissures between ex-socialist, unionist groups and young, countercultural groups deepened, leading to two parallel institutional networks. At the same time, the idea of autonomy, central in GJM ideology, came to serve a bridging role between GJM frameworks and local realities, often by way of the simple gesture of delimiting “global” activists from “backward” local contexts. This gesture of the second group was fortified by an earlier historical form of the same gesture in the dissident history of the NGO base that GJM activists relied on for support.

GJM activism worked as an informal network comprised of NGO activists and employees and some independent activists — not members in any formal organization — working together to organize typical events of the GJM repertoire such as Food Not Bombs, Buy Nothing Day, Anti-War and Anti-WTO events. The informality of the network was emphasized by the ideology of NGOs and GJM activists alike, in which organizers are faceless examples of a coming upheaval of general global civil society activity. It was this overlapping ideal of civil autonomy, anonymity and prefigurative politics inscribed in both GJM and dissident traditions that worked to put the Centrum squatters’ group in the forefront of GJM activism. Most of the Centrum activists were new anarchists16 not aligned with any NGO. Their autonomist norms of total politics and anonymity, as well as their helpful participation in various GJM campaigns, made them into models — or stars — of the anonymous civil society norm of the wider GJM group. Also, their focus on squatting was aligned with the importance of the prefigurative practice of “living between two worlds”17 conditioned by the fissure between GJM norms and local reality. Squatting became the point where the stakes of that practice added up.

In interviews, activists spoke to me about the ontological experience of opening up a new, autonomous zone in the body of everyday reality, which has also been voiced by other activists and theorists.18 The experience was less connected to the concrete outcomes of the occupations than to occupation as a symbol of the total politics in which Centrum activists believed. In interviews, squatting was recurrently described as a hub of other activity strains, all of which together constitute the promise of the global civil society ideal.

What all this connects to, is the whole of the resistance movement, the methods of resistance against the power of capital. What one learns in a squat, she will use elsewhere, in other actions. In a country like Hungary, where radicalism converges to zero, it is very important that squatting educates those people who will have that experience, a field experience, which will show them how to deal with the system. […] It is very important to have these synergies, this is the most important thing, in my opinion.” Centrum member, 2005

The Pioneer Mall occupation was advertised throughout the networks of the whole GJM group, including their more liberal-leaning allies, as the tipping point of the movement ideal. It also received massive support from journalists and commentators emphasizing the Western European origins of the practice. The liberal narrative of “catching up with Europe” blended together with the globalization-critical narrative of creating autonomous spaces for a general type of global activism. However, in the next few years, while recurrent attempts at occupations met fast evictions, the movement context which framed the Centrum squatters as heroes of a coming new world decomposed, leaving the group, with no objective institutional structure to rely on, to the depredation of total politics, internal symbolic competition, and intragroup tensions.

From 2005 on, several attempts were made to channel the energies accumulated in the GJM network into political parties, the most successful of them bringing a new Green party into Parliament by 2008. Besides the tensions that arise from the conversion of civil society politics to party politics, the framework of anonymous global civil society suffered another blow in 2006. That year, a leaked speech by the Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, in which, after many years of austerity, he claims to have lied to voters about the state of the public budget, resulted in violent street protests, met by police aggression. The years-long work of GJM activists, in the faith that their actions were but the anonymous premonitory signs of a coming wave of general civil activism, predestined them to think that, as people finally took to the streets, their ideals were going to gain power. In 2006, however, protesters tended to voice ideologically unclear and, as the protests evolved, more and more nationalist right-wing slogans. For activists, especially the more radical ones in Centrum who had predicted violent street protests earlier, this came as a trauma. Contrary to the generalizing formula of GJM, “We are everywhere”, the 2006 events showed that it was not a “we”, or not the “we” they had intended, who came to the streets. The political frameworks they had believed in and worked for in the past few years proved to be a marginal discourse in the current political struggles, practically inaudible to the mass of protestors. As one activist put it:

After that, nothing happened, we were drowned in the aftermath of Őszöd [the leaked speech]; I think everyone on the left was. We felt like wet gunpowder. Had to take our self-assurance back, and rethink who we were. At first we were happy to see the riots. I wrote a speech to read in case we got inside the TV building. […] And then it turned out that these people were those with Árpád stripes [widely understood as a neonationalist symbol], rather than people of our own, and then I got depressed for a long time. […] This was the effect of Őszöd. First, we couldn’t converge on what we were to do; second, we didn’t know whether it was better to distance ourselves from protestors, or join them. Third, we didn’t have any idea of how to do either of those things. […] They were marching for radical right ideas, and we were lost amongst them. We couldn’t find ourselves, we had no weight.               GJM activist, 2008

As some NGO members of the GJM movement went on to organize a party on the basis of GJM and green organizations, while others stayed within classical NGO activity, the informal sector of the GJM network dispersed. Those activists who were not NGO members — identified to the maximum with the idea of autonomous total politics, and treated by the movement as the model of that political future — lost the external support of movement frameworks. As the movement’s history stepped into the next phase, their role as a key pillar of the movement ceased to exist. This change left them a small group of extremely ideologically-minded people with no external reference to rely on. Confined within the group, their political ambitions played out as internal personal tensions, leading to the dissolution of the group.

A university occupation in 2013 showed similar dynamics to the Centrum story. Responding to the Orbán governement’s reforms in higher education, students occupied a venue in Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, with an aim not contained within the direct consequences of the occupation — in this case, a space for forums and further organizing, and a situation that could be used as a background for sustaining public attention for further announcements. As a political gesture, it was constituted within a power field as an element in a constellation of the political sphere. The power field was set by the context of protests against the governing conservative party Fidesz’s measures from 2011 on. In 2012, an alliance was formed between a previous Socialist prime minister and the largest civil opposition group of the 2011 protests, called Milla. Due to the low legitimacy of Socialists, and of party politics in general, the alliance alienated many protestors from Milla. That situation placed the organizing body of students’ protests, the Students’ Network, in the center of the oppositional civil movement. The Network was carried by principles of political neutrality, autonomy, and internal democracy, historically rooted in the new anarchist/GJM ideals of its early organizers. In order to attract new members, it set political neutrality and internal democracy in the foreground. In a situation defined by external pressure for political involvement and internal principles of political neutrality, the ideas of horizontality and autonomy, expressed in the action of occupation, gained political significance from the external context. That position soon dispersed, however, as external political pressure finally split the group along existing political lines. As in the Centrum group, once the support of the external context vanished, the ideology of horizontality and autonomy played out in internal symbolic conflicts, and led to the dispersal of the group.

The homeless advocacy group The City is for All

The City is for All (A Város Mindenkié, or AVM) is a homeless advocacy and housing rights activism group founded in 2009 which is aimed at emancipatory, participative advocacy. While the initiative for setting up the group came from professional activists, inspired by models of homeless advocacy work in the US, the group itself aims to empower homeless people in Hungary to struggle for their interests, and today is composed predominantly of homeless activists. The group employs a well-articulated methodology of horizontality and empowerment between its homeless and middle-class activist members. Apart from methods of direct organizing and support, the group aims to raise consciousness about the consequences of inadequate housing policies and to establish legal guarantees of the right to housing, and also focuses on empowering homeless people to take part in decisions that affect them. At present, the group has two main working groups: one that deals primarily with issues of social housing tenants and evictions, and another that works to protect the rights and interests of homeless people living in homeless shelters or on the streets and in self-built housing in the forests surrounding the city. The group also operates a “street lawyer” program, providing free legal aid on a central square in Budapest, and a program called “The City is for All Academy”, as an internal development tool for the members of the group. AVM has a broad media presence and maintains strong relationships with other advocacy groups.19

The politics of AVM has roots in professional homeless rights advocacy, North American practices of social work in community development, and the intellectual and movement tradition of the GJM and the Right to the City movement. Some of its founders worked with a voluntary homeless advocacy network of professional activists before AVM. Much of the intellectual and political concept of AVM comes from two intellectual activists studying abroad, one of whom defended her PhD in 2013 at City University of New York. In conceiving AVM, one of the inspirations was David Harvey’s reinterpretation of Lefebvre’s iconic slogan “right to the city” in the context of Marxist critical geography.20 Alongside the horizontal principles of GJM in activist practice, it was the English-speaking tradition of community development, and especially the example of the New York-based homeless advocacy group Picture the Homeless, that served as a base for the AVM founders to diverge from the tradition of professional social workers or middle-class activists working “on” homeless people and instead reorganize activist work through participation. Finally, concurrently with their activist commitment to participation and professional knowledge of homelessness and advocacy methods, AVM founders had the intellectual capacity to understand Hungarian housing problems in the global frameworks established by the main currents of critical social science allied with social movements, especially the GJM and its urban manifestations.21 This provided a solid ground not only for international intellectual and activist support, but also for the stability of organizational politics against the vortex of local political tensions and the destabilizing effect of international movement principles not fitting postsocialist contexts, which GJM groups had experienced. At the same time, the very concrete and immediate nature of the issue of homelessness and evictions shielded activists against the sense of irrelevance of their political ideas in the local context, which had weighed upon the GJM.

AVM differed from formal and informal GJM groups, and from various waves of the Students’ Network, in the professionalism of its intellectual and activist embodiment, the concreteness of its grievance and its assistance, and the conscious methodology of cross-class horizontal participation. The global framework of the group’s understanding of their issue, the long-term fixity of their principles, and the concreteness of the issue provide a relative independence from the political context, making AVM both insensitive to invitations to alliance by political players and able to develop flexible tactics of alliance-building in its day-to-day advocacy work. This characteristic of AVM makes it less vulnerable to changes in the political sphere: in the cases of the Centrum squatters and the Students’ Network occupations, such changes had first provided the ground for political occupations, and then taken it away.

In January 2013 and September 2014, AVM organized two occupations of empty houses in Budapest with the aim of raising consciousness about the existence of a large pool of empty flats in the city, contrasting it to a rising rate of housing poverty and homelessness.22 The context of the occupations was strongly set by the prolonged activism and research work of AVM members. Aware of the short period which activists were likely to be able to spend inside the buildings, they conceived the occupations not as actions in themselves, but as communicative actions of AVM on the issue of housing poverty as defined by the organization and the general political debate on homelessness it had participated in during recent years. The immediate context was provided by supplying prepared public materials to mayors, decision makers and experts, by consultations and forums with local governments, ministries, and other state agencies, by requesting and working with official data, by strong media communication, by planning actions and demonstrations against housing policies, moves to criminalize homelessness, and evictions, and by an annual Vacant Buildings March beginning in 2011 around empty buildings in Budapest — a demonstration aimed at linking the issue of homelessness to wider issues of financial speculation and irresponsible housing policy.

In January 2013, AVM organized the occupation of a building classified as a historic monument, owned by District VII of Budapest, which had been vacant for years. The issue fed into a story of real estate speculation and gentrification in the district since the early 2000s. “Ruin pubs” settled in vacant buildings had made the district into an international nightlife hotspot, and served as a base for commercial gentrification throughout the decade.23 Civil opposition against real estate speculation, said to be ruining the pool of monument buildings in the district, proliferated in the early 2000s. In 2009, the Socialist mayor of the district was arrested for fraud. The AVM occupation built on that story to reduce public revulsion against the illegal action. The group used the occupation as a tool for consciousness-raising and pressuring: pitted against the decision-makers in local government, they drew attention to the pool of empty flats owned by the district and the possibility and lack of political will to make those flats available for housing purposes.

The District VII occupation thus pursued tactics of building on a well-known and very frequented place in Budapest, with a history of conflicts between real estate speculators, local government, and commercial interests in gentrification on one side, and various civil society and neighborhood initiatives on the other, to the district one of the most politicized spots in Hungary on real estate and housing issues in recent history. AVM directed its action towards formal politics and decision makers, putting pressure on one of the spots it considers relevant to short or medium-term results: local governments’ policies on flats under their ownership. Against the background of the government’s new criminalization gestures towards the homeless, the occupation was used to communicate that, instead of policing and mass shelters, the solution to homelessness is a stable system of council flats and the institutionalization of the universal right to housing. Making use of the general upheaval of anti-government demonstrations, the AVM attracted several young activists from other sectors of the demonstration wave to participate in the nonviolent resistance organized for the defense of the house. Thus the occupation functioned as political squatting inasmuch as its essence was defined, not by the immediate consequences of the occupation of a physical space, but by a broader political agenda in which the occupation was used as a momentary and tactical mechanism. The political communication of the action was defined by a conscious scaling between the general, long-term agenda of the group, and the concrete possibilities of gains through such an action, in the context of the group’s whole portfolio of activities.

The second occupation, in 2014, concerned a building in District VI, the story of which also resonated with the history of real estate conflicts in Budapest. The building that was occupied had been a hospital, vacant for the last 20 years, and gone from the hands of the local government to the ownership of an offshore company. It served as an ideal example for a political narrative that summarized earlier real estate conflicts, in the context of the general decline of welfare functions, to put pressure on the local government. The occupation was organized at the time of local government elections, which enhanced its publicity. It also made use of the synergies built up by the quadrennial tradition of Vacant Buildings Marches. This time, the march ended with demonstrators entering the building. After the demonstrative squatting, activists marched to City Hall with a message to the Mayor of Budapest: “Wrong solution: selling out; right solution: renting”.

The action met the organizers’ aims: to share the experience of entering an occupied building with as many participants as possible, while reaching out to other social groups affected by housing problems. Emphasis was placed on the multiple effects of housing policy on various social groups, their collective interest in state responsibility for housing rights and welfare guarantees in general, and the collective experience of the occupation. Besides media presence immediately before local government elections, and the attention drawn to vacant apartments in the hands of local governments as a potential solution to housing problems, this occupation was also aimed at raising consciousness about the possibility of occupation as a political tool. The banner activists hung out from the windows of the occupied building read, “Take a place!” However, the aim was not to encourage squatting per se, but rather to publicize it as one possible tool to increase pressure on targets considered strategically advantageous. Pressure on local governments through squatting was accompanied by various techniques of consultation and cooperation — for example, at the same time as the 2013 and 2014 occupations in central Budapest, AVM and the Social Reconstruction Camp Association worked together with the District X local government on a pilot project utilizing vacant, municipally owned homes.24


We have examined the contextual constitution of the “political” in two cases of political squatting in Hungary. The 2004—2006 Centrum occupations were connected to the new anarchist and global justice movements in Western Europe, and to the concept and role of squatting in them. The City is for All (AVM) homeless advocacy group learned from the tradition of community organizing in the US. In both cases, squatters relied on examples, repertoires, and political ideas seen in Western European movements, and also used references to such models to legitimize their actions locally. At the same time, both cases differ in their constitution of the “political” in political squatting from the characteristics incorporated in the definition of political squatting in the literature on Western Europe. Guzman25 identifies the basic traits through which political squatting in Western Europe connects to the broader political field as the presence of typical grievances and claims (housing shortage, youth unemployment, youth counterculture), and their relationship to two characteristic elements of the political field: the strength of the extreme right and political polarization, and the presence of left subcultures and organizations which can act as a background and institutional base. Similarly, in the Hungarian cases, the “political” in squatting was constituted by a complex field of political relations beyond the act of squatting. Yet the relationship to that broader field was not primarily defined by ties between squatters and more established leftist movements or their institutions, which are typical of other, Western European cases. In the case of the more lively political squatters’ scenes in CEE, such as in Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, the literature details a stronger relationship in that direction, but it also points out the relative weakness of such movement backgrounds in comparison with Western European scenes.26

In the two Hungarian cases, the constitution of the “political” in political squatting could not rely on a broader movement which could sustain it within the larger public sphere on its own terms. Consequently, in the case of Centrum, the political constitution of squatting depended on a position assigned to squatters within a movement that did not necessarily imply the same new-anarchist politics as the Centrum group itself. As that position assigned by the GJM coalition changed, the external reference of Centrum members’ politics vanished, and the group dissolved. In the case of AVM, the constitution of the “political” in the occupations was kept under control from the perspective of the group’s conscious, long-term strategy of homeless advocacy activism. That meant a more utilitarian relation between the politics of squatting, the act of squatting, and its political framing. Because AVM aims over a longer perspective for a systemic change which would allow everyone a decent space to live in, in its political framing of squatting for tactical reasons the group limited its campaign to the topic of empty houses, corruption, and mismanagement by the state and local governments, and planned the occupation as a moment of that campaign. At the same time, however, it was precisely the simultaneous presence of a global, long-term framework of housing politics, and of immediate grievances to deal with, that allowed a more tactical approach and made it possible for the group to prevent alliances on the level of national politics affecting its own politics.

The case of AVM’s “tactical” squatting for political reasons seems to fall further from the typical model of West Europan political squatting, while the Centrum occupations seem to be more similar, with a political framework taken mostly from new anarchism, partly overlapping with the dissident and GJM ideals of the movement that supported the squatters. However, in the case of Centrum too, it is worth pointing out that the ideas of new anarchism or GJM had a somewhat different value locally than in Western European contexts. Beyond noticing the mere lack of a strong movement and political base behind them, a closer look provides us with an additional element of these political ideas: the ambition to dissipate the hierarchical difference between more evolved Western and more “backward” East European contexts through emulating forms of Western activism. One activist, asked about her motivation for squatting, told me:

because it is a shame that we don’t have a squat in Hungary.      Centrum activist, 2005

This local value of new anarchist and GJM ideas, and of the political gesture of squatting, is important to note in order to look beyond “deficiencies” perceived in comparison with Western European squatting scenes, and ask about the local function of political squatting.

The two Hungarian cases of political squatting described here seem to be so deeply inscribed in constellations of local formal and informal politics and transnational alliances that their politics hardly give us a basis for defining the political essence of squatting in postsocialist Hungary other than by pointing at its contextual constitution. Beyond signaling the lack of a broader alternative left movement scene which could provide such a context in a more stable way, I find that conclusion instructive in understanding the definition of political squatting in Western Europe too, inasmuch as it points to the necessity of a specific political context for the phenomenon coded as political squatting to emerge. ≈


1              Cesar Guzman-Concha,  “Radical Social Movements in Western Europe: A Configurational Analysis”, Social Movement Studies (forthcoming) (2015): 1—24.

2              Guzman-Concha, “Radical Social Movements”, 4.

3              Hans Pruijt,“Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movements Inevitable? A Comparison of the Opportunities for Sustained Squatting in New York City and Amsterdam”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27 (2003): 133—157. Hans Pruijt, “Squatting in Europe”, in Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, ed. Squatting Europe Kollective (New York: Autonomedia, 2013).

4              Grzegorz Piotrowski,“Squatted Social Centers in Eastern and Central Europe”, International Center for Research and Analysis Working Papers 1 (2011); Guzman-Concha, “Radical Social Movements”.

5              Mark Gimson, Caroline Lewin, and Nick Wates, “Squatting: The Fourth Arm of Housing?” Architectural Design 46.0 (1976): 4.

6              Pruijt, Squatting in Europe, 44.

7              Piotrowski, Squatted Social Centers, 25.

8              For an overview of the ’weakness’ debate, see Ondrej Císař, Social Movement Research on Eastern Europe: Three Ongoing “Debates” (unpublished manuscript, 2012).

9              E.g., those described by Grzegorz Piotrowski, Alterglobalism in Postsocialism: A study of Central and Eastern European activists (dissertation manuscript, European University Institute); Agnes Gagyi, The ‘Universal’ Idea of Globalisation on the ‘Periphery’: Hungarian and Romanian Alter-Globalist Groups (dissertation manuscript, University of Pécs); Dominika V. Polanska, “Cognitive Dimension in Cross-movement Alliances: The Case of Squatting and Tenants’ Movements in Warsaw”, Interface 6.2 (2014): 328—356.

10           See Dominika Polanska and Grzegorz Piotrowski, “The Transformative Power of Cooperation between Social Movements: Squatting and Tenants’ Movement in Poland”, City 19, no. 2—3: 274—296.

11           Don Kalb, “Mavericks: Harvey, Graeber and the Reunification of Marxism and Anarchism in World Anthropology”, Focaal 69 (2014): 113—134.

12           Donatella Della Porta and Sidney Tarrow, Transnational Protest and Global Activism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Donatella Della Porta, ed., The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national and Transnational Perspectives (London: Paradigm, 2007); Jackie Smith and Hank Johnston, Globalization and Resistance: Transnational Dimensions of Social Movements (Washington, D. C.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002); Jeffrey Juris, Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Geoffrey Pleyers, Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in a Global Age (London: Polity Press, 2010).

13           Barry Axford, “Critical Globalisation Studies and a Network Perspective on Global Civil Society”, in Critical Globalisation Studies, ed. Richard P. Appelbaum and William I. Robinson (Psychology Press, 2005), 187—196; David Chandler, “Constructing Global Civil Society”, in Global Civil Society: Contested Futures, ed. Gideon Baker and David Chandler (London: Routledge, 2005), 238—273; Neera Chandhoke, “The Limits of Global Civil Society”, in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2002, ed. Helmut K. Anheier, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor (Oxford University Press, 2002), 3—33.

14           Barbara Epstein, “Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement”, Monthly Review 53.4 (2001): 1.

15           Ágnes Gagyi, “The Shifting Meaning of ‘Autonomy’ in the East European Diffusion of the Alterglobalization Movement”, in Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-austerity Protest, ed. Laurence Cox and Cristina Flesher Fominaya (London: Routledge, 2013), 143—157.

16           For a definition of new anarchism, see David Graeber, “The New Anarchists”, New Left Review 13.1 (2002): 61—73.

17           Paul Chatterton and Jenny Pickerill, “Notes Towards Autonomous Geographies: Creation, Resistance and Self-Management as Survival Tactics”, Progress in Human Geography 30, no. 6 (2006), 730—746.

18           Hakim Bey, TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone; Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Autonomedia, 2003).

19           E.g. Amália Jónás, “Beszéd a roma büszkeség napján”, A Város Mindenkié, October 28, 2013, accessed November 9, 2015,; Kata Ámon, “Hajléktalan és LMBT aktivisták egyesüljetek!”, A Város Mindenkié, July 24, 2014, accessed November 9, 2015,

20           David Harvey,”The Right to the City”, in New Left Review 53 (2008): 23—40.

21           Udvarhelyi, Éva Tessza. (In)justice on the Streets: The Long Housing Crisis in Hungary from Above and Below (dissertation manuscript, City University of New York, 2013).

22           AVM: Üresen álló szociális bérlakások Budapesten, A Város Mindenkié, September 23, 2014, accessed November 9, 2015,; Mariann Dósa, “A Város Mindenkié” [The city belongs to all], Anschläge, February 2014, accessed November 9, 2015,

23           On the use of squatter aesthetics by “ruin pubs”, see Piotrowski, Squatted Social Centers.

24           Vera Kovács, “A Város Mindenkié csoport ‘Utcáról lakásba’ kísérlete Kőbányán”, Esély 1 (2014): 92—106.

25           Guzman-Concha, Radical Social Movements.

26           Piotrowski, Squatted Social Centers.


  • by Agnes Gagyi

    A social movement researcher, working on Eastern European movements from a global historical perspective. She is member of the Budapest-based public sociology working group “Helyzet”.

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