This article theorizes the urban commons in the case of the housing commons of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from the 1960s to the present. The making and unmaking of urban commons like housing in Amsterdam can only be understood if urban commons are theorized both in terms of their scaled political economy and of the everyday interventions of social movement actors, as their actions were channeled by but also transformed the historically and geographically specific arrangements between classes and the modern state that constituted that political economy.
In the first section of the article, I review earlier studies of the urban commons—a relatively new area of research—and set out my own theoretical approach anchored in an analytics for theorizing the making and unmaking of the commons. In the second section, I provide evidence for the existence of a housing commons in Amsterdam in the mid-1980s. The third sections applies the theoretical concepts of the article to explain the making of the housing commons—the particular developments in postwar capitalism in the Netherlands from the 1960s to the 1980s that empowered two different social movements to transform the Dutch state to establish the housing commons. The fourth section turns to how transformations in Dutch capitalism in time and space led to shifts in political dominance away from industrial capital and organized labor toward finance capital, such that conservative political elites came to power and began to erode the social protections for city residents of the housing commons. The article concludes with an assessment of the recent literature in the study of the urban commons in light of the findings of this article.
Theorizing the urban commons
In the past two decades in anthropology and other social science disciplines, a lively and productive exploration of the commons as an alternative to capitalist processes of production, exchange, and consumption has emerged (Bollier 2002; Nonini 2007; Ostrom 1990; Ostrom et al. 1999). Researchers have focused on the variety of commons, their modes of governance, and the preconditions for their existence and persistence. An increasingly prolific literature has come to substantiate the important claim that commons do indeed exist in a great variety of environments, social settings, periods of development, and political systems (Ostrom et al. 1999).
However, there has been one key shortcoming to this approach: almost universally, the commons in question are rural. Within the social sciences, only very recently has it become possible to think productively about the existence of urban commons, of the forms they might take, and of the conditions that make their existence possible. Initial conceptualization in sorting out the different kinds of urban commons is an important start. The distinction by Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat (2013) between three kinds of urban commons has been particularly helpful—they refer to commons around public services or goods, such as schools, housing, transport or health care; around public spaces of interaction and encounter, such as streets and parks; and around public artistic expression that engages the creativity of city residents, such as murals and street performances.
While a significant advance, these reflections on the urban commons need to be more fully developed theoretically within a broader political framework of political economy and sociocultural analysis, and grounded in specific empirical examples. This article seeks to accomplish this task by first theorizing the urban commons, then, second, illustrating some of the key processes that make urban commons possible and allow them to persist—at least for a long period of time, if not indefinitely.
Recent articles on the urban commons begin to suggest the challenges in theorizing the urban commons, but they do not go far enough in tying the formation and persistence of urban commons to contemporary capitalism and contemporary states, to which they are surely connected. For example, Amanda Huron (2015: 963), drawing on her study of limited-equity cooperatives in Washington, DC, contends that urban commons are characterized by two traits that distinguish them from rural commons. First, they are “enacted in saturated space … that is already densely packed with people, competing uses, and capitalist investment.” Second, they are “constituted by the coming together of strangers.”
Maja Bruun’s (2015) very interesting and well-researched study of Danish housing cooperatives provides another example of the urban housing commons. Her argument about “open access”—that open access to the urban commons must be seen as a “central social value arising from democratic open societies” (2015: 156)—should be noted. It appears to challenge the generalization in the commons literature (e.g., Ostrom 1990) that the commons has been eroded when there are no rules that exclude outsiders from using it.
Turning to another approach, Martin Kornberger and Christian Borch (2015: 8), in their survey of urban commons in Europe, make the important argument that “density and relationality are key factors in what constitutes the urban commons.” They argue that the common property literature of Elinor Ostrom and colleagues (1999) make a confused distinction between “subtractive” resources within a commons (where one person using a resource subtracts from it being used by others, as in the case of natural resources like water, timber, or fisheries) and “non-subtractive ones,” like knowledge or close proximity of city residents to one another. They claim that within cities, non-subtractable resource commons prevail, for example, that consumption by one person of a park or shopping mall does not decrease the value these have for others but actually increases it, as when crowds come together for people to enjoy the presence of others, or to observe what others are purchasing (Kornberger and Borch 2015: 6). Kornberger and Borch go on to refer to the urban commons as being a city’s “atmospherics,” its spheres of sociality and connectedness within networks (2015: 8–11).
Finally, the literature on urban social movements provides valuable insights into how participants in urban social movements think about the commons and seek through their activism to bring into being more just sharing of resources. David Harvey (2013a) points to the collective efforts that urban residents have long made at “commoning,” and refers to the literature on the “rights to the city” that inform social movements (and social movement theory). Maribel Casas-Cortés and colleagues (2014) and Don Mitchell (2003) provide other studies of how participants in social movements have sought to bring about urban commons.
As I argue here, each of these approaches to the urban commons provides useful contributions but has shortcomings when assessed in light of the more explicit theorization that follows.
Toward an analytics of the urban commons in an era of the rise of finance capital
Urban commons are systemic arrangements through which city residents create and maintain what Marx called “use values”—things of utility—and make them available for collective use by one another. These things can take a variety of forms—schools, public health facilities, housing, street space, or murals, performance venues for public speaking, and so forth. Urban housing is one such key resource that, along with other public goods and services and spaces of encounter (Susser and Tonnelat 2013), make the production of these other forms of collective “resources” possible; this is indeed what amounts to urban “collective consumption” (Castells 1983). Collectivities of people together produce collective use values as products of their sociality—and they seek to gain access to them wherever possible.
However, city life is not only about use values but also about the exchange values that contemporary capitalism seeks to create. Broadly speaking, it can do so in one of two ways. The one most familiar from interpretations of classical Marxism is the production of exchange value through the capitalist industrial labor process, which involves the appropriation of surplus value and its subsequent realization when the industrial capitalist sells “his” product, thus leading to his accumulation of capital (Marx 1976).
What is less recognized, if at all, is the risk that surplus value once appropriated may not be realized, that is, a variety of structural conditions may make it impossible for commodities to be sold in such a way that their surplus value can be converted to the money-form within cycles of capital accumulation. Historically, this has often happened in periodic economic crises because of overaccumulation and underconsumption. As Harvey (2013b: 1–35, 379–394) has recently noted, realizing surplus value, in addition to the sales of commodities by the industrial capitalist, implicates three other forms of capital, according to Marx in Capital, Volume 3—rent capital, merchant capital, and money or finance capital. For our purposes, because finance capital provides the credit system that allows industrial capital to reproduce itself, its strategies are key to the realization process. Finance capital also strategically mediates the operation of rent capital, as when financiers loan capital to landowners to construct buildings for rents or sale. For these strategies to succeed, however, finance capitalists must continually seek new ways of appropriating and transforming use values into exchange values to add to the surplus capital they already have on hand.
Fortunately for finance and rent capitalists, many kinds of use value lie “right at hand” for their appropriation, for its transformation into exchange values, and thus for the continued realization and accumulation of surplus capital. There is a substantial overlap in the use values that might remain noncommodified within urban commons such as in housing on one hand and those use values that, if captured by financial and rental capitalists, could be transformed into profitable exchange values allowing for their continued accumulation of capital, on the other hand. There is therefore a dialectical contradiction between those progressive social forces that seek not only to create but also to preserve urban commons consisting of such shared use values, and the financial and rental capitalist forces that seek to capture these use values to commodify them and transform them into sources for private accumulation. It is this key contradiction that the above-referenced literature on the urban commons fails to adequately deal with or consider.
In the case of urban housing, local construction capitalists, rent capitalists and finance capitalists (e.g., bankers) who provide both of the former with credit as they do to residents (who need to buy or rent housing) together seek to gain maximum control over the available housing stock within their ambits of political influence vis-à-vis the state and residents. Moreover, in alliance with other domestic and international finance and development capitalists, they will scale up to form coalitions to seek such control. This implies concerted political strategies to influence state policies with respect to the commodification of housing stock.
How such dialectical encounters between city residents seeking to create and preserve urban commons and capitalists seeking to appropriate the use values that these commons represent are resolved depends on the disposition of political forces such as social movements, political parties, and contemporary states. If state policies pressed by movements and parties are such that the attempts by private capitalists to appropriate the use values of urban commons are blunted or prevented outright, then such urban commons will likely be maintained and strengthened over time. If, to the contrary, state policies and programs weaken urban commons by allowing the continual advance by finance capitalists in the frontiers of commodification of these use values, then urban commons will be unmade. This is what happened in the case of the Amsterdam housing commons.
The history of the Amsterdam housing commons has been conditioned by the political economy of transition from Fordist industrial capitalism to a postindustrial finance- and service-based capitalism in the Netherlands (Harvey 1989; Smith 2010). Edward Soja (2000) sets out three major changes that apply to Amsterdam as they do to other cities in the global economy. These are “the increasing internationalization of metropolitan regions,” “a pervasive industrial restructuring,” and the emergence of “increasing social and economic polarization” (2000: 132–137).
An important shift in the advent of flexible accumulation toward a postindustrial and service-based Dutch economy bears directly on the housing commons. As industry underwent decline in the Netherlands, so too did Dutch industrial capital and its broader Fordist commitment to the state’s provision of welfare services to industrial workers as a means of keeping wages low. In its place, Dutch finance capital sought to reduce state welfare expenditures for the working population, including housing, which competed with its own capacities to capture use values (e.g., in housing, intellectual property) from the working population in the service sector, and subjected the population of wage earners to the priorities of financial capitalist accumulation.
The housing commons of Amsterdam, circa 1985
By the mid to late 1980s, a commons based on social housing as a collective use value had come into existence in Amsterdam. During the prior two decades, new social housing had been built on land where private rental units had been demolished, and tens of thousands of private rentals had been purchased, renovated, and converted into social housing. Not only had the national and municipal governments and Amsterdam’s 14 housing corporations come together to support the growth in new social housing, but they also had taken measures to expand rental subsidies for all but the most wealthy groups and declared by the mid-1970s that access to affordable housing was the right of any resident of Amsterdam.
The coalition was committed to meeting residents’ universal rights to affordable housing; all residents irrespective of income level were eligible for social housing. A centralized application system for rental housing set up through the Amsterdam housing department applied to all renters, and both social and private landlords were required to go through the system. This prevented private landlords from selecting their own tenants and thus brought all but the most expensive rental housing under the administration of the municipal government.
Lower- and middle-income tenants were allotted rental subsidies determined by their income levels, number of children, and other criteria of need. It was determined that average workers should not have to spend more than 17 percent of their income on rent, while those at the lowest income level should not have to spend more than 10 percent of their wages on housing (Stouten 2010: 71–72). Rent stabilization regulations made it possible for residents to find stable housing over time and, as it was put locally, establish a “housing career” in social housing.
Residents’ committees, representatives from the housing associations, the citywide tenants’ association and district councils (coming from 14 governing district councils citywide), and government employees (e.g., social workers, architects) played a key role in setting out these regulations and implementing them, thus democratizing governance of the commons (Schuiling and Van der Veer 2004: 8).
Amsterdam’s social housing system constituted a true commons that shared the finite common resources of the city’s housing stock among the users who formed the majority of its population. It was a true commons when it:
- made all potential users (i.e., residents) eligible for social housing and provided a shared means of access through the application process;
- provided them access to housing according to their specifically defined needs (e.g., family size);
- allotted rental subsidies to those unable to afford housing that otherwise met their needs;
- set rent maxima, through a “point system” (puntensysteem), based on the quality of specific housing units, which allowed residents to rent, and made it difficult for landlords to exclude potential users on the basis of their incomes1;
- prevented private house owners from withdrawing their own housing from the base resource of the housing stock, or imposing rents that would prevent the majority of the population from having access to it;
- controlled the expansion of the housing stock in such a way as to commit the large majority of new housing to the social housing sector, and not to the private sector;
- provided mechanisms for collective decision making that allowed for the active participation by residents in decisions that vitally affected their own use of housing as a resource.
These characteristics of the housing commons in Amsterdam in the 1980s overlap with the criteria that Ostrom (1990: 58–102) has set out as the “design principles” for a long-enduring commons.
By 1982, 41.6 percent of all housing stock was in social housing (an increase from 18 percent in 1950)—compared to owner-occupied housing (6.3 percent) and private rental housing (52.1 percent)—and continued to increase to 54.3 percent by 1992, while private rentals decreased to 34 percent (Schuiling and Van der Veer 2004: 4). As a result, 95 percent of all rented dwellings in Amsterdam fell within the point system as recently as 2004, when only 20 percent of the stock was owner-occupied, which meant that “roughly 75 percent of the Amsterdam housing market is regulated, call it a ‘pseudo-’ market” (7–8).
The making of Amsterdam’s housing commons, 1960s–1980s
The making of the Amsterdam housing commons by the mid-1980s, and the political-economic conditions that made it possible, can only be understood within the history of class relations, Dutch capitalism, and the Dutch state in the postwar period.
Social housing, or nonprofit housing, was first undertaken by the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dutch state as it recovered land from the sea and determined to put it to use for settlement and housing by making land available for development by nonprofit philanthropies, foundations, and cooperatives, which established predecessors of the contemporary housing associations in the Netherlands. Thus, as churches, charitable foundations, labor unions, and workmen’s cooperatives sought land for housing development, they did so within the framework set by the Dutch state, not by private corporations (Stouten 2010).
During the postwar years of reconstruction, a corporatism that brought together capital, labor, and the government was associated with the rebuilding of Dutch industrial capitalism in an era of decolonization, and this broad accommodation between capital and labor persisted through the 1960s. What made labor peace possible given the strength of the trade unions was the clear understanding by all sides that social housing based on low rents that the working class could afford, subsidized by the state if necessary, was crucial to maintaining low wage levels consistent with capitalist accumulation. This was an understanding that crossed the religious and political lines of the “pillars” (zuilen) that “vertically” divided Dutch society into liberals, socialists, Catholics, and Protestants, was supported by both Catholic and Protestant trade unions, and is fairly explicit in the record. According to Frans Dieleman (1994: 450):
Housing policy became an instrument by which coalition governments could reach a compromise on broader economic and social issues. Housing played the same role in the social contracts resulting from negotiations between the labor unions and the employers. In general, moderation of rent increases in support for non-profit housing were prerequisites for agreement on relatively low wage demands and low rates of inflation in the private sector. Both are considered beneficial to the competitive edge of the Netherlands … in the internationally oriented economy.
How did the Amsterdam housing commons come about? I contend that there were two distinct social movements: one within the Dutch Labor Party and one outside it that pressed the state to create the conditions for universal access by residents of Amsterdam (and other Dutch cities) to affordable housing. The emergence of this commons occurred in the pivotal year of 1973—the year of peak power of the working class within the postwar corporatist accommodation between employers, trade unions, and the government. Activists in these two social movements had different strategies for achieving this goal and different visions of politics, worked in separate spheres (party politics and civil society), and had goals that were at times antagonistic, but the combination of their pressures on the state led to the emergence of the housing commons.
One social movement formed in the late 1960s was the New Left (Nieuw Links), an unofficial faction within the Dutch Labor Party committed to the radicalization of the party’s objectives and to the democratization of its governance. Its activists were young and well educated, and tended to come out of careers in the media and professional services. They sought to move beyond the party’s long-standing constituency of the trade unions to bring in youth, students, professionals, and others participating in post-1968 anti-imperialist, feminist, and environmentalist movements (Wolinetz 1977: 354–366). Having joined the Labor Party in the mid to late 1960s, New Left activists quickly came to challenge the then dominant Labor Party leadership, practices of governance, and long-standing political economic objectives. By 1971, members of the New Left formed the majority of the party’s executive and included the party chairman (356).
New Left demands incorporated into the party’s platform went far beyond the corporatist accommodation, and set out not only new goals but also new means for reaching decisions and setting policies within the party and in society at large wherever the party had a presence. It demanded that the party incorporate the “priority for the needs of lower income groups,” undertake “the redistribution of excess corporate profits,” and institute greater “public control over private investment and financial institutions” (360).
Such action groups included those advocating specific issues including “improvement of the environment or demands about a specific neighborhood or project.”
The present-day  PvdA [Labor Party] is a cross between a parliamentary party and a social action center. … Members of Parliament supplement legislative activities with visits to designated areas in which they assume the role of ombudsman, listening to and examining local grievances. … Anxious to maintain ties with those who are promoting change—anxious to maintain ties with those at the bottom—the party supports, and encourages and occasionally organizes action groups.
This was the New Left–dominated Labor Party that came to power in 1973 to form the Joop den Uyl cabinet. This government was far more democratic and radical in orientation than its predecessors, particularly in forming connections between its leadership at the national level, its local members, and party-affiliated aldermen and municipal counselors. Whether or not they were formerly members of New Left (which dissolved itself in 1971), Labor Party leaders in the cabinet were thoroughly infused with and sought to implement these New Left principles.
One such Labor Party leader was Jan Schaefer, who began his political career as a leader in the movement to resist modernistic renewal in the Amsterdam neighborhood of De Pijp during the 1960s and early 1970s. Later he made his way into the higher ranks of the Labor Party at the national level and became state secretary of public housing in the Den Uyl national government from 1973 to 1977. According to Justus Uitermark (2012: 203), “In that position [Schaefer] would help to create the institutional preconditions for a further deepening and broadening of the residents’ movement.” Schaefer helped to popularize and institutionalize the slogan of “building for the neighborhood” and to work out concepts for the “compact city.”
Under Schaefer’s influence, policies changed to focus on small transformations that would preserve neighborhoods (and tenure for their residents in social and squatted housing), and centered on renovation instead of demolition (Uitermark 2012). Over this period, the central government made ample funding available for such projects. In 1978, Schaefer moved back to Amsterdam, became a local party leader and an alderman, and promoted the building of more social housing. In this period, social housing construction in Amsterdam increased from 1,100 units in 1978 to 9,000 units in 1984 in large part because of his and his supporters’ efforts. One informant I interviewed in Amsterdam in 2016, without being prompted, mentioned Schaefer’s role: “He was bigger than life, in fact a very big man, a baker by trade, who got deeply involved in squatting then in the Labor Party.”
The same informant, Jan H., a man in his late fifties who had worked for the Amsterdam municipality for many years, mentioned the close connections between activists working on housing, those in other social movements, and Labor Party members in Amsterdam: “At that time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, students were extremely politically active. We were not only in the squatting movement but also in the antinuclear movement, in the feminist movement, and in the beginning of the environmental movement. Many of the same people would be involved in these different movements.”
Jan went on to mention how he got involved in the squatter movement and eventually became a squatter himself. He was active in the Young Socialists (the youth wing of the Labor Party). One day, the chair of the neighborhood’s Young Socialists chapter parked his car in front of a building where there was a police action to evict squatters, and the squatters were trying to resist the police who sought to evict them. He and the other members of the chapter could not help but become involved: “We telephoned Labor Party officials and officials in the city government, and tried to liaise with both the squatters and the police to reach some sort of solution. It was after this that I became more personally involved in the squatters’ movement, and decided to become a squatter.” Later in the interview he said, “The Labor Party and other parties on the left took a kind of pride in accommodating to and being connected to the protests and contemporary social movements of the time.”
Uitermark (2012: 204–205) asserts (but I have not been able to independently verify) that many Labor Party activists were able to take advantage of their educations and local connections to become official employees of the municipality, who were then able to exert their leverage on behalf of social housing and collective self-organization of the housing associations.
The other, “outside” social movement was a squatters’ movement consisting largely of youth, the majority of whom were students committed to the physical occupation of housing that had been left vacant by the urban renewal projects of the municipal government in the 1970s. The Amsterdam squatters’ movement has been extensively written about within the social movements literature (Duivenvoorden 2000; Kadir 2014, Mamadouh 1992; Owen 2009; Pruijt 2003, 2004). For reasons of space, I summarize key aspects of the squatters’ movement as it bears on the making of Amsterdam’s housing commons.
First, the squatting movement in Amsterdam entered its initial phase in the late 1970s. When the municipal government initiated a large-scale and thoroughgoing physical transformation of Amsterdam’s city center, involving the construction of a subway system and expressway, the demolition of older housing, and the construction of new large housing complexes for the city’s workers, it faced determined opposition by protesters. Some were squatters who began to occupy distressed and unoccupied housing in the Nieuwmarkt district of central Amsterdam, while other residents, not squatters themselves, supported squatting because of their political commitments to social housing and the promise it represented of universal access to housing. Squatters refused to be evicted or to allow the demolition of the preexisting and often distressed housing (Fainstein 2010: 85–88; Owen 2009).
Second, squatting in Amsterdam in the mid-1970s began to proliferate beyond the Nieuwmarkt district to other areas of the city. As squatting of empty housing increased all over the city, squatters began to network together and formed neighborhood “squatters consulting hours” (Kraakspreekuur), cafés, low-cost/no-cost neighborhood restaurants, social centers, a radio station, and much more. Squatters groups across the city were able to scale up into a citywide network. When squatters in one neighborhood faced evictions, they would be joined by squatters from outside the neighborhood to resist the police (Anonymous 1982, 2000; Kadir 2014; Owen 2009).
Not only did squatters come to symbolize the universal right to housing that led them to adopt extreme measures, often exposing themselves to physical danger and discomfort. They also began to act as a collective social force that imposed enormous financial, political, and moral costs on private financial capital, as vacant privately owned buildings were squatted in for years on end, rents went unpaid, and buildings could not be legally sold in the interim, while vacant buildings combined with evictions drew bad press to the failure of the city’s government and private capital to house its population.
The standard narrative by Susan Fainstein claims that the squatters’ movement on its own mounted a successful attrition campaign against a municipal government engaged in urban renewal and could take credit for “reversing the entire approach to planning for a quarter of a century” (2010: 87–88). This article shows otherwise. The confluence of the democratization movement within the New Left–influenced Labor Party and the municipal government it controlled, and the efforts of the squatting movement, taken together, led to the institutionalization of the housing commons of Amsterdam by the late 1970s.
Given this massive accomplishment, how has the housing commons come to be partially unmade?
The unmaking of Amsterdam’s housing commons, 1980s–2007
Trends “toward intensified industrial restructuring” (Soja 2000: 134) begun in the 1970s continued in the 1980s, as older industries facing international competition retrenched labor and closed down operations. Unemployment rose steeply from 6 percent in 1975–1979 to 15 percent in 1983. However, services employment was the one sector that showed increases (Wolinetz 1989: 87–89, 97n29). By the 1990s, the shift by the Amsterdam labor force away from industrial employment and toward service work in producer services (e.g., design, accounting, and advertising), the media and creative/artistic sectors (e.g., film and publishing), and in financial services was well underway. “Increasing internationalization of metropolitan regions” (Soja 2000: 132–133) was also occurring. Since the 1980s, Amsterdam’s position within the hierarchy of global cities around international finance and financial services (accounting, law, etc.) has become more prominent (133). Finance capital has grown in power as industrial capital has receded (or merged with finance capital) with the rise of postindustrial labor relations.
In light of the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial, service- and finance-based economy, there has been “increasing social and economic polarization” among the population characterized by “increasing flexibility in the labor market evident in the growth of ‘temporary’ and ‘part-time’ employment” (Soja 2000: 136). Studies of Amsterdam’s service sector confirm its ubiquity, the unequal bargaining power between employers and service workers, and the contingent and precarious conditions of labor and subsistence for large numbers of the latter (Soja 2000; Terhorst and Van de Ven 1986). There is evidence of very high levels of economic precariousness among creative workers in the Netherlands (Henneken and Bennett 2016: 37).
The erosion of the housing commons must be viewed in the context of this increasing economic insecurity among the working population of Amsterdam.
During these years, the power of the trade unions to dictate wages and working conditions declined severely relative to the prior balance between labor and capital within the postwar corporatist arrangement. Given labor’s weakened position, from 1977 through 1989 the Liberal-Christian Democratic governments that succeeded the Den Uyl government began to side decisively with employers to implement new plans for government intervention on the side of capital.
In light of industrial labor’s decline and new state austerity policies, from 1977 to 1989, finance capitalists (managers of mortgage banks, pension funds, international banks) and their allies in the housing construction industry placed pressure on the center-right governments that succeeded the Den Uyl government to reduce its mandated state financing of new construction of social rental housing by the housing associations, and to redirect and increase state subsidies toward their construction of new (and conversion of old) housing for owner-occupation, whose mortgage debt these financial capitalists directly or indirectly provided.
The Den Uyl housing policy committed the government to provide subsidies over a 50-year period for new construction in the social rental and private rental sectors in return for rent subsidies provided to tenants (Priemus 1987, 1990). The New Left–influenced Labor government thus sought to prolong protections for renters beyond its own tenure in office. However, state subsidies at a period of economic contraction constituted direct competition with financial capitalists because subsidies financed new private housing construction (since subsidies also applied to private housing), while the government threatened privately financed owner-occupant housing construction by increasingly supporting competing housing associations’ construction of owner-occupant housing. Finance capitalists found their allies in conservative party leaders (e.g., the Christian Democrat Appeal) who shared government power after 1977, and viewed the financial obligations imposed on the state by Den Uyl’s 50-year subsidy policy as particularly obnoxious as they sought to impose austerities on the welfare state in the name of reducing government deficits (Dieleman 1994; Priemus 1990). This part of the Den Uyl policy had to go; by 1995, it went.
“Housing in the Nineties,” the 1989 housing memorandum put forward by Ruud Lubbers’s center-right government signaled the inception of the neoliberal turn by reducing subsidies for social housing and promoting owner-occupied housing instead. The memorandum also outlined a series of measures that privatized housing associations in the Netherlands, began to put in place legal measures that imposed more financial responsibility on them to deal with declines in state support and financing, and shifted responsibility for the development of social housing from the national to the municipal state (Kadi 2011: 10–12; Van Gent 2013: 510). In 1995, the government engaged in a complex swap that canceled out all its outstanding subsidies to housing associations for its outstanding loans to the associations. The policy cut the financial ties between the government and housing associations and made the latter financially and legally autonomous from the state (Kadi 2011: 11).
As Wouter Van Gent (2013: 510–511) observes, the change devolved financial risk down to the housing associations, whose residents were expected to reach collective decisions about renovation and the construction of new housing—funded no longer by state subsidies but by the surpluses that housing associations accumulated through sales of social housing.
One consequence of the financial liberalization of housing association status was that members of these associations faced pressure to pass on collective responsibility for decision making within the associations to new professional managers. The latter became crucial actors pushing the trend toward increased commodification of housing. Treating the housing associations as capital-generating entities, the new managers sought to accumulate wealth in them by selling units of social housing on the private market to prospective owner-occupants in line with new government policies.
Political changes at the level of the national government with respect to social housing in the housing commons were decisive in placing defining features of the Amsterdam housing commons in jeopardy. Between 1985 and 2006, the social rented sector within Amsterdam municipality rose from approximately 48 percent of all housing stock in 1985 to a peak of 55 percent in 1995, but has steadily declined since then to less than 50 percent by 2010; over the same period, owner-occupied housing has increased steadily from 8 percent to more than 20 percent (Ronald 2016: 6–7). The queue of eligible renters waiting for a social rental unit in the city to become available has lengthened, with a waiting time now of several years for many applicants.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to see political-economic transformations at the national scale as determinant without paying attention to the agency of activists within the dynamics of decline. The work of Jan Schaefer and members of the New Left within the Den Uyl cabinet had a direct connection to Amsterdam, and to neighborhood activists like those mentioned by Jan H. who were committed in the 1960s and 1970s to universal access to affordable housing in Amsterdam and elsewhere. However, the Dutch Labor Party’s exclusion from power since 1977 has pushed the party’s radical activists toward resignation or withdrawal from party politics altogether.
Still, the New Left’s struggle to democratize Labor Party politics and to sustain the housing commons has left its mark on Amsterdam’s local politics. As has been common elsewhere among progressive social movement activists experiencing neoliberalization during the past four decades (Hasenfeld and Garrow 2012), there has been a shift by activists away from being the advocates for the housing commons to becoming the quasi-state service providers for its constituency of social renters as housing has undergone neoliberalization. According to Uitermark (2012: 210–211), “the official organizations for resident support—the Tenant Association (Huurdersvereniging), the Agency for Housing Support (Amsterdams Steunpunt Wonen), the housing union (Woonbond), the tenant representatives on committees, community workers—in practice serve as consultants for individual tenants rather than as movement organizations that bring together different groups.”
As to the “outside” squatters’ movement in Amsterdam, its troubled history of internal conflict from the late 1970s to 1980s onward goes far to explain its recent ineffectiveness as a buttress to the housing commons. This history of conflict has been well documented elsewhere, particularly as its internal divisions rendered its neighborhood activists incapable of scaling up for citywide actions (Duivenvoorden 2000; Mamadouh 1992; Owen 2009; Pruijt 2003, 2004). Other changes in the legal and political context of squatting are also relevant. These include the increased violence of police at evictions; increasingly strict legal requirements that squatters have had to meet to be legally allowed to squat, such as the national law of 2010 making most squatting illegal; the new temporary tenure of “anti-squatting” allowed to landlords by the government; the lack of available vacant buildings to squat; and the increasing difficulty squatters experience in receiving unemployment payments under new neoliberal conditions (Kadir 2014: 40). The number of squatters in Amsterdam has declined drastically since the 1980s.
This article has reconstructed the history of the making and unmaking of the housing commons of Amsterdam from the 1960s to the late 2000s, as the Netherlands and Amsterdam have undergone the radical shift from Fordist export-oriented industrial capitalism to a postindustrial finance- and service-based capitalism. Above all, there was a transformation in the historical and geographic relations between capitalists and laboring classes. There was a shift from the corporatist balance between industrial capital and industrial trade unions that prevailed from the end of the war through the mid-1970s to the dominance of financial and rental capitalists vis-à-vis service workers since then.
This article demonstrates that as part of this transition by the early 1990s, financial capitalists asserted their new power not only with respect to the working class of the Netherlands but also to the Dutch state and the state-subsidized housing associations. As the Dutch and international financial sector gained influence over the Dutch state, the capacity of the housing associations to meet the new needs for social rental housing within Amsterdam diminished, as state subsidies and policy support for social rental housing were withdrawn under pressure from finance capitalists. As a result, finance and rental capitalists could increasingly capture the use values that scarce housing constitutes for the working population of Amsterdam, and convert such use values into the exchange values that privately provided mortgages and financing for new housing construction represent.
A sign of the new power of finance capital was the complaint by the Dutch Association of Institutional Investors in 2007 filed with the European Union against the Dutch government that claimed housing associations had an unfair competitive advantage over private investors because of state support of social housing, and there was the need to “level the playing field” (Priemus and Gruis 2011). The Dutch government yielded to this demand with a new policy that limited its subsidies for social housing construction to new rental housing, not owner-occupied housing (Nieboer and Gruis 2016: 278).
However, neither the making nor unmaking of Amsterdam’s housing commons was peaceful nor were they easily subsumed by the broader events of the Netherlands’ postwar political economy. These processes were conflict-ridden, shifted between scalar levels, and were always impelled by actors exercising agency. The making of the Amsterdam housing commons occurred not only because of changes on the national scale but also because of changes occurring in two intersecting “local” scales of action—the New Left movement within the Dutch Labor Party of the 1960s and 1970s, and the in-the-buildings social movement of squatters in Amsterdam during the same period. These movements intersected with and mutually reinforced each other in what Don Kalb and Herman Tak (2005) have called a historical and geographic “critical junction” to transform not only the national state but also the municipal state in Amsterdam to support the making of its housing commons.
However, from the 1980s onward, as these social movements declined and became less able to mobilize to protect the rights of renters, new social forces—conservative political party elites and elites who managed financial, media, design, and production-service corporations—came to have greater influence and began to attack the institutional basis of the housing commons, the housing associations. The new managers within these associations who became influential when these associations were financially severed from the Dutch state have also played key roles in the transformation.
Incipient research on the urban housing commons, and more broadly on urban commons, within anthropology, sociology, geography, and related disciplines can be assessed in light of the theoretical model advanced in this article. Huron’s (2015: 963) study claims that defining features of housing commons are that they occur in “saturated space” where people, alternative uses, and investments all converge and where strangers come together. Both features as Huron characterizes them apply, but she does not define them precisely enough. The first feature she mentions characterizes broadly any feature of an urban landscape—whether a commons or not—while she fails to distinguish the collective use values that a housing commons represent from the commodified exchange values that finance and rent capitalists convert housing to—if, that is, there are no countervailing institutions working over long periods of time to prevent them from doing so.
As to the second feature, Huron provides the valuable insight that as they build commons together, strangers become non-strangers, but does not address the politics of social movements like the New Left or squatters’ movements that simultaneously brings strangers together to share political values and experiences and makes them non-strangers as they mobilize to participate in broader efforts to make access to a housing commons a universal right.
Bruun’s study of Danish housing cooperatives provides another approach to the urban housing commons. Her argument about the importance of “open access” to housing as a fundamental democratic value (2015: 156) should be noted. It appears to challenge the generalization in the commons literature (e.g., Ostrom 1990) that the commons has been eroded when there are no rules that exclude outsiders from using it. But even in social democratic societies like Denmark and the Netherlands, limits on the inclusion of new “users” in housing commons always exist—whether legal (only citizens, only registered city residents) or de facto (only those who can find housing open for occupation, others having to wait for an opening). These restrictions always merit ethnographic study and political scrutiny. The limited time horizon of Bruun’s ethnography provides little insight into the long-term political conditions that make open access to housing commons possible in Denmark or elsewhere. In contrast, the current study has provided a theoretical and historical framework for the productive study of such conditions.
Although Kornberger and Borch’s (2015) in-sights into the relational and additive nature of (some) urban commons are salutary, they err when they assume that urban commons are always non-subtractive. Urban commons in housing, sanitary water, schools, and so forth represent subtractive commons, where the more one person uses of them the less are available to others. This is evident throughout the struggles around Amsterdam’s housing commons: housing is a limited good. The use values drawn from urban commons by city residents become a challenge to Kornberger and Borch’s “atmospherics” theory, which under scrutiny appears increasingly vague: for example, use for whom, under what social constraints? Although they write that “the urban commons is … strategically produced … to achieve particular commercial or political effects” (2015: 10), they fail to distinguish capitalist market imperatives from the needs people have to sustain themselves in noncommodified ways through kinship, friendship, sexuality, community, church, and so on, however locally defined.
Still, their insights about relational “atmospheric” commons can extend the analysis undertaken in this article. Subtractive commons like the housing commons make other non-subtractive commons possible, as when an affordable housing commons allows intellectuals and artists to more easily come together in collective cultural productions, and helps make possible the atmospheric “information-rich” clusters of services available to corporations in Amsterdam’s Centrum (Soja 2000: 136). It is important to realize, however, these additive commons of use values such as creative and technical knowledges and skills are valuable in their concentrations in part because they are a locational gift to capital. The skilled service workers who collectively produce them also compete with one another to provide their services to corporations in business, design, media, finance, and related services located within the city under increasingly precarious conditions.
As to studies of social movements and urban commons, this article points to serious theoretical shortcomings of their accounts of how urban commons are made—and by implication, unmade. In the case of the Amsterdam housing commons, Fainstein’s (2010) argument that the Amsterdam squatters’ movement by itself brought about “just” housing in the city is seriously one-sided in its failure to pay attention to a simultaneous effective social movement within the Dutch state and its governing party—the New Left movement in the Dutch Labor Party. This failure is symptomatic of social movement studies of the urban commons that adopt a voluntarist approach to social change, limit their foci to “civil society,” and give insufficient attention to pervasive processes of political economy that channel and constrain the politics of actors within and beyond the state. Such approaches provide few insights about how urban commons persist and are sustained, and even less about the processes that unmake them when routinization sets in and social movement mobilization declines.
This article draws on a paper originally presented for the panel “Exploring the Urban Commons” at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in December 2015 in Denver, Colorado. I would like to acknowledge the help of Ida Susser for her intellectual assistance in shaping this article. I thank the two reviewers from Focaal who pushed me to theorize the urban commons and provided other valuable suggestions. I am particularly grateful to Reviewer 2 for the comments on small versus large housing associations. My one-month stay in Amsterdam for limited ethnographic survey and interviews and to review historical documents from the squatters’ movement held at the International Institute of Social History was made possible by a Senior Competitive Scholarly Leave Fellowship provided by the Provost’s Office, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This support is gratefully acknowledged.
A “point system” set rents based on an apartment’s use values—its area, the number of rooms, and amenities. The point system extended beyond social housing to include the private housing stock as for all rental units up to the maximum number of points equivalent to a very high rent of 1,085 Dutch guilders—a span that covered the vast majority of units (Schuiling and Van der Veer 2004: 7; Uitermark 2012: 203).
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