• The Autonomy Issue

    A Postcard from Spain

    The Autonomy Issue
    Pah featured4 web

    Illustration by Georgia McCandlish

    A Postcard from Spain

    The autonomous housing rights movement Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca is taking a holistic approach to fighting evictions – one in which the messy, emotional micropolitics of everyday life informs the political strategy. Writing from one of the occupied buildings in Madrid, Lotta Meri Pirita Tenhunen recounts the intricate, daily weavings of collective struggle.

    Years before the global financial crisis of 2008 hit the news, the Spanish economic model – based on housing as commodity – was already targeting the popular classes. Decades of skyrocketing increases in real estate pricing and high-risk lending had produced a housing bubble, with millions of people overburdened by debt. As with any lucrative and rapidly growing industry under neoliberalism, the so-called brick boom fuelled a slew of other exploitative practices: corruption, reckless and improper construction projects, and the dismantling of rent protection laws and public housing projects in favor of private property. When the economic crisis hit Spain, many lost their jobs and were unable to pay their mortgages. Banks started evicting people en masse. It was in response to this that the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca or PAH, first formed – to resist evictions and fight for housing rights in Spain. 

    Almost ten years later, the movement comprises more than 250 nodes. I share a life and a struggle with those who form the node in Vallecas, a migrant and working-class neighborhood deteriorated by speculation and poverty in southeast Madrid. What follows is a series of notes that captures one side of the movement’s story, like a postcard of its daily weavings. Written in one of the buildings recovered by PAH from the hands of the banks, they speak of the menacing decade that followed after the brick boom landed the economy in a crash and forced society to pay. The view being always partial, it is inevitably clouded, yet the point of focus is shared. I believe there can be immense clarity in this tangle of common effort. What is common here is a group, a part of the PAH network. What is at stake as the landscape of exploitation changes, is the continuity of our collectively found autonomy.


    Last spring ended with a fatalistic notion: they had caught on to our game. Suddenly there was no more stopping the house evictions. The Spanish judicial system, the theater of representational politics, and the media machine all worked in harmony to facilitate the banks’ new assault on us, catering to the Euro-national fiction called ‘Spain’s economic recovery.’ The state-rescued Bankia executed six evictions in the month of May, leaving 21 members of the group homeless: we were broken and beat. At the same time one comrade after another was lost into the unrelenting schedule of shit jobs – working three jobs meant you no longer had time to organize, but maybe you’d be able to pay rent. Maybe. Vallecas is the poorest barrio in Madrid, yet tops statistics on rising rental prices. 

    Many of the landlords were the same shitheads we had fought during the last five years to get abusive mortgages annulled and social rent contracts1 signed for what had become our homes through occupation. If we were occupying, they evicted us to have the flats rented out through fresh agencies. If we had reached the status of tenant through collective struggle and signed a social rent contract, they wanted us out so that they could raise the rent. Some of these inquilinos had barely recovered from the previous cycle of struggles. Vulture funds such as Blackstone, the giant of global capital owned by an infamous duo who worked together at Lehman Brothers, had gotten away with a historic pillage. With the government-backed bad bank SAREB desperate to get its hands clean of the toxic assets, Blackstone had seized chunks of housing in cities and along beaches for close to nothing. And during their term in office, the corrupt People’s Party let Blackstone and their friends feast on Madrid’s social housing projects, too.

    So the autumn semester kicked off with a worrisome plenary session that concluded with an endless to-do-list for the future. To reinvent ourselves as a tenant’s (as opposed to mortgage defaulter’s) union had been on the tip of everyone’s tongue for two years. The moment was ripe: we had gone through enough losses to start a transformation. Before that, though, we needed half a year on intensive collective care. You see, we’d started to see each other as caricatures of our worst tics. I couldn’t stand how Joshua detailed the situation as if we were all babies; Joshua stated that I acted like a headless chicken in my worrying; Jenny rushed into the quarrel to propose that we shut the group down and do something else altogether; Danny blamed Julia of wanting to police the other members; and so on, and so on. So the strategy, for now became micropolitics first. Shutting down campaigning and listening to each other, we remembered we were a community not only of sorrow and suffering. In the relative peace of my occupied home I read Guattari to my calm my transitional worries. His words reminded me that when a group goes nuts or falls into a collective depression, the crisis can become a point of joyful divergence, a possibility for diagnosing the blockages of the desiring machine and for finding a way into new becomings.

    The group had seven years of struggle on its shoulders, and was about to change through yet another crisis to face the next speculative bubble of rental property. Before setting foot in the new landscape we conducted a certain inventory of our baggage. What we already had, besides our worries, was a handful of housing units expropriated from the banks: four buildings and a dozen of individual flats. This was and is the material resource that sustains our community – it means for me exactly what Anna Tsing describes in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World as a possibility of life in the capitalist ruins. She speaks of a fungi whose life depends on a pine tree – and I entertained the idea that as a group, we, the humans of PAH, expressed the same level of complex difference. Living in a state of distress, we too witnessed a surfacing of “[u]nexpected liveliness and the contaminated and nondeterministic, unfinished, ongoing practices of living in the ruins.” I doubt there are wild mushrooms in southern Madrid, but life still opens new paths in the post-war scenery of a mortgage bubble that burst a decade ago. Now, in the midst of unemployment and straight up poverty, only some can afford to rent and very few a mortgage. So we are all familiar with the fact that survival means taking and occupying space. But it is one thing to live by yourself in an occupied flat, scared of the cops coming to kick the door in, and it is quite another matter to be building communities of struggle together in collectively recovered bank property. The latter meant being prepared and unapologetic as hell.

    Some days are better than others. When it’s bad, we tell each other stories: ramblings, jokes, sob stories. Together, our stories provide a narrative for why we ended up here and give proper nouns to each difference. Our differences prompt us to exceed our pettiness: to empathize, to come closer, yet also to learn to keep a distance that respects the space and pace the other requires. Each one of us and all together, we are processes of wounded flourishing. The stories we tell from within our singular process bind us together into a wider one of collaborative survival. Whether it succeeds of fails depends on the strength of our stories, those brilliant threads, lifelines woven into a protective fabric.


    This is a personal account. For me, autonomy stands for: precursors, big sisters and brothers, stories from Italy that lit and sustained the fire, rebellions I dreamt of in my teenage years. It has always pleased me that the Spanish housing rights movement has bits and pieces that remind me of the autonomous movement. I think of love for difference and freedom, and hatred for boring bureaucratic order. I think of writing our own story ourselves. I think of the primacy of life, of letting life inform the strategy rather than the other way around – as plural, needy, messy as it gets. I think of el camino se hace al andar – the road is made by walking. I think of weaving with a million brilliant colors a fabric that could sustain all life, if the surrounding massacre ceased. But most of all, I think of expropriation of material resources. 

    No wonder the textbook definition of autonomy falls so short – where does this “capacity to make an informed, un-coerced decision” come from? Even as a trait, autonomy spells struggle: it involves strength to make a situatedly informed and deeply felt decision, even when coerced and while maintaining distance to protect your own safety. Black and brown communities know this, achingly. All femmes who have gone through hell to hear their own voice, having to decide which way to escape with least risk, know this by heart. Water and land protectors live immersed in this struggle for autonomy. And morphed into a way of doing, a place in the world that travels with you, a shard of subjectivity, it might as well be the most fundamental element of any subversive action.

    Autonomy is not independence. It is a collectively gained skill. All power has its counterpower, and autonomy is all about strengthening the latter. Building up autonomy is a process that entails overcoming oppressions, material living conditions, trauma – and because none of this is possible alone, everyone has (plenty of) someone(s) to thank for winning autonomy. “We can only have a voice of our own in the midst of a collaboratively weaved story, a mutually sustained cooperation. Having your own, autonomous voice in political terms, depends therefore on counting on minimum conditions of material, individual and collective autonomy”, says Raquel Gutiérrez in an interview and nails it. Autonomy is not independence, it is interdependence.

    Autonomy is needed if you want to position yourself, be able to think (together but for yourselves), have “a lens through which to view the world,” in the words of Audre Lorde. Therefore autonomy at once requires and sustains shelter, political community, material resources and affective rear-guards. In PAH much of this is found in its most disobedient campaign of expropriated housing – buildings seething with life. Just like one should have in the place one calls home.


    The story of Victoria, my courageous, Dominican-born, single-mother neighbor, as she told it to me on the eve of March 8 last year, was this: she wouldn’t come to the demo on the day of the Global Women’s Strike because the date was too heavy with sorrow. This day is her Mother’s Day, it is the day the police shot her teenage son dead in her natal Santo Domingo. She remembered and cried, I took her hand. We who did go and march knew very well who could not come and why. Still we got high on the feminine multitude. The best part was that the guys weren’t there: they were at the social center taking care of the kids. We decided the housing struggle needs feminism more than once a year.

    Less than a year later, a young neighbor was murdered near the basketball court behind our place, her body a message to her ex from a competing drug dealer. After this, I returned to Rita Segato’s writing about the patriarchal war on feminine bodies and was shocked to realize that the same instrumental use of power was unfolding all around me, word by word. A shiver ran through the barrio and a series of spontaneous protests against the degradation of the area unfolded – the blame was placed on occupation and anyone who isn’t white. Suddenly the distance between the already gentrified central districts on one side of the highway and the much poorer Vallecas on the other seemed to have shrunk to nothing. No doubt Vallecas was cool, authentic, multicultural. It could soon be the next neighborhood whose poor and POC-dominated neighbors didn’t have a place anymore among the decor about to be sold to someone with more liquidity and privileges. The air smelled of market improvement in the form of racist and classist displacement.

    We summoned courage, gathered the Dominican and Ecuadorian and Moroccan and Romanian and African comrades, their grannies and their babies, and went to the neighborhood protest. When we heard shouts asking for security cameras and more police, we chanted against the authoritative measures because war on drugs is war on poverty here too. We sang about the material security we lack instead. “Water at home, that’s security for me… electricity at home, that’s security for me,” and such. Victoria changed the words to tell about her singular struggle: “Got a new heart this year, that’s security for me.” She was fierce, with a half-meter long scar from the surgery between her wide sagging breasts. She says she lived because she’s a fighter, because her god – a mix of Christianity with Afro-Carribean paganism – is one that favors the ones who fight. When she speaks of her god I nod and tell her how I found my way around the question of religion through Spinoza. I tell her it’s pretty much the same for me: that god is the sum of our existence and potential, and that actually we are kind of godly here in la PAH since we manage to create stuff out of nothing and make it last and last through continuous change.


    autonomy means not taking bullshit any longer and starting to care about how things turn out

    autonomy means knowing how to listen to the desire in yourself and in others

    autonomy means being brave and prudent in the eye of the storm, and smelling the air patiently on a clear day (because cyclonic comes from cycle)

    autonomy means not blabbering about how you built the ground you stand on and the life you lead, but knowing that you would’ve never gotten there without the help of others

    autonomy means standing steady and if not, knowing there’s a net below when you fall that you helped knit 

    autonomy means respecting and celebrating difference because there’s nothing more worthy than life built on that

    autonomy means love spilling over communities in constant flux and whirl

    autonomy means knowing that conflict is certain, and embracing it

    like Raquel says, autonomy means weaving and weaving and weaving

    autonomy means hard work, but never alone there is no such thing no more

    “against the modern fiction of independence, autonomy is interdependence”

    This is what freedom is, and within this discovery we are bound to oscillate...


    This winter, with the help of two friends and a hundred-Euro budget, we redid the floors in the twenty-some square-meter apartment I live in as a PAH member. The reason: a widening stain of black mold in the original floor, made of the cheapest brand of linoleum, was making it difficult for me to breathe, keeping me awake night after night. We replaced the linoleum with painted tiles of Portuguese inspiration, and not the cheapest brand either – a permission for beauty, pinched from what we would otherwise have paid as rent, the right to a home, a basic necessity. I couldn’t stop walking over it with bare feet and inviting the neighbors to come see what we had done. The act returned to my body the tingling sensation brought by working, physically transforming, making into one’s desired shape something that was not yours by law but was taken together, reappropriated, by a strong and heartfelt sense of legitimacy.

    After a year of tears, fatigue and failure we had managed to turn our pain into an opportunity to better care for each other. Eager to keep going but hesitant to reopen past wounds, we started speaking to each other of the future. It was almost as though we were looking at each other with fresh, expectant eyes, unsure what to make of ourselves. Dreaming of new collective becomings, it felt as if we were drawing up a balance sheet of our strengths and weaknesses, and passing it around amongst those of us who had stayed, assessing each other based on our answers.

    With the new floor in place, I slept better and got ill less. I woke up every other morning, and sometimes in the quiet of the night, to give thanks – for belonging, for the space I lived in, for the new floor, and for Victoria’s loud mouth beneath it on the floor below. With time, the invisible balance sheet was filled in between meetings, communal gatherings and phone calls, and it stated that we still harbored a desire to share our lives of struggle.

    I really do think that we, at least some of us, have managed to organize our feeble and isolation-prone lives despite being under the continuous attacks of capital. We have become autonomous. 

    Who would’ve known? The green shirt might actually be the motliest of fabrics.

    1. A ‘Social Rent Contract’ is not a form of municipal or state-regulated social security, nor an established standard on the private market. Rather, it designates a kind of compromise that collectives like PAH force property owners to agree to through tactics like occupying a building, or other forms of protest. Within PAH, our collective criteria is that the rent should be no more than 30 percent of the total household income, and when household income is below minimum wage, no more than 10 percent.

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