Book Review: Hannah Dobbz’s “Nine-tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States”

By DAVID CORREIA

Squatting, according to Hannah Dobbz, “has never had a particularly good reputation in the United States” (12). Squatters are popularly represented as “freeloaders” or “property outlaws” who interrupt exclusive claims to property and thus threaten the fundamental logic of capital. This is, according to Dobbz, ironic because “we live in a nation founded by squatters” (2, emphasis original). And so Dobbz, in Nine-tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States, begins a book on the history and politics of squatting in the United States with a chapter on the violent colonial dispossession of Native land in the U.S.

It’s an interesting choice because it suggests that at the heart of her subject lurks a fundamental paradox: squatting is not, at least not only, anti-capitalist. The stories she examines in the book and the characters to whom she introduces us inhabit contradictory spaces in which they emerge, at times, as revolutionary actors seeking alternatives to private property, and at other times as people pursuing self-interested goals in ways that fit quite nicely within the logic of neoliberal capitalism. Squatters, in other words, find themselves always “teetering on a fence of moral convenience” (86).

The act of squatting seems always to force its practitioners to accept the very politics their practices reject. In chapter three she examines urban homesteaders in cities throughout the United States who start as radicals and wind up as “the first agents of gentrification” (89). Dobbz describes squatting here as a tactic that begins as a righteous way to reconcile the desperate need for housing amid either a glut of empty and abandoned homes or an overheated real estate market. These tactics often force the state to respond to what squatters reveal as a fundamental contradiction in the distribution of housing through new programs and policies that, she suggests, are designed to coopt the aims and energies of squatters. She calls this “terminal institutionalization” (86). In the 1970s and 80s the City of New York offered squatters the chance to join the Mutual Housing Association as a way to transform their illegal squats into official partners in a government-sanctioned urban homesteading program. Many squatters tired of fighting police and banks and absentee owners and so they happily entered a program that put them on a path to private ownership, precisely the property relation their tactics initially appeared to reject. She quotes the noted legal theorist on property Eduardo Peñalver who explains that “the simultaneous radicalism and conservatism of squatters explains why they have so frequently been attacked by commentators on both the left and the right: they are suspect to the right because their squatting begins in an act of defiance of the established legal order; and they are suspect to the left because when they succeed, they reinforce the very systems of private ownership they initially transgressed” (86).

Squatting may appear at first glance as a radical rejection of the power of private interest in society, but too often it flickers into view as a conservative reform movement. And Dobbz explores all of this, but if it sounds like Dobbz has in mind a nuanced and complex consideration of the complicated moral geographies and complex and shifting politics of squatting in the United States, she doesn’t. This is not to say that Nine-tenths is not an excellent book. It is. Her book, like the squats she describes having lived in, is jam-packed with people. Chapters are crowded with characters bursting into the text and erecting this or that argument for squatting. Through vignettes and brief biographies she gives meaning to this or that element of squatting—American Indian Movement challenges to colonial dispossession, New York or Pittsburg or Berkeley squatters and their travails, the particular challenges of squatting in the foreclosure age. Meaningful, of course, until the next story contradicts the lesson we were supposed to just glean from the previous story. The book does not find or define any essential political content of squatting. Dobbz is happy instead to explain squatting as the paradoxical practice that it is, content to use her anecdotes as a way to tell an interesting story. And this is both the books greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. It is its strength because the book is, first and foremost, a sweeping historical survey of squatting written for current or future squatters. The introduction, eight chapters and conclusion that tell stores of failed and successful squats and squatters are followed by five appendices that put in one place everything a current or potential squatter would want: lists of resources for potential squatters, adverse possession laws by state, and tips for organizing and defending a squat.

It is also a weakness, however, because we are left understanding really nothing at all about the paradoxes of squatting other than that there are paradoxes. So I am left wondering, What is it about housing (or capitalism) that makes so radical an act somehow also complimentary to, and thus valorizing of, private property? Make no mistake, Dobbz does not suggest, nor do I, that squatting is always and everywhere bound to wind up reinforcing the logic of capital, but the fact that it so often does, as the pages of Nine-tenths attest, requires our attention.

But this is not what holds Dobbz’s interest and so this is not what Nine-tenths does. Nine-tenths begins as a history of what squatting has been and ends as a manifesto of what squatting should be. After surveying this history Dobbz concludes that “squatting has always been: a vehicle, a tactic. Squatting has rarely been an ends in itself” (225). Squatting, in other words, has no fundamental or essential moral or political content. It is the unforgivable everyday tactic of Zionist settlers ejecting Palestinians from their own homes as much as it is the admirable and hard work of anarchist squatters occupying abandoned tenements in New York City.

And this makes Dobbz uncomfortable. Squatting comes into focus in Nine-tenths as a practice that is often not at all part of a political or social movement confronting the logic of capital, but rather as a self-interested act. And this is profoundly troubling to Dobbz. By chapter five she has demonstrated that squatting is just a thing that people do to secure housing. No essential politics have been uncovered, no moral geographies have been charted. And so Dobbz shifts gears. Where the book was previously descriptive, the last three chapters become prescriptive. In chapter six, lest we think it is a good thing that our squat may somehow, someday, be our very own private property, Dobbz takes us on a tour of the foreclosure age and the false promise of home ownership. In chapter seven she examines possible alternatives to private property, such as land trusts and coops that might offer fairer and more equitable alternatives to private ownership. Lastly, in chapter eight, she explains how the apparent irrationality at the heart of the distribution of housing in capitalism has everything to do with treating housing as a commodity. “When vacant housing abounds, why aren’t we using it? And why are we building more?” (200).

Nine-tenths is many things. It is a history of squatting, a how-to book for future squatters and, lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a proposal for squatting as both a means and an end. That this is not what squatting has been does not deter Dobbz. Like the squatter that she is, she sets out to renovate the politics of squatting into something she can live with (and in): “a new form of squatting activism” (230). By the end squatting emerges as the one tactic capable of revealing all at once both the existing contradictions of private property and the future possibilities of a world beyond it.

Dobbz, Hannah. Nine-tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States. AK Press, 2012.

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