Activism and apathy in Amsterdam: The case of the Spinhuis occupation


By Liselot Kattemölle


While studying in Madrid during the spring semester of 2014, I became increasingly interested in radical student activism. I was stunned by the high visibility of student protest within and outside university grounds; from anarchist slogans spray-painted on walls and communist symbols carved into tables, to massive study strikes promoting student participation and political awareness. This vibrant and prominent form of protesting against the university system was completely new to me. In Amsterdam, my university hometown, I thought there was no such thing as radically resisting and challenging the university’s operating principles. Although student activism in The Netherlands has been on the rise since the government announced reforms in higher education in 2011, it generally remains within the bounds of institutionalized forms of student participation, established by the university itself. There are student representatives in the university board, and student unions have organized demonstrations against the proposed reforms, which were attended by thousands. Yet, these protests have been sporadic and political engagement remains fairly invisible. When I returned to Amsterdam, though, this seemed to have changed.

In September 2014 a group of students occupied the Spinhuis, a historic building in the city center where the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences had been accommodated until the summer of 2014. Due to organizational reforms the faculty had been moved to a brand new campus complex called the Roeterseiland, against the will of many of the students and professors. In the Spinhuis, there was a Common Room that functioned as the faculty’s heart, upon which academic and social life depended. With its student-run canteen it had the cozy atmosphere of a living room, providing a space for informal dialogue among students and professors. Many students, including me, considered this place a home. When I heard that a group of student-squatters had reopened the Spinhuis, I realized that student activism in Amsterdam might be taking on Madrilenian forms. During my research, though, I discovered a divide between activism and apathy, which has to do with issues of individualism and identity.

In an attempt to understand how such a radical form of student resistance could have emerged, and why some students engage in this type of activism and others do not, in this paper I will examine the symbolic act of the Spinhuis occupation in the context of higher education reforms in the Netherlands. These reforms correspond to neoliberal policies implemented across the world that have been challenged by various student organizations, but are taken for granted by the majority of students. How and why does the Spinhuis Collective resist and challenge the current higher education system? What are the responses to this form of student resistance?

To gain a deeper understanding of the occupation, I conducted participant observation at the site. Since the Spinhuis used to be one of my main ‘hangouts’, it was not difficult to become involved again. ‘Deep hanging out’, coined by Geertz (1998) as a methodological technique for anthropological research, was thus easy. I participated in activities such as movie nights, debates and lectures, but have also just passed by for €0,40 toasties and coffee. The informal nature of these activities provided valuable insights into the Spinhuis Collective’s everyday discourse. In addition, I conducted interviews with various students concerned. I spoke to two student representatives in the faculty board, one of whom was active in the Spinhuis occupation, the other in the anthropology department’s student association. I also interviewed one other member of the Spinhuis Collective, as well as a group of anthropology students who had considered the Spinhuis their living room before, and have occasionally visited the Spinhuis since the occupation. To protect their privacy, all my respondents are referred to by pseudonyms.

‘The Spinhuis has been reopened’

After moving back to Amsterdam, it did not take long before I took notice of the fact that the Spinhuis had been squatted and occupied. A friend had posted a picture in a WhatsApp group of anthropology students, showing a banner which had been dropped in front of the Spinhuis and proclaimed that ‘The Spinhuis has been reopened’. We were all excited about the news and speculated about who could be behind it. In hindsight, I think that some of the excitement wore off as soon as we learned that these were not anthropology or sociology students, but students from the UvA’s Faculty of Humanities and the VU University, where students had previously protested against budget cuts.

Fig. 1: The Spinhuis is open again; ‘Spinhuis’, literally translating as ‘Spider house’ back in business

Either way, a week later we met at the opening party of the squatted Spinhuis to see for ourselves what had happened. ‘Nothing has changed, even that one shoe is still up in the tree!’ said one of us while sitting on the same couch we always used to sit on. He pointed to the shoe that had mysteriously ended up in a tree during one of the parties that used to be held in the Spinhuis on Thursdays. ‘It’s a shame they have only squatted the Common Room and not the part of the building where the toilets are’, said another friend while on her way to the Dixy (mobile toilet), which are infamous for their particular smell. I remember asking whether there was something to eat because, well, that was what we also used to do there on Thursdays. There was not, but at least the same beer was being sold for the same price.

I saw some familiar faces in the crowd but also many new ones. Contrary to what I had seen in Madrid and other squats in Amsterdam, people did not look like the stereotypical squatter (unwashed, unfit clothes, one dread at the back of the head). The public was composed of a variety of people, mostly idealistic students and Spinhuis enthusiasts like me. Posters of the recent UvA campaign were hung on each wall, showing supposed students and professors and the words: ‘Never stop questioning’, ‘Intellectual rebels’, and ‘Where opinions get challenged’. At one point that summer evening, one of the squatters held a speech to announce the official reopening of the Common Room:

‘The Spinhuis has been reopened for everyone. It is ours as much as it is yours. Input and participation are more than welcome. We are trying to give squatting a better face, so treat it with respect, clean up your mess and enjoy!’

The atmosphere was ecstatic. Around me, I could hear people expressing their enthusiasm and respect for those who had occupied our previous Common Room. Also Bart van Heerikhuizen, a popular sociology professor commonly associated with the Spinhuis, announced his excitement in his speech. However, he firmly stated ‘not to do stupid shit’.

spinhuis atmosphere2
Fig. 2: The Spinhuis outside atmosphere. Source: Het Spinhuis Facebook page.

The local press reported positively about the ‘re-opening of the only place within the domain of the UvA which is run by students themselves’[1]. However, the occupation did not receive such support from the institutionalized student associations at the UvA. According to the action group ‘REC de verhuizing’ (a word pun meaning ‘procrastinate the relocation’), a coalition of student associations that lobbied for the interests of students during the relocation to the Roeterseiland complex, the UvA Board had actually listened to students and would make available a new Common Room at the new campus.[2] The Spinhuis occupation was therefore considered to be unnecessary. But for the student-squatters, the occupation was about much more than just reclaiming the Common Room.

Neoliberalism and higher education

The Spinhuis occupation should be understood in the larger context of student action against higher education reforms in The Netherlands, which has taken off since 2011. The group that has occupied the Spinhuis feels deprived from having their voice heard within the decision-making process of the UvA, and felt that ‘direct action was needed to make a clear statement against the corporate organization of universities’. This criticism corresponds to the transformative shift in policy that The Netherlands and other parts of the world have seen since the 1980’s.

The public sector has been modified from state-centered governing arrangements to neoliberal forms characterized by privatization, deregulation and cuts in social expenditures (De Boer et al., 2007: 27). The higher education system has witnessed such a shift from government to governance, which means that it has been organized increasingly according to market-based mechanisms. The university has had to become more performance-driven and function as a ‘corporate actor’ (ibid. 28-29). In their analysis of the reforms of the Dutch higher education system, De Boer et al. (2007) point to the construction of a corporate identity, hierarchy and rationality within universities over the last decades. Profiling and competition has increasingly become a main concern for universities in The Netherlands. One of my respondents, Arend, assured that obtaining a high position in university ranking lists is the ‘only thing the managers of the UvA care about’.

In line with corporate management structures, there has been a shift from horizontal to vertical decision-making. In 1997, the Modernization of the Academic Governance Act was implemented in The Netherlands. This meant that the grassroots logic of governance that had preceded it, was replaced with a mode of governance that resembled the corporate governance model (Engelen et. al. 2014: 1087). Regarding the Act of 1997, Engelen et al. argue that: ‘In one big legislative sweep, staff and students were disenfranchised, as decision-making power was concentrated in the hands of a small number of professional managers’ (ibid). This statement is affirmed by both of my respondents who are active in the institutionalized forms of student politics. Guus and Arend both mentioned that, although students are represented in the university board, they are not really being listened to in the end, especially when it comes to budgetary decisions.

As part of the reorganization of its governance structure, the UvA announced in 1997 that one of its priority objectives would be the clustering of the university buildings which were spread out over the historic city center (UvA 1997, in Engelen et al., 2014: 1081). All UvA buildings would be concentrated either at the Roeterseiland in Amsterdam-East or the Science Park located further eastwards at the outskirts of the city. Such clustering in modern campus complexes can be considered part of organizational rationality, which is geared towards efficient management and tangible results. With regard to the construction of organizational rationality within the higher education system, De Boer et. al. argue that ‘the setting of objectives and especially the measuring of results has invaded Dutch universities’ (2007: 42). According to Arend, Dutch higher education is thereby moving to an American system where only quantifiable and profitable numbers count:

‘There is no opportunity for dialogue, quality and reflection. In the UFactory, quantity wins: there should be as many graduates as soon as possible. The money that is being made with these higher numbers is not being invested in the quality of education, but in €3000 design lamps in new fancy buildings that lack personality [the Roeterseiland campus]. Moreover, the money flows back to the management. In the meantime the students and professors are suffering from the cuts in the public budget for higher education.’

The ‘UFactory’

The neoliberal reforms in higher education sketches the political background which the occupiers of the Spinhuis have chosen to resist. A few weeks after the opening party, I interviewed Arend, an active member of the faculty’s student board who had been present during the actual squatting of the building. As we sat down by the bar for the interview, I noticed that the Spinhuis had begun to show more typical squat characteristics. Amidst the UvA posters on the walls, there where posters of other squats, announcements for demonstrations and information about ‘resisting the system’. A much-signed petition for the maintenance of the Spinhuis was taped onto the bar but was noticeably damaged by spilled beer and coffee. When a small child picked up a 5 cents coin from the floor, his mother first cheered but then said in an ironic voice: ‘Actually we shouldn’t be teaching you the value of money’. I remember thinking what a typical remark that was for a squatted place like the Spinhuis.

spinhuis atmosphere
Fig. 3: The Spinhuis inside atmosphere. Source: Het Spinhuis Facebook page.

Noah, an American with a soft voice and long curly hair was doing the volunteer bar shift. He had found his way to the Spinhuis through the Amsterdam squatting scene. While I was having my interview with Arend, I heard him debating with a friend on how they would survive a visit from the lawyer to the squat they lived in, who would be representing the owner of the building in court later that month. Arend, who had a button of the Socialist Party and one of an anarchist flag pinned on his worn-off sweater, explained to me what the squatters of the Spinhuis wanted.

First, the Spinhuis Collective feels that a Common Room which is horizontally run by students and not for profit should be available within the context of the university. The university should be open for all and embedded in society; not isolated from it. The university should facilitate a platform for dialogue among students, professors and society. At the new Roeterseiland campus, such a place is not (yet) facilitated. By squatting the Spinhuis, the Spinhuis Collective has not only (re)established one themselves, but also demonstrated that there is a need for more such Common Rooms in the UvA domain at large.

Second, the Spinhuis Collective claims that the whole university should be organized based on the premises of a Common Room. It should serve the interest of social capital and not economic capital. It should be organized bottom-up instead of top-down. The Spinhuis Collective is against the penetration of neoliberal policies within the field of education. They argue that the UvA (and Dutch higher education in general) has become the ‘UFactory’, where quantity counts more than quality. Among other statements, they argue against the recent government plans to cut expenditures on higher education and to implement a loan system instead of study grants.

Arend told me that the Spinhuis Collective is composed of various people with a critical view on how the Dutch government runs its public institutions. They have not squatted the building as a solution to housing needs, but as a symbolic act for making a political statement. People only sleep in the Spinhuis in order to guard it during the night. Not all of them are students from the UvA. Many of them are active in other student movements, such as the student party ONS (Our Critical Alternative) or KSA (Critical Students Amsterdam), and have helped organize recent protests against the higher education reforms. Moreover, the Spinhuis Collective receives help from volunteers like Noah who have found their way to the Spinhuis through the Amsterdam squatting scene. When asked about the criticism that the Spinhuis Collective has received for not being a ‘true’ student movement but just another squat, he said:

‘People who argue that it is not legitimate what we do because we are not all students and attract a variety of visitors, just reproduce the exclusive principles of the university.’

The formal student organizations which previously ran the Common Room at the Spinhuis have distanced themselves from the occupation, at least in their public communication. Arend explains that they had to do so, because they are institutionalized organizations who in the end have to cooperate with the university. He argues that non-institutionalized direct action was needed to challenge the university’s ideology. Within the institutionalized forms of student participation in the university, there is no space for the students to be really heard. Therefore, an external push was needed.

‘Thanks to us [the ONS party] the university has promised to establish a new Common Room on the Roeterseiland campus. The student organizations of the Spinhuis have not pushed through direct action.’

According to Guus, however, the formal student organizations who previously ‘inhabited’ the Spinhuis have certainly attempted to sustain the Common Room. After long negotiations, the university board and the formal student organizations compromised on establishing a new Common Room at the Roeterseiland campus, which is to be shared with other student associations of the faculty. If a new Common Room would not have been promised, the formal student organizations would have taken more radical measures against the UvA’s mandate. Now, many of the former students of the Spinhuis have accepted the idea that the days of the Spinhuis are over but will continue in a new form at the Roeterseiland campus. When I asked Arend why it seems that a majority of the students that formerly ‘inhabited’ the Spinhuis do not participate in it now, he emphasized:

‘Direct political action works. But when it becomes too radical, many students distance themselves from it.’

Activism vs. apathy

Neoliberal reforms in higher education are a symptom of global economic trends rather than being particular to The Netherlands. Engelen et al. argue that ‘the societal enslavement to financial values’ is typical for contemporary Europe (2014: 1088). The feelings of inertia and limbo installed by these neoliberal policies are a widely discussed topic (Craig, 2010: 1-2). As argued by several authors, the withdrawal of the state from education implicates a break with a societal contract and thus a changing relation between society and the individual (Alison, 2012; Craig, 2010; Mulderig, 2013). This leaves many youth deprived, anxious and disconnected from a collective belonging.

In the United Kingdom in 2010, there was a similar response from students to the deprivations resulting from neoliberal reforms. At Newcastle University, student protest was initiated to demonstrate against ‘cuts in the public sector to reduce national debt following the biggest financial crisis in decades’ (Rheingans & Hollands, 2013: 546). As in Amsterdam, the student movement not only opposed cuts in public expenditure on higher education, but also demonstrated against the ‘rise in tuition fees and the increased marketization of the public education system’ (ibid.). As the Spinhuis Collective, they ‘used direct action to try and pressure their university managements to do the same’ (ibid). The occupation of the Newcastle University has ignited a nation-wide student movement against the university’s neoliberal mechanisms.

Historically, according to Altbach (2003), the university offers a favorable climate for the development of student movements. ‘Universities are institutions that stress intellectual values and ideals – theories and values which may call into question established social and political norms’ (ibid.: 323-324). Activism is characteristic to students and youth in general, because they develop reflexive capacities and consequently expectations, which can lead to moral dissonance and frustration (Gill & DeFronzo, 2009.: 205). Youth are more inclined to express such discontent, since they are generally more ‘idealistic, adventuresome and willing to take risks’ than older generations (Flanagan, 2008: 128). One type of response is to declare the social system as morally deficient and in need of social change (Gill & DeFronzo, 2009: 206). The social condition of the student permits idealism to flourish, although it should be kept in mind that there is no such thing as an inherent youthful rebelliousness (ibid.: 205). Activism is a path chosen by a minority of (highly motivated) students, while the majority conforms to dominant values (ibid.).

Flanagan (2008) explores two narratives to explain such dualism between apathy and activism among youth in relation to neoliberalism. In the first narrative, youth accept the rules of the neoliberal order as a given and even incorporate neoliberal ideals of individualism and free upward social mobility, while privately worrying about their future (ibid. 125). This narrative fits well with the common discourse of youth as ‘pre-occupied with the self’ or ‘disinterested, apathetic and disengaged’ (Hopkins et al., 2012: 108). As Arend also mentioned, students have incorporated neoliberal and corporate thinking about studying, or they just do not care about what is being imposed on them from the top. This is why the reforms at the UvA seem natural and are not being questioned by the majority of students and institutionalized student associations. Their consciousness has been ‘colonized’ by neoliberal principles (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1991).

The narrative of the disengaged fits with Giddens’ (1990, 1991) characterization of contemporary society as disrupted by ‘the juggernaut of modernity’, which causes reflexivity and pluralism of choice as well as individualization and decline of collective identity. Hence, the incentive for collective action has weakened (Rheingans & Hollands, 2013: 550). This may explain why a majority of the student population refrains from activism. Low generational political awareness, prevalence of apathy, and lack of political participation among the youth support this theory (ibid.). However, as Flanagan (2008) shows, a narrative of apparent disengagement does not mean that youth are not interested in the political issues that are important to them; they just deal with it privately and individually and do not dedicate much time to it.

Flanagan contrasts the narrative of the seemingly disengaged to a narrative of activist youth, who ‘challenge the neoliberal world order and make public and political the private anxieties they share’ (2008: 126). As Rheingans and Hollands (2013) also stress, although the incentive for collective reflexivity might have changed, it has not disappeared. Young people have adopted new styles and forms of political engagement, which have moved away from traditional emancipatory politics organized around class and oppression, and are increasingly acted out in new places and spaces (ibid.: 551). Citing Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2003), they note that ‘late modernist youth politics’ often takes place ‘outside of the built environment of traditional politics and more in the terrain of young people’s individualized lives and culture’ (ibid.). Youth are engaged in ‘many different spaces, including meetings, demonstrations and occupations as well as in more virtual forms’ (ibid).

Although student activism might seem less visible, more individualized and disconnected from traditional forms, it certainly does play an important role in contemporary society. As exemplified by the Spinhuis Collective and the UK student movement, present-day youth have not lost their capacity to reflect on the collective. They do not accept the neoliberal rupture of societal contracts and try to reinterpret it according to their own idealistic principles. This narrative accommodates a discourse of youth as potential challengers of the status quo. Still, ‘even in times of considerable politization and activism, student involvement generally remains a minority phenomenon’ (Altbach, 2003: 324).

Reclaiming space, creating a stage

The direct act of occupying an empty university building has enabled the Spinhuis Collective to publicly demonstrate their critique of the penetration of neoliberal mechanisms within the domain of the university. By radically deviating from institutionalized forms of student politics they have visibly made a statement and demonstrated their discontent. Arend affirmed that deviating from institutionalized student politics was necessary because ‘within the current system of the university there is only reproduction’. According to Luescher-Mamashela (2013: 3), such an act can be labelled as informal, extraordinary student politics oriented towards academia, ‘as against the now ordinary and formal political activity of student representation in official bodies of higher education governance (at various levels) and beyond’.

Since, according to Altbach (2003), students tend to be impatient and want to see change quickly, squatting is an appealing instrument for statement-making. ‘Squatting is, above all, a direct action aimed to satisfy a collective need through social disobedience’ (Lopez, 2013: 871). It promises an immediate tangible result and direct grassroots political intervention in the form of a realized squat (ibid). Moreover, the use of a physical space otherwise controlled by the university, enables student activists to not only organize away from authorities, but also, importantly, to situate their protest about higher education within the built environment of the university itself (Rheingans & Hollands, 2013: 552).

The importance of space was pointed out by Josh, an anthropology student from England, who had participated in the actual squatting of the building. One sunny day I passed by the Spinhuis to meet him for an interview and a coffee. People were enjoying the sun on the couches that were put outside. The atmosphere was relaxed; several people were reading, chatting, or simply tanning in the courtyard. Josh pointed to the open doors of the blue gate that would usually enclose the Spinhuis courtyard. He said that this door gave him the feeling of being able to distinguish ‘us versus them’, with ‘us’ being the ‘young idealists’ and ‘them’ the ‘bad corporate university’. He continued:

‘With this place we publicly demonstrate how we think the university should be organized. Everyone can come visit to see and experience what our ideology is.’

The occupied Spinhuis can thus be considered a ‘demonstration of democratic, egalitarian and bottom-up decision making’ in the context of an ‘increasingly individualized, privatized and corporatized educational experience’ (Klein, 2000; in Rheingans & Hollands, 2013: 556). According to the Spinhuis Collective, the university should not be an enclosed realm, closed off from what is actually happening in society. It should be open for everyone. ‘The Spinhuis provides a stage for that’, as Josh said. Or as their website states:

‘Het Spinhuis is a squatted autonomous student space in the former Common Room. We’re open for everyone. We do not operate for profit and only work with volunteers. We are an open collective and have a weekly open meeting’.

During the first ‘anarchist movie night’ (and many subsequent events), it was emphasized that the Spinhuis is supposed to be an open and democratic space, where one can find ‘refuge amongst the hustle and bustle of the Amsterdam city center’. In this ‘refuge’, their own rules and ideologies hold sway, which is important for subcultural identity construction (Thornton, 1995: 11). According to Thornton, subcultural ideologies are: ‘A means by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass’ (ibid. 10). The refuge of the occupied building thus enabled them to assert their collective ‘us’-identity.

Fig. 4: The Spinhuis occupied, brimming with events.

Over the months that the Spinhuis has been operating in its current form, several events have been organized that further reinforce this collective identity and give shape to its consciousness. These events range from lectures, benefit meals and parties, anarchist movie screenings, a ‘big capitalism versus anti-capitalism debate’, storytelling evenings and information hours for student squatting (studentenkraakspreekuur). As Lopez (2004: 880) argues, ‘squatted places expand the consciousness of their participants’. In this sense, another similarity with the UK 2010 student movement can be found. Rheingans and Hollands (2013: 556) show that the UK occupation has acted as a ‘collective forum for social and political learning’. Arend told me that the Spinhuis is becoming an invaluable platform for exchanging knowledge about political engagement and activism. However, not everyone agrees with the Spinhuis Collective’s style of operation.

‘Intellectual rebels’, a contested category

Despite the Spinhuis Collective’s worthy intentions to offer a non-profit platform for societal and academic concerns, squatting remains illegal in The Netherlands, and as a form of protest it is still frowned upon. For the UvA management the squat was unacceptable. As they emphasized in their correspondence with the Spinhuis Collective, ‘squatting and activism belong to the ‘60’s’.[3] In October, the UvA sued the Spinhuis Collective and demanded immediate eviction.[4] The UvA thus made clear ‘which roles should be avoided and which should be emulated’ within the UvA domain, by labelling the occupation as deviant behaviour (Cohen, 2002[1972]: 2). As Cohen has argued, ‘deviance is not the intrinsic property of an act nor a quality possessed by an actor’ (ibid.: 5), but a discursive construct imposed on those labelled as such. However, the Spinhuis occupiers then resisted the label of ‘illegitimate squatters’ which the UvA tried to appoint to them through their own discursive tactic. They appropriated the dominant discursive framework of the UvA by calling themselves the ‘intellectual rebels’ which the UvA itself proclaims to produce.

In its recent campaign, using aforementioned posters, the UvA claims to be a space where ‘opinions get challenged’ by ‘intellectual rebels’. While they have created a student ideal-type of someone who ‘never stops questioning’, the UvA does not seem to tolerate it when that happens in non-institutionalized forms. The Spinhuis Collective makes clever use of the ‘intellectual rebel’ discourse developed by the UvA itself. In an announcement on their website, they state: ‘We give to the UvA what our unelected governors time and again promise to do, but fail to realize: room for own initiative, experiment and critical thinking’.[5] In an ironic gesture, the UvA campaign posters have been given a prominent spot in the Spinhuis, as if the squatters are proud of fulfilling what the UvA proclaims to be or wants to pursue.

uva_-212x300 uva_corp-244x300
Fig. 5: Official UvA campaign poster and modified poster.

The Spinhuis Collective furthermore tried to counter the negative connotations of ‘illegitimate squatters’ by performing decent behaviour. According to Arend, the activists try to behave as ‘good squatters’, by trying to keep the place tidy, treating the security guards who look after the rest of the building with respect, and keeping their correspondence with the UvA polite. They have also stated that if any interested buyer wants to come visit the building, they will ‘welcome them with a glazed cookie and a cup of coffee’.[6]

Yet, this decent image does not always come across to the public, including other students. While asking my fellow anthropology students about their opinions of the Spinhuis occupation, I noticed a growing loss of support for the squatters, in stark contrast with the enthusiasm which prevailed at the beginning. A main critique was that although the squatters predicate to have created an open platform, many students felt that they were not really welcome there. ‘It is just a group of guys who are trying to express something but it does not really translate into reality’, argued Stijntje. Moreover, they complained that the place is dirty and had become ‘just another squatted men-cave’.

Despite the critique on how the squatters manage the Common Room, the students I spoke with did express their respect for the statement that the Spinhuis Collective is trying to make. ‘We just should have done it ourselves’, is what they agreed upon. Yet the question is whether regular students like them would be willing and able to fully dedicate themselves to the practice of squatting. As Lopez (2013: 880) notes, squatting comprises almost all of the everyday life of the people involved. This also requires sacrifice of time and comfort, which few students are willing to bear. When asked why they did not squat the building themselves, one of the students argued:

‘Studying takes a lot of effort. The 8-8-4 system [the block division of the semester] hardly allows us to work besides studying. I would like to see my mom as well, you know.’

When asked about the lack of engagement of anthropologists and sociologists in the occupation, Guus made an insightful analysis. He argued that the image of the subversive autonomous squatter does not match the image of the academic. Quoting the classical anthropologist Mary Douglas, he argued:

‘Dirt is a matter out of place. People literally argue that the place has become dirty. But it is ‘dirty’ in a figurative sense as well. It is the body of the humanities student in the house of the anthropologist and sociologist. Of course, the anthropologists and sociologists won’t be too enthusiastic about something that they failed to do themselves’.


In this essay, I have provided an analysis of the neoliberal reforms in higher education to explain why the Spinhuis has been squatted. The Spinhuis occupation was a symbolic act to publicly demonstrate discontent with higher education reforms. The Spinhuis Collective argues that within the domain of the university, more open platforms like the Spinhuis should be made available. The university should, as a Common Room, be organized from bottom-up and according to non-corporate principles. By occupying a university building, the squatters have created a ‘refuge’ where their own subcultural ideologies hold sway, as opposed to the dominant neoliberal culture represented by the UvA.

The UvA has sued the ‘intellectual rebels’ who have occupied the Spinhuis. However, in the verdict, the judge did not respond to the UvA’s request for immediate eviction, arguing that there is no need for it since the building was not squatted for housing purposes but for a symbolic political act. Moreover, the squatters have demonstrated their willingness to cooperate with the university and the UvA has no development plan for the building so far.[7] To the judge, the character of the events organized in the Spinhuis demonstrates that it concerns wider societal concerns and not individual interests. As Arend mentioned: ‘We could see a new consideration of interests by the judge; namely to be a good participating civilian’. This image does not correspond to the deviant label that the UvA has tried to apply to the student-squatters. The UvA has until the Christmas break to collect new evidence and arguments. Most probably, the squatters will be evicted in January. ‘But our battle will not end there’, so Arend firmly stated.

Keniston wrote about ‘youth’ as a ‘time of “tension between self and society” and “refusal of socialization”’ (in Arnett, 2004: 21). What I came to realize, though, after having studied in Madrid, is that those tensions between self and society seem to be less urgent and visible in the Netherlands. In our relatively well-working welfare state, refusing socialization and proclaiming anarchy are commonly seen as silly and unnecessary. Yet, as the reforms of the higher education system continue apace, this appears to become less so.

The Spinhuis occupation has taken place among other forms of protest against these reforms. The UvA has recently received much critique and resistance against its plans to reform the Humanities Faculty as well. Just before submitting this paper, a march for free education and against budget cuts was announced to be held at the Roeterseiland complex on Friday December 12th. Of the 4.000 people invited on Facebook, only 144 have responded that they will attend. Although the Spinhuis Collective has demonstrated that it is possible to resist the top-down principles of the UvA, it remains a minority that will transform apathy into activism. In the end, the image of the activist squatter does not fit the collective identity of the ideal type student which many students have internalized. The ideal type ‘intellectual rebel’ conforms to the newest UvA poster which has been put outside in displays on the Roeterseiland campus: ‘Keep calm and quiet please’.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

(Update: Since submitting this paper, the Spinhuis Collective was peacefully evicted from the building in January 2015, but since mid-February students going by the name of The New University have occupied the Bungehuis of the Faculty of Humanities. Again, the UvA went to court to sue the occupiers and demand immediate eviction at a penalty of 100.000 euros for each day the students continue to occupy the building, and this time the judge has ruled in favour of the UvA, though lowering the fine to 1.000 euros a day. This has prompted significant support among students and academic staff, from the UvA and other universities, as well as the national academic labour union, non-academic labour unions, public figures, politicians and student activists in other countries, more than the Spinhuis occupation could garner. As of publication of this paper, the students stand their ground at the Bungehuis. See for the latest news The New University’s Facebook page.)

[1] Het Parool, 9 September 2014, ‘Kraakactie voor huiskamer sfeer’.

[2] Ibid.

[3] , ‘Kraak de Universiteit!’, last accessed on 12/5/2014.

[4] See Court Document, available on, last accessed on 12/8/2014.

[5], ‘Van Wie is de Universiteit?’, last accessed on 12/5/2014.

[6] See Court Document, available on, last accessed on 12/8/2014.

[7] See Court Document, available on, last accessed on 12/8/2014


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