Christiania Incorporated

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Has the dream of the hippy commune now turned into a nightmare?

Twenty five years ago groups of hippies and squatters took over a military barracks in the centre of Copenhagen and announced the creation of a 'free territory at the heart of the city'. It was called Christiania. Walking through it today, the marks of the Christiania commune are still there--the makeshift huts surrounded by plants neatly set inside tin cans, the military blocks occupied by squatters and, in one case at least, turned into a halfway house for the homeless. There are notices everywhere reminding the visitor that no hard drugs, weapons or bikers' uniforms are allowed; lean-tos house workshops for carpenters and candle makers, weavers and painters. There's a small lake with houses scattered around the banks, most made of wood and leaning dangerously to one side--the unmistakable mark of the amateur builder. And then there's Pushers' Street, where hash and grass are set out on open stalls for sale. In the cafe people are reading Sunday papers over coffee with very large joints in their hands. On the walls, peeling notices announce district and general meetings for the 1,000 or so permanent inhabitants of the commune.

Yet not everything is what it seems. For a decade and a half Christiania defended itself against repeated police assaults and attempted evictions. Jan, the Danish comrade who is showing me round, remembers a demonstration of 4,000 students, workers and young supporters answering the call to defend the commune. Even the social democratic unions defended its right to exist. In any event, the commune survived. Today, while its occupants pay no taxes, they pay for electricity and gas. And while the drug squad hovers constantly, Christiania has become a curiosity. The website advertises guided tours, and an expensive restaurant occupies one large building near the entrance. The commune is now a magnet for tourists--half a million stroll round it every year.

Around the lake newer houses gleam with new materials and elegant woods. It seems there is a new population--of lawyers and politicians who like having a radical address. And there's another building, newly built, that seems strangely out of place. I found out later that it was put there without the agreement of the commune committee. It's a concrete and brick three-storey block--the gate has a security lock and a number pad. The man I saw coming out and pulling the gate closed behind him had a shaven head and shiny new (and pretty big) boots. There wasn't much communal spirit in his aggressive demeanour; he was much more likely to belong to a very different group that has lately taken to Christiania--hard drug pushers who have muscled in, just as they have in Amsterdam, to put their profiteering stamp on the gentler communards.

At its best Christiania was a dream--Haight Ashbury, Woodstock, the rural idyll rolled into one. Of course it began with a confrontation with the state and periodically returned to the stand-off (it's less than a kilometre away from the parliament building), all of which it survived. The odd thing was the residents' conviction that this island of collective living could survive in the heart of a successful capitalist economy. Why did they imagine they would be allowed to get away with it ?

Maybe they felt, in the beginning, that capitalism would accept an island of socialism at its very heart. It's an idea that has seduced idealists for decades--centuries even. In fact, even a tolerant European social democracy like Denmark sent armed police into Christiania. That didn't get rid of the squatters, so they moved to the other option and incorporated them, turned them into a circus sideshow and found ways to profit from them. Inside the fence, people spoke of solidarity and consensus, of love and gentleness. Outside the walls, racists are winning more votes and global capital imposes its labour laws and its conditions of survival. Inside Christiania they're carving wood and sowing hemp and recycling their paper.

The socialist tradition looks forward to a society where love replaces conflict, where a collective ethic prevails over aggressive individualism. But that happens when a revolutionary class has transformed itself in the course of seizing power and changing the world. It's what Marx called the 'coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstance'. Some comrades over the years have substituted changing the self for changing the world--the old argument about personal politics.

What Christiania taught me was not that the critique of capitalism--of its competitiveness, exploitation, individualism, fabrication of false needs and violent desires--was wrong. The criticisms were right. But the final irony was that Christiania, like so many of the communes and alternative life experiments of its time, simply turned its back on the world--as if the dream could transform reality by sheer moral weight. But the world, and capitalism, just went on growing--and took Christiania back just as soon as it found a way of marketing it. The point, as the old man said, is not just to interpret the world--but to change it.