Just another Pirate Utopia. Photo by Laura K. Gibb.
"'It's not a perfect society, but one of the nice things about being here is that it doesn't have to be," says one resident, who calls himself only Vesinger.
Vesinger delivers his assessment of Christiania with obvious affection. He has lived here with his two little boys for six months, a recent convert to the Christianian way of life.
And it is not hard to see why this tiny enclave just south of Copenhagen's city centre is an attractive location for a family.
Trees and plant life thrive free from human interference and pesticides. It is more racially diverse, culturally open and creatively expressive than your average Danish neighbourhood.
Christiania has been a squat for nearly 40 years, ever since a group of enterprising hippies broke down the fences and set up in the disused military barracks.
And after a recent government ruling, this small society is celebrating its independence as a kind of semi-autonomous region. They call it Freetown Christiania.
Under the new rules, residents are allowed to buy their land at knock-down prices and the remainder will be put up for rent by the state.
Although this effectively turns a hippy haven into a local council for Ms Larson, it means for the first time they can exist in security as well as peace.
"It will be a new way of living," she says.
"We do not have to worry anymore about whether the government will throw us off our land. Hopefully now that we have won our right to own the land, then we will be able to feel more secure and start to deal with some of the problems that exist here."
Ah, "we won, now what?" the question would-be revolutionaries in every field have to grapple, specifically, Christiania's relatively lawless status has drawn increasingly violent drug dealers:
There have been outbreaks of violence including gun battles on the streets as rival gangs fight for control of Christiania's drugs trade.
On the notorious Pusher Street, skinheads with pitbulls glare menacingly from behind their stalls draped in camouflage netting at anyone who looks like they might be there to do anything other than buy drugs.
Society: never a simple issue.
Christiana's problems aren't new ones either. Back in 2008, I did a brief write-up on the history of the Kowloon Walled City for Coilhouse. Instead of hippie idealism, in that case the lawless zone was founded on a far more mercantile culture, but it faced many of the same problems. As I summed it up then:
Yes, the anarchistic types out there are correct when they say that the Walled City is evidence that humans can co-exist, and even thrive, without laws constantly piled on them. But it’s not that simple. After all, without massive police raids (government incarnate), the place would have probably become a mob-run tyranny. Its residents had a degree of freedom that anyone who comes home to piles of bills or endless forms can’t help but envy. They also had darkness, a lower life expectancy, filthy living conditions and huge numbers of drug addicts.
If the problems with the drug gangs keep building, Christiania will probably need police raids, ironically, to keep its ungoverned character. Anarchists, by ideology or default (as in Kowloon) have never been particularly good at handling organized violence. At the same time, while a hell of a lot greener than the urban labyrinth that was Kowloon, many of the other traits seem similar: functionally self-governing, relatively peaceful, ensconced in a niche and free of some of the surrounding society's ills.
This brings up a paradox: in both cases, lawless areas had their lawlessness preserved by, well, the law. So, what does one do with that particular contradiction?
Enter (and I promise this is the last big quote in this piece) Samuel Delany, who wrote the following back in 1976, early in his classic Trouble on Triton:
At founding, each Outer Satellite city had set aside a city sector where no law officially held—since, as the Mars sociologist who first advocated it had pointed out, most cities develop, of necessity, such a neighborhood anyway. These sectors fulfilled a complex range of functions in the cities' psychological, political and economic ecology. Problems a few, conservative, Earth-bound thinkers feared must come, didn't: the interface between official law and official lawlessness produced some remarkably stable unofficial laws throughout the no-law sector. Minor criminals were not likely to retreat there: enforcement agents could enter the u-l sector as could anyone else; and in the u-l there were no legal curbs on apprehension methods, use of weapons, or technological battery. Those major criminals whose crimes—through the contractual freedom of the place—existed mainly on paper found it convenient, while there, to keep life on the streets fairly safe and minor crimes at a minimum. Today it was something of a truism: "Most places in the unlicensed sector are statistically safer than the rest of the city." To which the truistic reply was: "But not all."
Shades of the fact that Kowloon was, indeed, safer than many similar parts of Hong Kong. Statistically, at least.
Beyond a utopian (or heterotopian, as Delany dubbed his creation) experiment, the above proposal reads these days more as a pragmatic compromise. Hell, the Wire's plot about the "Hamsterdam" legalized drug zone has shades of both Christiania and Kowloon too. In all cases, the forces of law realize that a place is simply beyond their reach, partly because it proves really useful for so many people. The 19th-century civic improvement mentality behind many modern governing institutions foresaw constant self-improvement towards perfection. While its extremes (hello, prohibition) were rolled back, the surviving shreds of that mentality demand that rampant "anti-social" behavior be crushed totally instead of absorbed.
Reality compels a different course. In Hong Kong or Copenhagen, destroying the lawless zone outright proves extremely difficult. Even if successful, the damn thing will just re-open elsewhere. Better to contain it, especially as the lawless area might even prove useful for the state: a zen-like coup to, in a small way, regulate even lawlessness, giving it borders and even a measure of predictability.
The autonomous place gets, well, autonomy. At the same time, in ways the more decentralization happy theorists will never admit, it needs something like the state around, just not within its bounds. It turned out to be really useful for Kowloon's survival that the police bashed the criminal syndicates who nearly took it over.
For Kowloon to evolve something to stop the Triads from within would have required violating its own nature. It needed the police to remove that obstacle, then promptly leave. Occasional truncheons weren't the only useful thing, either. Infrastructure nigh-impossible for a stateless society to build allowed Kowloon to have the artisans and businesses of a complex society. Christiania, likewise, is workable because it's within the confines of a governed city.
Of course, such a useful compromise requires an admission that both authority and anarchy have their points. It would require admitting that rules and their exceptions are symbiotic, and dogma impossible in the face of existence.
That may take some time.