The entrance to Christiania in Copenhagen

Denmark’s hippie commune pushes us outside our comfort zone. For that alone, it’s worth discovering

The recent shootings in Christiania highlight the tension between its liberal ideals and the realities of the drugs trade. But despite its troubles, Ioan Marc Jones still believes there are things to be learnt from their alternative economic system

The recent drugs-related shooting in Christiania - the self-proclaimed autonomous community in Copenhagen known for its ideals of social freedom - has led to residents tearing down the cannabis stalls in the area known as Pusher Street.

The response highlights a curious tension between the liberal approach to drugs and the realities of the black market. This was apparent on my first visit two years ago, when it felt both liberating and intimidating. Hallucinogenic colors adorned almost every wall and the smell of marijuana was in the air. The community seemed free and joyous, yet dark and melancholic. Christiania is difficult to describe and even more difficult to understand.

The place is the result of social activism. Folks coming out of the hippie, squatter, and anarchist movements occupied the area that previously consisted of the military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde in 1971. Denmark’s Social Democratic government of the time allowed the occupation. They declared Christiania a ‘social experiment’.

A mural on a building in Christiania

Despite recent tensions, the Freetown still exists as an ‘alternative economy’, so to speak. It possesses certain similarities with most Western economies. It’s democratically run, for example, and has a functioning welfare system and public services, like a rather wonderful garbage collection scheme and enviable childcare services. The money made from rent and tax on businesses is spent on social projects focussing on artistry and creativity.

Christiania relies heavily on tourism. In my short time there, I bought green tea served in a glass that scolded my hands – they don’t do mugs – and several beers while watching a reggae band in the centre of town. I bought my dad a lighter covered with the Christiania flag – three large yellow dots against a red background. I also bought something that smelt rather lovely, but that my mum and indeed the Danish government might frown upon. One could call this consumerism, but I doubt the residents would describe it that way.

But Christiania differs from the rest of the country (not to mention most places) in several key aspects: the laws are far more liberal, deregulated and environmentally conscious (cars are banished, for example, and soft drugs, while illegal in Denmark, seem essentially legal here). Property is under common ownership, and the fair distribution of wealth is key. There’s no actual in Christiania and no governing bodies or departments. When other options are exhausted, folks in the community deal with pertinent issues through a series of meetings. I imagine they’ve been having plenty recently.

The Freetown has been called both a utopia and a dystopia. Some see its lack of growth as proof of its failure. Others who enjoy its liberalism and semi-self-sufficiency believe it’s a success. The truth, of course, is not so black and white and what people make of Christiania perhaps depends on pre-existing prejudices. What’s obvious, however, is that Christiania offers a wonderful opportunity to learn lessons from a rather unique economic experiment.

What lessons exactly? Well, on a rather small scale, one can see that economic alternatives can work and be sustained. Christiania will soon enter its 50th year and there’s a rather long waiting list of folks wanting to join. From what I could tell, those dwelling here, and indeed those visiting, certainly seemed pretty happy.

I also bought something that smelt rather lovely, but that my mum and indeed the Danish government might frown upon. One could call this consumerism, but I doubt the residents would describe it that way.

One may struggle to imagine how the Christiania model would apply to larger economies, but I don’t suppose that was the purpose of this place. It’s a hybrid economy – using aspects of different models – the success of which is arguably dependent on its small size.

The important point, though, is that alternatives such as Christiania offer insights into the way other economies could be run - with more democracy, less centralized power and further economic freedom, for example. Perhaps alternative economies such as Christiana also suggest a more prominent role for common ownership – particularly of housing, which is under massive pressures in countries like the UK, where the costs are pricing many people out. On the other hand, perhaps those who see it as a failure might feel we adopt the opposite lessons – more centralized power, increased privatization, and so on.

At present, it seems most economic ideas are offered through a narrow prism of policies that the public will accept (sometimes called the Overton window). This small range of ‘acceptable’ ideas have the potential to stunt economic progress, especially for those with less wealth. Christiania offers a radical alternative that, while not necessarily worth accepting entirely, is nonetheless worth investigating to determine its successes and failures and learn from them. And, if recent events have the effect that the folks of Pusher Street perhaps expect, we should investigate sooner rather than later.

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Reader Comments

  • WhereAreTheVikings

    What a terrible, terrible shame. Western Civilization nurtured capitalism, and now capitalism is destroying it. And these young people seem to welcome the invasion of their homeland. The media and schools have been very efficient in wiping out all traces of blood and soil.

    • prollawalllynotahumanoid

      Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s corrupt politicians taking bribes and kickbacks from Globalists and the Chinese.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        Maybe I should have said crony capitalism. Although Italians importing Chinese to make “Italian leather” shoes is not crony capitalism. It is capitalism, pure and simple.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          That would be crony capitalism and globalism combined. They aren’t concerned with the affect their policies have upon their citizens, the health and welfare of their society and culture or their economy. What it isn’t is fair-free trade to further national interests.

          • WhereAreTheVikings

            I’ve always seen them as one and the same, but perhaps they need to be named individually, just to bring home the point.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        But now that travel is so easy and borders are virtually down through H1bs and the like, theoretically you can’t blame capitalists for the pursuit of cheaper labor, although I do heartily blame them not being more patriotic than that. Perhaps the emerging nationalism will force them to voluntarily do what they should have morally been doing all along, and that is employing business practices that preserve their countries and nationalities. The government should be doing everything it can to encourage that, to the extent that small government should do anything but guard the borders and strictly, drastically, limit immigration.

      • Henry Lam

        It is China with its corrupted mindset affecting the world.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          No it is not. Capitalism is the fairest and least corrupt system of all.

          Socialism and communism is based on authoritarianism, coercion and police intimidation. It has and always will be rife with criminality, bribes and kickbacks.

          Corruption can be anywhere but it is the very basis of socialism and communism.

    • Henry Lam

      The government is too weak. They do not understand the mindset of communists and how they educate their people. Those communist people are only loyal to their country and could be dangerous. The immigration law should only accept those who accepted multiculturalism and taught from a democratic education system. This virus events clearly has shown how stupid to take China as a friend.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        The government is not too weak. Just weak-minded about some things.

  • Gabi Rodrigues

    For how many days can a country maximum close their borders to foreigners maximum? Like now, with the virus, everyone is using 30 days. Can it be more?