Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Riots 5: Three dominant interpretations (plus a fourth)

Looking at writings about suburban unrest in France 2005 or in Sweden today, I think one can discern three predominant interpretations. I'd like to call them the progressive, the culturalist and the security interpretation.

The progressive interpretation is propably familiar to many. It emphasizes the structural socio-economic roots of the riots. The outburst of violence is caused by discrimination and exclusion, and the violence is a misguided expression of frustration and a hidden plea for help. The solution consists in reforms to enhance inclusion, socio-economic equality and a general promotion of tolerance of difference.

This interpretation is challenged from the right by the culturalist and the security arguments. Together these arguments form the core of a nebulous mixture, in which structuralist and individual-centered factors are both emphasized. “Culture” is used as a structural explanatory variable to challenge the progressive emphasis on economy or class, while “security” is introduced to reframe the riots in individualist fashion, as caused by professional trouble-makers or criminals. The riots are thus partly blamed on culture, thus justifying the call for a more restrictive immigration policy, and partly on the recklessness of gangs, which need to be controlled by a more massive police effort.
The best example of this confused mixture is probably Alain Finkelkraut, who manages to claim both that the rioters in the French banlieus 2005 were cultural fanatics driven by hatred of the West and that they were spoiled brats who only desired the consumer items, the brand goods and the girls they saw on television (Finkelkraut 2005; for the context of these statements see Shurkin 2006). This inconsistency doesn’t matter, of course, since the point he wants to drive home is that they are uninterested in public welfare or better schools and that the Leftists who see the riots as a revolt against discrimination or unemployment are wrong.
For some reason, the strength of this rightist discourse hasn't suffered from its internal tensions. What is happening is rather that voices on the right use their own lack of consistency to jump swiftly between individualism and structuralism according to occasion, either relying on a "security" interpretation that stresses the criminality of the rioters in order to justify the more resources to the police, or on a "culturalist" interpretation that blames the “culture” of the immigrants in order to justify restrictions on immigration.

Let us have a closer look at what the conjunction of structural and individual factor implies in reality. The “security” interpretation can be exemplified by Sarkozy’s statement at the time of the Paris riots 2005:
The primary cause of unemployment, of despair, of violence in the banlieus, it isn’t discrimination, it isn’t failure of the education system. The primary cause of despair in the neighborhoods, it’s drug trafficking, the rule of gangs, the dictatorship of fear and the abandonment by the republic. (Le Monde, 22 November 2005:12, quoted in Dikec 2007:166)
Here the problem is viewed above all in terms of security and the solution is located in enhanced policing and a stricter enforcement of law and order. A defining characteristic of the security interpretation is the denial of structural factors. As soon as the few real culprits are arrested, the rest of the immigrant population will be integrated peacefully, maybe even be grateful to the state and the police for protecting them from the vandalization of their neighborhood. Arguments along these lines are plentiful also concerning the recent outburst of violence in Sweden. “Society must stand up forcefully for law and order, not least to protect the majority of the inhabitants”, Dagens nyheter wrote at the time of the Rosengård riots, “That the recent riots have taken on such a violent character is partly because of the participation of professional troublemakers – football hooligans and so called autonomous Leftists” (”Malmö rämnar”, DN, 2008-12-21). “One should remember that it’s all about younger kids incited by one or at most a few older ones. It turns out again and again that things calm down when you remove the leader”, a Gothenburg police officer states in another newspaper article, which also quotes a local politician who claims that there is no general conflict behind the disturbances, which are linked to individuals ("Hisingen inget nytt Rosengård", DN, 2009-08-20).

As long as politicians and others choose to rely solely on the "security" interpretation, the resulting picture may appear rather innocuous. Just provide the police with some more resources, and the problem will disappear. However, as a moment of reflection will tell us, conservatives often embrace a “culturalist” interpretation in addition to the "security" interpretation. The common prejudice that “foreigners are criminal” is only the most blatant example of this mixture.

Now this is important. Let us think for a moment about what it means. Isn’t there a risk that these two arguments in conjunction will imply a far more virulent and explosive mixture than each of the two arguments taken separately? In my view, this is undeniable. It means that one deploys the police to use its "legitimate force" to solve a structural problem – structural and hence endless, since the police will never be able to get to the root of the problem. This can only mean a declaration of perpetual and endless war against the immigrant population. The police’s task is no longer saving the this population from a few culprits, but intimidating and controlling it as a whole on a daily basis. Force is no longer used as a temporary measure to restore the system, but becomes part of the system itself in the form of an institutionalization of harassment against an entire segment of the population simply by virtue of its ethnicity. I think it is fair to call this fascism. So far, this fascist option may not be official state policy. But it has many adherents and who can deny that it is de facto implemented by the police, customs officials and guards on innumerable occasions?

In addition to the three interpretations above, I wonder if there is not room for an additional argument on the Left besides the progressive or social democratic one. My aim is to grope for such an interpretation. Let’s call it the “autonomy” interpretation. It is an interpretation that the rioters are rioting for the pleasure of rioting rather than out of a sense of victimhood, for the pleasure of being able for once to shape their own lives, for the pleasure of being able to hit back at the police and make fools of them and laugh at them, for the pleasure of the freedom they momentarily create, for the pleasure of proving that one is neither weak nor intimidated; that the riots are a way for them to reassert their independence, pride and ability to enjoy life in the midst of exclusion. I am not saying that the rioters are really thinking like this. What I am suggesting is that such an understanding seems more helpful than the others mentioned above to grasp many of the aspects of the riots. I am also suggesting that the rioters are deserving of at least some measure of respect. That they should be respected even when they don't behave like victims.

This interpretation is also detached from structural factors in the sense that it highlights the importance of agency, a will that is free to choose and create, rather than viewing people as the passive puppets of structure. In this sense it resembles the security interpretation. It is, however, eminently compatible with structural interpretations, both of a socio-economic and a cultural kind. The riots may not be reflection of the material basis, but they may be response to it. When you revolt against an intolerable structure, you address it, you call it intolerable and you say "Enough!", but that doesn't mean that the revolt can be predicted from it. If it is truly creative, it always comes as a surprise. As Alberto Toscano once stated, "the rebel is the one who gives rise to the exception". I agree. True creativity is not impossible, even if it may appear impossible from the point of view of structure. As for culture, autonomy implies the creation and defense of independent lifestyles and resistance against the culture of mainstream society or the "spectacle" with its representations and ready-made roles. Almost by definition, riots driven by a quest for autonomy will therefore become "culture wars", although in a sense totally different from that in which conservatives or nationalists use the term.

Are you objecting that the rioters are also asking local politicians for space for leisure activities, work and perhaps also other forms of welfare benefits, and that they can therefore hardly be aspiring for autonomy? Well, in my view such demands don’t necessarily have to be made from a standpoint of victimhood. Pursuing a free and real life is not incompatible with strategically demanding whatever benefits and guarantees of survival one may get. Demands don’t have to be understood as pleas or beggary. Rights can be won and benefits can be spoils of war. In a country like Sweden, with a long tradition of a proud and strong labor movement that always rejected the posture of “asking with cap in hand”, this lack of modesty should surely not be viewed as too unbecoming. Why not let the progressive and autonomy interpretations join hands against the amalgam of culturalist and security interpretations on the right?


Dikec, Mustafa (2007) Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics, and Urban Policy, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Finkelkraut, Alain (2005) “La voix "très déviante" d’Alain Finkielkraut au quotidien ’Haaretz’”, interview by Dror Mishani and Aurelia Smotriez, English translation here.

Shurkin, Michael (2006) “France’s Jewish Prophets: Alain Finkielkraut, Albert Memmi, and the Looming Crisis of Liberalism”, ZEEK, May 06

Toscano, Alberto, ”Religion and Revolt”, published on seconds.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Riots 4: Vignettes

This will be a descriptive and fragmentary entry (too fragmentary to be called a montage). I'll start with a brief description of what happened in Rosengård (part of Malmö in southern Sweden)in December 2008. That will be followed by three vignettes from the riot and the aftermath, which I think will give a taste both of the atmosphere during the riots and of how the mass media reported them. The first of these is a translation of a newspaper article with a few comments added. The final two ones are shorter. They are based on newspaper articles and concern the police.

The riots broke out shortly before Christmas in December 2008. They were triggered by conflict involving the refusal of a landlord to renew the contract of a basement used as a mosque by the Salafist Islamic Culture Society. For three days we saw things on the news which were reminiscent of the Paris riots 2005 or the recent riots in Greece: cars and trucks overturned and set on fire, burning telephone booths and recycling stations, vandalized gasoline stations, damaged police vehicles and clashes in the night with hordes of young people attacking the police and the fire brigade with stones, eggs, fireworks rockets and homemade bombs. Buses were cancelled and the traffic on the major road through the area was stopped as hundreds of young people started attacking cars with stones from an overpass. Thirty or so members of autonomous groups rallied to the area to participate in the clashes. No one was hurt, but seventeen young people were taken into custody. Acts of arson and attacks against the fire brigades continued for a half a year after the riots.

Here is my translation of an article published in Dagens nyheter.
A meeting with power an evening without fires
As the sun sets over Rosengård the young start to gather as usual outside the drug store in Herrgården. A kilometer away the fire brigade at Jägersro fire station is waiting for the first alarm from Rosengård. But tonight there is no alarm. Yesterday evening the recycling station next to the drug store was burnt down to the ground. Nothing remains but the charred stone foundation and a container with some soot-covered remains.
“We needed to warm ourselves”, one of the youngsters outside the drug store says and holds out his hands as towards a fire. The other 10-15 youngsters laugh in agreement.
Dagens nyheter [the newspaper] has brought Ilmar Reepalu to Herrgården to hear his explanation of the constant fires and attacks on policemen and fire fighters. The reportage takes a new turn as we are stopped by youngsters, who are eager to talk.
“What’s your name”, the kid who appears to be leader in the group asks.
“My name’s Ilmar”
“What’s your job?”
“I try to run this city”
Ilmar Reepalu is the chairman of the municipal government since many years back and a social democratic politician.
“We’d need a space for leisure activities. Why not where the mosque used to be!”, the leader who introduced himself as Kalle says. “And we also need new recycling stations to warm ourselves”.
Loud laughter. The youngster are cocky but definitely not unfriendly. They don’t know who Reepalu is, no one reads Swedish newspapers here. But when he answers to one of their questions by saying that, yes, he’s met Fredrik Reinfeldt [the prime minister], they start to realize that he’s some kind of big shot. Not that they’re impressed, but they start listening.
“We need a space for leisure activities for us who are over 16 years”, Kalle continues.
“Burning down a recycling station is not the way you get a space for leisure activities. Things don’t work like that”, Reepalu answers.
”We do it our way. Nobody listens to us”, one of the youngsters says.
“You know why all this happened in Rosengård”, another says, “It’s because the police harasses us. They took my little brother who’s only fifteen and when he got home his face was all bruised up”. The youngsters return again and again to the harassments by the police and claim that this is the reason for the fires of the last weeks.
“But why do you attack the fire brigade”, Reepalu asks.
“We didn’t! We threw stones at the police”.
“It can’t be very fun for you yourselves if there are fires all the time in your own neighborhood”, Reepalu says. “It may be fun right now while it lasts, but not later. Tell me what you want to do yourselves to improve things here”.
Kalle draws his breath to start a small speech: “Ilmar, let me tell you something. We don’t have any expectations here. I don’t think things will be better. I tell you that straightaway. Do you know why? Well, we’ve talked to journalists, to the police and with the municipality. But nothing happens. Not a single stone has been changed. Look at that”, he says and points at a house behind a high fence. “Everything is just brown, brown, brown”.
“If you got some paint would you paint it and make it nicer?”
“If you can fix work to all of us here in Rosengård no one’ll destroy anything”
Suddenly the cocky tone subsides and the youngsters start listening intently.
“Are you ready to work here”, Reepalu asks.
“We all are”, they reply all at the same time.
“But not cleaning up!”
“Who’s going to do that then?”
“The municipality”
This time it’s Reepalu’s turn to laugh.
Kalle writes down his name and telephone number on a piece of paper and hands it to Reepalu. He promises to contact the local landlord to hear if they are interested in engaging the younsters.
“If I make it nice here and a kid comes and tries to burn it down, I’ll hit him”, Kalle says by way of conclusion.
As Dagens Nyheter and Reepalu leave the youngsters a middle-aged man calls out to us.
“You’ve just talked to the ones who’re destroying Rosengård! They’re idiots, raised in the forest instead of at home. Their parents haven’t taught them respect for humanity. They’re the one who plant all the fires”.
But this night there are no fires in Rosengård.
(“Möte med makten en kväll utan brand”, DN, 2009-03-26)
The tone in this reportage is carefully optimistic, almost sunny. But this carefully optimistic account should be read in a carefully pessimistic way, against the background of a massive reporting about the problems of Rosengård. Malmö as a whole has the greatest proportion of poor children in the country and in Rosengård, where more than 94% of the children are of foreign background, 76% of the children are classified as poor. This poverty reflects that of their households. In Rosengård 38% of the inhabitants work, to be compared with 78% in wealthier parts of Malmö. The proportion of children or young in Rosengård is far higher than average. According to a report published in April 2009, half of the area’s inhabitants are below 26 years, to be compared to 31% for the country as a whole (DN 2009-04-22). In school, their results are markedly below the average for the city as a whole. The reportage mentions spaces for leisure. One reason that such spaces are lacking is that far more people are living in Rosengård than the area was planned for. Living in overcrowded apartments, young kids are often forced outside where they drift around with little else to do (girls by contrast tend to stay at home and 58% of women in the age interval 20-25 years are already mothers, as compared to 10% for the country as a whole) (These statistics are gathered from various articles in DN from 2008 onwards; I’m not sure if they are wholly accurate but they will serve to give a general picture).
Another thing that strikes me in the reportage is the clarity with which the youngsters tell Reepalu what they want. They want more space for leisure activities, they want work and they’re fed up with police harassments. I found myself wondering why so many commentators persist in describing the riots as nothing but blind violence and the rioters as lacking in political self-awareness and unable to articulate their demands. A scurry of theories exist about what the rioters want. Some appear to be totally unfounded (perhaps I will have reason to return to these later). Others appear to be derived mainly from ideological standpoints – the idea of the riots as a protest against neoliberalism or as a slap in the face of “Western culture”. I’m not saying here that ideology is necessarily false, but the problem with ideologically derived formulas is that they can be constructed without much help of reality. Political views will of course always influence how one views what is happening in society, but when it comes to interpretations of people’s motivations I prefer those that listen to what the people in question are saying to those that don’t even bother to ask. The material I’ve read so far contains very little of such listening (although I’ll of course go on looking for more), but what I think this article shows is that the young rioters don’t lack any political awareness at all. As far as I can see they are very clear about their demands. Who said you must mention neoliberalism or “Western values” to have political awareness? Furthermore, the demands seem perfectly reasonable. The riddle doesn’t consist in the young rioters’ political awareness. It consists in the fact that these perfectly reasonable demands are refused or not heard and that those who put forward them are branded as extremists.

Three young people are prosecuted for participating in the riot. Sequences from a film are shown in count in February 2009 as evidence against one of the youngsters. The film was made by the police during the riots from inside a police van and, unfortunately for the policemen, reveals not only the acts of some young activists but also an embarrassing conversation between the policemen, as they are talking in heavy southern Swedish accent while driving.
“I agree with the old man at Ica [a supermarket] in Vellinge: ‘you’ve come to the wrong municipality, dagos”.
“That fucking little monkey [Den lille jävla apajäveln]. Should I make him sterile when I get him?” Someone laughs and a colleague adds:
“Yeah, we’ll give him a treatment so he won’t be able to stand on his legs when we’re finished”. (Elin Fjellman Jaderup, Lugna Gatan: "Hatet blir större". Sydsvenskan, 2009-02-06)
As this was shown on the TV news, many were of course scandalized. The policemen, however, were not judged to have done anything incorrect. Some tried to excuse the policemen by pointing out that the word “monkey” (apa) referred to a particularly aggressive member of the Anti-Fascist Action (afa). In my view, this doesn’t excuse anything. The police shouldn’t make anyone sterile, not even a political activist. I was also intrigued by the fact that these policemen recorded the entire thing themselves and handed over the film to the court, obviously oblivious of the scandal that would ensue. Do we have here some variant of the Abu Ghraib-syndrome of soldiers or policemen being so brutalized by their business that they start filming or photographing their own violations in the belief that they are something fully normal and acceptable? Or were they simply stupid?

Let me add by a piece of news which I think is significative of the restoration of order. In August 2009, the Malmö police had been patrolling Herrgården in Rosengård for four months, 24 hours a day, at foot, by car and on horseback, and a local headquarters has been set up in a van. “We are tremendously grateful”, a fire fighter at the nearby fire station says. As a result of the surveillance, the number of arsons has declined rapidly. “Above all we haven’t been victims of violence or threats a single time since the surveillance started”, the fire fighter adds, “That grown-ups in the area now have the courage to show their support for us is perhaps even more important. As late as yesterday I was out fixing a water leakage and people came up to me and thanked me and in general showed their appreciation. That is something they wouldn’t have done half a year ago”. The article adds that the support of local residents for the police was demonstrated a week ago, when a group of autonomous activists planned a street party in Herrgården under the slogan “Reclaim Herrgården”. “The residents went out and told the black-dressed hooligans ‘Get away, we don’t want any trouble in our neighborhood’”. (“Polisinsats har gjort Rosengård lugnare”, DN, 2009-08-28).

The Riots 3: Badiou

Let me jump back to France 2005. A number of interpretations exist of the riots in the cités and banlieus. Alain Badiou’s is one of the most convincing I’ve encountered so far. He states something which upon reading it sounds very self-evident:
It is above all against the ideology of security [sécuritaire] and against the incessant police harassment that these kids are rising up, against the cops in the estates who everywhere and at all times exert their control, with insults and intimidations, even of kids of 13 or 14. (Badiou 2005a).
This is the gist of his analysis. They are rising against the police, against harassment and against daily humiliation. To illustrate these humiliations, he gives a vivid account of his adopted black son’s life:
I can’t even count the number of times he’s been stopped by the police. Innumerable - there is no other word. Arrested: six times! In 18 months. What I mean by arrested is when you are taken, in handcuffs, to the police station, when you are insulted, latched to a bench, left there for hours, sometimes kept for a day or two. For nothing. (Badiou 2005b)
Surely it’s easy for anyone with even the slightest darker skin than the average European to empathize with Badiou here and to share his indignation at the “omnipresent checking/questioning and the interruptions of their normal lives” which many immigrants have to endure.

A noteworthy point is the total and absolute support he gives the young rioters, unlike the Socialist or Communist parties and many others on the Left, whom he accuses of paralysis.
The youth must not be left to face the police alone. It is necessary to rise up against the police harassment of which they are the object. Parents must stand side by side with them.(Badiou 2005a)
We should note that he is far from romanticizing the riot. Burning cars and pelting the police with stones is not the way to stop the power of financial capital or “the politics of Sarkozy, Villepin and Chirac”. But far from arguing, as many others on the Left, that the riots are therefore confused and lacking in political awareness, he gives them his full support. No matter how misguided the riots may be when it comes to combating neoliberalism, the pure and simply anger at the endless daily insults and humiliations and the desire to get back at the police is enough to justifiy them. This anger is just, and parents should be with their children in the face of the police, not against them.

The reason that I sympathize with Badiou’s argument is not only emotional. Another reason is that, as far as I can judge, he is attentive to what the young rioters say themselves – that they are tired of police harassment – and he treats them with enough respect and fairness to take them at their word. How refreshing, compared to the stereotypical explanations we’ve been used to hearing – that the rioters are fighting a cultural war or even some form of jihad (commentators on the Right) or that they are fighting for economic reasons or a more welfare (commentators on the Left)!

A second reason is that Badiou helps us to recognize pride as a legitimate source of protest. Burning cars makes much more sense if seen as motivated by pride – by a desire to get back at the police, demonstrate one’s power and restore respect – than if motivated by economic victimization or cultural fanaticism. To burn one’s own neighborhood is reckless and irresponsible from the point of view both of economic utility and traditional ethics, but it makes better sense as a manifestation of pride – as a way of saying, “We are not victims, we are masters of this area, and we do as we please”. Whereas many commentators on the Left by reflex regard the immigrants as victims, this is a label which the rioters themselves would probably reject with scorn, at least to the extent that they are driven by pride (that in turn may be a reason why pride is not a very popular explanation of the riots among well-meaning politicians). I seldom find myself in agreement with Baudrillard, but I like this passage:
All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether from the banlieues, immigrants or ‘native-born’, at one point or another turn their disaffiliation into defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand. In the wake of the November fires, mainstream political sociology spoke of integration, employment, security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the French way of life with the same condescension or indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day driving them. (Baudrillard 2006:7)
As I mention here and elsewhere a curious blindness seems to persist about what motivated the riots, which are sometimes portrayed as a kind of riddle. Take for instance Negri's statement: "This movement does not yet know what it wants". But as Badiou points out, it seems to know very well what it wants. The riots are acts of vengeance, animated by moral indignation. The riots in France 2005 were triggered by the death of two teenagers who tried to escape the police. Deaths resulting from perceived police injustice or police brutality also triggered the riots in Watts 1965, Detroit 1967, Tottenham 1985, Vaux-en-Velin 1990, Bristol 1992, L.A. 1992, and Greece 2008 – to mention only some of the most well-known cases (for more on the history of these riots, see Lapeyronnie 2006 or Wacquant 2006). This is a repeated pattern. We can turn to the riot in Kamagasaki last year for a similar example in Japan: although no-one died, this riot too was triggered by police brutality. In other words, Badiou's interpretation is not the least far-fetched. It's almost embarrassingly self-evident. He didn't need to think to arrive at it. He only needed to listen.


Badiou, Alain (2005a) “On Riots that Come After Pain”, Infinite Thought (tr. of the first part of Badiou's piece from Le Monde 15 November 2005) http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2005/11/badious-lorganisation-politique-on.asp

Badiou, Alain (2005b) “Daily Humiliation” (tr. of piece from Le Monde), http://lecolonelchabert.blogspot.com/2005/11/badiou.html

Baudrillard, Jean (2006) “The Pyres of Autumn”, pp 5-7, New Left Review 37, January-February; http://newleftreview.org/A2595; accessed 2009-09-16.

Lapeyronnie, Didier (2006) “Primitive Revolt in the French Banlieues: Essay on the Fall 2005 Riots

Wacquant, Loïc J.D. (2006) “The Return of the Repressed: Riots, ‘Race’ and Dualization in three advanced societies”, pp 18-31, Monu: Magazine on Urbanism Vol. 5 July

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Riots 2: A bitingly cold day in 2003...

I take the bike to Rosengård, my first visit. Curiosity at finally getting a closer look at the notorious suburb with its jarred skyline. The cars plunge into the tunnel-like passage under a huge overpass, on top of which a big super market has been erected - an imposing structure which as I try to recall it take on the hazy features of a crumbled pyramid of grey desert stone. This is the big main street which shoots into the ward, or perhaps shoots out of it like a long grey tongue which it sticks out at the rest of society. That’s about as much as I’ve seen of Rosengård until now, but this time I enter it on a winding bicycle road and I’m struck by how beautifully planned the area appears. The towering buildings are thinly spread out in a gently sloping area covered with green lawns and checkered by a network of undulating paths and walkways. Between them are playgrounds. Here and there are small drug stores and kiosks with curious names like Babylon Food. I see many children. A family is out for a walk: a wrinkled elderly man with a white moustache and grim look, a woman in head dress.

I take a quick glance inside the new super market, "City Gross", its logo written in big blue and yellow characters, the colors of the Swedish flag. What's the need of such an obtrusive national statement, I thought. The absurdity of it all. I'm reminded of the function of flags to mark sovereignty in a contested terrain. It's like the reception of the Migration Board which I once visited, where the immigrants are greeted by an enormous portrait of the Swedish king, sternly smiling and in military uniform. Michael Billig once wrote a book about what he called "banal nationalism", by which he meant the "normal" and unobtrusive flagging of nationality in everyday life which no one hardly ever notices and which people don't tend to regard as connected with nationalism at all. Billig's point, I think, is that such nationalism is not harmless at all, since it easily turns into more overt and aggressive forms of nationalism in times and places of need. Now what happens in places like Rosengård or the Migration Board is that banal nationalism becomes impossible. Here the flag almost by necessity loses its innocence and becomes a symbol of a more strident and overt nationalism. At the same time, it grows to monumental, grotesque proportions, assmuming forms that would be in bad taste elsewhere. It becomes a boot in the face. Perhaps the reason that I'm so disturbed by discovering these portraits and billboards is that they offer a kind of creepy and monstrous closeup of the nationalism which also pervades the rest of society in a more banal and seemingly more harmless form. The creepiness of the king's smile derives from the fact that it is far from a mere smile. It is interlaced by a layer of implicit messages: Firstly, there is the innocuous "Welcome", which I presume may be the official meaning. Secondly, the portrait functions as a "flag", as a marker of territory, and hence of another meaning: "Don't forget where you are, this is Sweden". The third meaning is: "Here where we identify as Swedes, even if we do not always say so openly". I think of the sheer impudence of such a message, especially to people who have come here as refugees from across half the globe...

At City Gross everything seems big, larger than man: the buildings, the stacks of merchandise, the parking lot outside, the roads, society… Apart from the blue and yellow, it’s grey and feels grey. Big, boring, and meaningless, like the deafening traffic below. But close by in a few winding corridors is a bazaar-like market, which delights me with its colorful kitsch, glittering furniture and articles in gold and pink, plastic paintings of Mecca, exotic music CD’s – and above all its human scale. There are even some old men playing chess.

In this area, the Rosengård riots broke out shortly before Christmas in December 2008. More about them next time.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Riots 1: Stones and fires

This entry will be about the recent news from Sweden: in the major cities the suburbs are on fire, we hear of burning cars, fire squads attacked by stone throwing youth, and arrests... In Gothenburg around a 100 cars are reported to have burned only this last month. In Stockholm and Malmö there are said to be fire incidents practically every night and the last few weeks the phenomenon has spread to Uppsala.

Let me state at once that I don't really know anything about this problem. In any case, I know far from enough. My first impulse as I read the news is that I should go there, listen to people, read the research. This is simply a problem which I feel is so serious that I want to understand it better. My only hope in writing this entry is that my haphazardly gathered information will yield some form of pattern, a clue to some future possible understanding. People who already know something about this problem should probably stop reading right now, since I don't want to waste their time (or perhaps they could give me a helpful comment).

Why do I feel it is so serious? Not only because of the violence, or the pain and anger which these actions seem to express, and not only because of my concern for the crisis faced by the welfare state and its unsuccesful integration policy. Isn't it also a question of urgency for many social movement activists and intellectuals? Who is posing the most radical challenge to mainstream society today? Is the "precarity" movement really a movement for the most marginalized? Isn't it time that we face up to the fact that immigrants setting fire to a car or throwing stones may represent a better example of "dissent" in Rancière's sense than a movement calling for "another world"? Is solidarity with such a politics possible? Is it desirable?

Banlieus on fire is of course not only a Swedish phenomenon. In future entries I will try to present some material, background facts and interpretations. Most will concern Sweden (in particular Rosengård in Malmö), but I will also try to check up material on similar incidents elsewhere.

To be continued...

Sunday, 13 September 2009


Testing boundaries and limits
That’s what children always do.
Parents are bewildered and resist.
Parents are so conservative.
Children experiment with boundaries
And that’s how they grow.
Children are people for whom every day
is filled to the brim with politics.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Art, activists and ripped trousers

In my last entry I wrote about activists who fought Kyoto University by putting up cafés on the campus where they would squat and associate with friends and guests. In 2007 Endô Reiko, a part-time teacher at Ritsumeikan University, initiated a hunger strike while squatting on the campus to protest against the system of dismissing part-time employees automatically after a maximum of three years. Inspired by this, Yamada Shirô, a student at Kyoto Seika University similarly went on hunger strike later the same year to protest against the high university fees, and afterwards he began raising chicken and pigs on the campus. Other students sabotage campus festivities by suddenly starting to cook their own food on the campus and inviting others to join their party until they are chased away. As I'm based in Kyoto, these events have a special interest for me as a local phenomenon, but I also think there is something in them of general interest. In some of the recent issues of the journals Vol and PACE there are some essays that, I think, throw an interesting light on these struggles, and I will use them as my point of departure in this blog entry.

Is there a common denominator in these struggles? It’s often pointed out that that they all target the “neo-liberalization” of the universities or in other words their transformation from institutions relatively independent of the market into profit-hungry corporations in which teachers are increasingly turned into flex-workers, students are mass-produced for a precarious labor market, and campuses are increasingly subject to control and surveillance (and prettified by chic restaurants and glass-covered skyscrapers).

However, we strikes me most is that these activities seem to be conceived of as a form of art. In fact, it is easy to find similarities between these acts and art. These similarities also distinguish them from more traditional forms of political activity (think electoral campaigns, demonstrations or petitions).

To start with, they are often performed by individuals or small groups, who prefer to rely on impact rather than large numbers. Yamada himself explains:

In a trial of strength, we are sure to lose. Better than that is to use a little imagination, irony or humor, including setting up weird buildings. I can’t think of any other method and in the end I think it will have effect. Activists have been demanding too much until now. What matters is not how many handbills you hand out or how many hours you spend in conferences, but rather something I think can be called art. In practice, it means doing what you think is fun somewhere where it will attract attention. (Yamada 2008:171)

Shiraishi Yoshiharu comments that in Japan "there’s no organization of students that can conduct a strike, like in Europe or North America, so what Yamada did was that he used his own body as a stake in the struggle instead” (Shiraishi 2008:172).

A second similarity to art is that these acts are meant to be more than mere means to achieve some purpose. As the activists themselves stress, the acts are fun and meant to be enjoyed for their own sake, even when they are physically excruciating. “I wasn’t thinking about dying or anything else as desperate as that. I just wanted to do it in an enjoyable way”, Yamada explains (ibid 170).

But the third, and in my view most interesting similarity is that, just like art works, these acts seem to aim at ambiguity, working most effectively the more ambiguous they seem. This ambiguity usually stems from their power to question and challenge norms and borderlines. That slightly nervous feeling which makes their activities provocative in the eyes of some (Is this really defensible? Aren’t they going a bit too far?), is also what makes them thrilling, funny, and memorable to others. While street parties have already begun to become normalized as a part of the standard repertoire of young activists, this provocative quality can still be found in squats of various kinds. Squatting doesn’t just mean the occupation of a building or part of a building. One of the members of the Oasis project – a group engaging in what they call “art squatting” – occupied the seats on a train by lying down, proving that you can squat even being on the move (Takemura 2008:15). Even street gigs or graffiti can be seen as forms of squatting, since they at least partly occupy audible or visible space. They thus raise the question of who has the right to control what can be heard or seen. Squatting in this wide sense can be seen as a common element in all of the examples of activism mentioned above.

Another way of producing ambiguity can be seen in Yamada's principle of not asking permission from the university authorities for his activities.

When I started raising chicken on the campus, guys who do some foolish circle activities came and asked me if I had gotten permission from the university. Of course I hadn't. Again, when the people of the music circle wanted to do a guerilla live concert, even they went and tried to get permission. Then they got upset when they were refused. Sure, I understand their anger, but why on earth ask for permission in the first place if you're doing a guerilla live? Pretty strange, in my view. In any case, that's why I go on doing my things without asking permission. I'm ready to discuss with people if they have complaints. Not with authorities, but with other people who use the place. In that vein, by doing things without permission people will finally just think "Oh there they go again". What's really important is to create an atmonsphere of not asking permission. (Yamada 2008:171)

This statement is in itself clear and unambiguous. The power it nevertheless has to create ambiguity stems from the struggle that is latently or openly taking place over the use of the campus and in which onlookers are invited to try to choose a side. While some will identify with the authorities, others will feel drawn to the activists. My hunch is that among the latter, many will pick the side of the activists, not only because they are "right", but because of the fun and attraction of ambiguity itself.

A conspicuous result of this valuation of ambiguity is that, unlike established forms of political activity (again think of electoral speeches), these artistic forms of activism relinquish the conceit of a firm possession of truth. The activists don’t provide answers, but raise questions. Possessing an answer would (perhaps) even diminish the impact of the act. In the end, the question “Is this really defensible?” reveals itself as being a question posed to society itself, rather than at the activists.

What’s art? Why necessarily use that word? Instead of answering these questions, Kim Yu-nan [of the Oasis project] explains that ‘We’re still thinking, but while thinking, we act’ and encourages me by saying that ‘it’s better to act and see than to worry’. And according to Kim Gan [also of the Oasis project], constructing judicial precedents is also a creative act…” (Takemura 2008:14)

Just like art, this form of activism is caught in a difficult balancing act. It must avoid being in simply in the “right”, but that doesn’t mean that it can permit itself to be simply “wrong”. Falseness is just as bad as truth. Creating moral ambiguity is a much more delicate and difficult business than simply abrogating moral responsibility. The latter makes art boring and predictable. The point is not to dodge moral questions, but to find the balancing point where they lack clear-cut answers.

* * *

I am aware that I have strayed far from the few examples of activism I started with. But blogs are for wandering. I know very little about the activists I have quoted (although it would be nice to meet them some day). So rather than trying to represent their way of thinking correctly, I'd like to simply give free rein to my own throughts and conclude with a few reflections on politics and ambiguity. What does it mean that a form of politics exists that, rather than delivering clear-cut "messages", delights in producing an art-like ambiguity?

Sure, politics and art don’t always need to be ambiguous. But fighting solely to defend the truths one already possesses is a sure way to make oneself conservative and predictable. The feeling such acts generate is fatigue: do I really have to do all this over again? It is a politics we have seen before, a politics without new actors or new lines and which has turned into an administrative game, that of assigning the opponent a category. But politics in a more emphatic sense (here I rely on Jacques Rancière) consists in challenging and upsetting the game as such, in the struggle that enfolds when neglected groups, until now invisible and inaudible, suddenly make their appearance and declare the game invalid. Politics is not a game. It is the appearance of what does not fit. You can participate in politics without having to share any common rules. Politics is to find the points where the seams of order will yield. It is when the trousers rip open.

I wrote "neglected groups", but I could probably just as well have written "individuals" or "energies" or "impulses".

In any case, politics can probabably be defined in the following way: as any attempt to redefine the limits of freedom. Children and activists are experts of politics.


Shiraishi, Yoshiharu (2008) "Gakuhi zero en wa Tôyako samitto kara hajimaru", pp 172-172, VOL, No. 03.

Takemura, Masato (2008) ”Oashisu purojekuto ni sôgû shite”, pp 14-16, PACE, Vol. 4.

Yamada, Shirô (2008) "Motto momeyô! Goneyô! Aru gakusei no hansuto", pp 168-171, VOL, No. 03.
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