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.

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