Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Riots 6: Culture

Let me return to where I left off in "The Riots 5" and focus a little bit more on the role of the concept of culture in the interpretations of the riots.

One reason I’ve chosen to focus on culture is my impression that that it’s been neglected for a long time by the Left. Placing importance on culture, however, doesn’t necessarily imply nationalism or communitarianism, or what I’ve called culturalism. Neither does it have to imply any demotion of the importance of socio-economic factors. Culture can be seen as an important element in all revolt as well as in all attempts to secure autonomous spheres of living.

It’s time, therefore, to clarify that the culturalist interpretation is not alone in paying attention to culture. What characterizes this interpretation is that it reifies the cultures of immigrant populations, essentializes them, and believes that such essences somehow “explain” the riots. The most glaring weakness of culturalism is that the so-called “failure” of the integration of immigrant populations is taken as a corroboration of the persistence of (virtually ahistorical and indestructible) cultural essences or “traditions”. It overlooks the fact that immigrant cultures are created or reshaped in the host country. No culture, and especially no immigrant culture, is ever intact, and immigrant communities are practically always marked by a tremendous destruction of tradition, including the erosion of parental authority.

A first step towards correcting the culturalist interpretation would be to pay attention to what Durkheim called “anomie”, a state in which cultural norms are no longer binding and in which individuals suffer from a lack of cultural guidance. As many sociologists who have employed or elaborated on this concept point out, it is a useful tool not only for explaining suicide (as in Durkheim’s famous study), but also many other forms of criminal or “deviant” behavior. One of my favorite examples of good use of this concept is Inoue Shun’s interpretation of the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: the white colonizer who ends up as a brutal mass-killer despite his reputation back in Belgium as an eloquent humanitarian. Put simply, all norms – including the veneer of “civilization” which Kurtz managed to maintain as long as he was surrounded by his familiar European environment – need a social environment and bereft of that environment anomie occurs. That was no humanitarian “core” to Kurtz’ personality, but neither is there any core to the personality of any of us, since we all need society or social interaction to maintain our civilized facades. The concept of anomie, when put into use in a social interactionist context, is simply an enormously useful tool when it comes to understanding not only how seemingly civilized Europeans could turn into barbarians as soon they became colonial overlords, but also what happens to immigrants who are more or less forcefully uprooted from the contexts which once maintained their “traditions” and at the same time prevented by social exclusion from finding suitable substitutes in the countries where they end up. In such a context, the new norms that they manage to construct by themselves, by discovering new solidarities between themselves and new ways of living, in fact offer the best hope not only for them when it comes to leading meaningful lives but also for their “integration” into the surrounding society.

But the correction of the culturalist interpretation cannot stop here. In fact, the conservative discourse has hardly disregarded the factor of anomie. Indeed, as soon as a riot occurs, the familiar lament about moral crisis, societal breakdown and mindless hooliganism is never far away. What the conservative discourse does, however, is that as soon as the problem of anomie pops up, it tends to switch over from a culturalist to a security interpretation. Anomie becomes viewed as the seedbed of crime which needs to be contained and mastered. Rather than disregarding anomie, the conservative discourse tends to oscillate incoherently between the images of widespread normlessness and the existence of intact foreign cultures rejecting mainstream values, in the process conjuring up a horror fantasy worthy of prewar anti-semitism at its most grotesque: jihadist imams and juvenile gangsters fused into a single person.

Against this kind of scaremongering one should point out that the rioting youth already appears to have taken great strides in overcoming anomie. The organized, ritual character of the riots has often been pointed out, a fact which is perhaps most strikingly evinced in the controlled character of the violence, which is practically never aimed at humans, only at things such as cars and public buildings (see for instance this article by Lapeyronnie for an analysis of this).

But how do we go on? To start with I think we can agree that culture needs to be addressed a lot more by writers critical of the conservative discourse. If we look at the advocates of what I have been calling the “progressive” interpretation, I can’t help feeling that their way of addressing the issue of culture is often both unconvincing and unhelpful. I do find points of interest in their writings, especially when they are based on extensive research – like say the works of Gilles Kepel, who I think has made very important contributions and whose warning that the “fate of Islam” to a great extent will depend on the outcome of the “most important battle in the war for Muslim minds during the next decade will be fought not in Palestine or Iraq but in these communities of believers on the outskirts of London, Paris, and other European cities” (Kepel 2004:8). However, Kepel’s focus seems to be exclusively on whether or not “Muslims” will be able to endorse the already pre-existent democratic values of the European host societies. This blindness for whatever novelty in terms of culture or values that might be born out of this “war” is unfortunate, but reflects a widespread tendency among “progressive” thinkers to focus almost entirely on the “democratic” or “republican” values of the host culture and their fondness for the claim that the rioters of the banlieus are in fact animated by precisely these values and that the riots are therefore in keeping with the best of European traditions. Thus Emmanuel Todd argues that the young people rioted precisely because they had integrated the republican model, including “fundamental values of French society” such as freedom and equality.

I am convinced on the contrary that the phenomenon is typically French. The racially mixed young people of the Seine Saint-Denis fall under a tradition of social uprising which is frequent in French history. Their violence represents also the disintegration of the African and North African families in contact with the French values of equality. (Todd 2005)

With their revolt, the insurgent youth have integrated into the French tradition. And they're treated by the police just like any other revolutionaries. Despite Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s absurd rhetoric, the police and the population haven't lost their nerve. If the events can be brought to an end more or less peacefully, France will wake up and say to itself: this revolt doesn't mean the failure of the French model. On the contrary, it shows that it works. Because that's what we call assimilation in French. (Interview Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.11.2005, quoted here)

I have the impression that statement like this have become a kind of staple argument among progressive thinkers. Thus Ulrich Bech too argues that the riots are not caused by a lack of integration. On the contrary:

These assimilated youths whose parents were immigrants scarcely differ in their desires and attitudes from their peers in their country of immigration. They are closely affiliated. And this is precisely what makes the racism of their exclusion so terribly bitter for these very heterogenous youth groups, and so scandalous for everyone else. The paradox is this: a lack of integration in the parent generation defuses, and successful integration of the second generation intensifies the problems and conflicts. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15.11.2005, quoted here)

Similarly Sébastien Peyrat claims that the young rioters are inspired more by the slogans of the French revolution – freedom, equality and brotherhood – than by the traditions of their countries of origin (Dagens Nyheter 2005-11-04).

These arguments might seem striking, but I can’t help feeling that they are rather empty of content – like so many readymade rejoinders you can use in a debate. The reason is that what counts are French (or Swedish, German or European) values is itself highly malleable and that the very constitution of a “tradition” can only be made in retrospect. Today the labour movement is certainly considered to be in agreement with fundamental European values, but was it a hundred years ago? How fundamental were the values of freedom and equality in 1789? Here’s a harder nut for you to crack: was the autonomia movement in Italy in the 70’s in agreement with European “tradition”? Were the black panthers in agreement with American democracy? In fact, the very idea of a “tradition”, or reassuring people that nothing fundamental is changing or that the riots don’t really challenge anything fundamental, is an anti-concept. It is an anti-concept since it is too blunt, too empty and too malleable to be used as a tool for thinking.

Let me point out that my intention is not to criticize Todd or Beck or anyone else in particular, only a certain rhetorical figure, a kind of staple argument that I think is being heard perhaps a little bit too often by critics on the Left and which I think is unhelpful for the simple reason that it cannot withstand being thought about.

So how should culture be thought about? Here is my suggestion: rather than seeing the riots as caused by cultural essences or by anomie, and rather than seeing them simply as a continuation of a “revolutionary” European tradition stemming from 1789, I would like to see them quite simply as the expression of a process of cultural creation. As Todd explains, they originate in the encounter with local European values and circumstances. They don’t spring out of any finished ethnic communities. They don’t reflect action patterns or norms of the countries of origin. They are ad hoc, created here. The creation of novelty is reflected in the emergence of new languages and of new solidarities based on the shared sense of marginalization and exclusion. Leaving the banlieus, they enter France. Leaving Rinkeby or Angered or Rosengård, they enter Sweden. If progressives stress the fundamental agreement between this process of cultural creation and the host societies, it can just as well be interpreted as a move towards autonomy, in the sense of being an attempt to walk for oneself, without maps or models. The rioters are not driven by hatred of the West, but neither are they “integrated”. What do I know about the wonderful variety of tongues in which they get their ideas? Freedom from the spectacle – isn’t that the flip side of not being “successfully integrated”?

But I won’t end here. What could I reply to a person who pointed out that an autonomy marked by misery, poverty, criminality, violence, war, unemployment, escalating prejudice and conflict would be crippled, never free of anomie or the drawbacks of exclusion? To revolt may be good and justified, but won’t it antagonize the inhabitants or the surrounding mainstream society, inflaming racism and prejudice? But is the response of mainstream society really the responsibility of the rioters? Isn’t the question of how mainstream "Swedes" or “French” should react a question the members of these mainstream populations ought to pose to themselves? I don’t have any illusions. I am sure that many Swedes who could have sympathized or identified with rebellious youngsters of their own colour – thinking “this could have been me” or “this could have been my children” – are unable to feel the same closeness to immigrants. But even if I don’t have illusions, I have hope. I hope that despite the geographical and cultural distance that separates them from the refugee, they will still be able to think that this could have been me. I wasn’t born in Afghanistan or Bosnia. I wasn’t born a Jew under Hitler, but I could have been - if fate had willed differently. In another time or another place, I could have been anyone of the people I am now in a position to help. Now let me finish with a piece of preaching: whenever you feel threatened by someone, ask yourself if you would like to change places with him. If not, is he really an enemy?


Inoue, Shun (1985) “A Choice of Nightmares: On Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, pp 335-49, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 6.

Kepel, Gilles (2004) The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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

Todd, Emmanuel (2005) ”Interwiew on the ’French riots’

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