The pyres of Spring

The riots which besieged Stockholm's suburbs in late May, are not indicative of some ‘exclusion’ from mainstream Swedish society, but of the absence of society itself.

Astrid Nordin
10 June 2013

Burning cars are now a common feature of contemporary urban unrest, an image which by 2013 has indeed become so cliché that it could have come from any European city; Paris, London, Lyon, Manchester, Malmö, and in the last month, Stockholm. Europe is in flames.


Row of burned cars in Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. Rioting in the city's suburbs has raised the national debate about immigration, unemployment and social inequality. Rikard Stadler/Demotix.

On the evening of Sunday 19th May in Husby, a Stockholm suburb, cars are set on fire, windows smashed, and stones thrown at the subway. A few policemen sustained injuries in confrontations with riotous youth, a garage is burned, a few dozen residents are evacuated. Events which are said to have been sparked by the police shooting of a 69 year old man in front of his wife, after he wielded a machete in a flat and attacked the police.

According to witnesses, police had been heard taunting the rioters calling them ‘nigger’ and ‘ape.’ The next night, more cars burn in Husby, together with a mini-bus for transporting elderly people. Unrest also spreads to other Stockholm suburbs, where more cars burn. Meanwhile, 50-100 people prevent rescue services from putting out the rioters fires, and are met by armoured police with dogs. There are numerous accusations of police brutality. Over the subsequent nights, an increasing number of suburbs and towns across Sweden erupt in flames: cars, buildings, skips, trees, bins, lamp-posts.

In response, the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt held a press conference where he condemned the riots:

‘We have groups of young men who think that you can and should change society with violence. Let us be clear. This is not OK. We cannot let violence rule.’

There are subsequently more arrests, while a representative of the right wing Sweden Democrats party called for a state of emergency and curfew. By the weekend, the police are reported as describing the situation as on par with an ordinary working weekend – yet most of their arrests are related to football games rather than suburban riots. A pre-school is burned down, but it is unclear whether the fire is linked to the riots.

A failure of integration?

The international media have reported on the riots with a level of sympathy, but it is hard to escape the impression that certain quarters are revelling in the fact that riots, which previously spread across their own cities, were now emerging in Sweden. Riots in France and the UK have , by their own media and politicians, been framed as indicators of a decaying welfare system and social fabric. Now the virus had spread to Sweden, the self-appointed exemplary of a European model of consensus, equality and welfare for all.

As with riots elsewhere, there is alongside this ill-veiled schadenfreude, a perplexity as to the logics underpinning the rioters’ actions. What do the rioters want? How can we stop them or appease them? Various explanations have been given in answer to these questions, yet time and time again the issues of poor 'integration' and poor parenting are cited as key causes of urban unrest among young, angry men.

Most Swedish people that I talk to about the riots will go out of their way to explain that this is not a question of immigration, it is probably not only immigrants who have been involved, and even if it were, it is poverty and structural racism that has lead to dissatisfaction in this group of young men.

Over the last 25 years, Sweden has, according to OECD figures, experienced the largest increase in inequality of all the developed countries. Unemployment is higher among immigrants and young people, especially in suburban areas like Husby, an urban periphery which like many others across Europe is fastly becoming ghettoised from the city centre. If the state in the 70s responded to social unrest with investment in cultural activities, today it responds with police brutality. This, I am told, is Sweden’s failure, we have failed to welcome these people and integrate them into Swedish values.

We see in this logic the effects of a rhetorical focus, over the last couple of mandate periods in Swedish politics, on social exclusion or ‘outsidership’. This vocabulary was championed by the governing liberal coalition, and has been accepted wholesale by the Left and social democratic opposition. This imagery posits a society from which some are excluded: immigrants, the unemployed, rioting youth, members of extreme parties on both left and right, and so on. The exclusion is sometimes explained by a lack of effort, will or skill amongst the excluded – they should be working harder to adapt and merit entry into society.

Sometimes however, the exclusion is explained by lack of attention, ability or will by the already included – it is our failure, racism and toothless policies that continue to exclude people.

Where are the parents?

The second explanation, where are the parents? How is it that fourteen year olds are allowed to run around on their own in the streets at night? If the riots are a sign of lacking parenting, how do we deal with it? The far-right Sweden Democrats party, who called for a state of emergency to be announced, suggested that the problem of poor parenting should be dealt with by way of punishment: parents whose children cause trouble should lose their child benefit. Others take lacking parenting to stem from the insufficiency of Swedish society and state to inculcate values, we need more and better integration through schools and kindergartens, activities for young vulnerable people, and greater efforts to stem youth unemployment.

But what if the problem is not that we mother people too little, but too much? What if the riots are not indicative of those ‘excluded’ from some imagined society, but of the absence of that society itself?

Mothering the other

In 2005, during the French riots, philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an article for French paper Libération, stating that those located at the periphery of society are themselves products and analysts of societal problems.[1] To society’s attempt to assimilate and mother its others, they respond with insults:

Today it is precisely the “best” it has to offer—cars, schools, shopping centres—that are torched and ransacked. Even nursery schools: the very tools through which the car-burners were to be integrated and mothered. “Screw your mother” [Nique ta mère] might be their organizing slogan. And the more there are attempts to “mother” them, the more they will.[2]

Baudrillard’s point here reiterates an argument made elsewhere in academic literature: attempts to integrate ‘the others’, from outside of some imagined society, can lead to violent counter-reactions. As Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s noted of the French riots, violence and counter-violence generate one another in a vicious cycle.[3] Reacting to exclusion by attempting to integrate and mother the excluded leads exactly to the ‘excluded’ running with the logics imposed on them, becoming more riotous and unaccepting. In this way, disaffiliation turns into defiance, and going on the offensive is the only way to ‘stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand.’[4]

Indeed, the point that has escaped Swedish debates on Husby is that perhaps rioters do not want to be reintegrated on these lines. Swedish society cannot imagine that anyone could rationally not want our schools, our benefits, our mothering care. And yet when they’re called niggers and apes, they respond with ‘screw your mum!’ who can blame them? Perhaps the rioters view Swedish ‘mainstream’ way of life with the same condescension as it views theirs?

What is more, such a condescension may be an entirely warranted reaction to a society that completely fails to understand the extent to which it is at odds with itself. The hardest test for European society, in Baudrillard's view, does not come from an outside threat in the form of immigration, but consists in society's own absence and loss of reality. Where is this Swedish society of which we speak, and from which these rioters are supposedly excluded? Could it be that all this talk of integration only signals that there is nothing there to integrate into? If this is so, the riots and the talk of integration signals the very lack or absence of Swedish and European values in the first place – so that all we can do is ‘try to palm them off on others.’[5] Soon, the only thing defining this society will be those it has expelled, but who are now ejecting it from itself. It is only their (violent, negating) interpellation that makes awareness of society possible.

Jason Diakité, known in Sweden as rapper Timbuktu whose cover of the hip-hop classic The Message intervened in the Husby debates, has astutely called the situation a real ‘problem onion’, with layers of problems causing the riots. Certainly, the factors building up to the riots – in Paris, London, Stockholm and elsewhere – are manifold.

But Diakité also understands these riots express a nihilism, where nothing matters, not even one’s own happiness. What we learn from Baudrillard and Žižek is that this tells us less about ‘their’ absence and more about ‘ours’. These outbursts without any kind of positive vision or meaningful utopianism are more than anything a sad symptom of this more general predicament.

‘Perhaps’, writes Žižek, ‘this is all we can do today, in our dark era: to render visible the failure of all attempts at redemption, the obscene travesty of every gesture of reconciling us with the violence we are forced to commit.’[6] By interpellating the mothering regimes through obscene calls rather than rational analyses, the mothered others refuse to treat the purported system as real. And the more ‘we’ position ourselves as ‘their’ mothers, the more they will attempt matricide.

[1] Baudrillard, Jean, 2005, Nique Ta Mère! [Fuck Your Mum!], Liberation, 18.11.2005. A number of English language translations appeared online under various titles. I use the translation provided in New Left Review, which was titled "The pyres of autumn" (Baudrillard, Jean, 2006, The Pyres of Autumn, New Left Review, 37, pp. 5-7). Another reliable translation is available from the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Baudrillard, Jean, 2006, The Riots of Autumn or the Other Who Will Not Be Mothered, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, 3(2)).

[2] Baudrillard, Jean, 2006, The Pyres of Autumn, New Left Review, 37, p. 7.

[3] Žižek, Slavoj, 2005, Some Politically Incorrect Reflexions on Violence in France, Multitudes.

[4] Baudrillard, Jean, 2006, The Pyres of Autumn, New Left Review, 37, p. 7.

[5] Baudrillard, Jean, 2006, The Pyres of Autumn, New Left Review, 37, p. 5.

[6] Žižek, Slavoj, 2005, Some Politically Incorrect Reflexions on Violence in France, Multitudes.

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