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<nettime> Catharina Thorn: The Stockholm Uprising and the Myth of Swedish Social Democracy (NLR)

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The Stockholm Uprising and the Myth of Swedish Social Democracy

Even in Sweden.  The title of geographer Allan Pred?s book, published in
2000, pops up in my head while reading international reports on the
uprisings in Stockholm.  In a Europe in the midst of economic, social and
democratic crisis, urban uprisings were likely to erupt again (following
disturbances in urban France, Greece, England, and Spain) sooner or later.
The question was when and where next?  When the poor suburb of Husby lit
up, the surprise in the newspapers was palpable: even in Stockholm!

?Who are they??, the reporter from Sky News asks.  The New York Times
writes: ?In Sweden, Riots Put an Identity in Question?.

In his wide ranging historical-materialist analysis, Allan Pred challenged
the dominant image of Sweden as a country of tolerance and equality and
showed how the country is imbued with racism and discrimination. He wrote
about the ?dirty metonymical tricks? whereby isolated incidents involving
individuals are taken as evidence of the behavior of entire groups or
neighborhoods, which in turn rationalizes the racist structures that
characterize much of Sweden today?discrimination, marginalization and

The death of Swedish social democracy

International media surprise that revolts can emerge in Stockholm, the
supposedly prosperous ?capital of Scandinavia?, stems from near-total
ignorance of what has happened here over the last 30 years. Behind the
urban revolts that set Stockholm on fire lies another, less visible
revolution: the slow, deliberate, devastating assault on the Swedish
welfare state.

The editors of the book Transformations of the Swedish Welfare State
summarise Sweden's neoliberal shift as follows:

?    re-regulations to support the privatization and marketization of
public sector
?    responsibilization ? citizens are remade as customers and co-producers
?    new forms of disciplinary power (increased surveillance and new
strategies for policing urban protests)
?    new forms of governance (public-private-partnerships)
?    a move from full employment to ?standby-ability?.

These have been implemented, above all, through the restructuring of urban
spatial and social relations.

Sweden may be liberalizing in a faster pace than any other country in the
Western world right now. In March 2012 Svenska Dagbladet published an
article titled, ?The liberal revolution?. Based on an investigation by the
Heritage Foundation (a right-wing American think tank) commissioned by the
newspaper, the article boasts of Sweden's membership in the ?world elite?
of privatization and deregulation. It proudly recalls 16 January 2012 when
a ?free school? license was advertised on the Swedish eBay, an event that
has been celebrated as a liberal triumph.

Liberal celebrations mask another reality. A recent OECD report shows that
Sweden has the fastest growing income gap of all of the 34 countries
surveyed. Social inequality is expressed most dramatically at the urban
scale, sharply divided into wealthy, corporate, bureaucratic central city
districts and impoverished outskirts. Swedish housing policies that once
regulated the housing market have been dismantled since the 1990s. 
Non-profit municipal housing companies, created for everyone but also
issued with social responsibility via the provision of housing to
low-income families, have been privatized, and those that remain are now
profit driven (see Clark & Johnson 2009, Christophers 2013 for a more
detailed analysis). A deregulated housing market combined with urban
growth politics (with ?growth first? on the agenda) inevitably creates
major inequalities?political reforms become visible on the ground, vividly
written into the starkly contrasting streets and buildings of the urban
landscape. The full consequences of this are yet to be seen, but already
Sweden's three largest cities have seen increased homelessness,
overcrowded housing conditions and a serious housing shortage.  The
?million dwellings program?, initiated in the 1960s and 1970s to resolve
the housing shortage at the time, has been subjected to systematic
disinvestment, which has left many residences in need of extensive
renovations. So far it is tenants who have to pay for these renovations,
with over 50% rent increases.  Many will never be able to pay, and tenants
with low incomes currently face a future of being shuffled around in areas
yet to be renovated.

Gentrification and disinvestment are part of the same process, which
causes one part of the city prosper and another to decay. In poor areas in
Stockholm, according to the report Urban Development Areas, more that 40%
of young people aged between 20-25 neither study nor work, and more than
50% of children grow up in poverty. Crucially, urbanization in its current
form is deeply racialised?Stockholm's city centre has become a thoroughly
gentrified enclave for the white middle/upper-class, whilst its poorest
suburbs are increasingly non-white. The stigma of place and othering
overlap with profound effects on the lives of residents. To be sure,
capital flows in and out of Stockholm, but it is rarely redistributed.
There are no ?trickle down effects?. Rather accumulation is made, in the
words of David Harvey, by dispossession. This is the other side of
prosperous Stockholm?beyond the seductive theatre of consumption that
characterises the central city, people fight for a decent life, or just to
get by, while common resources are continually being snatched away and

Husby and the question of democracy

Contrary to reports in the national and international media that the
uprisings are a youth problem?of vandals and criminals according to the
conservative and liberal press, or of employment according to the social
democratic press?they are first and foremost a democratic problem,
concerning Swedish society as a whole. It calls for a radical
transformation of the current political condition of Sweden.  Analysing
the revolts in Paris 2005, geographer Mustafa Dikec wrote that we need to
understand them not as ?mindless? looting and burning but as unarticulated
justice movements. That point is valid in the Swedish context, but here we
can also detect new urban social movements emerging, claiming both space
and voice. And it is to those movements, unarticulated and articulated,
that we need to turn to in order to understand in what manner Sweden can
be democratized. In an open letter published in Aftonbladet, The Panther
Movement based in Gothenburg writes to ?A Nation on Fire?:

    If you insist on reducing every single political question to a police
matter, then maybe we just should start electing police instead of
politicians. Yet another part of society died in that Husby apartment.
That's why there are fires. But you already knew that.

In the darkest weeks of last December, an infected debate on racism,
language and culture played out in Swedish media. Experiences of everyday
racism, in the system, in the state, in culture, in the urban landscape,
were trivialized. Racism was, once again, associated narrowly with the
growing nationalist movements in Sweden, as if it had nothing to do with
the white middle class, still a vast majority in media, politics and
academia. Poet Johannes Anyuru wrote:

    We who had parents from black Africa saw how smart, educated and
ambitious people just got shitty jobs in Sweden, we saw people whose
lives and dreams pissed away by something in the Swedish mentality
that obviously cannot see the value in a black face. And the years
went by.

    This blood has been poured into a bowl. Put yourself on a tram or
subway car and travel to the high-rise suburbs and see with your own
eyes where black bodies in general are situated in Sweden: in the
periphery, far out on the line, in the silence, in poverty, deep in
the fight. (SVT Debatt, 10 December 2012, my translation)

Then, at the beginning of 2013, the REVA project was implemented. Part of
an intensifying program to deport undocumented immigrants, REVA gave the
police authority to perform internal border controls. Numerous witnesses
have described being stopped in the streets and subways by the police on
no other grounds than ?looking foreign?.  The spark that eventually set
the suburbs of Stockholm alight was, as in so many other urban uprisings,
a lethal police shooting.

Days after the shooting the local social movement Megafonen, based in
Husby, organized a manifestation and demanded an independent investigation
of the shooting. The report from the police, that the man died in a
hospital, was false. He died in his apartment and no ambulance was sent.
This violation, a reminder of the violence that is performed in daily
visitations and police controls with which young people in Husby are so
familiar, was gasoline poured on embers that had been glowing for some

The day after the first night of burning cars, Megafonen organised a press
conference. They talked about police violence and racism. The words that
they heard: ?nigger?, ?monkey fuckers?, ?hobo?, words that are not
isolated to Husby.  Some years back, when Rosengård in Malmö was on fire,
racist statements by the police were captured on film??little fucking
monkey bastard?. The investigation that followed was quickly dropped.

When Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt commented on the events in Husby he
repeatedly called for respect for ?Swedish law? and ?Swedish police?,
concluding that it is ?up to the people in Husby? to solve this.  The
thinly-veiled implication was that the residents of Husby are not Swedish
and their problems are not Sweden?s.

The people of Husby know all this. That is why they have organized for a
long time. Their fight against the so-called Järva investment
(Järva-lyftet) has been going on for years. It was announced as a
large-scale investment in the area, based on citizen dialogue and the
improvement of housing conditions. The inhabitants of Husby soon realized
that "dialogue" was more form than content, and did not amount to real
participation. It was a politics of the surface, not based on needs of the
neighbourhood. Megafonen, a tenants? movement, grew out of this, issuing
basic demands for democratization and giving voice to the marginalised.
For years it has fought for control over the neighbourhood and the plight
of its people?against cutbacks, against renovations with increasing rents,
and for a more just city. In 2012 it squatted the community cultural
facility when the city wanted to close it down. Its fight for the
community has inspired people all over Sweden to mobilize against the
privatization of housing, increasing rents and the replacement of welfare
with surveillance.

Recent events, however, have turned the public debate against Megafonen,
with many blaming them for the burning cars. Their response was published
in Aftonbladet:

    Megafon does not start any fires. Why are journalists and politicians
so interested in Megafon denouncing the rebellion? Young people are
being demonised to prevent all of us from seeing the truth?because the
truth will sting. The editorial pages and the police also demonise us
in Megafon, saying that we are responsible for what is
happening?because we didn?t keep silent.

    We understand that it is uncomfortable, even depressing, to have to
reflect on what is happening in Sweden today. It is even more
difficult for the government, the police force, and the large portion
of the media that is a part of the reason all this is happening.

    From our side, we see a government whose answer to social problems is
more police. We see police brutality and harassment in our
neighborhoods. We see verbal racist abuse, fists smashing faces,
aggravated assault with batons. We see the police aiming their service
weapons at youths and shouting: 'I?ll shoot!'

    We see a school system being 'reformed' over and over again, where we,
our friends, and our brothers and sisters struggle to cope in schools
that lack resources. We see that they can send their children to other
schools. We see housing policies that create housing shortages. The
human right to a home tossed aside for luxury condominiums. We see our
rent increase steeply on the pretext that our building is being
renovated when only the façade has been repainted.

    Now everyone is on the side of the suburbs and competing to propose
solutions. Where were you before everything set off? We were here and
arranged homework help, lectures and concerts. We fought for our
community centres and homes. Now we continue to stand up for our
neighborhoods and our city.

New Urban Movements

Contrary to popular belief, Swedish democracy was not built by
politicians, but by social movements. Radical working class movements laid
the foundations of the Swedish welfare state. A major rent strike in the
1930s was the starting point for a housing politics where ?good housing
for all? for a long time served as a central goal of political reform. But
the Swedish welfare state mutated via a political culture of consensus
that is most accurately interpreted as a technocratic decision-making
practice, balancing demands from business and civil society. Today this
mutation forms the basis for Sweden's post-political culture, and with it
the steady erosion of social welfare.

Hanne Kjöller, editorial writer for Dagens Nyheter, argues that Husby has
become a Rorchach test?people read into the events whatever suits their
political agenda. Being critical of Megafonen and what she calls
?left-wing analysis?, Kjöller challenges the view that media and
politicians have not neglected Husby, citing as evidence the number of
media articles on Husby over the last two years.  Whilst it is true that
the movements in Husby have created a public debate on the failure of
Järvalyftet, and that their continual fight for their area received
attention in media, merely gaining media attention is not sufficient for
them, even if it satisfies Kjöller.

The real challenge is to make a difference on the ground and urban
movements are emerging all over Sweden aiming to do just that. The tenants
of Husby are not alone. In Alby, Stockholm, people fight the privatization
of municipal housing stock under the banner ?Alby is not for sale?we are
not for sale?.  In Gränby, Uppsala and Skarpan, Linköping, and
Pennygången, Gothenburg, tenants resist ?renoviction? plans.  In
Gothenburg, The Panther Movement in Biskopsgården fights discrimination,
racism and segregation. These are just few of new urban movements emerging
in Sweden, based on local struggles but with claims that point to a
political agenda that goes far beyond them and unites their struggle into
a collective call for a more radical transformation of Swedish democracy
to include new voices and create common spaces for an alternative social
and spatial order.

The flames have hardly faded, and the future is now radically open.

Catharina Thörn is researcher/lecturer at Department of Cultural Sciences,
University of Gothenburg.

Thanks to Håkan Thörn and Tom Slater for helpful comments on early drafts.


Bengt Larsson, Martin Letell and Håkan Thörn, eds., Transformations of the
Swedish Welfare State. From Social engineering to governance? , Palgrave

Eric Clark and Karin Johnson, ?Circumventing circumscribed neoliberalism:
The 'system switch' in Swedish housing,? in ed. Sarah Glynn, Where the
other half lives: lower income housing in a neoliberal world, Pluto 2009.

Brett Christophers, ?A monstrous hybrid: the political economy of housing
in early-twenty-first century Sweden,? New Political Economy, 2013 (online
early version)
About this article

Published on 30 May, 2013
By Catharina Thörn

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