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THE END OF COPENHAGUEN?
The riots in Copenhagen at the beginning of March were swiftly followed by a long planned and much delayed Seminar on the Situationist Movement in Scandinavia at The Folkets Hus (15 and 16 March 2007). I was invited to the latter, and as far as possible attempted to follow news of the former, although solid information seemed a bit thin on the ground both in the UK and in English on the Net. The British news media gave the riots in Copenhagen little coverage, while the ongoing bulletins on services such as Indymedia were fragmentary (but useful).
As far as I am able to gauge, the roots of the recent riots lay in the ongoing dismantling of the Scandinavian social democratic welfare states and their replacement by neoliberal modes of anti-social disorganisation as pioneered by the bourgeoisie in the UK and USA. The specific trigger for this recent swell of resistance was the decision on 8 February 2007 by the Copenhagen City Council to give final approval to the demolition of Ungdomshuset (The Old House) at Jagtvej 69 in Copenhagen. Ungdomshuset had been built for the labour movement in 1897, and had been a squatted social centre since the 1970s. It had a special symbolic significance because in 1910 an International Women's conference was held there during which 8 March was declared International Women's Day.
The building at Jagtvej 69 had been purchased from the City Council about six years previously by a fundamentalist Christian sect called Faderhuset (The Father’s House) who viewed Ungdomshuset both as a hotbed of activities they wished to repress and an opportunity to make money. The deluded reactionaries belonging to Faderhuset saw themselves as serving 'God’s Will' by 'saving youth from corruption'. After the demolition of Ungdomshuset, the scumbags behind Faderhuset announced that having 'saved the young' they now intended to 'cure homosexuals of their sickness'. The agenda of the neo-liberal politicians running Copenhagen City Council appears to have been to work in concert with Faderhuset to homogenise Danish society, while deflecting the anger the demolition of Ungdomshuset would inevitably arouse onto the Christian fundamentalists.
Ungdomshuset was evicted on 1 March by cops using helicopters and other excessive strong arm tactics. This was followed by demonstrations, rioting, mass arrests and the demolition of Ungdomshuset. By the time I arrived in Copenhagen on 13 March the movement of resistance appeared to have been at least temporarily broken. The government had declared a state of emergency in the Nørrebro and Christiania districts of Copenhagen, and among other things the cops could stop and search you without having to give a reason for the harassment. Quite a few people told me they'd been beaten up by the pigs. There were also reports of right-wingers running amok while the police turned a blind eye to their activities; allowing them to trash bicycle shops and make burning barricades from looted library books, so that these senseless acts of fascist violence would be blamed on the left and thus weaken support for the struggle against the gentrification of inner city working class neighbourhoods.
I was told repeatedly that those arrested were tried collectively (sometimes as many as forty at a time) and jailed for a week or two collectively for alleged rioting, despite no evidence being provided by the prosecution and no right of individual defence. I was also told there were 200 activists in jail when I arrived, and that through mass arrests running to about 600 in total (mainly non-Danes) the authorities had at least temporarily pacified the struggle. The cops were concentrating of arresting non-Danes and deporting them, despite the majority of those being kicked out having European Community citizenship and thus according to bourgeois law a 'right' to be in Denmark. The reason for these deportations being that the authorities wanted to make it look like the trouble was caused by outside agitators and had nothing to do with local social struggles! At least one woman had her flat raided and was jailed simply for having foreign guests (who were of course deported). I didn't see any rioting, although there were burn marks still visible on the streets where there had been trouble.
Dozens of cops in riot vans were parked up outside the 'Seminar on the Situationist Movement in Scandinavia' on the first day of the conference. Many of the young activists present had been shocked by their first experiences of severe police repression, and while still defiant were wary of fighting the cops. The Folkets Hus which was serving as the venue for the conference had been raided and smashed up by the cops in the aftermath of the riots. The conference was certainly electrified by the political developments in Copenhagen, and while many of the activists present weren’t familiar with the Situationists they were certainly willing to sit and listen to anything that might provide them with a way of understanding how to take their struggles forward. The discussion definitely appeared helpful in this regard, but only when linked to a broader swathe of debates and activities (as was the case, particularly in the more informal sessions). After an introduction by organisers Mikkel Bolt & Jakob Jakobsen, Tom McDonough and I argued the toss over the role of Guy Debord in relation to the various Situationist Internationals, and how this might account for the marginalisation of the Scandinavian Situationists in historical accounts of the movement. Although our positions were nearly polar opposites, and I was arguing for a greater recognition of Asger Jorn’s role in particular, the discussion remained friendly. Art historian Karen Kurczynski appeared next and spoke about the production of The Situationist Times journal. In between there was coffee and informal discussion. The first day also included the reading of a statement by Situationist painter Hardy Strid ('Anyone Can Be A Situationist'), followed by Lars Morell speaking about Situationist cinema from a Scandinavian perspective. The day concluded with a screening of the rarely seen short So ein Ding (1961): with the directorial credit given to Albert Merz, but which was actually more of a collaborative effort between him, Gruppe SPUR and Jørgen Nash (with finance supplied by Asger Jorn).
The second day was quite different in tone, beginning with an impassioned speech by a couple of German activists billed as Zwi Negator; this contribution was made from the perspective of the more interesting end of the 'Anti-Deutsche' movement. Zwi and Negator were using the Situationists as a springboard for getting people actively involved in contemporary politics and were clearly far more interested in this than an accurate assessment of the movement’s history. Next up, Karen Kurczynski interviewed Jacqueline de Jong about her involvement in the 1st and 2nd Situationist Internationals. De Jong was amusing on the sexism of the Situationist men, and her account of how she’d stayed on friendly terms with Guy Debord and Michele Bernstein after the public splits of 1962, undercut the ludicrous image of rigor the French Situationists liked to project on such matters; although de Jong was more overtly scathing about the 2nd Situationist International. What de Jong had to say reinforced the conclusions I’d already reached; viz, that while there is much of interest in Situationist theory and practice, it would be a mistake to take either the 1st or the 2nd Situationist International too seriously as an organised political force. After lunch Peter Laugesen spoke about his time with the Situationists, and how when J. V. Martin was head of the Debordist faction in Scandinavia all business was conducted in French, despite the fact Martin didn’t speak the language. Laugesen also spoke eloquently and passionately about the differences between French and languages such as English and Danish; and how this resulted in Guy Debord lacking the ability to understand Anglo-American and Scandinavian culture (because he only read French). One obvious inference of Laugesen’s talk was that Guy Debord’s intellectual limitations and narrowness of understanding were a significant factor contributing to the splits between the so called cultural and political factions of the Situationist movement. Next Fabian Tompsett changed the tenor of the proceedings completely with an inspiring talk on mathematics and revolution. This was followed by Jakob Jakobsen interviewing English painter Gordon Fazakerley about the period in which he lived at the Situationist Bauhaus, a commune in southern Sweden; and I was left with the impression that its leading spirit Jørgen Nash was an even more impressive conman than Guy Debord. Nash, it seems not only bled his brother Asger Jorn for money with which to fund the 2nd Situationist International, he also faked paintings and sold them to rich art collectors in order to keep his commune going (as well as stinging the Swedish government for the money available to those making ‘agricultural improvements’). The conference concluded with a group discussion that didn’t quite bring everything together, but it did succeed in bringing two days of very lively talks to an end.
After the close of the conference, I took part in a street party, a failed attempt at diverting the cops while other activists attempted to squat a new property to replace the demolished Ungdomshuset. The next day (Saturday) I turned up at the site of the destroyed Ungdomshuset, now just a piece of waste ground, where it had been planned we should construct a 'People's Park'. There were around 25 activists present when a couple of vans carrying soil, trees and other materials pulled up. As we attempted to unload the cargo, cops from a riot van came and stood in the way. At this point the pigs were slightly outnumbered, and they didn't attempt to clear us off the site until several van loads of reinforcements arrived and there were more of them than us.
Over the course of my time in Scandinavia, it became clear to me that one of the key issues that needed addressing was the gentrification of inner city working class neighbourhoods in Copenhagen, with a speculative bubble based on property prices being used to float the economy. I’ve seen how that has blighted London, and I really hope the same thing doesn’t happen in Denmark. There is resistance to this process and while I know in the long term the neo-liberals will lose, they appeared to me to have won the immediate battle. Ungdomshuset had been demolished and local activists had been shocked and stunned by the extent of the repression surrounding this. Before arriving in Copenhagen I had written in my blog on 8 March 2007: "What we need to work on is linking up all the different struggles and in particular that for the now demolished People's House (Ungdomshuset) in Copenhagen with those against Islamophobia and all other forms of racism in both Denmark and the rest of the world." Unfortunately I saw no evidence of this happening while I was in Copenhagen.
After returning home from Denmark I was pissed off to read a piece entitled: 'The pink rebellion of Copenhagen, Danish youth revolt and the radicalization of the European creative class' by Alex Foti, which was placed online on 15 March 2007. Among other things Foti claimed that Copenhagen’s 'dissenting youth (were) promptly joined by the immigrant youth…' As I’ve said, I saw no evidence of this; much of the rioting took place in a working class neighbourhood (Nørrebro) with a large Muslim population, but the struggles do not appear to have linked up yet. No doubt some Muslim youths rioted but this does not mean the struggles are directly linked, just as the appearance of fascist rioters didn’t result in the far-Right successfully hijacking the movement.
What we need is an accurate assessment of what’s going on, and not the type of mythologizing both Foti and mindless fans of Debord engage in. The slogans people like Foti invoke in their various writings ('creative class', 'precarization') all too often link communities rhetorically while carrying forward an agenda (albeit in many instances unconsciously) that needs challenging. Members of what Foti configures as 'the creative class' often provide the second wave in the process of inner city gentrification. In London we’ve had the misfortune to witness how the gentrification of the East End was achieved initially by the arrival of middle class anarchist squatters – there were also working class squatters but they tended not to be anarchists – who were followed by a wave of middle class artists (AKA 'the creative class'), before the City types who really pushed up property prices arrived in large numbers. And it was, of course, the middle-class squatters who were used to break the squatting movement, since as long ago as the seventies they were encouraged to organise themselves into legalised housing co-ops, which local government was then able to control, and over many years shrink into insignificance.
Foti writes about Christiania ('the hippie free city… being harassed by the Rasmussen government'), but fails to understand what is really going on in this area of Copenhagen, just as he mythologises events in the Nørrebro district (the working class neighbourhood where Ungdomshuset stood until its demolition). I went to Christiania and it seemed to me like a hippie theme park, much closer in class composition to Findhorn or some other middle-class alternative community in the UK than to Nørrebro. Christiania is exclusive and it is very difficult to get to live there, and while there had been a system of collective ownership (which was still a form of private property), the government has now replaced this with a strictly individualised from of private ownership and is now heavily policing the area. Christiania appears to be taking on a role analogous to the Housing Co-Ops which were used to destroy the squatting movement in London.
Foti also claims that: "In the Nørrebro, the neighbourhood’s culture of non-conformity has managed to bridge the divide between alternative youth and ghetto youth, or more sociologically speaking, between the mainly white creative class and the mainly immigrant service class. The neighbourhood has long been an inclusive space for young bohemians and/or immigrants: it hosts many venues of social interaction, and has a history of connections and exchanges between Arab kids and the mainly white activists. As the youth of Arab descent was heard saying during the riots: 'You helped us, we help you.' Militant antiracism was pivotal in breaking the wall of mistrust and building some mutual respect in Copenhagen, although deep differences still remain between the two groups." Aside from the ridiculous level of mythologisation going on here, clearly within Foti’s assessment, the so called 'white creative class' are the more privileged of the two communities invoked; therefore if the analysis was consistent what they should be attacking is their own privilege (and this is something that Muslim youth would, no doubt, be very happy to help them with).
Foti in a piece entitled 'Mayday Mayday! Euro flex workers, time to get a move on!' (placed online April 2005) writes: "We are the women of Europe in a feminized workforce and economy that nevertheless reserves to xx people more discriminatory pay and roles than to domineering xy people. We are the consumerized younger generation left out of the political and social design of a gerontocratic and technocratic Europe. We are the first-generation Europeans coming from the five continents and, most crucially, the seven seas. We are the middle-aged being laid off from once secure jobs in industry and services." What this highlights is one of my many problems with rhetoric about 'precarization', because even when anti-racism is (rhetorically) invoked, the notion of 'precarization' ends up glossing over all too many of the real issues connected to race and class. Race is not real but it is experienced as real because of racism. European identity is essentially a 'white' identity and while Foti is not bothered about skin colour, by talking of ‘first-generation Europeans’ he can be understood to be pushing for everyone to think themselves into the status of a white subject (regardless of their cultural background).
European identity is something I’d like to see smashed and problematised, whereas Foti seeks to preserve it. This is evident when in the 'Mayday' article he writes: "Our intent has been to advertise a new brand of labour activism and revolt (i.e. subvertise) by using language and graphics geared to people who have no prior political experience other than the wear and toil of their bodies and minds in the giant outlets and office blocks." In short, Foti’s anarcho-syndicalism is a variant of Leninist vanguardism, the old idealist fallacy of Holy Spirit descending into unconscious (or at best semi-conscious) matter, of (white) 'consciousness being brought in from outside'. There, standing against the light, is the decrepit figure of the ‘separate intellectual’ who ‘goes towards the people.'
Drawing on Russian populism, Bakunin and Lenin had previously made an identical error; history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy, and finally in the form of those who claim to belong to a 'creative class’… The linked notion of 'precarization' is completely ahistorical since it fails to address the ways in which what it describes is a return to the employment situation faced by the bulk of the working class in 'European' countries prior to World War II. Indeed, the reason a welfare state was introduced into (for example) the UK, was to buy off a working class many of whose members had returned from a major conflict both armed and with a knowledge of how to use those arms. That particular exceptional situation has passed, what Foti pushes as 'precarization' is not exceptional. 'Creative class' rhetoric clouds rather than clarifies our understanding of what has been happening in Copenhagen.
Expect Anything Fear Nothing – Seminar on the Situationist Movement in Scandinavia 15-16 March 2007, Folkets Hus, Copenhagen, Denmark http://destroysi.dk
This was a commissioned piece of web journalism for metamute which originally appeared at: http://www.metamute.org/en/End-of-Copenhagen on 25 Arpil 2007.