In May 2013. riots in the outskirts of the Swedish capital Stockholm have left vehicles and buildings in flames and destroyed two schools and a police station.The trigger for the unrest has been police shooting of a 69-year-old man in Husby, around 30km north of central Stockholm, where 80 per cent of the 12,000 inhabitants are immigrants and unemployment is high. Many local residents saw the shooting as an example of police brutality, and the violence has stirred debate in Sweden. Catharina Thorn, Senior lecturer on the Department of Cultural Sciences in University of Gothenburg, wrote an article in which she noted that behind Stockholm's urban revolts rages another, less visible revolution: the slow, deliberate, devastating assault on the Swedish welfare state. She explaines her arguments in an interview for H-Alter.
Half of a year ago the revolt struck poor suburb of Husby. What is the current situation there and what can you say about aftermaths of this events?
The police investigation ofthe shooting was dropped but was opened again recently. There has been a public debate on the actions by the police – lately attention was given to a closed facebook page used by the police that revealed quotes on the Husby events such as “deport the trash”. Alongside this the daily work for the area by its tenants continues. Megafonen still works with social activities, arrange free help with homework for the kids, organizes public lectures and discussions on justice, democracy, city planning and much more.
Why do you think that Swedish social democracy is a myth, and what is the reality that opposes this myth?
I would say it is a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes argument in Mythologies. For him myth removes history from language and in turn makes signs appears as natural, absolute almost frozen in time. The Swedish welfare system works as a myth – as an idea of democracy and welfare – that often are removed from both its historical origins and the present condition.
In many foreign countries, including Croatia, Sweden has a reputation as a country of tolerance, equality and social justice, and lots of Croats that have moved to Sweden will share this opinion. Is this, in your opinion, credible perception of Sweden?
I am surprised that is an image that is still valid in many countries since so much has happened in Sweden that could challenge that. In the 1990s we had racist violence with arsenal fires in refugee camps, a man called Lasermannen shot people who lookedforeign as well as the entry of the populist party New Democracy into the Parliament. Today is no different with Swedish extremeright nationalists in the Parliament, the serial killer Peter Magns shooting people with an immigrant background and other forms of racist violence. But there is of course individual stories where people did find refuge in Sweden and have managed to create a good life.
In context of this events, international press and public were surprised that something like this is happening in Sweden while, on the other hand, Swedish media, at least those liberal/conservative who belong to the mainstream, characterized social movements as destructive factors that are fundamental enemies of progress in Swedish society. Why is that so?
I think there are a number of different answers to that question. A tentative answer on my part would be that it has to do with the myth of the Swedish welfare state – that there is a belief that we already have democracy – as if democracy is something that could be installed and then just reproduces itself. But democracy is not something that exists in that sense. It has to be struggled for and reinvented time and time again. The Portuguese writer José Saramago once said that “democracy is there as if it was some sort of saint in the altar from whom miracles are no longer expected”. Now Sweden faces a situation where marginalized people demand space and voice. They challenge the current image of the idealised democracy and go back to the words of the constitution “all public power emanates from the people” – reinterpreting that from their own experience. This will of course create conflicts since it comes down to questions of power and distribution of resources.
You write about many years of an attack on the Swedish welfare state. How are these attacks carried out and who is behind them?
The Swedish welfare state has been deregulated and dismantled since the 1990s. Both the center-right government and the Social democrats have been responsible for this. What we see is a shift from public to private on many levels – where private interest gets more and more influence on the development of society. Common resources are also being exploited or privatized. It is an example of what geographer David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession. In my own area of research – housing politics and urban development – private real estate owners play a significant role in in adjusting the urban landscape to the demands of global capitalism. Their influence on the political agenda has increased through privatization and deregulation of the housing market, zero tolerance policies in public space and dismantling of tenant rights.
For example in my own housing area – Penny Lane in Gothenburg there is a current struggle between the landlord, Stena Real Estate and the tenants. The houses with 771 flats were built as a pilot for the million housing program in the 1960-70s and are in need of renovation. The landlord is proposing a renovation with an increase of the rent between 60-82%. According to a survey done by the Tenants organization a majority of the people in the area (80%) will have to move if the renovation is approved. For more than 18 months the tenants have organized protests against this and appealed to court. Our struggle in Gothenburg is actually quite similar to the struggle that the tenants in Husby fought against renovations with major rent increases. And it is significant because the million program housing is in great need of renovation and landlords try to put all the costs for this on the tenants – who will not be able to pay. But it is also significant because once upon a time in Sweden the right to housing with good standard to a reasonable cost was seen as the pillar of the welfare state.
What are the biggest problems with current Swedish society and how thick is the social injustice under the surface?
I would say that the biggest problem in Sweden is the question of democracy. Inequalities grows and with that social injustice. This evacuates the possibility of democracy which is being more and more reduced to the formal procedure of voting.
Is the racism that you were writing about connected with class discrepancies in some urban areas in Sweden and why do you think that the only culprits for the growing racism in Sweden are not nationalists but also the mentality of Swedish middle class?
There is an obvious link between class and racism – between poverty and the color of someone’s skin. But the inequalities that we see in the urban landscape today cannot be reduced to class. We need to analyze and understand the structural workings of racism and discrimination. So in fact I would not even see racism as a mentality problem but a problem that has to do with how society is organized, how resources are distributed, who lives where and works for what payment, who is in power and has ability to influence decisions etc. Having said that – in my article I wanted to pinpoint that “we”, the white middle class, need to understand our own responsibility in how questions of racism are being discussed in the public debate. How the dichotomy between “us” and “them” are constantly being repeated – not at least when it comes to poor suburbs.Today there is a mobilization going on in the suburbs with claims that need to be heard and given both space and real influence.
On the other hand, you are mentioning the rise of surveillance state and the implementation of immigrant deportation programs. So the official moves of policymakers are also in the connection with these negative trends?
Yes they are. I can just mention the last report on the police that has been discussed here in Sweden lately. It was discovered that Swedish police secretly have established an illegal databases of Romani people in a program thatoriginally was intended for counter terrorism operations. Even children were found in the database.
What can we learn about social inequality from the urban landscape of the biggest cities in Sweden?
The urban landscape in the major cities isvery socially polarized – with rich white inner cities and suburbsinhabited by poor people with immigrant background. This has been discussed for a long time as the “problem of segregation” with numerous projects implemented to “solve” this. The problem is that at the same time as these small local projects has been running major structural changes within the housing market has been implemented as well as new strategies to adjust and adapt the inner city to the demands of global capitalism. Therefore we see more and more gentrification happening within the (semi-)central city-districts and a deepening of social polarization within urban space.
On the other side, in some Swedish cities there is ongoing development of methods and policies for sustainable urban development. You participated in a study that focused on the Kvillebäcken, “the area that is promoted to be a display window - not only for ecological urban development but also for being a good example on social sustainability." What did the study shown?
Our analysis shows how Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, has responded to the economic crisis in the 1970-80s through a class remake of the city that not only displace working class housing from its central parts but also privileges and normalizes whiteness. The case of Kvillebäcken (partly former industrial land) shows how an area formerly defined as remote (even though spatially central)was redefined as central in 2005 during the a new phase of remaking of the central city. By an imaginary redrawing of the city map that changed the boundaries for what is defined as the central city, the local political and economic elite decided to exploit and invest in this area. There werecolonial dimensions in the rhetoric of the redevelopment as it was presentedas an expansioninto “unexploited and uninhabited areas”. Further, before the demolition of the existing buildings,policy-makers and investors stigmatized it as a no-go area, ”the Gaza strip of Gothenburg” as they called it, which of course legitimized thedemolition. In close cooperation between authorities from the municipality and private investors (as well as lawyers and police) a takeover of the area was possible and the former users of the land - who had invested money, resources and time - were displaced. Even though it was former industrial land – it was by no means empty. As it was an area with mosques, immigrant associations and small businesses,it functioned as the most central meeting point for people from the poor suburbs. The area is still under construction but has already been recognized within policy networks as a display window for sustainable urban development.The stigmatization of the area and its inhabitants, as well as the loss of the area for immigrant and working class communities, further marginalized their position in the city.
What would, in your opinion, happen if Sweden entered in a recession like most countries in Europe and would multi-year period of negative economic growth in this hypothetical situation unleash even bigger revolt in the streets of Swedish cities?
I find it very difficult to foresee what would happen if Sweden enters a recession. Sweden has one of the highest household debts in Europe and the housing market is much overheated. So I guess it would depend a bit on how the recession would hit Sweden. But what we see now, even though it is still only small sign is an increasing mobilisation against welfare cutbacks and injustices in the housing markets. On the other hand nationalist party Swedish Democrats are continually growing – so I guess the future remains open.