15 03 07

The pink rebellion of Copenhagen

Danish youth revolt and the radicalization of the European creative class

Alex Foti

It was a very hot weekend in Copenhagen between March 1st and March 3rd, particulary in Nørrebro, the alternative neighborhood where the evicted and demolished Ungdomshuset was located, and around Christiania, the hippy free city known Europe-wide being harassed by the Rasmussen government. But the
the eviction and the three days and nights of heavy rioting that followed were initiated by the local socialdemocrats, who have been in charge of the city since 1900. The harsh treatment of protesters, Andersen's mermaid who went pink, and the 600 arrests of activists, have prompted a wave of transnational solidarity among the European youth with appeals, actions, boycotts, and occupations of Danish consulates, not only in nearby Malmö, Göteborg, Hamburg, Oslo, Helsinki, but also in Berlin, Munich, Leipzig and every single German city, as well as in Warsaw, Poznan,  Budapest, Amsterdam, Venice, Milan, Athens, Salonica, Istanbul.

Why in Denmark? Why there such a forceful rebellion of the city's dissenting youth, promptly joined by the immigrant youth? How could a full-scale riot occur in peaceful and wealthy European capital, with burning barricades and sustained the clashes with the police, who had to bring in help from Sweden to put the situation back under control? Wasn't consumerist European youth supposed to be only eager to discover the world, flying and chatting low-cost? Wasn't the younger generation deemed to be irreversibly post-ideological, much less attracted to radical politics?

In political terms, Denmark is a special country in more ways than one. It's been part of the EU since 1973, but its people have opposed Maastricht with all their will, with major riots (the only comparable to last weekend's in recent history) breaking out after the 1993 referendum, which in retrospect were at least as important as the 1995 French strikes in catalyzing the antiglobalization movement in Europe. And many Danes were in Göteborg, a crucial episode in the maturation of noglobal protest in Europe, just before Genoa. As the now respectable Italian right-wing leader and former fascist Gianfranco Fini said to Time magazine: "Genoa will be like Göteborg, or worse." (Since he went on to commandeer the riot cops in Genoa, he made sure his dire prediction would come true.) As a consequence of the fierce popular opposition to Maastricht, Denmark is not part of the euro, but it's very much part of the eurocratic mainstream. The reason: flexicurity, currently the solution favored by the European Commission to temper the disasters (and limit the political costs) brought by unilateral flexibility, while forcing workfare down the throats of the unwilling youth of Europe. Although a Nordic country with an extensive welfare system and strong unions, social democracy hasn't had an easy life in 21st century Denmark. A staunchly occidentalist, neoconservative right has been in power since 2001. Denmark has turned into a faithful bushist ally, more long-lasting than Berlusconi's Italy. This exceptional partiality to NATO and America make the Danish version of flexicurity – the latest edition of Nordic social model after the demise of the top-down and paternalist, but generous and universalist, socialdemocratic welfare state – particularly liked by the Barroso commission.

Of course, the land which hosted the first Jacobin revolution outside France and invented quantum physics remains a land with a penchant for free thinkers and rabble rousers: the Danes have a fierce sense of humor, which compares favorably with their Scandinavian neighbors (remember The Kingdom by Lars von Trier?). And Copenhagen, a city fully immersed in the informational networks and supply channels (think container and shipping giant Maersk) feeding the global economy, is full of them. With respect to the British or Italian creative class, Danish brainworkers are more radical and libertarian. Anarchism has flourished since the early 80s from anarchopunk to black bloc and beyond. Radicalism with red and green tinges is also in full bloom. In fact, generalized reliance on peer-to-peer sharing and free downloading has been furthered by collectives such as piratgruppe. And antiprecarity ideas and actions are currently fermented by groups like flexico. And who could ever forget such great subvertising stunts like anti-pepsi Guaraná Power (also a commercial success in the Jutland peninsula)?

And this is just a fractal part of what Copenhagen's creative class is able to achieve, when it thinks in terms of political action and cultural engagement. But Denmark is also a strongly agrarian economy which has prospered under the Common Agricultural Policy, thanks to its superior dairy and pork products that have conquered European, and world, markets. Farmers are as religious and narrow-minded, lily-white protestant and patriotic, just as urban dwellers tend to be secular
and open-minded. The former have been pivotal in the rise to power of the Right, the latter are increasingly dissatisfied by the traditional Left.

The Danish antiglobalization movement has been the only one in Europe to develop its own independent political force. Sections of it joined the Red-Green alliance, bringing a woman under 30 to Parliament, and constituted a Pink list in Copenhagen's municipal elections, which scored almost 10 per cent of votes at the city level, and in alternative neighborhoods like Nørrebro is firmly in the double digits. No wonder Andersen’s mermaid was covered in pink as a sign of solidarity with the protesters (the 69 signature instead refers to the street number of Undgomshuset, which uses it as some kind of punk ying and yang in its posters). The osmosis of activists into local politics and cooperative ventures has created a multi-level context, in which radical forces of all denominations can work in synergy if the situation requires, from the streets to the city to the parliament, with a tacit division of labor that respects political autonomy at all levels. The proliferation of networked autonomous struggles and alternative media networks combined with municipal representation has enabled a common political understanding of the connectedness of various forms of dissent and protest, and has encouraged experimentation with the possibilities of social radicalism in a European metropolis. This was not simply a rebellious episode: it will have far-reaching political consequences.

In the Nørrebro, the neighborhood’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 neighborhood 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. Unlike Paris, where the students storming the universities and the boulevards to protest against juvenile precarity and the French government did not really fundamentally connect with the rioters (there were actually tensions during the demonstrations between students and radicals and banlieusards intent on looting and fighting the police), in Copenhagen recent social turmoil has mostly seen white and non-white youth on the same side of the barricade.

Large-scale riots occur spontaneously in response to blatant violations of individual liberties and collective rights and arrogant abuses of state and police power. Think of Rodney King trial and the 1992 L.A. riots, or remember the electrocution of teenagers running away from the cops which triggered the uprising of Paris banlieues in 2005, and you can understand why the raid of the Danish special forces to evict Ungomdshuset in the early morning of the first of march, was just like a match thrown on the parched prairie. Riots are spontaneous processes emerging after all hopes in non-violent tools of protest and confrontation are exhausted, due to the deafness of power.

And Danish state power is as deaf as it is dumb. As soon as the Right took office, it launched a cultural crusade to protect the Occident from Muslim immigration, perceived as a threat to the Danish cultural identity. The extent of its hostility to migrants in Denmark (a very nativist state with very strict immigration laws, in an already xenophobic European Union) became clear to the whole world with the mishandling of the crisis of satirical cartoons. The cartoons, purportedly making fun on the Prophet, were in reality the political editorial of a conservative newspaper, traditionally expression of the right-wing agrarian interests above noted. Only a panislamic boycott of Danish products pushed the country's multinationals to plead for a more sensible approach with the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

In fact, the prime minister – whom Berlusconi advised as lover to his wife for his good looks (seriously!) – shares his last name with a prime mover of European politics, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, head of the European socialdemocrats in Strasbourg and influential in the Socialist International. The socialdemocratic blunder made in Copenhagen with the shady sale to a homophobic and islamophobic Christian sect of the social youth center Ungdomshuset, worsened by the forced eviction (there had already been skirmishes in September, so it was clear Copenhagen's youth was going to explode at the next provocation) makes one thing clear: the two Rasmussens are one of a same kind! European politicians, either socialdemocratic, liberal or conservative, increasingly look indistinguishable. They all share deference to financial markets, big corporations, have repressive and xenophobic instincts, and pander to firmly established interest groups and older generations. Even the mainstream Danish unions are realizing socialdemocrats are no longer reliable to defend the interests of employees, and when push comes to shove, they side with student protesters, as it happened during the general strikes and university occupations that rocked the country in the spring of 2006, when Rasmussen announced welfare "reforms" cutting benefits for youngsters and aged workers alike, which the socialdemocrats opposed only rhetorically. But it would be foolish to ascribe to a supposed Danish exceptionalism the extension and duration of the riots. Rather, by virtue of their socialist past and libertarian present, Danish movements are in a privileged position to fight against the sociopolitical consequences of both Atlanticist neoconservatism and European free-market liberalism. Copenhagen’s pink rebellion could be the harbinger of a more generalized youth insurgence in Europe, involving large sections of the so-called creative class of net/flex/temp workers.
In fact, it makes sense to see in the Copenhagen riots as a continuation of the French protests of 2006, and both as instances of a new phase for radical movements after the decline which followed the failed attempt at blocking the Angloamerican invasion of Iraq. In particular, it is tempting to see it as an anticipation of the generalized rebellion of the European creative class against the hyprocrisy, arrogance and corruption elites ruling the EU, which have been delegitimized by the French-Dutch no, but are clinging to power as if Europe were an asset that belonged to them. The Brussels summit is supposed to spruce up the environmental credentials of the EU, in order to make it appealing at least to somebody beyond the privileged few. Later in March 2007, the Berlin summit (which will issue the Berlin declaration on the constitutional future of the EU) will celebrate half-a-century of European treaties, but it will be the death of European federalism and the transition to some kind of confederation of nation-states, combining the bellicosity and racism of the former with transfer of sovereignty of the latter. We'll also see how thing turn out in Heilingdamm-Rostock in June, and how movements from East and West of Europe will be able to fight the G8 and the huge transnational police force that will protect its closed-doors decisions. The insurgence of European youth in Copenhagen, Paris and elsewhere seems to point toward increasing political awareness and radicalization among young people working in information, knowledge, culture industries. Only the creative class can alter the course of European history away from its present reactionary path toward social emancipation of a finally mulatto eurogeneration. We have to act now for radical Europe, by connecting and solidarizing with major struggles like the Copenhagen and Athens revolts: let's create a European space for radical youth culture!

Alex Foti