Observations from Sweden

As an undergraduate psychology major, I spent a summer in Sweden in 1989, mostly in Göteborg, but also traveling to Stockholm, Falkenberg, Ör (a parish in the countryside of Moheda between Växjö and Alvesta in Småland, a region in southcentral Sweden), and the mainland of Denmark. My visit was during a period of significant change in the macroeconomic situation. The prime minister, Gösta Ingvar Carlsson, who served from 1986 to 1991, and again from 1994 to 1996, pursued neoliberal policies, which, among other things, involved privatizing public services. Carlsson would also lead Sweden into the European Union. 

In the summer 2006, after completing my first year as a tenured professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, I spent several weeks in Göteborg and a few days in Copenhagen. This was the year the Moderate Party was able to form a majority government together with the Center Party, Liberal People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats, ousting the Social Democrats after twelve years in power. The election was in September, and media coverage of the parties and campaign events dominated television and radio over the summer. 

My third trop to Sweden was in the summer of 2018 to explore the possibility of (1) a long-term research project on social support and recidivism, (2) developing a travel course (in conjunction with the Social Work program at UWGB) to Sweden, and (3) establishing a relationship between the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the University of Göteborg, Sweden, with the promise of faculty and student exchanges and combined degree options in the fields of criminology and criminal justice. 

I would discover on my third trip to Sweden that the European migrant crisis of 2015, and the longer trend of immigration that is exacerbated, had changed Sweden’s major cities, the country’s politics, and the cultural mood. The new arrivals were mostly from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East (primarily from Syria and Iraq), Central Asia (primarily from Afghanistan), and Africa (primarily from Somalia and Eritrea), bringing norms and values that differed substantially from the egalitarian, liberal, and secular traditions of Sweden, as well as much lower education and skill levels and work commitment. Islamic attitudes about the role of religion in work and politics, the status of women in family and culture, and sexual mores contrasted sharply with Sweden’s atheistic orientation, substantial degree of gender equality, and culture of sexual permissiveness. 

In response to these developments, Swedish voters helped the Sweden Democrats, a far-right anti-immigrant party with roots in fascist sensibilities, cross the 4% threshold necessary for representation in the Riksdag (Sweden’s parliament) for the first time in the 2010 general election (polling nearly 6% and taking 20 seats). The party has steadily gained support since, polling nearly 13% and taking 49 seats in 2014, becoming the third largest party in Sweden. The next election is in September, and many expect the Sweden Democrats to gain more seats. Currently, the party is polling just four points behind the Social Democrats and only two points behind the Moderate Party, the first and second largest parties respectively. 

The Social Democrats have lost a quarter of their voters since the last election cycle. A lot of their members are switching to the Sweden Democrats. The Moderate Party has said it would be willing to work with the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats into a cross-party agreement on immigration. However, the Social Democrat leader, prime minister Stefan Löfven, ruled out negotiations with Sweden Democrats.

In this essay, I want to spend some time discussing the political and immigration situation, because it bears on the future of the social welfare state. I will be aided in this by several sources, but one I wish to highlight now is Dr. Tino Sanandaji, a Kurdish-Swedish economist and author. Sanandaji arrived in Sweden from Iran the same year I first traveled to Sweden in 1989. He is a researcher at the Institute for Economic and Business History Research at the Stockholm School of Economics. His views–which are corroborated by other experts in Sweden, as well as the experiences of many ordinary citizens with whom I spoke, and my own observations traveling around the three largest cities in Sweden and Norway–are at odds with what I could glean from official government documents and websites before traveling to Sweden this third time. You get a very different story one-on-one with the experts than what is reported by the government in its official capacity. 

There have been reports of problems with immigration and crime, even Swedish media, but Swedish authorities have steadfastly denied this problem. The official Swedish take on this matter appears to be, at least in part, a bit of public relations work, but the reasons for denial go beyond protecting Sweden’s image on the world stage, which I explore in this section. In addition to Sanandaji’s work, I have found useful Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, and Islam(2017), Christopher Caldwell’s  Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West(2010), Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West(2007) and Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom(2009), as well as social scientific and historical scholarship, primarily the work of Peter Skerry, professor of political science at Boston College. 

Contrary to popular belief, Sweden is not a socialist country. It is a capitalist country with a free market, but with high levels of taxation (a combination of income and sales taxes in excess of 50% for workers and 70% for high income earners) that fund its extensive welfare state. Relatively low levels of military, police, and correctional spending allow greater investments in education and social welfare. To illustrate per capita social welfare spending, a single mother who does not work in Sweden receives around 2000 dollars a month, along with free healthcare, free college, free daycare, and free transportation. Paul Krugman, an economics professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, characterizes the Swedish model as “the exemplar of what used to be called the ‘middle way,’ a market economy with the rough edges smoothed by generous government programs.” Social welfare is a cultural value in Sweden; there is strong popular support for the social safety net. During the latter part of the twentieth century, the government established the practice of providing benefits to refugees that paralleled those its citizens enjoyed. This made Sweden an attractive destination for immigrants looking to increase their standard of living. This phenomenon is what immigration specialists call a “pull factor.”

Although Sweden continues to have one of the most comprehensive and generous welfare states among developed nations, it has seen a reduction of spending over the last several decades. This is to some extent the result of structural changes in the economy, driven by globalization and neoliberal reforms, a trend that has affects western capitalist democracies generally. But it is also the result of immigration. Before WWII, one percent of Swedish residents were immigrants, mostly western Europeans. While Sweden was neutral during the second world war, they accepted Europeans fleeing Nazi Germany. Much of the rest of western Europe experienced greater levels of immigration due to a shortage of labor caused by the devastation of WWII. In the 1980s, the country took in refugees from Iran, Somalia, and Eritrea, and ethnic groups, such as the Kurds (this is how Sanandaji came to be in Sweden, traveling with his mother and brother from Iran). Still, as late as 1989, only 3% of Swedish residents were non-western European. Immigration began increasing at a faster pace in the 1990s. Former Yugoslavs, fleeing the violent breakup of their country into ethnic states, were a major source of immigrants during this period. Migrations continued increasing through the first decade of the 2000s, followed by the migrant crisis, which began in 2015. Today, 23% of Swedish residents are of foreign origin, around 10% of these western European, the rest eastern European and non-European, mostly from Arab countries. Social spending in Sweden at the summer 1980 levels (that’s the Sweden Paul Krugman touts as his utopia) was not sustainable given changes in the size and composition of the population.

Because it is a capitalist society, Sweden’s economic growth depends on the success of commercial activity and participation in labor markets. Changes in these factors affect welfare spending. According to Sanandaji, there are significant differences in industriousness of native-born when compared with foreign-born workers. The evidence bears this out. The system enjoys financial stability when 85% of working age residents are employed, a figure that represents strong labor force participation, a level of participation that continues among native-born workers to this day. However, foreign-born populations have a much lower level of labor force attachment (around 50%), and those who do work, because they tend to be low-skilled labor, earn lower wages (around 20% less). A split labor market, with newer arrivals working primarily at service sector jobs, is obvious when traveling around Göteborg, Stockholm, and Oslo. This problem could be addressed in part, according to Sanandaji, if immigration policy were more selective, choosing foreign workers with higher skill levels, distributing immigrants throughout the occupational structure. The group differences in academic success are substantial, as well. Around 40% of non-European residents don’t graduate high school, twice the percentage of native residents. Much of this failure is explained by culture and residential segregation. 

Skill level, educational attainment, and occupational diversity have implications for integration (or assimilation) in a society. Highly skilled immigrants integrate more readily than low-skilled immigrants. European countries are skill-intensive, most low-skilled manufacturing jobs having left the country with the emergence of mechanization, automation, and off-shoring (and they aren’t coming back). What is left that is low skill is service sector work. As a result, Arabs are overrepresented in transportation, custodial, and food services. This problem intersects with gender participation in the economy. Native Swedish women work. By the 1980s achieving a participation rate equal to the overall native participation rate.[1]Half of women immigrating to Sweden never worked in their home country and there is no change in that pattern in Sweden. Sanandaji’s contends that if immigration policy picked highly skilled immigrants, then immigrants would be integrated, and many countries have been tightening their immigration laws, shifting to a skills-based immigration system. But these policies are very new, and the crise du momentconcerns those who have already arrived and settled. Somalis, for example, come from a country with very little formal education. They have very few skills. They also have very low levels of cultural and social capital. As a consequence, Somalis do not integrate well in western societies. A skills-based immigration system would largely exclude Somalis in future immigration flows (except those with legitimate asylum claims). 

According to Sanandaji, policy experts in Sweden foresaw these developments. They knew the welfare state was sustainable as long as Sweden held at eight million people and that adding two million people who moved between joblessness and low-wage work would change the situation drastically. However, a movement emerged on the left that undermined a pragmatic and sustainable immigration policy. 

The “cultural left,” as Sanandaji calls them, successfully spread the idea that opposition to immigration was driven by racism and xenophobia, not by a desire to sustain the Swedish social welfare model or maintain its traditional culture (which helps make that model possible). Wanting to avoid being perceived as racist, opposition to immigration on the left and center-right was tamed; those opposed to immigration found expression on the far right, and with growing numbers of Swedes (and Europeans generally) are turning against immigration, this means the far right is gaining in popularity. Conservative attitudes are not conducive to support for social welfare, so this right turn is unwelcomed from the standpoint of those who wish to see the Swedish model continue. In 2014, reflecting the extent to which pro-immigrant sentiments had captured the political mainstream, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the center-right Moderate Party urged Swedes to “open their hearts” to refugees. He admitted that it was going to be difficult, and that programs benefitting native Swedes would be tightened or cut. A year later, Sweden was taking in relative to population more immigrants than any other European nation–this despite the fact that there was neither housing nor good-paying jobs available for multitude pouring across the border, the majority of whom were young Muslim and (to a lesser extent) Orthodox Christian males from the Middle East and eastern Europe.

Sanandaji articulates a version of the “cultural Marxist” narrative of the development of this movement. Despite its exaggerations of its influence (for example, by such figures as Jordan Peterson), there is considerable validity to the argument (I am currently writing an essay on the cultural Marxist thesis, so I will not elaborate it here). This is the piece behind denial that moves beyond the desire to protect Sweden’s image on the world stage. There is in Swedish culture, in its impulse for kindness, a motive to virtue signal commitment to humanitarian values that paradoxically derails political attitudes protective of social welfarism.[2]In other words, as Sanandaji puts it, a sort of soft bullying occurs – at least a strong social expectation – in which a politically correct line on immigration is pushed at the expense of the interests of the ordinary Swedes. One sees this throughout western Europe, and a version of this can be seen in the current debate over immigration in the United States, which I watched with interest from Sweden, wherein left-wing progressives conflate routine enforcement of immigration law, and even the existence of immigration law itself, with the condemnable practice of family separation, and then characterize any support for immigration control as xenophobic and racist. The emergence of cultural leftism in the post-war period has played a big role in this, in Sweden mixing with a unique culture of egalitarianism. Douglas Murray locates this attitude in a larger problem, namely the loss of confidence among European in their own culture. 

In a 2017 essay, “Opposing immigration wasn’t always racist” (Boston Globe), Skerry reflects on the American situation: “While liberals and progressives have stopped short of endorsing open borders, they’ve come to treat opposition to illegal immigration and constraints on illegal immigration as unacceptable, even racist.” Part of this is because of guilt over “America’s shameful neglect of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.” Moreover, the rise of multiculturalism has reframed the historical evidence, reengineering the motives behind WWI policies that curtailed immigration and imposed national-origin quotas. This is historical revisionism. 

Historically, the labor movement advocated limits on immigration because of competition over jobs and downward wage pressure this caused and the disruption to labor organizing; immigrants were used by industrialists to undermine living standards and unions. Prior to 1914, the West was a place of open immigration, but this began to change with the First World War, the impact of mass migration becoming clear to a majority of Americans. However, ethnic and racial antipathy had little to do with this. Skerry cites the work of Timothy Hatton and Jeffery Williamson (authors of The Age of Mass Migration) who find that “the low and declining quality of the immigrants” arriving between 1890 and 1930 provoked restrictions, concluding that “racism and xenophobia do not seem to have been at work in driving the evolution of policy toward potential European immigrants.” To be sure, one can find examples of nativists using ethnic and racial arguments in an attempt to influence trade unionists, but, according to the British scholar A. T. Lane (Solidarity or Survival? American Labor and European Immigrants, 1830-1924), “careful examination of the columns of many labor journals has produced few examples of racist thinking applied to immigration.” Opposition to and restriction on (1951) and eventual elimination (1964) of the Bracero Program, instituted during WWII to bring agricultural workers to the United States from Mexico and Central America, was not primarily driven by anti-Hispanic sentiment. But the power of labor waned after the 1970s and, today, “multiculturalism has become a more powerful force within the Democratic Party—and American society—than labor solidarity.” With this, “restraint on immigration tradition has disappeared,” Skerry writes.

Europe has experienced a similar change with respect to open borders multiculturalism. However, this wasn’t intentional. InReflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West(2010), Christopher Caldwell writes, “Western Europe became a multi-ethnic society in a fit of absence of mind.” It was not their intent to change their societies. European policymakers opened borders to economic migrants to make up for job shortages in the post-war environment. However, after those jobs were full, immigrants continued to enter Europe. For example, in Germany, the number of foreign residents grew from 3 million in 1971 to 7.5 million in 2000. During the same period, the number of foreigners in the workforce remained the same. The effect was an increase in poverty and welfare dependency. Caldwell notes that before the migrant crisisimmigrants accounted for about ten percent of the population of western Europe. In Europe largest cities, the numbers were as high as 30 percent. The counterargument to this was that, in time, foreigners would assimilate, and the economy would expand to absorb them. But history has proven these assumptions wrong. Many immigrants have not adopted the mores of their host societies. Caldwell identities for this resistance to assimilation is Islam. Mid-twentieth century, there were almost no Muslims in Europe (during this time, in Central and Western Asia, the latest wave of Islamization was still in its infancy). At the time Caldwell was researching his book, there were 15-17 million Muslims (half of all new arrivals) in Europe and Islamization had taken hold in many European countries. At first, some Muslims entering Europe were escaping Islamic fundamentalism (from Iran, for example). But, over time, immigrants were themselves fundamentalist Muslims. 

Caldwell writes: “For the most part European countries have bent over backwards to accommodate the sensibilities of the newcomers.” He gives examples: “A French law court has allowed a Muslim man to annul his marriage on the ground that his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night.” “The British pensions department has a policy of recognizing (and giving some benefits to) ‘additional spouses’” (these quotes are from the review). In reaction to these changes, Europeans have seen a drastic change in their attitudes towards immigration – and in an opposite direction to Americans. Only 19 percent of Europeans think immigration is a good thing. Fifty-seven persons think there are “too many foreigners.” Not only are many countries tightening their immigration laws, shifting to a skills-based immigration system, and setting citizenship tests for would-be immigrants, but they are moving to reassert their countries values.  “The French have banned girls from wearing veils in schools. British politicians, such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw, have denounced the veil as a symbol of separation.” Caldwell believes its too late. “Europe’s indigenous population is ageing fast, with a quarter of it over 60. Immigrants have large families. Moreover, Europe is no match for Islamic self-confidence” (these quotes are from the review). Caldwell: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.” An early warning about this problem comes from Bruce Bawer, powerfully described and analyzed in two books: While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West(2007) and Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom(2009).

According to Sanandaji, Sweden was not looking to change its culture through immigration. Swedes were, in a way, victims of their own culture of kindness. Historically, the desire for equality has been a strong cultural force in Sweden. Sweden, having never had serfdom or slavery, and enjoying a remarkable degree of cultural integrity, produced a degree of equality and democracy most other capitalist countries could not. And this development is the central reason why Sweden developed into one of the least religious countries in the world. Despite a majority of Swedes belonging to the Church of Sweden (Lutheran), an artifact of history, according to a 2016 poll, less than one-quarter of Swedes expressed belief in Protestantism, with 45 percent claiming to have no religious or spiritual belief, with 33 percent of the population professing atheism. This value of equality supported a strong labor movement in Sweden, which, in turn, translated the cultural tradition of egalitarianism into economic reality. Sweden became a modern state through consensus, not with revolution. It incorporated into the modern capitalist system a common law system that emphasized individual liberty, local autonomy, and mutual respect. The social democratic movement emerged in this context. This movement was not Marxist in orientation but rooted in social liberalism. The emergent welfare-state model became a source of pride, as well as a principle cause of a high standard of living and a safe and nurturing environment for children. This pride reinforced an openness to those in need. Putting this another way, how one behaves is a manifestation of one’s values and thus signals participation in the social order and solidarity with the cultural consensus.

Enter the left-wing cultural elites, who, tending to see the average working person as ignorant and bigoted, even reactionary, took up the cultural Marxist/poststructuralist/postmodernist notions of the late-1960s. Galvanized by the Vietnam War, and the excesses of US foreign policy generally, left-wing cultural elites turned against liberal and egalitarian values, eschewing the worker struggle (for substantive equality) for the struggle of identity, i.e. gender, race, post-colonial struggles, cultural pluralism/multiculturalism, etc. Ironically, Sweden did not have a significant colonial/imperialist history (although they had a warmongering king or two, for example Karl XII and his Great Northern War) or a history of racial diversity; Swedish intellectuals plugged into the trans-Atlantic discourse, led by France and the United States, and imported these ideas. Additionally, Sanandaji believes Swedes suffer from guilt over their affluence (a phenomenon found in western Europe generally), and, in the face of suffering around the world, they feel a calling to help, reflected, for example, in the large contributions they make to transnational governmental and nongovernmental organizations. The willingness to take in refugees is, in part, a reflection of this guilt. Sweden spends double the amount on refugees the United Nations does. Left-wing cultural elites thus prayed on the guilt and generosity of the Swedish people in opening up immigration policy.

To make the source of this project concrete, we need to look again at parliamentary politics. The government in power during the migrant crisis was comprised of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, who had formed a minority government after defeating the Alliance for Sweden coalition (comprised of the Moderate Party, Liberal People’s Party, Centre Party, and Christian Democrats) in 2014. However, it was the Alliance for Sweden that triggered the flood of immigrants into the country. It was just a month prior to losing the 2014 election that PM Reinfeldt told Swedes to “open their hearts” to mass immigration. Although left out of the minority government, the Left Party (formerly the Communist Party), remained an influential voice in the Riksdag and on the cultural front. Moreover, the Left Party had in earlier years participated in the influential Red-Green coalition. It was the voices among the Red and Green contingents that pushed the left cultural line concerning immigration. Left -wing cultural ideas had had a deep impact on the thinking of intellectuals in the Red-Green coalition. But these ideas, much in the same way that cultural leftism has a disproportionate influence on US politics despite the left having no actual control over government, influenced the thinking of the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party. 

In my working paper on the cultural Marxist thesis, I discuss at length the way in which neoliberalism uses cultural left ideas to advance capitalist hegemony. These politics leverage multiculturalism to push the ideas of diversity and equity over those of substantive equality and fairness. Underpinning these politics, is the formation of the European Union, which played a crucial role in enabling mass migration to Sweden. Under the Geneva Convention, a person who sets foot on the territory of another country can apply for asylum. Before the European Union, few people could cross the many borders necessary to get to Sweden. But with the establishment of the European Union and the Schengen Area (26 European states that effectively eliminated borders internal to member states), and with Greece and Turkey allowing people into the EU, a land route was established to Sweden. This parallels a transformation in transportation that challenged the United States during its period of mass migration. Skerry writes, “A stream of illiterate migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was facilitated by the advent of steamship travel, rendering the trans-Atlantic voyage safer, faster, and cheaper.” The effect this had on U.S. society and culture moved the United States to restrict immigration, just as the EU’s open borders moved its countries to restrict immigration.

During the their crisis, Sweden reached historic rates of immigration, surpassing the US record of net immigration as a share of the population (set in the 1880s). According to Sanandaji, between 1980-2010, there were about 25,000 asylum seekers a year (it is more than this given family reunification, but patterns of reunification are highly variable). In 2014, the number of asylum seekers reached 80,000. It doubled in 2015, to 160,000. Sanandaji emphasizes that the 2015 numbers occurred in the last few months of the year, and that if this trend had continued it would have set a trajectory of 500,000 per year. In comparative terms, this would be equivalent to the US taking 16 million immigrants annually. As it was, Sweden was taking proportionately more immigrants than every other European country. 

By 2016, the government had effectively closed the border, which resulted in a more than a 90% reduction in immigration. A teary Deputy Prime Minister Asa Romson (Social Democrats) announced the stricter rules governing the entry of refugees and asylum-seekers in November 2015. The restrictive policies still allowed for economic migrants, although they effectively eliminated family reunification. 

The flow has returned to 25,000, which is sustainable, according to Sanandaji, but at the cost of a reduced social provision for natives. In an interview with US News and World Report, in July 2017, Demetrios G. Papademetriou, senior fellow and president emeritus at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, observed, “Sweden has had to come to terms with the limits of its policies.” Sweden will now have to come to terms with a very different political landscape. As the foregoing attests to, the migrant crisis has profoundly affected social attitudes in Sweden (and Europe generally). In the midst of the policy shift, The Economistreported a dramatic increase in popular talk of “Swedish values.” In other words, the political discourse had moved explicitly to the question of Swedish cultural integrity. While some see this right turn as a negative thing, in one respect, it has, by reducing the flow of immigrants, lessened the pressure that feeds the far right.

Swedes have found that their cities are changed, their children’s schools are changed, their norms and values pressed by demands for accommodations for religious uniforms, dietary rules, etc. They are suffering a conservative illiberal culture insinuating itself into an open and democratic society. Cultural separation means that Swedes rarely socialize with non-European immigrants. Immigrants feel this distance as hostility to their presence. They thought the willingness of Swedes to accept immigrants represented a desire on the part of Swedes to embrace their way of life. Moreover, Swedes are as a people reserved, shy, inward-leaning, traits that can be perceived as aloofness. You can see this on trams and busses, and in parks: Swedes are reading books or on their iPhones texting, while non-European are socializing or having iPhone conversations. Cultural separation is reinforced by physical separation. Stockholm has ethnic Swedish enclaves that are relatively crime free, while other enclaves experience high levels of crime. The high crime areas tend to be areas with a large number of immigrants. Ethnic concentration can be rather extreme. For example, 90% of Rinkeby, a borough of Stockholm, is comprised of first or second-generation immigrants. Immigrants are often heard to say that, in Rinkeby, one can feel like they are home in Baghdad. 

Throughout Europe, immigrants have disrupted communities, swelled the underclass, and, out of economic deprivation, resentment, and cultural attitudes incompatible with modernity committed crimes. Moreover, among the refugees were Islamists and jihadists. This was a period of significant terrorist attacks after a decade relatively free of terrorism. The terrorist organization al-Qaeda perpetrated a massive attack on commuter trains in Madrid in March of 2004, killing more than two hundred people and injuring some fifteen hundred. In July 2005, suicide bombers killed more than fifty commuters and injured several hundred on subway trains and a bus in London. These attacks coincided with the early phase of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Coinciding with the migrant crisis, attacks on European targets began anew and with greater frequency. In January 2015, in Paris, terrorists killed seventeen and injured twenty-two. Paris was hit again in November; Islamic State terrorists killed 137 and injured 368. In March 2016, bombings in Brussels killed 35 and injured 340. In July 2014, in Nice, a terrorist driving a truck killed 87 and injured 434. In December of that year, during Christmas celebrations, a Berlin market was attacked, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six. In May 2017, Manchester Arena was bombed killing 23 and injuring 250. Great Britain was struck again in June, on London Bridge, when 11 were killed and 48 injured. In August of 2017 24 were killed and 152 injured in an attack in Barcelona. Sweden was not immune from terrorist violence. On April 7, 2017, in Stockholm, a rejected refugee from Uzbekistan, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, hijacked a truck and drove it into a crowd, killing five and seriously injuring fourteen others. 

Many in Europe have come to the realization that multiculturalism does not work. The Washington Post, which praised Angela Merkel for her refugee policy (Time Magazinenamed her person of the year), reported that, in a December 2015 speech, Merkel said, “Multiculturalism leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a sham.” This “therefore remains” indicates that this wasn’t the first time she had said something negative about multiculturalism. Indeed, in 2010, she declared that multiculturalism has failed utterly. “We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality,” she said (in reference to the influx of guest workers who helped fuel the country’s postwar economic boom, but overstayed their welcome); “Of course, the tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side and be happy to be living with each other.’ But this concept has failed and failed utterly.” The problem became a national debate with the publication of Deutschland schafft sich ab(“Germany Does Itself In”) by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of Germany’s central bank, the Bundesbank. By 2015, Merkel was saying, “We want, and we will reduce the number of refugees noticeably.” In 2011, David Cameron, of Great Britain, in his first speech as prime minister, on the subjects of radicalization and terrorism, sharply criticized “state multiculturalism.” “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism,” he said. He wondered of Muslim organizations: “Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism?” That the leading representatives of the Christian Democrat and Conservative Parties were the ones speaking in defense of national cultures supportive of rule of law and secular authority and human rights carries real implications for left-wing politics in Europe. 

For some, the facts that countries like Sweden are full, in that they do not have adequate housing (to prevent overcrowding), jobs, and social services for immigrants is overshadowed by the moral obligation to help asylum seekers. However, Sanandaji argues that most of those seeking asylum are not really in danger; they exploit the process to take advantage of Sweden’s higher quality of life and robust social welfare system. Moreover, most immigrants are economic migrants, sought business and government for their cheap labor. The generosity of countries incentivizes migration, which not only stresses social welfare systems and public services but endangers migrants. Crossing the Mediterranean is risky; thousands die every year. And there are many other risks to migration. This is the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) commenting on the situation in 2015:

The EU refugee protection system is under strain. Despite years of investment and legal norms and institutions that equip Member States to respond to those fleeing persecution, today’s reality is that significant numbers of people in need of protection are unable safely and legally to access the EU asylum system. Alongside other migrants, refugees resort to the services of smugglers and undertake dangerous journeys that may lead to harm or death. At least 3,500 people were reported drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2014—a figure likely to be a significant underestimate; nearly 400 have perished on the same route in the first two months of 2015.

The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have recommended extraterritorial processing of asylum claims to identify those in need of protection before they reach Europe’s borders (MPI). It was announced in June 2018, while I was in Sweden, that Brussels is planning to set up migrant processing centers in Africa. Plans sketched in a European Council paper for “disembarkation platforms” in north Africa leaked to the media. Well aware of the impact of the migrant crisis, with populists in Rome (who has vowed to not let Italy become “Europe’s refugee camp”) and Angela Merkel’s government shaken, the European Union has not only moved collectively to stem the flow (The Times UK), but to develop a system to prevent such a thing from happening again. This is, in my view, a very important development.  

The foregoing has noted the charges of racism and xenophobia leveled at those who seek to restrict immigration. I want to say a few things about this. One of Sanandaji arguments is that, while there is racism in Sweden, it is not as widespread as people say, and, in any case, it is not the driver of support for immigration control. The vast non-racist majority supports strict immigration controls. They do so because of their experience, not because of any ideology. The magnitude of the flow overwhelmed the capacity of the welfare state to pay for and manage social services. Moreover, there was a desire to preserve Swedish culture, its values and norms. This attitude is sometimes characterized as racist, but characterizing defense of culture and traditions as racist is a problem of conceptual inflation. Racism is an ideology that divides populations into subpopulations, supposes that individuals of these subpopulations vary as groups and in biology/character in aptitude, disposition, intelligence, integrity, promiscuity, etc., then arranges these subpopulations in a hierarchy of superior and inferior types, which generates racist action and policy. A racist system is one in which, whether consciously organized along the lines described above, outcomes fit this logic. However, if the explanation for cultural variability is not explained by racial categories, then one can judge cultures to be superior and inferior without being a racist. Opposition to culture shaped by religious ideology is a good example of this. The problem of Islam is not a racial problem. It’s an ideological problem. Islam is patriarchal, misogynistic, and intolerant. It is, even in its moderate forms, incompatible with liberal secular values. Muslims are demanding western societies accommodate its religion and then using this accommodation to Islamize the culture and society around them. As Christopher Hitchens put it in a warning to the public, “Resist it while you can.” Already, as he warned, they are removing the right of Europeans to complain about it.

For this reason, Skerry, contends that the contemporary immigration debate in the United States wrongly attempts to apply the model of black struggle against Jim Crow segregation in the Civil Rights era to the problem of immigration at the southern US border. They are not the same things. One concerns overcoming racial oppression. The other concerns enforcing immigration law. A similar phenomenon can be identified in Sweden where the cultural left accusing immigrants who are critical of Islam and immigration policy of being “house niggers” and “Uncle Toms” in Englishthus importing language from the US experience into Swedish discourse. 

I have found the arguments of British writer Douglas Murray, founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion and is the associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, to be compelling, which suggest this question: why are non-European societies lauded for their desire to maintain their culture, law, and language, indeed, offered protection for the preservation of their culture, but Europeans condemned for expressing the same desire? If culture matters, then why doesn’t European culture matter? It will not do to say, as a Swedish politician has, that Sweden has no culture. In fact, Sweden does, and it is a culture far superior to most of the world’s cultures. Like Sanandaji, Murray believes that Europeans who support mass migration and multiculturalism do so out of a misplaced sense of guilt, guilt for their affluence, guilt for the belief that their affluence rests on the historic and continued exploitation and oppression of non-European peoples. Douglas wonders how long Europeans are expected to pay for the past–and why the past of non-Europeans is never at issue.

It troubles me to hear the sorts of arguments that suggest (for example in a recent Washington Post op-ed) that because extreme-right and neo-Nazis say things about immigration and culture that a liberal like Douglas Murray also says about immigration and culture that Murray is motivated by the same things or exists in the same political universe. Murray is deliberate and explicit in saying that he is not proud of his skin pigmentation and that racial exclusivity is wrong, and he urges people to not go down the road of white identity politics. 

The sociology of race and ethnic relations is one of my areas of expertise. I don’t accept the “new racism” argument that criticism–even fear and loathing–of culture and subculture automatically represent racism. I don’t accept the idea that Islam is an indicator of race. Wolfe conflates these in suggesting that Immigrant (Islamic?)-sounding names illicit racist sentiments. This assumes what requires proof. Racism may motivate the desire for restrictive immigration policy, but to say that this desire is ipso facto racism is propaganda. It assumes what requires evidence. Nowhere in his Washington Post piece does Wolfe remind his audience that the push for immigration restrictions, coming from all quarters except the elitist cultural left, which is not really concerned with working class interests, is not intrinsically racist. As such, the article (and other like it) functions in this way: it exploits loathing of easily targets to push an agenda to conflate concerns about immigration and racism.


[1]Siv Gustafsson and Roger Jacobsson, “Trends in Female Labor Force Participation in Sweden,” Journal of Labor EconomicsVol. 3, No. 1 (January 1985), pp. S256-S274.

[2]Virtue signaling/moral outrage as guilt alleviation is a unique problem of left-wing identitarianism. See Rothschild & Keefer, “A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity,” Motivation and Emotion, April 2017, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 209–229, for a study of this problem generally.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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