Sweden – Caught Between Two Irrationalisms

The far-right populist Sweden Democrats gained in the September elections. They can now claim nearly 18 percent of an electorate that actually goes to the polls. The Social Democrats’ vote, on the other hand, fell to just over 28 percent, its lowest level in more than a century. This tells us that the Swedish situation is serious. But we knew this already. Gang violence is rising. Neighborhoods are marked by unrest. School administrator are reporting as commonplace threats of violence and weapons, weapons such as hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. Women are being harassed and assaulted by groups of young men. Immigrants and their offspring – Iraqis, Syrians, Somalis – are largely the perpetrators of the violence (they comprise more than three-quarters of gang membership). As we see throughout the western world, crime and violence continue to decline beyond the immigrant enclaves and the surrounding areas affected by them.  The contrast between native-born and foreign-born is striking.

Why is this happening? It’s not about race. It’s about culture and economics and public policy. Across the decades, social democracy in Sweden has provided an extraordinarily high standard of living and extensive social support for people living there. For nearly a century, Sweden has stood as a model of social democratic capitalism. However, neoliberal restructuring of Swedish society is undermining these historic and progressive arrangements, and the progressive inertia they put in place is winding down. Today, mass immigration, sought by capitalists for its cheap labor, and ill-conceived humanitarianism, are conspiring to stress an already weakening system with predictable results.

The situation is marked by three developments: (1) influx and segregation of low-skilled immigrants devoted to a regressive ideology incompatible with western values of equality, liberty, secularism, and civil and human rights; (2) multiculturalist policies that undermine the assimilation process that has historically liberated immigrants from backwards cultural modes of thought and practice and allowed for integration into a better life-way; (3) insufficient investment in resources that could facilitate the integration of foreign populations into Swedish society, the result of decades of neoliberal restructuring of the public sphere. By privileging identity over integration and fracturing worker solidarity by essentializing and fetishizing group identity at the expense of individual needs (both native and foreign persons), immigrant enclaves extend and entrench, and the social problems associated with them follow suit.

Sweden is experiencing the political fallout from decades of straying from the path that works best for people under capitalism: social democratic welfarism. This has set in motion a terrible dynamic. The appearance of extremism and violence spreads fear across the population. Other-culture rejection of western values by a minority confident of its culture, and a corresponding loss of cultural self-confidence by Swedes is giving rise to frustration across the country. Swedes are a people who have benefitted tremendously from Enlightenment trends, particularly the marginalization of religious thought and practice. Now they’re seeing those accomplishments eroded as religious fanaticism returns. With these developments the right has been emboldened. Fear and frustration, especially in the face of a loss of commitment to social democracy by the left, feed popular support for conservative and traditionalist politics, forms of thought and practice that emphasize authoritarian control over social support.

As a consequence of decades of neoliberalism and multiculturalism, Swedes are finding themselves caught between two irrationalisms: Islam and ethnonationalism.

Published by

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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