The West is currently undergoing a series of political and social upheavals. Attention tends to focus on America, where cancel culture and “woke” corporations are part of a process that’s pulling the country apart. From Sweden this all looks disturbingly familiar.
In 2015, we experienced our own form of cultural revolution, with many of the same symptoms as its more potent sequels in America, Britain and elsewhere. Before “Trump derangement syndrome” was a thing, people in Sweden were denouncing each other, unpersoning each other for wrongthink, and having frenzied public struggle sessions.
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At the time heterodox or dissident Swedish thinkers (a group I certainly belong to), almost regardless of political background, thought of the dramatic social and political convulsions gripping our country as stemming from something particular and unique to Sweden itself.
This collective madness gripping Sweden between 2015 and 2018 seemed so uniquely Swedish, that we assumed something akin to it would be impossible to replicate outside of our country. In 2016 and 2017, this argument made sense. The refugee crisis, supposedly the underlying cause of it all, was a Europe-wide phenomenon. Yet our Scandinavian neighbours — our historical and cultural kin — seemed unaffected. They not only took in far less refugees than we did, but also seemed immune to the political polarisation and, quite frankly, the form of social psychosis that became very common in Sweden at the time.
The cause of Sweden’s “special period”, which lasted between late 2015 and late 2018, looked (superficially) simple: the refugee crisis, and the bigger issue of immigration. In this reading, the timeline is as follows: the death of the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, and the spread of an image of his body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, helped light a humanitarian fire in Swedish society. This in turn caused increasing polarisation and anger directed at the selfish or “backsliding” Swedes who took a different position on refugees. They were too racist, too set in their ways, or too self-interested to heed the humanitarian clarion call.
In this telling, the tumultuousness of Sweden during these revolutionary years comes down to the refugee issue. The now familiar elements of a social panic that became a part of everyday life during those years, such as the public shunning of people over political disagreements, the doublespeak engaged in in order to avoid ending up as targets of social abuse, and the suppression of recent history in favour of constructing a sort of political “Year Zero” were all explained away as stemming from an overabundance of humanitarian enthusiasm. People really cared about refugees, and in their enthusiasm, things maybe got a bit out of hand. But is this really what happened?
There is a grain of truth to these claims of humanitarian enthusiasm. For a short period, donations to — and volunteers for — civil society organisations dealing with refugees exploded. Unfortunately, these explosions often turned out to be fairly shallow and counterproductive. Organisations were inundated with items like toys and clothing meant for small children, even as most of the people coming to the country were older men.
Pointing this out, however, was a risky proposition. The accusation of being a racist, and its attendant risk of social and financial ruin, loomed very large indeed. A lot of things became unspeakable during those years, including the question of demographics, to the immense financial strain that was being placed on various municipalities, to the larger question of what sort of negative consequences, the unprecedented pace and scale of migration to Sweden could lead to.
Ironically, one of the reasons Sweden is far less polarised today than many other Western countries is probably the belated discovery that these consequences of immigration are in fact very real, and that methods of ”shaping the narrative” cannot really change material reality.
More critically, there is the realisation that nobody — certainly not middle class progressives — wants to live with those consequences at all. Crime, overcrowded schools, social and ethnic tensions, and violence toward ethnic Swedish children committed by gangs of immigrants have all conspired to cool attitudes on the subject. Indeed, the word förnedringsrån (literally “humiliation-robbery”) has now entered the Swedish lexicon as a term for robberies that display a particular sort of sadistic cruelty, where the aim of the perpetrators mostly seems to be to inflict pain and humiliation onto their victims. As such, it is hardly surprising that the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban was not in fact met with calls to increase Sweden’s humanitarian commitment, but rather with conspicuous silence, except for a speech by Prime Minister Löfven promising that the country would “never return to the days of 2015”.
With the benefit of hindsight, immigration now appears not as a question important in and of itself, but as a form of wedge corresponding to a very particular political moment of establishment fear and anger at parts of their own electorate. The Right populist Sweden Democrats entered parliament in 2010, but many were convinced they were a passing fad that would soon be gone. In 2014, however, they had more than doubled their vote share, becoming the third biggest party in the Riksdag. This caused an immense amount of political anxiety among the “chattering classes” in the weeks and months following the election, in a preview of the shock caused by Donald Trump.
Sweden entered a political and social state of exception similar to the one experienced by the US after the 2016 election. Rather than an explosion of blind humanitarianism, the way the refugee crisis affected Sweden should probably be better understood as an explosion of political anxiety of the urban middle classes.
The battle lines drawn up during the refugee crisis were very simple: on the one hand, you had the deplorables (though this term was not yet in use in 2015). They were the enemy. They hated immigrants, gays, and women. This hatred didn’t stem from being the losers of a particular set of economic policies. No, the “hatred” of “those people” came from a general odiousness, lack of education and moral fibre. The professional and managerial classes who opposed the plebs cast themselves as friends and allies of humanity itself.
Sweden was a portal into the future. The intense polarisation of 2015-2018 followed the now extremely familiar Western pattern of rural vs urban, “anywheres” vs “somewheres”. In 2015, the real fear and hatred of the (mostly imaginary) SD-voting country bumpkin could suddenly, miraculously be drawn in stark terms: good versus evil, humanitarianism versus selfishness.
But now, years later, we can see that these battle lines were a fantasy. The narratives of uneducated deplorables meanly trying to keep their children from interacting with immigrants have been replaced by the reality: Swedish middle-class families go to great lengths to avoid their own kids mixing with immigrants in school. They worry about the academic implications — not to mention the risk of violence and disorder — of letting the immigrants into “their” schools. Sweden’s permissive system of private charter schools, though often attacked for reflecting some sort of neoliberal logic, is in practice a way for many parents to self-segregate their children.
Sweden, being a historically egalitarian and homogenous country, never engaged in city planning meant to keep the poor from meeting the rich. The ability of the middle-classes to isolate themselves from the less desirable consequences of immigration has collapsed; with people living in extremely well-to-do neighbourhoods such as Stockholm’s Strandvägen now complaining about street racing, thefts, and drug dealing out in the open.
As a result, some of the fighters for the acceptance of refugees during the crisis years have later partaken in or even led local protests against mixing immigrant and native born students in the same schools. A decision taken in Trollhättan to bus kids from migrant areas to other schools met fierce protests in late 2020. One of the leaders of this revolt? The former liberal party politician, Rita Svensson, who had been on the record in 2016 as advocating for students to be given bus cards in order to break segregation.
Identifying the cause of fighting the deplorables with the cause of accepting immigrants backfired for the urban middle-classes. They find themselves caught between two imperatives. On one hand, the political ”interlopers” who do not share their own sensibilities (or their naked class interests) that have so ominously been ”emboldened” by the Sweden Democrats, represent a threat to the natural political order. Just like in the UK, everyone blithely accepted that globalisation’s losers would have ”no other choice” but to vote for the same parties that engineered their dispossession. On the other hand the middle-classes have discovered, like the parents of Trollhättan, that they do not like the consequences of migration. Their genteel humanitarianism has vanished.
Today Sweden’s cultural revolution finds itself in an odd spot. An uneasy ceasefire prevails in Swedish society now. While the deplorables are still mocked, there is no bite to it anymore. SD voters are no longer at risk of having their careers cancelled. In 2021, an unspoken attitude of ”don’t ask, don’t tell” prevails.
In the areas in Stockholm where most of the country’s journalists live, it is probably less awkward to openly admit to sympathising with SD on immigration than it is to proudly proclaim that Sweden is far from full and ought to take in at least a million more Afghans in the next couple of years. The hard, eliminationist edge of Swedish politics is mostly gone; wrongthinkers should perhaps be subtweeted on Twitter, but they shouldn’t necessarily be fired, driven out into the wilderness, or subjected to violence.
In some ways, this turn toward ”moderation” in Swedish politics is a good thing. Outside of the inner core of the progressive sphere, such as NGOs and universities, you can no longer be summarily fired for sympathising with a party that has the support of between a fourth and a fifth of the nation. The radicals are slowly abandoning their old cancel culture methods, in favour of such quaint notions as having democratic debate (the horror!).
But it’s doubtful that the Swedish example ought to inspire optimism elsewhere. After 2014 the “losers of globalism” made their play for political relevance, pitting themselves against the urban middle-classes who dominated the political scene. A year later, those same urban middle-classes had declared a no holds barred war against the “enemy within”. In Sweden’s case, the casus belli of that war — accepting a historically unprecedented amount of refugees in a very short time, without contemplating the consequences of doing so — created a situation where the issues of immigrant crime, cultural shock, and ethnic violence became more odious than the deplorables themselves.
Sweden was in many ways the first Western country to noisily declare war on a growing segment of its own population. In 2015, the social madness gripping the country made it seem like a fairly unique outlier, briefly confirming the deeply held national exceptionalism that makes up part of our country’s national ideology.
Today, it is clear that Sweden was simply the canary in the coal mine; just a couple of years later, many other Western countries would noisily be at war with their own homegrown ”deplorables”. Political demonisation against the internal enemy continues to grow. “The unmasked”; “the unvaxxinated”; “chuds”; “magatards”; “Brexiteers”. All of these labels, as it turns out, are incredibly malleable and thus politically useful.
And while that war has at least temporarily cooled down in Sweden itself, the way in which it did so looks likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
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