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Sweden’s failed liberal project

Why does a country once regarded as a model of moderation and progressiveness now have the highest level of gun violence in Europe?

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Immigration has transformed Swedish society and politics over the past two decades. The scale of demographic change has had societal and political consequences that were not anticipated by politicians and commentators who advocated relaxed controls. 

A few notable figures allow us to get an idea of the upheaval in question. Today one in five Swedes — two million people out of a population of around ten million — was born abroad. Almost one in four Swedes was born abroad or has two foreign parents. And if we count those with at least one parent born abroad, that is a third of all Swedes. The numbers rise even higher in the large cities and among people of childbearing age.

In around 20 years, Sweden’s demographic mix has evolved so that it’s now close to that of former colonial powers, such as France and Great Britain, or to countries built by immigration such as the USA. And yet, even America has never had so large a share of its population born abroad as Sweden does today.

But what sets Sweden apart from comparable countries is the fact that immigration has reached such a high level in so short a period of time. In 1970, 16 per cent of children born in Sweden had at least one parent born abroad. In 2018, the figure was 38 per cent. 

At the same time, the composition of immigration has changed dramatically. In 1970, labour immigration dominated, particularly from neighbouring Finland. But in recent decades, refugee immigration from the Middle East and Africa has accounted for roughly half of new arrivals. In 1960, there were only a few thousand people in Sweden born in Africa, Latin America or Asia. Today, there are more than a million. Syria, in fact, has overtaken Finland as the most common country of origin for Swedes of foreign origin.

Sweden has long stood out as an exceptionally homogeneous country ethnically, culturally, and socially. The social model of Swedish social democracy was built after the Second World War on progressive ideals, with the aim of achieving a high degree of equality. It resulted in remarkable general wellbeing, small class distinctions, and a high tax burden. 

This project was expanded to incorporate rhetoric about global solidarity in the 1960s, and Sweden gradually began to take in small proportions of often well-educated and left-leaning political refugees. It is therefore not surprising that Swedish society has been welcoming to migrants for a long time. But at the same time Swedes became more and more incapable of realising that the demographic change caused by mass immigration from the 1990s onwards would call into question the very ideal of equality that has characterised it.

Owing to the country’s weakly developed feudalism, and rapid but concentrated industrialisation, the Social Democrats came to have a dominant role in Swedish society, ruling the country without interruption for over 40 years (1932–76). This period coincided with the profound structural transformation of society, strong economic growth (notably because Sweden is one of the few European countries not to have participated in the Second World War) and supreme confidence in the power of science and engineering. 

This presented the Social Democrats with the opportunity to shape Sweden through a “reformist socialism” that placed total faith in a rationally-ordered society capable of harnessing market forces. They viewed equality and welfare as investments in “people’s material” that should in turn benefit productivity. The Protestant work ethic permeated the social model, and undoubtedly helped forge a high degree of trust in the state.

In the 1970s, Sweden was both one of the richest and most egalitarian countries in the world. As a result, it was widely considered to be a model country that had developed a “mixed economy” through strong state regulatory action — the happy medium between the Eastern European socialism and the western free market. Besides the likes of Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault, the cultural factors in this coldly rational system remain insufficiently analysed.

However, the Sweden of 2023 differs in many respects from that of 1970. Economic inequality has increased sharply although it remains low compared to other countries. Although the wage gap remains relatively small in Sweden, inequalities have widened significantly due to the growing concentration of wealth and rising property prices — consequences of a rising population and deregulation of the real estate market.

Inequality is most starkly evident in the ethnic segregation that has resulted from the high and rapid intake of refugees. In most Swedish cities, entire neighbourhoods are now inhabited disproportionately by immigrants and their children. Many schools have struggled to adapt to the lack of pupils whose mother tongue is Swedish. For countries like France or Britain, this is nothing new, but for Sweden, it is a sudden change.

Not only has inequality increased demonstrably, but Sweden is experiencing an explosion in crime

The social consequences of this demographic shift are considerable. Not only has inequality increased demonstrably, but Sweden is experiencing an explosion in crime from gang war and organised crime in which immigrants are overwhelmingly involved. The country now has the highest rate of gun violence in Europe. Tensions are also reflected in the appearance of segregated areas where the children of immigrants who have been born in Sweden consider themselves second-class citizens and too often develop a “counter-identity”.

In 2022 more than 60 people were killed in gun violence, and there were 88 bombings. This year appears to be even worse: the record for the number of bombings was broken within the first half of the year, and in the month of September alone 11 people were killed in gang-related shootings. All this in a country of just 10.5 million inhabitants. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the typical homicide case would be a drunkard stabbing an acquaintance or his girlfriend at home, or strangers getting into a fatal street fight. Nowadays, the killings, and of course the bombings, are more likely to be gang-related. Young hitmen, often under the age of 18, are recruited by the gangs to kill their rivals and enemies. As a result, Sweden differs from the rest of Europe in having seen its murder rate rise steadily over the last 15 years.

Still worse, the violence is increasingly affecting innocent third parties: sometimes these victims are relatives of criminals, sometimes they are passers-by. In the last few months people have been killed just because they bought a house where a gangster used to live or they looked similar to a target. The young hitmen don’t always have the right address or sufficient information to recognise the victim properly. What is more, violence is spreading from poorer areas to middle-class neighbourhoods as gang bosses climb the housing ladder. 

Swedes are profoundly shocked by such violence. But the problem goes deeper

Swedes are profoundly shocked by such violence. But the problem goes deeper. The shootings are a surface phenomenon. It is actually a sign of weakness and lack of consolidation among the criminals, and is often about revenge and offended “honour”. Behind the scenes the growth of organised crime is not just linked to youth gangs and drug distribution channels, but also “welfare fraud” and shady businesses. 

The Mafia or similar clans combine drug smuggling, often using illegal immigrants, with abuse of the poorly-regulated pseudo-market model of the Swedish welfare state. For instance, criminals receive tax benefit for taking care of disabled persons (which they rarely do). In some cases they bring disabled people from their home countries purely for this purpose. 

There are also multiple ways to fool the social security system or commit large-scale fraud against elderly people over the phone (for instance by pretending to be from their bank). Organised crime thrives in a society traditionally built on a high level of trust. 

While the picture is bleak, it is worth emphasising that Sweden is not inherently bad at integration. Employment among the immigrant population is even a little higher than in other European countries, especially among women. Significant resources are also being invested in schools and social initiatives in vulnerable areas. But because immigration has been so significant, even a relative failure of integration is bound to have major consequences. 

Why does Sweden find itself in such a situation? A key element to understanding this is Swedish society’s ingrained belief in the capacity of its institutions to shape the primary decision-makers; this belief comes from a great confidence in technical progress, rational social planning and the modernist ideology. Swedes still perceive their country as rational and modern, a perception that makes them blind to problems within their society. This blindness has also created an inability — and therefore an unwillingness — to understand the challenges posed by a multicultural society. Sweden’s progressive vision has therefore contributed to making integration more difficult.

The result of this paradox is that political leaders long denied there was any link between the size of the migratory flow and an effective integration policy. Especially since Swedish politics is characterised by a culture of consensus which likes to give the appearance of rationality and progressivism. The population’s discontent with the inaction of the political class could ultimately only be given voice by a new party stemming from right-wing extremism, entering the Riksdag: the Swedish Democrats (SD).

SD is now the second largest party in Sweden; the conservative government had to enter into an alliance with it to lead the country after the elections of September 2022. However, SD has until now been a pariah party, particularly as far as the most educated classes are concerned, ensuring that any critique of immigration politics is dismissed as “racist”. 

Sweden’s transformation has been as spectacular as it has been rapid: from a very homogenous country to a very segregated one and from an internationally renowned progressive country to one partly governed by a far-right party. These changes reflect a tendency for Sweden to experience violent political changes “under the surface” of the apparent consensus. 

There is in Sweden an anti-conservative “rational extremism” ideology which clings to its certainty in a single “reasonable solution”. It is an attitude that leaves no room for doubt and is thus — whatever its appeal to the more educated Swedes — intrinsically anti-intellectual.

Another manifestation of this phenomenon is that Sweden has gone from being a society imbued with social democracy and proud of its long-matured egalitarian values, to quickly becoming one of the most economically liberal countries in the Western world. This radical change has also been presented as a “reasonable new arrangement”, where the market is seen as more efficient than the state in the management of many public domains. 

Sweden has introduced a number of quasi-public markets where taxpayers provide the finance for services run by private or public companies. This was motivated by efficiency and the right to choose. But nowadays it also meets the new demand for segregation and in some segments of the state’s welfare provision it is being abused by organised crime.

The Swedish school system is perhaps the best example of this. It is unique in the world because for-profit groups and venture capitalists are allowed to act more or less freely in the “school market”. The risks are low because it is the taxpayers who are responsible for financing this pseudo-market. 

The so called “free schools” are able to select the crème de la crème of students and to attract those most motivated by studies. But this supposedly free and open school market has served to reinforce social and ethnic segregation — and may have contributed in part to the delayed reaction of Swedish society to the country’s failing immigration policy. 

So what can be done to solve Sweden’s present problems? Populists on the Left blame rich people’s drug habits for fuelling criminality. But the rich account for only a tiny proportion of drug use. In any case, while drug use has increased in Sweden (as alcohol use has gone down) drugs are still less common than in many other European countries. 

More serious voices on the Left talk about the need to combat segregation in housing and schools. But this would require extensive efforts beyond those which the Swedish middle class appears prepared to make. 

The current conservative coalition government has increased the penalty for several criminal offences, given more resources to the police and tried to stop most low-skilled immigrants and asylum-seekers from coming to Sweden (a turnaround that started under the last social democratic government). Although a start, such measures are unlikely to be sufficient by themselves. 

Less realistically, at least by democratic means, right-wing populist and extremist voices are openly talking about “repatriating” large proportions of the immigrant community to their countries of origin. Thus Sweden is now probably stuck with its current problems. 

In a broader sense, one important lesson Sweden’s transformation teaches us is that progressive ideas do not necessarily counteract neoliberal reforms. On the contrary, they can pave the way for them and, working together, can cause irreparable damage. 

Without ties to the traditions that make up its identity and history, society can easily become an experimental workshop for those in office. A strong belief in the benefits of progress and reason also risks creating blindness to the risks and negative consequences of the policies pursued, particularly in a country where power is centralised and where a culture of consensus is so strongly expressed. 

Conflicts of values, “compromises” and consequentialist ethics have thus been cast aside in favour of utopian visions and a global moralism, where “what should be” takes precedence over what “everyday Swedish life” actually looks like.

Although Sweden is in many respects a successful country, the last 20 years have shown the limits of its ambition to organise society according to cold principles of rationality and detachment from citizens’ actual lives. In the eyes of the world, and indeed a large part of its own population, Sweden has lost the model status that it acquired and preserved over decades.

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