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22 August 2023

How Sweden lost the plot

The country is no longer a model for the world.

By Malcom Kyeyune

To understand how Sweden became Europe’s most polarised country, look backwards. In retrospect, the 2010s were the decade when Swedes no longer agreed with each other on basic, foundational assumptions about the world. Going into 2015, Sweden was a tense society and its politics were no longer driven by consensus. Five years earlier, amid controversy, the Sweden Democrats had entered parliament, with slightly more than 5 per cent of the electoral vote. Nationalists were not supposed to prosper in Sweden, however, and the surprising result was not interpreted as a breakdown of the old political order.

Neither was it seen as proof that something fundamental inside Swedish society had stopped working. Many believed that the Sweden Democrats would follow the same path as another upstart, nationalist, populist party, Ny Demokrati, and collapse before the next general election came around.

They were wrong. In 2014 the Sweden Democrats claimed nearly 13 per cent of the vote and 49 seats in the Riksdag in the general election. It became the third biggest party in parliament. Every other party in Swedish politics stated that they would never cooperate with the Sweden Democrats in any future government. Now Sweden, for decades hailed as a “moral superpower” that married prosperity with social solidarity, was plunged into a genuine political crisis. Sweden’s political consensus had broken down.

To say that the result of the 2014 election caused anxiety in Sweden’s political establishment would be an understatement. More than anything, these anxieties were provoked by the way the Sweden Democrats had placed migration, an issue which now dominated political debate in the country, at the centre of their campaign. These anxieties ignited further a year later, when pictures began circulating in the international media of a refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned off the coast of Turkey. These pictures generated an enormous moral panic in Swedish society.

The debate around migration and asylum in Sweden – already fraught – became even more heated. This was not just a political debate. A fervour for collecting toys and clothes for refugee children began. Another fervour, for hunting down “fascists”, “racists” and enemies within began. These “fascists” and “racists” were often those Swedes who took a different position on Europe’s refugee crisis, and who tried to argue in terms of what the state could afford, whether there was a possibility of ethnic and religious conflicts stemming from migration, and so on. These attempts at nuance were not appreciated or even tolerated in public life during the middle part of the 2010s: to ask questions was, at least for a couple of years, essentially an admission of guilt.

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As the fervour spread, many friendships were broken, marriages were dissolved and people lost their jobs. What happened in Sweden was not a fight about the number of asylum seekers Sweden could support, or the economic pros and cons of mass migration: this was about which tribe you belonged to. All too often, the choice on offer was between being a part of “humanity” or being an “enemy of humanity”.

Like all social panics, the refugee panic in Sweden eventually peaked. The material problems that accompanied migration – crime, overcrowded schools, social and ethnic tensions, and violence towards ethnic Swedish children committed by gangs – were too numerous for Swedish liberals to ignore. By 2018 their emotional zeal had been drained; society began to move on. Most of the “enemies of humanity” were over time quietly rehabilitated, if never officially exonerated. And in the wake of this social and political fiasco, a cottage industry sprang up intent on trying to explain what had happened.

Almost ten years after the start of the left’s cultural revolution, however, the Swedish right has descended into an eerily similar panic, this time triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like all social panics, it has gone through predictable phases: the initial period of optimism and mania, spreading the word, and cheering on Ukraine. In an interesting synchronicity, in 2022 a charity gala called Hela Sverige Skramlar was held at the Globen arena in Stockholm, where Swedish artists gathered to perform in support of Ukraine. A charity gala by the same name, in the same arena, had inaugurated the most zealous phase of refugee mania in 2015. The Sweden Democrats – a party on the right with a long history of Nato scepticism – changed its position overnight, without much in the way of internal debate. 

Again, the discussion of “issues” around the war is a strong social taboo, and questions of politics are reduced to questions of tribal belonging. In the second half of 2023, it is more or less an open secret that Western economic sanctions against Putin have failed. To point out that they would fail – or even that they could fail – in 2022, however, was to risk both one’s employment and social status. 

The phase of mania – of cheering for Ukrainian grandmas supposedly defeating modern Russian tanks by dropping pickle jars on them from their balconies – has now passed, replaced by an equivalent to the left’s post-mania period of 2017-2018, when all the problems of the immigration policies were becoming undeniable: a bitter turn towards looking inward, and policing one’s own immediate environment for signs of traitors, wreckers and spies.

This second phase culminated only this summer, during a brief national boycott, lauded by many or most major figures on the Swedish right, of a Swedish chocolate company named Marabou. So what had Marabou done to warrant a boycott, exactly? The answer might appear surprising, but is actually fairly logical: Marabou was chosen because it stood out by virtue of its obvious lack of guilt. Specifically, Marabou, a Swedish company that manufactures all its products inside Sweden, for the Nordic market, was owned by a company that was in turn owned by another company, which refused to divest itself of its various companies that still operated inside Russia.

There are two significant things to note about this boycott. The first is that Marabou had no way to accede to the demands made by the boycotters. It did not export to Russia or import from Russia. Nor did its immediate owner. Only the top-level holding company did, and for it to divest itself of operations inside Russia, a country of 140 million, because people in Sweden, a country of ten million, refused to buy chocolate made inside Sweden for the Swedish market never made much sense. But that was the point, and indeed the only way in which the boycott could work. If one started turning over rocks to find Swedish companies that still did direct business with Russia, that would probably involve many more companies than Marabou. For some individual Swedes, it would probably involve transferring their mortgages and closing or moving their bank accounts. Over the summer then, the Swedish right embarked on a quest to threaten and perhaps even shut down a Swedish company making products in Sweden, for Swedes, in order to spite Russians, who did not care about the company in question and could not buy its products at their local grocery stores even if they wanted to.

The boycott was just as ferocious in its attacks on non-conformists as the left was between 2015 and 2018. Even respected people on the Swedish right, such as former moderate parliamentarian Hanif Bali, could be inundated with a torrent of abuse and slander – as “Putin-whores”, “Russophiles”, “Russian-lovers”, “Traitors” – for the crime of being seen consuming the wrong brand of chocolate. Many current and former members of parliament from the right, including big names such as Gunnar Hökmark, were also active in promoting the boycott, essentially urging people to inflict economic damage on Swedish manufacturing jobs with zero connection to the Russian economy, while studiously ignoring much larger trading relationships in the financial and energy sectors.

The boycott was made even sillier by the fact that the “right” brands of chocolate citizens were told to consume instead were themselves invariably entangled in the same convoluted international capital structures as Marabou. But that was beside the point. The issue was immaterial, because the debate was a moral and social spectacle: the same old process of sorting Sweden into “humanity” and “enemies of humanity” was once again at work. Predictably, the Marabou boycott burned with a massive frenzy – dragging in many institutions, including the army and the state-owned rail network – until it suddenly just disappeared and people stopped talking about it out of embarrassment.

What had truly happened here? Why, after spending a decade moaning about the bullying tactics of the Swedish left, had the Swedish right become their mirror image?

The answer is quite simple: absolutely nothing had changed. There is no mysterious chemical behind the process. No master signifier hidden deep inside “right-wing ideology”, no hidden “fascist DNA” that explains this panic. Rather, the mania that swept over the Swedish right in 2022 and 2023 was a predictable sign of the times. The old consensus, the end of history, and all the rules that supposedly governed how the world was supposed to work have broken down. What happened to Sweden in the last decade happened across the West. You can call these conflicts a culture war, but in truth fierce and totalising competition is often the essence of politics. Guelphs and ghibellines; populares and optimates: these are much more “normal” than in the politics of the West in the 1990s, when the centre ground appeared to be the space where politics could be contested.

Another sign of Sweden’s rapid breakdown of meaning can be found in the battle over Quran burnings that have garnered wide attention in the rest of the world. To mollify Turkey – a country which has been very recalcitrant when it comes to Sweden’s accession to Nato – the current right-wing Swedish government is now seeking to change the law to make it harder or even impossible to stage protests that would possibly exacerbate tensions with the Muslim world, de facto cutting into Swedish citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It is a right-wing government (with support from the Sweden Democrats, who are by far the most critical of Islam of all the major parties) traditionally opposed to Nato membership that is trying to make these changes, and it is the Social Democrats and the progressive Green Party that are trying to stop this. This is, quite frankly, a political situation that barely makes any sense. Is it then any wonder that people are once again retreating into various short-lived moral panics?

The Swedish left experienced a hammer blow in 2014. The rise of the Sweden Democrats forced them to ask questions that they never thought they’d have to ask, and which they lacked any good answers for. They had an idea of how the world would work, and all of a sudden the world started to disobey them. The result was a massive, billowing cloud of anxiety, one that seeped into nearly every home, and nearly every institution. Not too long after that, a spark came along, in the form of a particularly incendiary photograph, and all that anxiety ignited into a massive, raging wildfire. In 2022 the Swedish right was in a similar situation, with a similar surplus of anxiety. The world no longer worked like they thought it would. All it took was a spark, and their anxiety too began to burn in a raging inferno, with little care about whether it scorched the guilty or the innocent.

In 2018 it was easy, and perhaps even credible, to talk about “the woke” or “neo-Marxists” as the root cause of the culture wars. But Sweden once again leads the way in showing the true shape of what is to come: far from being a product of the left or the right, these increasingly frequent wildfires, these explosions of polarisation, witch-hunting and acrimony – are merely the inevitable product of a machine that is breaking down all around us. As we make this ragged and chaotic transition from the end of history back into historical time, these “culture wars” are not some exception that proves the rule: they are, if anything, merely the new normal way in which politics will work.

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