By the time anti-immigration firebrand Jimmie Åkesson arrived for a rally in Malmö on the eve of this month’s elections, his party, the Sweden Democrats, had been striking fear into the hearts of international newspaper readers for a year. To anyone standing in the main square, it was hard to see why.
By – Christopher Caldwell
Malmö, with 300,000 residents, is Sweden’s third-largest city and, thanks to a 20-year-old bridge that crosses the sound to Copenhagen, its most international. After decades of unbroken mass migration, culminating in a record intake of refugees from the Muslim world in 2015, it is also the least ethnically Swedish. In Scania, as that part of southern Sweden is called, the transformation has gone poorly, bringing more welfare payments and lots more crime. The Sweden Democrats are the number-one party in most districts there. Yet the thousand or so people who showed up to hear Åkesson did not look hopping mad. They looked like a relatively civil lunch-hour crowd in any multicultural American metropolis.
That soon changed. As Åkesson, a bespectacled 39-year-old with a pleasing baritone, began to speak, small groups of people amid the crowd raised rainbow flags, banners with “Refugees Welcome” on them, and signs hand-scrawled with obscenities. Police patiently steered them to the back of the crowd, the area designated for protesters. This went on for the 45 minutes Åkesson held the stage. As it did, the front of the crowd got older, quieter, and more ethnically Swedish and those in the back got younger, browner, more numerous, and more voluble—a recapitulation of Scandinavia’s recent history. By the time Åkesson was done talking, the square was pulsating, full of loud chants (“Refugees have no choice!” “No racists on our streets!”) and pumped fists, and it was not the Sweden Democrats who were doing the chanting and pumping.
Åkesson urged deporting those migrants who commit sex crimes and imitating the American practice of jailing arraigned criminals pending trial, but mostly he complained that, when he came to Malmö, people wouldn’t let him speak. When he was done, his supporters and entourage appeared eager not to tarry any longer than the seven vans full of police did.
Åkesson is soft-spoken, nonintellectual, and “real”—in the sense that he has run-of-the-mill problems that have won him as much sympathy as contempt. He suffered from an online gambling addiction and took six months’ leave after the 2014 election to recover from what he called “burnout.” Despite all the messages of foreboding, Åkesson did not look that day like someone who was about to turn Sweden’s constitutional system upside-down.
And indeed, come election day, he did not. The Sweden Democrats finished a weaker-than-predicted third. Their hopes of forcing on Sweden a new way of addressing the immigrant problem seem for now to have gone by the board. Whether that is Sweden’s curse or blessing is unclear.
More than any other Western land, Sweden has allowed immigration to escape its control. Its experience started with labor migration from Yugoslavia in the 1960s, but that was mostly temporary. The country always had a crusading humanitarian side, admitting Jews from Poland after 1968, when the government there took an anti-Semitic turn, and Chilean leftists after Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. That was a matter of a couple thousand people a year. But after the anti-American Olof Palme took over the Social Democratic party in the late 1960s, Sweden lost the habit of saying no. It accepted Somalis and Bosnians in the 1990s and Iraqis and Afghans in the new century, along with any family members who cared to join them. After the turn of the century, a steady 110,000 people were coming year-in, year-out. This was an increase of well over 1 percent a year. Over time such a migration will change a country at its core.
In 2015, when refugees from the war in Syria and more opportunistic migrants from around the Muslim world began marching overland to Europe, the Scandinavian countries were especially open-hearted. Denmark received 21,000 asylum applications, Norway 31,000, Finland 32,000. Sweden took in 162,000. Now Sweden is in a situation that no modern country in the West has ever found itself in. If the United States considered itself overburdened at 13 or 14 percent foreign-born, so desperately overburdened that it would turn to Donald Trump for leadership, how can we expect tiny Sweden, a rustic monoculture until the day before yesterday, to behave, now that it has a foreign-born population of almost 19 percent?
This is a question that not even the Sweden Democrats have faced squarely. In much of Europe there is talk about how, if migration isn’t slowed down, this or that country will lose its traditional culture. In Sweden, it is too late to do anything about that. Sweden’s Muslim population is now 8.1 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, Sweden will be 30 percent Muslim by 2050 if refugee flows continue and 21 percent Muslim in the unlikely event that they stop altogether. Already, the part of Sweden’s population that is of foreign origin is 31.7 percent, and more than 30 percent of its babies are born to foreign mothers.
It has been a conspicuously unsuccessful immigration. Unskilled labor from what used to be called the Third World is a poor match with the Swedish economy, which revolves around collaborative brainwork. After eight years, most migrants are still not in a job. After 15 years, only 60 percent are. Generous welfare means they do not seek jobs as household helpers or landscape gardeners, the way migrants to less egalitarian societies do. They often live, out of sight and out of mind, in the housing projects that the Swedish government built in the 1960s. A large crime problem has been one consequence. Gangs have proliferated, including the ones that two weeks before the elections set fire to cars across the country. Shootings have doubled since 1997, and hand grenades have become a signature weapon of Swedish gang warfare, with a hundred incidents between 2014 and 2016. There is terrorism, too: A rejected asylum seeker with ISIS connections drove a stolen beer truck down Stockholm’s pedestrian Drottninggatan in April 2017, mowing down shoppers and killing five. Rapes have become common in and around the suburban projects. Muslims account for half the anti-Semitic incidents in Sweden, according to the Svenska Dagbladet columnist Paulina Neuding. (The radical right accounts for another 5 percent and the radical left for 25.)READ MORE: Malmö: Seven Arab Migrant Detained For Drugging And Gang Raping Woman For 10 Hours
Westerners, it is now clear, lost sight of something important during the long heyday of ethnically homogeneous nation states. They are learning belatedly how much public order and safety depends on the knowability, the legibility, of a society’s various subcommunities. If a society is relatively homogeneous, this legibility can be maintained with practically zero intrusion into citizens’ private lives. But once a society grows more diverse, the state must become hands-on—appearing inquisitorial and intrusive to those who remember the old days and granting a privileged level of privacy to those whose customs remain too “exotic” to decipher.
The roots of these problems are in Sweden’s consensus politics and go back decades. But for the past few years it has looked likely Swedes would lay the blame on Social Democratic prime minister Stefan Löfven for his especial recklessness and punish him at the ballot box the next chance they got. In late August 2015, Angela Merkel invited hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to settle in Germany. “Wir schaffen das,” she said. “We can manage it.” Days later, on September 6, Löfven tried to offer moral support: “In my Europe, we don’t build walls,” he said. “We help each other out.”
The next weeks were a shock for Sweden. Migrants are very well-informed about what awaits them where. Many of those who had seemed to be converging on Germany after Merkel’s invitation arrived there and walked right on through. They boarded boats to the Danish island of Falster. They walked through Denmark, too, while Danes lined the road to watch and help them. They were heading for Sweden. Löfven blamed other countries in the European Union for their unwillingness to take their share of the migrants he had invited. But he quickly reversed course and instituted passport checks at Sweden’s borders for the first time in decades. New arrivals have recently fallen to 1,500 a month.
The Social Democrats have been the country’s number-one party since World War I, and Sweden’s top income tax rate of 60 percent sounds like a socialist anachronism in this era of lean, mean states. But Sweden also remains one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial countries on earth: Ikea, Absolut, ABBA, Spotify and a lot of the 21st century’s best crime fiction were conceived here; this city-sized country once even built its own fighter jets. For much of the past quarter-century Sweden has been ruled by a shifting free-market coalition, now called “the Alliance,” which undertook an ambitious program of opening charter schools, closing post offices, and privatizing pharmacies.
For people frustrated with Löfven’s recklessness on migration, the problem was not that it was impossible to dislodge him but that it was pointless. -Libertarian-conservative policies on borders differed little from those of the Social Democrats. In December 2014, to prevent the Sweden Democrats from acting as a kingmaker between the two evenly matched blocs, Löfven’s “left” cut a deal with the four-party coalition of the “right” that whichever bloc had the most votes would be allowed to pass its budget. This smacked of collusion. When the migration crisis broke, the Sweden Democrats were the only party that Löfven did not invite to help work out an emergency response. This led a lot of Swedes to assume, quite naturally, that the Sweden Democrats must be doing something right. Working- and middle-class Swedes began to abandon their old parties—exit polls this month showed 18 percent of the Sweden Democrats’ vote came from the Moderates and 19 percent from the Social Democrats.
Who are the Sweden Democrats? They describe themselves as the country’s “only opposition party.” Löfven and others who oppose them prefer to stress the party’s “roots in Nazism.” This is a bit unfair. The party, which dates from the 1980s, was indeed founded by members of the extreme right. But it had moderated considerably by the time Åkesson joined it in the mid-1990s and moderated even further by the time he and three friends from Lund University took over its leadership in 2005. Under a “zero tolerance” policy, Åkesson has purged extremists. At this point, it is hard to say whether establishment politicians are freezing out the party because of its past or raising its past because they seek pretexts for freezing out the party.
Swedish conformism is a mighty, mighty force. The late sociologist Åke Daun used to say that Swedes “like being like each other.” That Swedes are so alert to, and influenced by, their neighbors’ feelings is perhaps a legacy of Lutheranism, or of living at a latitude where, in the winter, it is dark round the clock and dangerously cold all the time. Swedes themselves are fascinated by this conformism, and find much in it to be proud of—it can be easier, for instance, to be a free-thinking individual if you’re in the bosom of a loving community. But it is also true that Swedes can turn politically like a school of fish or a swarm of bees. That is how you can have one party at the top for more than a century.
And over the last half-century, Swedish conformism has been enhanced, if that is the word, by enforcement techniques drawn from American civil-rights law. What looked in the 20th century like consensus can now look like coercion, or censorship, or political correctness—particularly on matters of immigration. A policeman in Örebro was investigated for “inciting racial hatred” after listing the national origin of violent criminals in a tweet. In Denmark one reads articles about the problems of violent crime among specific communities—Somali and Palestinian—that one would never see in the Swedish papers. The Sweden Democrats are often attacked as intolerant for wishing to ban the niqab—the black covering for women with only a slit for the eyes, common in the heavily Muslim housing development Rosengård in Malmö. But the niqab is already banned in Denmark, not to mention in Algerian schools. There is a Swedish neologism—the verb brunstämpla—that describes the casting of dissident opinion as fascist.
Nowhere is groupthink more prevalent than among journalists. In a country with a nine-party system, 41 percent of journalists vote for the tiny Green party. Over the summer, the Stockholm press corps seemed sure that the hot summer, doubtless brought on by global warming, and the forest fires that raged in its wake would guarantee a huge election result for the Greens. Instead, the party’s vote plummeted—it barely reached the 4 percent threshold, below which it would have fallen out of the Riksdag (Sweden’s parliament) altogether.
The determination of what is the proper subject matter for politics rests with the right-minded. How do we have to change Sweden to make it possible for immigrants to integrate into it? is deemed a legitimate question. Why should we change Sweden in the first place?is not. It is not surprising that a rather broad conservative counterculture, producing high-quality journalism and social science, has arisen in Sweden in recent years: The sites kvartal.se, edited by the journalist Paulina Neuding, and ledarsidorna.se, by the renegade Social Democrat foreign-policy thinker Johan Westerholm, are two of its high points.
The most extraordinary attempt to rattle the familiar debate over immigration came from a young economic researcher, Tino Sanandaji. An immigrant himself, born in Iran to Kurdish parents, Sanandaji sought in 2016 to make a cost-benefit analysis of migration to Sweden. The title of his book, Mass Challenge, was a bit of a gag—it referred to Swedes’ tendency to cast any negative outcome not as a “problem” but as a “challenge.”
Mass Challenge is a rich book, with a set of original heuristics that can be applied to the study of migration anywhere and a fine-grained focus on certain Swedish communities, like Södertälje and Botkyrka, in which Swedish Swedes now make up a minority, and Malmö, where they are getting close. Sanandaji found Sweden accepted four times as many migrants as the average European country. The population of Swedes of Swedish origin (a figure that includes those who have one foreign parent) is stable at 7.7 million, Sanandaji found, but the country as a whole, now with a population of over 10 million, is growing at a rate as fast as Bangladesh.
On political correctness, the book can be genuinely funny. Sanandaji cited the way the country’s paper of record, Dagens Nyheter, covered riots in the Stockholm suburbs: “Södermalm 1719, Old Town 1848, Kungsträdgården 1987 and Husby 2013. . . . Rock-throwing is timeless and the riots in Husby are far from the first in Stockholm’s history.”
Sanandaji’s statistics are reliable—weighing statistics is what he does for a living—but not alarmist. They certainly understate the immigration-related disruptions to Swedish life because they do not include the numbers from 2015. Sanandaji showed that arguments about the “enrichment” of migration tended to employ certain tricks—using total GDP instead of per capita GDP to pass off population growth as economic growth, for instance. Every serious study shows that migration to Sweden since the 1980s has imposed a net cost, economically and socially, and Sanandaji even measured it: about 760,000 SEK ($85,000) per migrant. The book has everything—except an ordinary Swedish publisher. Although Sanandaji was armed with a doctorate in public policy from the University of Chicago and is the brother of a prominent Swedish consultant and author, he decided to publish the book himself. It rose to the top of bestseller lists and sold out in six days.
So the stage was set for the election of 2018 to be a referendum on Swedish migration policy. There seemed to be only two propositions on the ballot:
- Our migration policy has been a mistake and ought to be changed.
- Our migration policy has been a mistake, but what the heck.
The Sweden Democrats were not the only force representing option 1. All the parties paid lip service to it, including the Social Democrats, even though they are halfway through the process, familiar in all Western countries, of converting themselves from a party of workingmen’s protections to a party of minority rights. They got 80 percent of the vote in Herrgården and other heavily Muslim neighborhoods in Malmö and put out campaign materials in Arabic that the Moderate party called defamatory.
But two, possibly three, of the four conservative Alliance parties actually believe in a hard line on immigration and crime, just as the Sweden Democrats do. And if the Sweden Democrats got a high enough score to make an anti-multicultural government possible, then these establishment conservative parties would be forced into choosing between their standing with the bien-pensants of Stockholm and their standing with voters. This, in turn, would drive the country towards a new conformism of retarding multiculturalism rather than promoting it, and transform Sweden into a different kind of political society. The stakes were enormous.
In the end, the Sweden Democrats got 17.6 percent of the vote, their best-ever showing, and journalists sent to cover the story wrote the story they were sent to write —that this had been an “earthquake” in Swedish politics. But it was no such thing. It was an earthquake narrowly avoided. This, the first election since 2015, was the most propitious moment for a populist victory, and it did not happen. The populists lost.
To win, the Sweden Democrats would have needed enough votes—somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, which was the tally Åkesson predicted on election morning—to forcethe country’s establishment to the negotiating table. Because when the election season was getting underway, Åkesson was selling himself to the public not as one who hoped to join the establishment but as one who would, given a chance, destroy it. His first infomercial was directed not just at the Social Democrats but at the Moderates as well:
People have been murdered and will continue to be murdered as a result of your policies, and you will continue to cover up and lie. The conflict in Sweden is not about who is right or left, rich or poor, man or woman. The conflict is between those who are destroying the country and those who are working to save it—the conflict is between you and us.
Now, armed with his insufficient mandate, Åkesson has called for dialogue about regime building with Ulf Kristersson of the country’s establishment Moderate party. Kristersson must have thought: Are you putting me on?
None of this changes the essential predicament in which Sweden finds itself. Ethnic relations are worsening. The delegation of 63 Sweden Democrats in the Riksdag is going to make rising crime and the deteriorating economic position of the Swedish working class harder to ignore, just as the Alternative for Germany has done in the Reichstag in Berlin. Whichever governing coalition comes to power, the establishment’s room for maneuver is going to be narrow. But in the win-some, lose-some battle between European political establishments and European popular insurgencies, Sweden’s election represents the biggest establishment victory since Emmanuel Macron won the presidency of France in the early summer of 2017. It had been feared that Swedes harbored a secret extremism that they would not share with pollsters and that a terrible surprise awaited on election day. In the end, the election was decided not by something Swedes didn’t dare to admit but by something they didn’t dare to face.
Read more: From 2018/09/23 READ MORE: After 500.000 Muslim Immigrants Stefan Löfven Admit: “Not refugees” – they move to Europe “to have a better life”