Vi är Sverige
The Stockholm summers of ‘94 and ‘18 have quite a few similarities. Sweden’s capital was basking in the hottest weather on record, its national football team was exceeding expectations in the world cup and the country was building up for crucial elections.
I was in the city during both those periods. Granted, in ‘94, I was but a bleary–eyed 11 year old – drunk on the serotonin from the Swedish sun – ecstatic, in assimilating the buzz of my Father’s homeland as Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin ran rings ‘round some of the greatest footballers on the planet.
The veteran goalkeeper, Thomas Ravelli, also impressed that year. A safe pair of hands. Ravelli and the team epitomised how myriads across the globe viewed Sweden and its disparate peoples as a whole: a stable, organised, greater than the sums of its parts unit. Historically socialist, but very much capitalist and competitive to its core.
Where these two summers differentiate for me today is the relative absence of the neo–fascists that used to stalk the streets. Or ‘skinheads’ as we might otherwise refer to them. Rumour had it they would hang out by the water next to Slussen subway station. But you could pretty much spot one anywhere around Stockholm in the ‘90s. Their shiny, cueball coiffures as distinguishable as the Travis Bickle loonballs they perhaps aspired to.
Today the Bickles of Stockholm are much harder to spot. Tapping in to the public dissatisfaction of governments worldwide, and the referendums that follow under the auspices of decentralised power and ‘taking back control of our borders’. The skinheads have consolidated their anger and exercised – quite shrewdly – their sublimated will into a slick political party: Sverigedemokraterna or The Sweden Democrats. The neo–fascists have joined the suits in a decreasingly covert world of autocracy in our democracies.
The Sweden Democrats’ (SD) leader – Jimmie Åkesson – is of course blazing the all–too–familiar path of the politically expedient chief desperate for power by marginalising some of the more extreme elements of his party because… yep. You guessed it. The giddy Swedish summer of 2018 ends with the elections on September 9 and all that serotonin could make for a nasty hangover.
On an afternoon last summer I had the pleasure of my first encounter with a Sweden Democrat voter. Finding myself in Stockholm with no job, office or even a personnummer (equivalent of a U.K. N.I. number), I decided to work from Stockholms Stadsbibliotek – the local public library. A beautiful building in the centre of the city, with its distinctive rotunda encasing all the old great Swedish literature of Strindberg, Söderberg to Karin Boye. With the sun out – I decided my graft was up for the day, and to pack up for a pint.
Broaching the subject of my struggle to obtain a personnummer in the pub with my newly–found, transient right–winger acquaintance, he suggested that I “grow a beard” and “move to Södertälje”. My documents would be quicker to attain, he said. After spotting me outside smoking cigarette and introducing himself. This large, hirsute caucasian primitive then proceeded after ten minutes or so to show me the array of knives he carried around in his bag with their DIY/homemade leather handles.
I made my excuses and left. He was one of the Bickles in disguise. A jingo. I later learned that his reference to Södertälje was an attempt at humour. This small Swedish city having welcomed more Iraqi refugees to date than the entire United States since the 2003 invasion.
Ignorance leads to prejudice which leads to racism
Like Södertälje, Sweden’s towns and cities are home to a diverse group of humans from across the globe. Following World War II and migration to the country for work, there was thought to have been up to 50,000 Yugoslavians in Sweden by 1990. This in turn made integration for the ‘90s generation, fleeing the Yugoslav wars, slightly easier with an existing community to lean on. In 1992 alone, 70,000 Yugoslavians applied for asylum. Many were in terrible shape and needed immediate medical assistance.
In Stockholm, areas to the north–west of the city such as Rissne, Rinkeby and Hallonbergen house many of the Syrian refugees that fled the Arab Spring protests and the insecurity it invoked. By 2013, 14,700 Syrians escaped to Sweden with that figure rising to 110,000 as of 2017. The bulk of the other refugees arrived from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. At its height in 2015, Sweden received a record 163,000 asylum applications which sparked heated political debate and where Swedes find themselves now in the run–up to elections on September 9. The Sweden Democrats – running on an anti–immigration and anti–EU ticket – are polling between 17–25 points. A record high for the party. They could feasibly come first, second or first, but something closer to 30 will be required and even then, whichever party comes out on top will need to form coalitions to push through budgets.
Immigration central to Sweden’s conversation
There is no doubt that Sweden has bitten off more than it can chew. But regular, honest, hardworking Swedes are being caught up amongst the young gangs that run riot in the Rinkebys and Rissnes. There is barely a month that goes by when someone, somewhere hasn’t detonated a grenade in the country. There’s even a Wiki page dedicated to listing them. A proposed amnesty is due to start in October 2018.
The leader of the Social Democrats and prime minister, Stefan Löfven, has been keen to play down his party’s alleged shift on asylum seekers and immigration policies to the right. In an interview with Radio Sweden he said:
“The migration policy we have now is a traditional Social Democrat policy. The policy that we used to have was implemented by the former (centre right Alliance) government. So, for me, it’s natural to say that yes we stand up for the right to seek asylum. If you’re approved, we will help you to join our communities along with your right to work, training and education. If it’s a No then you have to leave. I think this is in line with most of the population. It’s not so dramatic, actually.”
The Left Party, an on/off ally of the Social Democrats, blame “rich white folk from Danderyd” for purchasing drugs that fund gang warfare whilst the Moderates want to “streamline the police force” with additional funds and implement a “zero–tolerance” policy for unruly kids. In other words, the Moderates have got no new ideas on improving integration.
Much to the chagrin of the left, Löfven’s government recently rolled–out a sanctions based welfare system. If a registered migrant fails to attend SFI classes (Swedish language for immigrants), they could face penalties. But where should they turn to then? Out of the 5585 candidates standing at this years national, regional and local elections – a paltry 54 are from or live in Sweden’s troubled estates and areas. One percent. Less will be elected.
If the new Swedish government is serious about transforming its troubled communities, then municipalities are going to require the funds to build the infrastructures at a micro–level that engage and encourage community leaders to come forward, stand and be counted. Shopping centres with just pawn shops and hairdressers and subways is insulting.
It’s innate that humans want to engage. It’s society’s fault when it manifests itself negatively.
Sweden’s impressive annual GDP figures ain’t cutting it in these neglected areas: the neoliberal drive to quantify and measure everything in economic terms is a naked ideology. Moreover, everyone knows it’s bullshit.