Sweden’s ‘foreign’ youth: imprisoned by culture

In supposedly 'model' Sweden, multicultural policies have led to the kids of immigrants being excluded from the mainstream.

Jerker Jansson

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Topics Politics

It’s news all over the world. Young people in the multicultural suburbs of the bigger cities in Sweden are rebelling. Idyllic Sweden is said to be on fire.

Swedish society is divided over what caused this outbreak of disorder. The liberal and conservative right says the rebelling youth are nothing more than criminals, a completely different species from other, better behaved children of foreign immigrants, who study hard to get good jobs or who succeed as athletes, stand-up comedians, musicians or actors.

On the other side, the left-leaning defenders of the welfare state and the ‘Swedish model’ say the frustration of the youth is understandable, although the way the youth express their frustration is wrong. They claim that society (they mean the state) has abandoned the young of the suburbs, and apparently what we need is more welfare policies and more multiculturalism in order to recognise these young people’s frustrations.

And then there are the pseudo-radicals, who don’t care who is revolting or what they’re revolting against. Rebellion is always right, they say.

But the most laughable response to the riots has come from politicians. They are desperate for media attention and are trying to out-ghetto each other in their attempt to show how much they care about the rebelling youth. I nearly choked on my morning tea when on my TV I saw Green Party spokesperson, Gustav Fridolin, take the bus to Vallby, a small suburb of Västerås, an industrial city near Stockholm, where he visited a boxing club. It was embarrassing to see him trying to be cool with the kids; when he tried boxing with one of them, it bordered on parody.

All these observers are wrong. The liberal-conservative bunch has no clue. To claim that the riots are being overseen by professional criminals is crazy. Criminals tend to keep out of such unprofitable stunts as riots. The Social Democratic romantics might be right to say that the frustration of the rioters is understandable, but are they serious when they say that the solution is to have more state intervention in suburban areas? There is no lack of state in these areas. The police are everywhere; the social workers work harder than ever; and the schools are very ambitious and quite good.

As for the radical leftist claim that the riots are a political uprising of some sort – that raises an awkward question: if the kids from the suburbs really were challenging society, why didn’t they take the subway into the city centres and burn BMWs or designer clothes boutiques or attack political buildings? Why did they focus on burning up their own areas? Why attack local busses, for example, and the fire brigade?

To understand the rebellion we have to understand the suburbs – in particular the ethnically heterogeneous suburbs. Swedish politicians are terrified of admitting that the project of integration has failed miserably in Sweden. The well-meaning Swedish pluralist project is a fiasco. Pluralism is a good thing; it is good when cultures crash into each other and people mix with people who aren’t like them. But the big question is this: do cultures really meet in Sweden’s suburbs? A lot of people from a lot of countries live in the suburbs and you will hear many different languages when you visit, but these cultures seldom meet. Multiculturalism is a myth. What we have in the suburbs are islands of monocultures.

The Swedish cultural elite, as a result of its well-meaning psuedo-postmodern romantic dream of pluralism, by which it really means separatism, has created a class of people with no hope of being able to be to get away from the suburbs and truly become part of Swedish society, which remains dominated by Swedes.

People can have lots of identities. It is no paradox to be a Swede and a Turk at the same time. Or a Finnish lesbian conservative Catholic. All of us who live here in Sweden are Swedes. But in our attempt to create what we called a ‘truly pluralistic society’, we, the majority, have let the minorities down. We have turned them into some kind of extra Swedes sitting on the sidelines – the social equivalent of football substitutes who never get to play a single match.

Whose fault is this? Is it the majority society’s fault, or are the minority cultures to blame, for failing to make an effort to fit in? It’s both. Or more accurately: the answer is far more complex than anyone wants to admit.

The problem is structural. No one really wants to change their way of living, or their ideals, in order to create a truly common playing ground. So majority Swedish culture and society is not truly pluralist and is not really open to change. Neither are the immigrated cultures. Swedish society implicitly keeps people from other cultures out of the mainstream and out of power, and the people from these cultures try to stop their children from going native, from ‘becoming Swedish’. And, of course, the multi-culti cult applauds them for doing this, for celebrating their own differences – which really means ghettoising themselves.

The biggest problem in Sweden today is the lack of a civil society. In modern Sweden, only right-wingers tend to talk about ‘civil society’, and they are often attacked for doing so. But looking back at Swedish history, I think there are many good arguments for supporting civil society today. In the late nineteenth century, Sweden started to move away from brutal industrial capitalism towards becoming a modern society, through the development of cooperative, popular movements that channelled political and personal discontent into constructive projects. The labour unions, religious movements, cooperative stores, night schools… they weren’t the state or the market, yet all of these played an important role in creating modern Sweden. There’s a tendency to believe modern Sweden was built by the Social Democratic Party alone, but civil movements played a key role, too.

The current right-wing government promised to liberate us from the unnecessary involvement of the state in our lives, holding out the promise of people being able to regain independence and perhaps recreate civil spaces. But all that has happened is that market forces have grown into the spaces left by the removal of aspects of state intervention. And in the process, society has abandoned a lot of the people who are too weak or unimportant to interest market forces. There lies one of the most important drivers of the riots: young people, understanding that they have been discarded both by the state and by the market, and with no vital civil society that might step in and help them find their way out of economic and social misery, lash out violently.

All of the young men who set fire to cars in the suburbs had their own reasons for doing so. But one of the main reasons they did it is because they can. Nobody will try to stop them. Even the police just stood around, observing, saying they didn’t want to provoke the young people. Abandoned by their parents’ culture, pushed outside of mainstream Swedish society by a failed ‘pluralist’ agenda, lacking any kind of civil society to turn to, and given a green light to let rip by the police – is it any wonder that the only thing left in this void in the suburbs was, well, hooliganism?

Jerker Jansson is a writer based in Stockholm and contributor to Diderot magazine.

Picture by: FREDRIK SANDBERG / SCANPIX/Scanpix/Press Association Images

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