Sweden's shift to the right
Enemies of democracy?
A typical performance of Sweden Democrats (SD) leader, Jimmie Åkesson (see the first installment of the article), is bravado, humour and obstinate self-pity. Persecution is his favourite theme, whether it’s left-wing students or the immigrants who bullied him at school. This is why some argue that protests and blockades are a tactical error; that they only give Sweden Democrats the martyrdom it wants – better to debate respectfully and win arguments, perhaps even better to ignore it altogether. Some columnists even say the protesters have become a threat to democracy.
These arguments are mistaken. True, snooty editorials or stone-throwing anarchists do a leader like Åkesson no harm at all. This is precisely why it is important that the job of challenging racist parties is not delegated to the usual suspects. When entire town squares turn their backs, when schoolchildren, nurses, doctors and firemen refuse to meet you, it is hard to blame the extremists and the power élite.
Viktor works as a fireman in a suburb of Stockholm with a large immigrant population. Last month, when SD leaders came for a visit and photo-opportunity at his station, he and his colleagues refused to come to work: ‘We sent out an announcement and got a surprisingly big response. Then we heard from Malmö that they were doing the same thing, and now we linked up with firemen from Gothenberg and Norrland and elsewhere. We didn’t know there would be such a strong public response and so much attention.’
Within days the network’s Facebook page, Firemen against racism, had received thousands of likes and messages of support. Viktor thinks the protests have taken the Sweden Democrats by surprise: ‘I think they expected firefighters to be sympathetic. And they genuinely don’t believe they organized it themselves. They think it must be someone from [the newspaper] Aftonbladet or the communists who set them up. We make fun of them over that. I haven’t met them but I have a hard time believing that all the firemen in Malmö are secret communists.
‘We are not anti-democratic – we don’t want to silence anyone. I think the protests are a really positive development for democracy. You can see the difference in the station. Now during coffee breaks people are talking about politics, not just their plans for the weekend – it becomes part of our world, rather than just an event once every four years.’
Lena* is a postal worker in central Sweden (she would prefer me not to say exactly where) who refused to distribute SD campaign literature: ‘For me they are a party with Nazi roots and racist baggage. I believe that deep down they have the same opinions they had 20 years ago.’
Sweden Democrats says it stands up for working-class people like Lena. Its members are the last true stewards of the ‘people’s home’ the Social Democratic Party built and then betrayed. They speak harsh truths which the establishment wants to hide – that in Sweden’s suburbs the failure of multiculturalism is simply a fact. Lena disagrees: ‘Racism grows in our midst. There is division where I live but it is due to lack of resources and not because different types of people live in the same neighbourhood. In the 1960s, when it was only Swedes living in the suburbs, people found other things to blame. It was the same problem then as now – poverty – but the discussion is different.’
Ingrid* helped organize a protest against SD’s attempt to distribute election material at her secondary school in Södermalm. Dozens of students blockaded the entrance and in the end the visit had to be abandoned.
'I think the protests are a really positive development for democracy. Now during coffee breaks people are talking about politics, not just their plans for the weekend'
She recalls: ‘Lots of people got in touch to say they were inspired or impressed. A few people in school were angry they didn’t get the chance to “debate” with the SD. The headmistress told the media she was ashamed of us. That was unbelievably humiliating. It felt like she took the racists’ side when she could have taken ours, that she doesn’t take our fears seriously. Racism is becoming normalized. You can see it even in our way of talking. “Racists” have been replaced with “immigration-sceptics”. There was a neo-Nazis protest on 1 May; suddenly we are all supposed to put up with Sweden Democrats in our streets, schools and workplaces, even though there are lots of people who feel threatened by them.’
Ingrid’s mention of the neo-Nazi parades points to another limitation of ‘debate’ as a strategy. There are other racist forces growing in the warmth of SD’s shadow. They are not very open to discussion, nor are they easily ignored.
Therese* lives in Kärrtorp, a quiet suburb in southern Stockholm built in the 1950s. It is not a neighbourhood accustomed to social strife. ‘If anything it’s rather homogenous here, mostly white and middle class,’ she says.
Last winter swastikas began to appear in sports centres and school playgrounds. Residents with immigrant backgrounds were heckled and assaulted in the street. It was rumoured that the incidents were connected to an underground neo-Nazi organization called the Swedish Defence Movement.
Therese got together with friends to organize a protest, calling themselves ‘Line 17 against racism’, after the metro line that runs through the neighbourhood from the city centre: ‘It felt important to do something because I don’t want my children to grow up in a city where racists control the streets.’
The peaceful demonstration was attacked by a gang from the Swedish Defence Movement armed with bottles and knives and stones, and several people were injured. Police later connected four of the assailants to the attempted murder of Fidel Ogu, a Nigerian tourist stabbed two weeks earlier outside Hökarängen metro station, a few miles from Kärrtorp.
When Line 17 called a new demonstration the following week, 20,000 people took part. Therese again: ‘The reaction has been really positive, and many people have started up similar groups in their own communities. We’re seeing a strong anti-fascist wave across the country now.’
But she does not feel the authorities are taking the problem seriously. ‘As long as the police treat the left-wing groups as more dangerous than the Nazis and misjudge the Nazis’ intentions and capacity, they will fail and leave us open to attacks.’ And she feels certain that Sweden Democrat’s success has encouraged the extremists to be more daring: ‘They have brought about a normalization of racism that prepares the way for groups like Swedish Defence Movement.’
The roots of resentment
Henrik Arnstad is a journalist and historian specialising in the study of fascism. His most recent book, Beloved Fascism, is a short ideological history of the movement from Mussolini to the present day. We met because I want to understand better the resurgence of the Scandinavian far right. Why have these movements grown so strong across Europe’s most prosperous, peaceful and egalitarian societies?
Arnstad is clear: ‘We let our guard down. We had a certain image of ourselves in Scandinavia. Since the war the Germans have always been on guard but we thought social democracy had inoculated us. So when these ideas began to appear we told ourselves it couldn’t really be racism – it must be something else.’
For most of the twentieth century, the Swedish extreme right was fissiparous and marginal. In the 1930s would-be demagogues, such as Sven Lindholm and Bircher Furugård, attempted to establish Ersatz ‘fascist’ and ‘national socialist’ movements, aping German and Italian models. But between them they never won more than a few thousand votes. 1 After the war fascism ceased to exist except as a recherché hobby for businessmen and nostalgic intellectuals, devotees of Per Endgahl and his ‘European Social Movement’. The conservative protest parties which organized and amplified racist sentiment from the late 70s in many European countries, most notably France, had no equivalent in Sweden.
But racist – indeed explicitly Nazi rhetoric and symbolism – reappeared, blended with elements of skinhead culture and pagan kitsch, in the form of the white-power movement. During the 1990s white-power groupuscules, funded by the sale of heavy-metal CDs, pursued what Stieg Larsson called a strategy of ‘low-intensity-terrorism’ – an intermittent campaign of savage attacks on immigrants, homosexuals and left-wing activists, including more than a dozen murders.2
These organizations persist and they have the ability to spread panic and arouse public indignation. There were nationwide protests after a gang affiliated to the neo-nazi Party of the Swedes (SvP) stabbed six participants in a march on International Women’s Day in Malmö.
When SvP held a May-day parade in Jönköping, thousands came to protest and the church bells rang all afternoon, ‘to warn against the danger to our open society’. Some reports suggest the party is growing. It is fielding local-election candidates in 30 districts and developing links with major fascist parties abroad, such as Golden Dawn and Jobbik.
But Sweden is hardly Greece or Hungary. The very qualities which endear SvP to a narrow subculture – its notorious violence, militaristic iconography and preoccupation with arcane racial doctrines and conspiracy theories – serves to exclude it from mass appeal. Any party that wants to succeed must cut its ties with such a world.
That is exactly what SD has managed to do. Today it has hundreds of councillors and 20 members of parliament – and it hopes to double that number at the Riksdag election in September. Its leader receives long, indulgent TV interviews. The governing conservative coalition has sworn not to co-operate with it but is dependent on its tacit support for a parliamentary majority.
'The protest parties did not last because they had no ideological foundation. The fascists do. When fascism takes root it is much harder to dig it up'
Sweden Democrats is only the latest far-right party to gain prominence in Scandinavia. The origins of these parties are entirely different: the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish People’s Party began life as anti-tax liberals (allied in the latter case with Lutheran conservatives), the True Finns as agrarian populists. And they disagree on certain matters, such as the EU, albeit in most regards they have gradually converged.
Their agenda is xenophobia and ‘welfare chauvinism’: end or drastically curtail immigration, prioritize jobs and homes for the indigenous, and clamp down on foreigners’ criminality and abuse of the welfare state. 3. Their shared obsession is the threat to national cohesion posed by immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, supposedly lacking in liberal values. Paradoxical demands often arise: censor in the name of free speech; liberate brown women from their veils while returning white ones to the kitchen.
It has been argued that the rise of xenophobic politics demonstrates the incompatibility of the Nordic welfare state and mass immigration: one can have openness or solidarity but not both. This claim is made by both liberals and conservative left-wingers, though they draw opposite conclusions.
Arnstad does not agree: ‘I would say that immigration in Sweden is mostly a success story. In a globalized world with an open, export-oriented economy you always have this influx and turnover. Of course the first generation never completely integrate. When I was growing up in the 70s – the racists like to pretend it was homogeneous back then, like hell it was! In my neighbourhood there were Finns, Greeks, Yugoslavs – that’s all forgotten now.
‘The collapse of the Social Democratic Party hegemony opened up a new political space. There is a great disillusionment with the mainstream parties and pessimism on the left, so the disillusioned have nowhere else to turn. In the early 90s we had New Democracy, a neoliberal populist party, who reached as much as 10 per cent and then collapsed. Ten years later the same thing happened with the Pirate Party – they came from nowhere and disappeared. These protest parties did not last because they had no ideological foundation. The fascists do. When fascism takes root it is much harder to dig it up.’
In some ways Sweden Democrats is not yet a truly national party. Their voters are predominantly male, small-town and working-class. They are heavily concentrated in Skåne in the south of the country, where the far right has always been strongest and there is a robust regional antipathy to ‘bloody Stockholmers’.
‘Sweden Democrats have tried very hard to reinvent themselves and they have been successful up to a point,’ says Arnstad. But he adds: ‘You still can’t say at a Stockholm dinner party that you are a Sweden Democrat. And they always get lower ratings if a poll is done over the phone compared to email, because people don’t want to admit they vote for them.’
He believes the protests are already having an effect. The party’s poll ratings have begun to sink. More importantly, such shows of popular feeling will help to discourage the big parties from pandering to the far right: “The most dangerous thing is how these ideas spread beyond the extremist parties. So in Norway you can have a left-wing MP saying Muslim welfare claimants should be interrogated to see if they have Norwegian values.
‘It moves so fast. Fascism has always been underestimated. It shouldn’t be so hard to call a racist a racist.’
*Names have been changed to protect individuals.
Read the first installment of this two-part article: Who are the Sweden Democrats?
Adam Bott is a freelance writer based in Stockholm.
- 1 See Viktor Lundberg, En Idé större än döden (2014).
- 2 Stieg Larsson, 'Det Heliga Raskriget', in Demokratins Förgörare (Demokratiutredningens skrist 28, 1999).
- 3 Henrik Arnstad, Älskade Fascism (2013).
Crossposted with permission from Open Democracy.