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Roots of Riots and State of Governance in Sweden

Beyond the recent media avalanche of reports on the daily ups and downs of violent gang riots in Stockholm suburbs, a shocked citizenry is asking itself if this is only an outburst of accumulated adolescent tension in criminal destructivity or an indication of underlying deeper causes yet to be fully grasped.

At this premature stage of soul-seeking it seems wise to leave options open to different interpretations. The open question remains, whether we see a transient eruption from a modest level of societal tension—with few implications for policy adjustment other than short-term protective measures—or whether we face a significant trend—signs and symptoms in support of an interpretation indicating a much more sinister societal condition—with considerable strategic consequences.

Sweden is generally perceived as a peaceful place with a well-functioning welfare system—at work since the heydays of the social democrats—capable of providing safety even to the most unfortunate. Minor adjustments of a generalized social insurance system were accomplished by the present liberal alliance—after general election—to boost dynamic incitement and release entrepreneurial energy in a society afflicted by signs of bureaucratic petrifaction. The governing alliance won its mandate by promising to empower people—filling wallets by reducing taxes—in an effort to foster individual self-reliance. The intended effect, however, remains to be determined. Even the side-effects of any austerity measures allegedly hitting unprivileged groups alone—cannot explain the surprising surge of disseminated riots in the Swedish capital and in mid-sized cities around it.

An attempt to spot in depth socio-cultural processes at the heart of the disruptive dynamic behind the turmoil would likely generate a sequence of hypotheses beyond mainstream media explanations. Complex social phenomena are inherently multi-causal and its study necessarily encompass many disciplines, such as—in addition to political sciences—economics, sociology, psychology, and psychiatry. While authorities are fully occupied with calibrating actions to contain the unrest short term and limit its spread beyond metropolitan areas, it is time to open a dialogue, inquiring “what went wrong”, on a general level.

No state—not even the strongest—can possibly deliver the full range of the benefits demanded by its citizenry, but this does not degrade the government to the point of deserving the label of weakness. However, the personal victims of a “partially weak state” (where public authorities exclude “some” dissenting citizens, typically those struggling with problems of integration) may have good cause to feel outraged facing bare-skinned the sting of injustice. At the same time many weak states harbor tensions that do not yet display overt violence. Unfortunately, when—as in the present case—urban crime rates spike, the ability of the state to deliver the most urgent political goods will quickly shrink dramatically.

A “strong state” is also a concept subject to interpretation. For Tage Erlander (1901-1985)—iconic social democrat prime minister in office 1946-1969—social security (trygghet och välfärd) was a primary criterion for the strong state whose task was to moderate the pace of reform economically achievable, to satisfy the rising claims of the people to the greatest extent possible.

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In search of an idea amenable to agreement, a crucial criterion across political polarities may be the degree to which a society is capable of converting economic growth into shared material and social value. Another idea to consider is the varying degree of openness to and understanding of the values of the multiethnic contribution of society, which has recently been questioned up-front in the domestic debate.

This suggests that Sweden may face a more profound dilemma ahead. More than anything else the implications point at a much fiercer polarization and a harder political climate in its debate arenas. Perhaps the good old days of the successful model for negotiation (typically shared by employers and employees and silently promoted by governments), the Swedish spirit of consensus (samförståndsanda), may now be obsolete. If so, that is a deep change, with radical consequences. The unanswered question is what model will enter as a replacement for one built on solidarity and capable of generating sustained peace and growth.

The key condition for any model of peaceful collaboration in pursuit of incremental improvement of a society is that the counterparties feel stable and safe in their roles, enabling each of them to represent their respective interest and particular perspective—but also that they share a sense of social identity, furthering national goals and values. At the deepest level, however, this depends on what cultural root values (värdegrund) inherent to society they are capable of embracing.

A challenging task may finally be entailed in the way long-term government strategy will respond to—and integrate—a surprisingly broad range of needs in the field of cultural policy. It is a domain often neglected at a cost much higher than commonly accounted for.