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.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission

subscribe now

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.

http://prosyn.org/ND6dop4;
  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable


    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.