Before last month, the phrase ‘Swedish rioting’ would have been regarded by most spectators as oxymoronic. Sweden has a world-wide reputation for a peaceful and accepting culture; a reputation backed up by surveys and reports that consistently rate the country as one of the happiest in the world. Indeed, the most recent of these, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) just last month (May 2013), ranked Sweden as the second happiest industrialised nation on earth. Clearly then, the notion of mass rioting on the capital’s streets, as took place at the end of May this year, sits awkwardly. Commentators from inside and out have been scrambling for explanations since, and, although a definitive answer will most likely never be found, exploring the potential reasons for the unrest has benefits for the future of Swedish, and European, society.
The disorder sprang from Husby, a suburb of Stockholm, and began after an elderly man wielding a knife in his home was fatally shot by police. It is hard to credit the events that followed, over a week of rioting by young people in all of Sweden’s major cities, solely to this event: Sweden’s youth are unlikely to have torched cars, libraries and schools in vengeance for one incidence of police brutality. Although most likely the spark (similar to the police shooting of Mark Duggan which prompted the 2011 riots in London), the feeling remains that something else other than the 69-year-old’s death fuelled the fires that burned nation-wide. Without over-simplifying the situation, two theories have since dominated popular discourse, one from each end of the political spectrum. Each is inevitably promoted vehemently by its advocates, and it is these theories that must be dissected here.
The first answer as to why Sweden’s youth began a prolonged rampage comes from those on the political left. Centring on the country’s economics, these commentators argue that a widening gap between rich and poor, exacerbated by a reduction in public spending, has led to young people becoming disillusioned with Swedish society. Despite ranking so highly in the OECD’s ‘happiness list’, the country does not do so well in the think tank’s analysis of changing inequality: Sweden has seen the largest increase between those with and those without of any developed nation over the last 25 years. As a country that prides itself as one of the most egalitarian in the world, this statistic is alarming. Writing for The Guardian, Aditya Chakrabotty is keen to highlight such economic issues: he laments that “Sweden is less ‘Swedish’ than it has ever been”. According to Chakrabotty, rich young Swedes are losing their sense of moderation, while political parties of all persuasions have drifted collectively to the right (a point supported by the fact that the welfare budget has been trimmed since 2006 while numerous public services have been privatised over the same period).
However, as an explanation for the rioting, economic inequality remains unsatisfactory. Firstly, the suburb of Husby in which the rioting took hold has seen an abnormally high level of public spending compared to the rest of Sweden. Nima Sanandaji notes that the local school receives more grants than the average, while both the local library and park have been extensively refurbished using public funds. Secondly, if economic inequality was behind the riots, it certainly didn’t show in the locations and targets of the destruction: this wasn’t a case of poor youths attacking rich houses, businesses and neighbourhoods. The targets for violence were the cars and vans of everyday Swedes, the public buildings used by the local community and the personnel of the emergency services. That this was a concerted effort to protest inequality just does not make sense.
The insufficiency of this theory has led commentators to search for an alternative explanation, and just such an alternative is offered up by those on the political right. These observers have chosen to focus on the high number of immigrants resident in Husby, and the ethnic composition of the rioters themselves. That issues of immigration and ethnicity should be thrown up as explanations is unsurprising; they continue to demand ever more space in European public discourse. This current fixation on immigration as a ‘social ill’ has its roots in the end of the Cold War. When the battle between ‘East’ and ‘West’ effectively came to an end, it was unclear what structure the political world would take: Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed it ‘the end of history’. However, Samuel Huntington used the opportunity to disseminate a theory which he called ‘the clash of civilisations’. This purported that the world was split into several distinct cultures, and that post-Cold War international politics was to be dominated by the clashes that inherently occur when these meet through globalisation. These ideas form the base to those accusations that the riots were down to Sweden’s immigrant community, unable or unwilling to integrate effectively with the rest of society.
However such theories are both dangerous and unconvincing. Sweden has one of the most open immigration policies in the world, and has offered refuge to millions since the early 1970s: to blame one incident of mass social destruction on what has been a largely successful policy is frankly unfair. Furthermore, in the same way the riots were not a battle between rich and poor, they were not obviously about ethnicity; the properties attacked were not only those of ‘ethnic’ Swedes, nor were the rioters exclusively made up of immigrants. Finally, the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis that underpins this explanation is, frankly, false. Cultures are not bound to clash when they come into contact, and indeed prejudices and suspicions are more likely to be reduced when people from different cultures live alongside one another.
So what is to blame for Stockholm’s riots? I warned at the start of this piece that a simple, definitive explanation was unlikely ever to materialise, and despite dissecting the two of the most prominent theories offered we are still no closer. However, what has been shown is that each theory is unlikely to be exclusively, or even mostly, to blame. More likely is that the riots were a result of numerous personal frustrations, grievances and annoyances. Normally, young people channel such flammable attitudes in other ways but, once the spark was lit (and arguably with the help of a few hardened criminals), anarchy seemed the best way forward. Therefore more important than what caused the riots, is what the authorities should learn from it. What this case shows Sweden, and the rest of Europe, is that young people need a voice, a platform to speak and truly be heard. They need to relate to politics, not via politicians donning backwards caps using slang, but through institutions and conventions that give them the chance to be involved. The lesson of Stockholm should be that even in one of the fairest societies in Europe, young people felt the need to be violent en masse; a sorry truth that should resonate as a message for all.