Sweden’s Dreaming — life in a Scandinavian ethno-dystopia

James Barrett
8 min readMay 4, 2022

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Having lived in Sweden for 22 years, both in the far north (Umeå) and in the capital Stockholm and speaking the language fluently, I have taken more than a passing interesting in the changes to this fascinating and complex land. In recent years the idea that Sweden as a society is under threat from within has gained widespread traction in the popular imagination. This perceived threat has vocal exponents from both the left and the right of politics. It seems to be a fear that every second person has some idea of, or feels acutely themselves.

One of the major drivers of this feeling that ‘det var bättre förr’ (it was better before) is violence in the community. I have witnessed first-hand the tensions and frustrations that are driving community-based violence in Sweden. A young friend of mine was murdered in 2019. I have worked in social repair in so-called ‘vulnerable suburbs’ as well as taught in schools where the students do not feel themselves to be represented in media or the culture in positive ways. From this experience and with the current spreading violence now taking the form of street riots and criminal violence, I thought to write down some of my own thoughts and ideas regarding the social fabric of my adopted home (I am Australian by birth) and why it is perceived as being under threat.

I would like to begin with the view from afar and an Indian news site writing about current events in Sweden.

In another post I read this morning, this violence is about “criminal gangs that are behind the riots and violence against the police this weekend” but at the same time also about about “people from vulnerable areas who do not feel that they have a future” according to National Police Chief Anders Thornberg. Perhaps these three ideas of who or what is responsible for this violence are good places to start when looking at Sweden’s self-image and cultural make up.

In my own recent neighborhood of Skarpnäck in southern Stockholm (I just moved to Rågsved), three young people have been shot on the open street, two of them to death, in the past month. One of the murders was right outside my door. Meanwhile local residents groups are forming online with the principle of youth just needing more ‘love and understanding’.

“Do you want an end to street violence? Would you like a more secure suburb? Are you tired that nothing is being done?”

But to approach the issue, after the event with a personal reaction is not going to address the problems. The causes of the problems behind the wave of violence in Sweden do not include individual feelings. The idea that one expert put forward in a national newspaper that youths take to the streets to destroy property and attack police because it is “exciting” is a vague and silly explanation of why it is happening, as is that it is about a ‘hatred for the police’. Rather the problems driving this violence are the product of the neoliberal individualism that promotes exactly this same sense of ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘self-care’ as panaceas for all social and structural problems.

Nor is this violence about some form of collective psychosis that young people in marginalized and vulnerable areas experience. In my understanding most young people from any cultural, ethnic, or economic background want similar things — a feeling of belonging, to be taken seriously, to have opportunities, to fulfill professional ambitions, to have some degree of comfort in their lives, to experience close relationships with other people and to have the possibility to express their interests. All of these can be summarized under the title of Integration. It is here that the bruise can be located upon the Swedish body politic.

Assimilation and Integration are not the same thing. Assimilation has been the mainstay of immigration (invandring — “wandering in”) in Sweden for a long time. At this point I should say that Sweden, even before it experienced what the far right erroneously call “Mass Immigration”, has always been a diverse society in terms of culture and language — the differences between Norrland (far north) and Skåne (far south) are great. There are many dialects and even several languages spoken historically within the borders of Sweden. This is the thing that perplexes me so much; how Sweden attempts to present itself as a homogeneous society, when it is just not historically so.

Sweden has been a country of organised state immigration since the 1930s. After the Second World War and until the mid-1970s, Sweden mainly planned labor immigration. Since the 1990s immigration has been from diverse sources and for diverse reasons. The situation is similar in many other developed countries that did not posses earlier colonial territories but had falling birth rates, dwindling tax bases and economies that were driven by consumption. The former European colonial powers (the UK, Holland, France, Spain, Portugal and to a lesser duration Germany) have immigration based on historical factors.

The reasons for immigrants being allowed to settle in Sweden is not however strictly humanitarian. To quote one debater:

Although Sweden has gravitated toward a more restrictive immigration policy due to fears of strain on the country’s economic system, Sweden should be accepting of immigrants, as they are necessary for the country’s economic growth and stability as a whole. Immigrants in Sweden can improve the economy by paying taxes and contributing to the system, alleviating the labor shortage, and solving the low birth rate issue.

Here lies the dilemma of Sweden today. Immigration is desperately needed, and diversity has always been a characteristic of historical Sweden with both outflows and inflows of settling peoples. But through the 20th century a very conscious and highly developed social program was run in Sweden that changed both the image Swedes had of themselves and how the society defined itself. Called Folkhemmet (The People’s Home) it continues to have social and cultural influence, although declining on the ideological/political side. The 2015 documentary The Swedish Theory of Love is perhaps the best introduction to this as a social process:

Internationally Sweden is seen by many as a perfect society, a raw model and a symbol of the highest achievements of human progress. The Swedish Theory of Love digs deeper into the true nature of the so-called Swedish Lifestyle, and explores the existential black holes of a society that have created the most autonomous people in the world. At the same time, the right to life, love and happiness is actually measured in a very narrow and conservative way. This does great damage to the society on the collective and individual levels.

Sweden is a society of individuals but also of conformists. This can be a confusing mix to outsiders. Swedes rely on the state for security, employment, education and health, Birth, Deaths and Marriages, as well as much of the infrastructure we enjoy every day. The rail network and rolling stock are nationally owned, but the services for public transport are leased out to private companies (one Chinese and one French in Stockholm). This is one of the dichotomies of Sweden, the private and public are very separate and very different.

The shooting murders that are running into double figures in 2021 are the result of something else that is a product of segregation, but that is also fed by the money, ambition and culture of mainstream urban Sweden. Drugs and money, lots and lots of money, is available to most young people living in even the small towns of Sweden today. The market for drugs is very large in Sweden, and the people doing the buying are rich. Especially, they are much richer than the people doing the selling. Often it is just cannabis products that are consumed, but basically (like in all of Europe) any drug is easily available almost anywhere in Sweden. This is despite harsh laws and penalties.

This point about inequality fueling the drug market can be understood if we look at the median income for the areas where the shootings are taking place (the sellers) and their proximity to suburbs with much higher median income (the customers). Let’s look at the only real city in the whole of Sweden; Stockholm.

Stockholm — shooting happens in Poor Areas — where people can make money selling drugs in the rich areas

The middle corridor of this map — from Ekerö up to Bromma and then out east to Lindigö and Hustega — is where the rich people live in Stockholm. These areas are serviced by drug sellers from the areas where the shootings take place — Botkyrka, Skärholmen, Flemingsberg, Solna and the Järva (Tensta, Rinkerby, Husby and Rissne). It is a supply and demand issue, and it is the product of segregation and a society that fails to integrate all its citizens in a fair and equitable way. The violence is not inflicted on customers, it is directed towards other sellers, either competitors or rivals. This is about a business that is killing people indiscriminately.

Into the gaps created by the vacuum of segregation comes a culture that feeds from it. The idea that society is not going to provide you with anything that will help you get the sort of life you want is central to cultural artifacts such as Z.E’s 74 Bars

I en limousine och femtio lax till casino
Kastade tio ögon på mig, folk tror det är bio
Kommer med nio brorsan, Tensta lika med Rio
Fastna’ på din parkering, fastna’ som tatuering
Bränner dig över benen, din lunga den får punktering
Cannabis i min Lipton, aldrig skrivit kontrakt
Vi brinner för vi har stil, vi vinner din kvinna, bakk

(In a limo and 50 thousand to the casino
Cast ten eyes on me and folk think its a movie
Coming with nine brothers. Tensta its like Rio
Sticking in your parking, sticking like a tattoo
Burn you over the legs, your chill is punctured
Cannabis in my Lipton, never sign a contract
We win cause we have style we win your women, back)

Shopping and bling, Maserati, babes and money to burn. Kids coming up through the game and watching this with hope but not a chance. The mood continues with Z.E x Thrife x Nigma — KLICK. Guns, money, cars and in the background, the cement boxes that the fans live in and from where they dream, that one day they could live a life they glimpse in the fantasies that Z.E and his friends sell to them via online media that the artists manage themselves.

It’s a fraud, but it probably functions to keep many young people sane in a world that makes little sense otherwise to them. Z.E’s manager told me in 2018 that Z.E is popular because he ‘speaks the truth’. It’s true he is popular, but the truth he speaks is just a very narrow beam of light. Like the scope beam of a police or rival’s sniper rifle. It finds you when you are exposed and will not let you go.

Parliamentarian and leader of the Christian Democrats Ebba Busch Thor asks why the police don’t just shoot live rounds into the crowd — “why don’t we have at least one hundred injured Islamists, one hundred injured criminals, one hundred injured rioters”?

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James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.