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Inequality Is The Real Backstory To Sweden’s Riots


Mohandas Gandhi famously said that the root of violence is inequality. His view helps us understand what’s behind the headlines about recent rioting in immigrant neighborhoods in Sweden.

No one was killed, although one police officer did actually shoot at a rioter — an exception to Swedish police policy. Over the four nights of rioting in the vicinity of Stockholm, a restaurant was burned down, more than 30 cars were set on fire and police were attacked. Rioters damaged stores, schools, and even an arts and crafts center.

According to the Guardian, the immediate trigger for the riots seems to have been the police killing of a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby, which evoked accusations of police brutality. However, as I learned while researching my book “Viking Economics,” this is not a complete anomaly for Sweden. Outbreaks of rioting occurred in 2010 and 2013 in the same neighborhoods.

The deeper story teaches something about the interplay of racism — a reality in Sweden — and economic inequality. The intersection of class and race was familiar to Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin and other civil rights leaders in the United States.

Surprising in social democratic Sweden?

Sweden has distinguished itself as the European country that took in the most refugees per capita from war-torn Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Further, it invites immigrants to take advantage of free health care, language and job training, even university education. Mainstream Swedish leadership — cultural and political — continuously speaks out against racism and for generosity and social justice.

What’s changed is that Sweden has been retreating in recent decades from its earlier commitment to economic equality. Although average living standards are still among the highest in Europe — and Sweden has nothing like the U.S. income gap — its economic inequality has grown faster than that of its Nordic cousins.

One symptom of this is high youth unemployment, affecting immigrant communities the worst — almost three times the rate of unemployment for immigrants compared to native Swedes.

Poor compared with what?

Sweden is light years ahead of the United States on immigration policy and equality of opportunity, and the other Nordic countries even more so. However, a study by Norwegian peace researchers revealed just how relative such assessments are. The researchers found that what counts most is the perspective on the ground — how people compare their own situation and that of people they can see who have it much better. Unemployed immigrant youths in the Stockholm region can see their age peers not far away spending freely. They feel left behind.

Further, they get messages from Swedish racists that their disadvantage is their own fault and that they, as “inferior beings,” are not wanted in Sweden.

Aggravating the situation is social isolation. Camila Salazar, who works for Fryshuset, a Stockholm youth organization, told the Guardian: “For a lot of people who live in segregated areas, the only Swedes they meet are social workers or police officers. It’s amazing how many have never had a Swedish friend.”

Sweden cut back its public spending in recent decades, preventing it from maintaining a cornerstone of social democracy: full employment. Making those cutbacks while cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations was asking for trouble.

Economic inequality incentivizes native Swedes to justify their privilege by expressing racist sentiments, making up false stories like increased crime. (Sweden is still equal enough to have very low crime rates.) For native Swedes who hesitate to express prejudice, politicians will step up to express it for them. The Swedish anti-immigrant party has become third-most popular.

Needed: more, not less, of what works

Racism and anti-immigrant feeling among the Scandinavians is nothing like as strong as in the United States, but both sides of the Atlantic can learn from noticing what works. I’ve seen how poverty in the United States supports the white racist narrative that black and brown people are inferior. Institutionalized scarcity pits people against each other, within racial groups and across them — despite the fact that many roads to advancement depend on cooperation and collaboration. The overall class narrative brands people who are poor as “losers,” which then erodes the confidence of all but the most hardy.

What economists call the Nordic model is the only one with a solid track record for minimizing absolute poverty. A living wage for all is fundamental — in Copenhagen the workers at McDonalds receive $20 per hour. Full employment and wealth redistribution reduce inequality.

As the 2016 vision of the Movement for Black Lives recognizes, the chance to make major progress against racism depends on economic justice. When we build into our campaigns the vision of both racial and economic equality, we know we’re on the right track.

Vision is what the Swedes need to return to. Having made enormous strides by the 1960s and ‘70s, their movement for economic equality went on the defensive, seeking to maintain their gains. “Maintenance” is not, however, a feasible strategy in the unceasing class struggle that goes on in all countries. By the 1980s the Reagan-Thatcher offensive, on behalf of neo-liberalism, was influencing Sweden as well.

Danish workers recognized the neo-liberal threat and in the mid-1980s waged a general strike. Their Swedish cousins needed to accept the inspiration in the neighborhood and re-launch their own nonviolent offensive for more equality, especially in light of the wish to accept more immigrants. I realize, however, that it can be hard to remain ready for battle when your country has already reached “the top of the heap” in terms of achievement of justice.

Getting the top international ratings is not our problem in the United States, as we rate very far below the Nordics on criteria of equality and economic well-being. This is evidenced by the recent news that we are our losing ground on life expectancy. Many of those who voted for Trump know this reality in their bones and diminished circumstances.

The challenge for U.S. activists is that we allow the pretense of democracy to weaken our willingness to do what works — nonviolent direct action campaigns — and up the ante. Simply put, we Americans need to go ahead and wage our nonviolent revolution.


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