On May 13, Swedish police shot and killed an elderly man armed with a knife in Husby, a heavily immigrant suburb of Stockholm with high unemployment. After that, riots raged around Stockholm for a week and spread to other parts of the country, seemingly sparked by the killing in Husby. Angry young men threw rocks at police and torched at least 150 cars.
This is not the first time that riots have erupted in Sweden. Only a couple of years ago, firefighters and emergency personnel had to wait for police escorts before they could enter certain areas in the city of Malmö, after being attacked by rock throwers. In a different part of the same city, the postal service stopped delivering mail after postal workers were attacked.
In the American blogosphere the idea has spread that the Swedish riots are related to Islam. This is not the case (although Sweden has known Islamist violence in the past, for instance the terrorist bombing in Stockholm in 2010). Muslim leaders in the affected areas have denounced the violence and urged calm. The man who was shot in Husby was Portuguese. And the angry young rioters have not appealed to Islam or otherwise indicated that their violence is religiously motivated. Instead, they cite police brutality and social injustice to justify their actions.
This last explanation has been uncritically accepted by the Swedish left, which reacts the same way as the American or French left when confronted with urban riots: The violence is condemned, but described as a legitimate expression of frustration over inequality and a lack of public investment. Sometimes it is even romanticized: “A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Sweden’s largest newspaper, the Social Democratic Aftonbladet, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. just weeks before he was killed—as if rioting in the midst of the Swedish welfare state of 2013 were comparable to the struggles of African-American descendants of slaves and heirs of segregation during the 1960s.
From an American perspective, the Swedish riots hold at least two lessons. First, they illustrate the weakness of the left’s go-to explanation for mob violence—that it is a function of inequality and poverty. Sweden, after all, is an exemplary country in terms of both social equality and treatment of minorities. But not even in Sweden, apparently, is taxpayers’ generosity sufficient to maintain law and order, according to this standard interpretation.
Second, the riots are a reminder of the left’s inexhaustible egalitarian ambitions. Not even in a welfare state like Sweden is the left willing to abandon the idea that the solution to violence and destruction lies in ever more social programs and more radical redistribution of wealth. There is always a new, absolutely necessary social reform waiting around the corner.
What is the actual situation in Sweden, then? What are the intolerable social injustices that force young men into the streets?
Racism and discrimination do exist in Sweden, as they do everywhere. But Swedes are remarkably open to other groups and cultures. The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) gives Sweden a perfect score (100 points out of 100) on equal opportunity for immigrants. According to a recent World Values Survey, Sweden is also among the world’s least racist countries and most open to immigrants. Unlike the youths in French and English ghettos, Swedish minorities do not come from former colonies—Sweden never had any real colonies. Nor are they the children of guest workers, as in Germany.
Instead, the vast majority of immigrants to Sweden in recent years have been welcomed on purely humanitarian grounds. In only a few decades, Sweden has gone from being an ethnically and culturally homogeneous country to boasting more immigrants per capita arriving every year than the United States or any other Western country. The town of Södertälje, for instance, with a population of 83,000, accepted about 7,000 refugees from Iraq during the Iraq war. Its nickname is “Little Baghdad.”
And Sweden, unlike the United States, is a society with a large welfare state. This means that high immigration imposes heavy costs. A Swedish middle-income earner pays more than half his salary in taxes to fund welfare services such as free higher education, health care at only token cost, and a variety of other social welfare programs. No matter how long they have lived in the country, immigrants who can’t speak Swedish have the right to an interpreter (free of charge) when visiting a physician. Immigrants who complete their Swedish language studies (which are, of course, free) are awarded a government bonus of about $1,000.
Today, 60 percent of those living on welfare in Sweden are immigrants. Incidentally, the same week the riots began, the Swedish parliament voted to allow illegal immigrants the right to government-funded health care. In this and other ways, Sweden has shown its minorities a generosity that is probably unparalleled in the world.
It’s true that in recent years social inequality has increased in Sweden, as in the United States, but Sweden still has one of the lowest poverty rates in the world. According to Eurostat, only 1 percent of the Swedish population lives in material poverty—the second-lowest rate in Europe, where an average of 9 percent live in poverty.
In other words, the Swedish riots pose a real challenge to the standard progressive theory, which tends to explain social problems with reference to a lack of resources, inadequate public investments, and uneven distribution of wealth. If not even egalitarian Sweden is spared riots and violence, and if the progressive theory is the answer, to what lengths must we go in order to persuade unruly youths to channel their grievances through the democratic process?
Paulina Neuding is a lawyer and editor in chief of the center-right magazine Neo.