For decades, Sweden was considered as one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Immigrants from other parts of Europe as well as from other continents were well received and integrated into the Swedish society. However during the last ten years, part of the society has been mesmerised by the rhetoric of the far-right. The Sweden Democrats, with roots to “white supremacist” environments emerged, violently copying from other European movements the hate speech, anti-immigration and xenophobic slogans. What concerns us more is that according to the polls the Sweden Democrats are still attracting the preferences of a high percentage of the Swedish voters.

“[Sweden Democrats] bought and buy into conspiratorial narratives of traitorous domestic elites who are selling out the social stability of Sweden to ‘globalist’ interests”, says professor Andreas Önnerfors. 

European Interest asked professor Andreas Önnerfors to explain in an interview the phenomenon of the rising far-right in Sweden. Professor Önnerfors is an Associate Professor at the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Göteborg, Sweden and a specialist on far-right concepts and ideas in Europe in general.

In the interview Professor Önnerfors argues that the Social democrats as well as the liberal and conservative parties created a political and economic environment that made parts of the Swedish population feel abandoned and ready to welcome Sweden Democrats’ “irrational” rhetoric.

European Interest: Recent polls have revealed that Sweden Democrats have been rising in popularity since last Summer and they may become the first party in the preferences of Swedes if an election were held today. How do you explain such a continuous growth in popularity in Sweden – a country known for its tolerance and sensitivity in social issues?

Professor Andreas Önnerfors: The answer to this question is complex as the reason for the growth of SD are both endogenous and exogenous. Both the liberal and moderate right and the social democratic left were unable to respond to the fact that we by 2010 were moving into the era of ‘post-materialist’ politics. In a country that economically is well-off, has a peaceful history and a well-established system of redistributive justice together with a high level of societal trust, people increasingly started to search for existential answers (not least in the aftermath of global terrorism/conflicts, repeated economic crises and ecological challenges). Politics was crafted towards the economic interests of the high-earning urban and liberal middle classes, leaving policy areas such as social cohesion, social security, criminal and rural politics (Sweden is also a very huge country with vast hinterlands) open for other actors to occupy. People felt abandoned and ‘not listened to’. This, in combination with that SD offered and offers easy solutions to complex problems opened the door towards their success, paired with the trope of xenophobia and irrational ‘stranger-danger’-fears. The so-called refugee crisis of 2015 then spiraled this process completely out of control and larger and larger segments of the electorate were under the impression that the so-called ‘system-collapse’ was imminent. They bought and buy into conspiratorial narratives of traitorous domestic elites who are selling out the social stability of Sweden to ‘globalist’ interests. SD has capitalized on the situation by styling itself as the ultimate representation of the ‘people’s home’, the social democratic vision of a consolidated Swedish society where access to welfare is based on notions of ‘nationhood’. More recently, the success of SD can be explained by a failed attempt by the Social Democrats to hold on to power by brokering with liberal parties as well as the unattractiveness of conservative parties to produce a salient political message.

Over the last decade, there is a trend to associate electorally successful far-right parties with populism. Talking of the Sweden Democrats (which has also a “white supremacist” past), should we consider the party populist or far-right? Is the term “populism” helping us understand current far-right?  

It is both. SD actively makes the claim to speak for ‘the people’ and represent/perform its interests. SD wants to style itself as the ultimate and unmediated representative of all those ‘left behind’ by the liberal elites. When it comes to its political messages, SD not only is rooted in a national socialist past, but expresses far-right ideas either openly or in a new, more ambiguous language. Take for instance the example of ‘welfare’, an asset that many Swedes identify with. By coupling the concept of welfare with the membership in a national community you can create the image of an exclusive and exclusionary collective that has to reject more foreigners since the welfare system not any longer can function. This is only a substitute ideology for aggressive and radical nationalism.

What the contemporary far-right and extreme nationalist conservatism can exploit are real and imagined fears towards these societal outgroups charged with conspiratorial perceptions about their culture and religion

There is the impression that Sweden’s young generation is highly concerned about environmental topics and acts accordingly. However, the Sweden Democrats criticise country’s target to become carbon-neutral by 2045. Is SD part of the rising climate change denialist camp? Considering they enjoy the sympathy of a quarter of Swedish voters, is there a risk they could change Sweden’s climate policy?

In the radical right, two ambivalent positions towards climate change and ecological sustainability are observable. One position simply denies the reality of climate change and for instance engages in online abuse and humiliation of Swedish campaigner and activist Greta Thunberg. Another position is more eco-fundamentalist (e g as expressed in the El Paso and Christchurch terrorist manifestos) and blames overpopulation for the ecological decline of the planet (and thus that extinction of significant parts of the human race can be excused against the backdrop of this decline). In SD, we find the same ambiguity, on the one hand the eco-fundamentalist glorification of Swedish nature (and in continuation of a Swedish organic cultural ecosystem to which the ‘foreign’ cannot be aligned) and on the other hand hatred against wind power and a rejection of all talks concerning climate change. Climate change denial also ties into a larger conspiratorial world view, where science is said to produce ideological knowledge aimed against ‘traditional values’ such as the family or ‘natural order’.

The rise of the far-right parties in Europe is not a recent phenomenon. However, it seems the growth of immigration flows to the EU have resulted in a rise of intransigent and racist views and actions. PEGIDA, for instance, shows us how a single topic movement can influence large parts of a population. Do we are in front of a real cataclysmic situation (concerning Islam and migration) or the far-right and the conservative parties are just using Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric to enlarge their audiences and power?  

There is no doubt that the violent events of the last decades in the MENA-region have enormous repercussions for Europe. This is not least occasioned by its geo-political location and by internal pull- or external push-factors. As a peace project and an area of economic cohesion, the EU has been relatively successful and attractive. There is no insurance against huge migration flows, might they be caused by civil war as in Syria or Libya or by future environmental or natural disasters or for pure economic reasons. So, if migration only partially can be regulated, there are of course dangers of that the reception of migrants and their ‘integration’ in the EU reach a point of saturation. That the issue revolves around a religion and culture that is deemed to be incompatible with ‘Western’ values makes the situation worse. Radicalization among these out-groups in society is frequently driven by grievances outside the host society or cemented by their socio-economic inferiority. What the contemporary far-right and extreme nationalist conservatism can exploit are real and imagined fears towards these societal outgroups charged with conspiratorial perceptions about their culture and religion. This serves as a way to create a political power base destabilizing European politics as we know it, but will only fuel the spiral of polarization and potential violence.

After 1990, Europe entered into a development towards more liberty, universalization and integration, however, soon after, both religion and the nation re-appeared as powerful and divisive narratives of our political communities

We are now confronted by “far-right pluralism” and the electoral rise of any extreme idea, such as openly fascist and neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist parties in Italy, Slovakia, Poland or Greece (to mention just a few cases). It is estimated that this “ugly” part of Europe may represent today half of the population in some EU member states. Do you think this phenomenon is momentary, transitory or permanent?    

All historical phenomena have a component that is transitory and another that is permanent, universalization and fragmentation constitute two lines of historical development which each have their potential to determine the cause of history and to disrupt each other. Another binary game is the eternal trade-off between freedom and security, as Zygmunt Bauman has put it. After 1990, Europe entered into a development towards more liberty, universalization and integration, however, soon after, both religion and the nation re-appeared as powerful and divisive narratives of our political communities. Shaken by crises such as 9/11, the War on Terror, the financial crises, European electorates are moving steadily “back to Hobbes” again, as Bauman stated in his last book, Retrotopia (2017). The utopia of freedom is traded back to the alleged promise of security. This explains the move back to ‘illiberal democracy’, I e the rule of the people as a collective but minus such values as the rule of law, legal certainty, free movement, power division, human rights and accountability. There is a strong desire (fueled by nostalgia and melancholia) back to the days of an imagined ‘golden age’ during which there were no uncertainties. This drive is very strong and potentially dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the continent. The only way out of such a one-way-road is to produce counter-narratives and deliver tangible outcomes that might convince people not to adopt an eschatological mindset but to rely on their human capacity of self-improvement and perfection.

  • andyrwebman

    I’m afraid the author is repeating a lot of tired old cliches, regurgitated frequently by those who don’t wish to understand the real issue – namely, that the rate of change has been too rapid.

    The most tired of all is “back to the days of an imagined ‘golden age’”.

    I am not imagining anything- I am remembering how I felt 24 years ago when leaving university. At the time, I liked the cosmopolitan country I saw – and, in hindsight, we had the level of immigration at the optimum point.

    But what can be accommodated into society in small quantities can be harmful in larger amounts.

    The author is displaying the conventional naivety that fails to notice that more is different.

    • SeanusAurelius

      Love this comment. I’m not Swedish. In my small country, it wasn’t a golden age in the 1990s and early 2000s, but we also didn’t have terrorism (period), homelessness was remarkable, houses were cheap, ethnic enclaves were unthinkable, and politicians were able to spend their attention on problems other than those caused by two decades of high migration.

      It had loads of faults but not huge ones that we could just as easily chosen not to have.

      Academics struggle with this because their foreign born PhD students really are bright, open to ideas and to succeeding in their new country. They are not representative of the sorts of migrants blue collar workers have to live next to.