We’re All Swedes Now

How the world caught up with Stieg Larsson.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

With the U.S. release this week of the final instalment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, the English-speaking world is again given a chance to indulge in a view of Scandinavia that is entirely dystopian. In Larsson’s Sweden, the police are useless where they are not corrupt; the countryside is full of violent drug dealers; the rich are utterly unprincipled. It sounds like Mexico in the snow. This is no longer a clean, well-lighted place for Volvo owners. What went wrong?

Crime fiction always exaggerates, and Swedish left-wing crime fiction, the tradition to which Larsson belongs, is a genre quite as stylised as Agatha Christie’s. There will always be villainous millionaires and noble women. It is not enough to be a sadistic serial killer: You have to vote conservative as well. But what has changed since the genre was invented in the 1960s by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is the overwhelming loss of confidence in the future, and in the state. This does reflect reality.

The story of Sweden over the last 50 years has been one of a steady loss of exceptionalism. In some ways the outside world has grown more "Swedish" — we all wear seatbelts, drink less, and believe in gender equality. At the same time, Sweden has grown much more worldly — it drinks more, works and earns less, and struggles with the assimilation of immigrants. The Swedes themselves no longer believe in a Swedish model, or, when they do, it’s very different from the heavily regulated "people’s home" of myth.

Last summer, I was on a panel with Pär Nuder, a Social Democrat intellectual and former finance minister whose description of the Swedish model was one of high taxes but minimal regulation; generous parental leave, but very high female employment; and a much greater reluctance to nationalize failing industries than is found in the rest of Europe, or in the United States for that matter. When Swedish car makers go bust, the state does not bail them out. Volvo is now owned by a Chinese company, and Saab by a Dutch maker of sports cars. Even the school system has been partly privatized, along with almost everything else that the state once owned.

The other point Nuder made was that Sweden is now a country with a sizeable immigrant population. Nearly a fifth of the Swedish population today are people either born abroad or the children of two immigrants, and this figure has risen by about a third in the last decade. Almost everyone from outside the EU has come as a refugee: Over the last decade, the country took in nearly 80,000 refugees from Iraq, which is nearly 1 percent of the population. But though they are not recruited as workers, they are expected to work, and the problem is that there is hardly any heavy industrial work for them to do.

In the far south of the country, where the refugees are concentrated, there is also a fair amount of anti-immigrant sentiment. The elections later this year may well see the Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic and populist party, enter parliament for the first time, and they are already quite important in local politics. Larsson spent almost his entire working life combating such groups, and it is a remarkable fact that Sweden has not had any in parliament before now, while both Denmark and Norway, with much lower levels of immigration, have. But there are some real tensions under the surface.

In Landskrona, a post-industrial town across the strait from Copenhagen that has never recovered from the collapse of its shipyard in the late 1970s, an elderly woman died this spring after she was assaulted over a parking place. To suffer from road rage is a great break with Swedish traditions anyway; in this case, however, the woman and her husband were native Swedes, the  young man who hit them an immigrant. There was almost a riot when the case came to court, and the trial had to be moved to a neighbouring city where passions aren’t running so high.

If you look at the statistics, Sweden is not a particularly violent country, nor a particularly lenient one to criminals. It is in about the middle of the European averages for both figures. And while the homicide rate has been steadily declining in the United States over the past two decades, in Sweden there were 230 murders in 2009, up from 120 in 1990, when the country seemed a utopia. America still has more killings per capita, but there is a convergence here that doesn’t flatter Sweden.

The whole of Europe has grown more violent, of course, as it has grown further away from the memories of war and the social disciplines it imposed. But for a long time, Sweden seemed detached from all the turmoil of the world below it on the map. This was enshrined in the idea of neutrality during the Cold War. But there’s nothing very distinctive about that ideal now.

The great loss of Swedish independence and distinctiveness was the country’s 1995 accession to the EU, which was forced on the country by the traumatic financial crisis of the early 1990s. At the same time, commercial television diminished the country’s cultural autonomy; it is difficult now to remember just how rigorously the old state monopoly eschewed excitement. (Was I dreaming one Christmas when I lived there in the early 1980s that I saw a special Christmas broadcast of the year’s most interesting weather forecasts?) It had always been a surprisingly Americanized country — if you want to see 1950s Cadillacs, go to the Swedish backwoods — but now it became once more a Germanized one, full of rather joyless consumerism. You could drive for a long way through the south of Sweden now without seeing anything that would be wildly out of place in Denmark, Holland, or northern Germany.

But there remains something distinctively Scandinavian about the country that cuts it off from the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. Swedes of any class have a sense of belonging, and of obligation to their country that is entirely different from the British or American attitudes toward the poor. Perhaps I know the wrong millionaires, but I have never met any rich Swedes who did not feel some sense of obligation to the poor, even when they were living in tax exile. It is not just a matter of charity, but of fellow feeling. That is not my experience in Britain or in the U.S., where riches are felt to turn you into a different, and possibly better, sort of person altogether, not least by their possessors.

Perhaps this moralism helps explain why Swedes were always much less secular than they appeared to be, even to themselves. Anything but the most notional Christianity had more or less died out among the middle classes by the 1980s, and the Swedish national church was disestablished at the millennium. Instead of imbibing myths about first-century Palestine, the people took in sermons about social progress and its culmination in 20th-century Sweden. To some extent, those new myths were shared with the whole Western world. But it is in Sweden that their loss is most keenly felt, and the great efflorescence of dystopian crime fiction in the country is perhaps an expression of this loss.

It’s also, of course, a new export industry. It is quite likely that there is a crime novel published for every single murder in Sweden: the country’s Amazon.com equivalent says there have been 140 mysteries published there in the last six months. That’s a statistic suggesting a country that is still, despite itself, pretty tolerable to live in.

 Editor’s Note: The original version of this article compared the number of homicides in Sweden and Washington DC. There was a discrepancy, however, in the statistics: the text cited the population of the Washington DC metropolitan area, which is roughly half that of Sweden, but the tally of murders included only those that occured in Washington DC proper.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout

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