What Jimmie got right… Anthropologists and Sverigedemokraterna

Steven Sampson:

A few short weeks ago, nearly one out of six Swedish voters cast their vote for Sverigedemokraterna (SD), the party led by the young alumnus from Lund University, Jimmie Åkesson. Over the years, the SD has been described in the harshest terms: rasistiska, främligsfientliga, nazistiska, osvenska, populistiska, högernationalistiska, etc. Animosity toward SD was so extreme that SVT, Sweden’s supposedly nonpartisan television channel, found itself compelled to an extraordinary ‘ta avstånd från’ Jimmie’s statement that immigrants ‘do not fit in’ with Swedish society. Just prior to the election, hundreds of prominent Swedish cultural figures encouraged Swedes to vote for anyone but SD. Jimmie and his voters reacted predictably to such attacks: the partisan media and elite criticism were exactly what they were fighting against. SD could now perform as victims and articulate the deep-seated anxieties of millions of Swedes.

Living in Denmark, as I do, one gets a sense of nostalgia for the days when Dansk Folkeparti, led by Pia Kjærsgaard, dwelled at the margins of Danish politics, much like SD has up to now. Contempt for Dansk Folkeparti was so open that the social democratic prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen could stand at the podium of the Folketing in 1999 and declare ‘Stueren, Det bliver I aldrig!’ (sv. ‘Rumsrena blir ni aldrig’). Twenty years later, Dansk Fokeparti is a major player in Danish politics and a leading force behind the strict Danish migration politics. Pia Kjærsgaard herself is now Folketingets Formand (sv. talman)! If you really want to play with your imagination, imagine twenty years from now, when Riksdagens talman would be Jimmie Åkesson. Shit happens!


Is Sweden special?

Sweden has no shortage of ‘talking heads’, who commented on the election, both before and after. In particular, we have heard discussions that the Swedish situation is special because of the background of Swedish humanitarianism, pervasive welfare, continuing immigration culminating in the 2015 arrivals, and the hidden Nazi legacy that was never purged and which is now being channeled by the SD. Contrasting with this view of Sweden as special, we have also heard that Swedish populism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the mass resentment against the political and cultural elite, is a typical case of European and Western populist rage at globalization, loss of traditional jobs, multiculturalist ideology, immigration and arrogant rule by elites in Brussels or Stockholm. In this latter view, Sweden is nothing special. It has simply caught up with the rest of Europe.

Swedish uniqueness aside, SD’s platform and Jimmie’s statements greatly resemble other anti-immigrant parties. The exception may be that SD’s rhetoric and policies may be a bit milder than what we hear from Southern or Eastern Europe. Of course, SD can win support on the moderate platform and then go further, promoting yet stricter migration policies. All politicians try to do this. Read the platforms of leftwing, green or social democratic parties, and they are always more extreme than the political deal they actually obtained. Of course, there are certainly right-wing extremists within SD, as there are extremists within leftwing parties, or doctrinaire libertarians within conservative parties. But we are left with the fact that one out of six Swedes thinks that SD’s statements and ideology somehow speaks for them.

Our own role

Now, with all this, do we anthropologists have anything specific to add here? Is there anything that we anthropologists could say that might illuminate the situation of Sweden? Is there anything we could add to the discussion not as anti-racists, nor as enlightened intellectuals, nor as people who like to be in solidarity with our suffering subjects, but as social anthropologists?

I think we can, and of all people, we can thank Jimmie for helping us to find our voice. The issue that he brings up is just that of culture. Culture is our business. This is what we anthropologists study. When, during the TV debate, Jimmie declared that immigrants ‘passar inte in i Sverige’ or that they do not fit with ‘svensk kultur’, or when various politicians talk about ‘svenska värderingar’…. Well, these are profoundly cultural statements. We would need an entire conference simply on the concept of ‘passa in’ because people seem to understand it quite differently. Jimmie certainly understood it differently than SVT, with its ‘ta avstånd’-statement.

Besides the ‘inte passa in’-rhetoric, the campaign against SD also operated with various cultural assumptions worth exploring. Hence, defenders of immigrants constantly insist that the problems connected with migration and immigration, the so-called ‘integrationsproblem’ derive not from any sort of culture but with their ‘fattigdom’. This, too, is a cultural statement. It is a statement that immigrants are Homo economicus. That they pursue only practical projects, and that it is Swedish racism that prevents them from achieving these projects. With their focus on the practical, Homo economicus immigrant, the anti-racists invoke immigrants’ ‘culture’ only when talking about issues such as ‘family solidarity’ or everyday customs such as food or dress. It is left to the anti-immigrant groups to take up the more problematic areas of immigrant life, such as honor killings, social control, female genital mutilation (FGM), clan systems, parallel communities, etc.

A third example of the cultural turn in the immigration debate is the understanding of that wonderful Swedish word ‘utanförskap’. The anti-racist wing of the immigration debate sees utanförskap as the underlying cause of immigrants’ antisocial behavior. Utanförskap is viewed largely as the result of majority rejection of immigrants by the host population (i.e. we are racist). But utanförskap can also be a result of immigrants rejecting the majority (they watch their own television stations, they dwell in their own areas, they remain within their own networks, they set up their own football clubs, they form their own gangs, they become fundamentalist, they actively reject Swedish values about democracy or gender equality, etc.). In the words of the sociologist Manuel Castells, it is ‘the rejecting of the rejectors by the rejected.’ The utanförskap rhetoric is a convenient way of constructing Sweden as an innanför-plats, a place where everyone is singing along with Allsång från Skansen. No hijabs here!


Is Jimmie a loser?

Högerpopulismen has been continually understood as a reaction by ‘losers’ in the globalization, neoliberalism struggle; they are the ones left behind. Critics see the SD supporters as nostalgic for a Sweden that is lost, and which will never return. This fantasy nostalgia is often invoked as the cause behind SD’s popularity. But as anthropologists, we know that nostalgia, or selective memory, is a driving force in almost all social movements. Socialism also thrives on a nostalgia for the primitive, sharing community. Critics of neoliberalism on the left like to invoke the old fashion workplace, where public employees or professionals were left alone to do their jobs and not subject to control, regulations, surveillance and audit culture. So criticizing the SD simply because they look backwards is not enough. We all look backwards when we construct our visions of the future. We may want faster internet, but we also want to be part of internet communities.

SD also has its own visions. It’s important to take them seriously. Just days after the election, Jimmie was here in Denmark, at the national meeting of Dansk Folkeparti, because, as he says, ‘No one wants to talk to me in Sweden’. Dansk Folkeparti certainly did want to talk to him, and Jimmie’s vision of the future is a vision of Dansk Folkeparti and its influence, of how they went from not being ‘stueren’ (rumsren) to becoming an accepted player in Danish parliamentary politics. Dansk Folkeparti is now the party that will defend the public employees from further, ruthless New Public Management reforms. Dansk Folkeparti is the party that defends overlooked pensioners or the patients suffering from waiting lists in the health bureaucracy. While SD has focused on restricting immigration, Dansk Folkeparti can act as a guide for culturally-based platforms that SD could mobilize in the future. Headgear has been one such platform, and Denmark now has an anti-burka law. Denmark now has citizen ceremonies, and refusal to shake hands is now considered a rejection of Danish society. Take another issue: pork. Denmark is a leading producer of swine. Pork, in various forms from flæskesteg to hotdogs, is the Danish national dish. Dansk Folkeparti has demanded that pork should be standard service in every Danish kindergarten. Pork, they say, is part of Danish culture, and Danish childcare institutions that do not serve pork to accommodate Muslim children are depriving Danish kids of what Dansk Folkeparti considers to be their national heritage. So pork in Denmark is a cultural issue. Pork may not be important to the vegan anthropologists reading this article, but it is important to Dansk Folkeparti because it means something Danish. Eating pork is like singing the entire Swedish national sang on key holidays, or raising the Swedish flag in front of your sommarstuga. It is only a matter of time before SD finds such cultural ‘hooks’ with which it can mobilize public opinion.

So let us anthropologists begin to take Jimmie and SD seriously, and not just as indication of some kind of social pathology. SD is now a party for the one out of six Swedes who feel that Sweden is headed in the wrong direction, people who feel that elites have failed to acknowledge their problems, and that something needs to be done about what they see as the decline of Swedish culture. They are the party that feels that culture – Swedish culture – means something to them. Since we anthropologists study what things mean to people, studying SD should be our territory. For example, we need an analysis of how people understand ‘att passa in’ or ‘att inte passa in’. Since ‘att passa in’ is constantly shifting, we can study how that emic concept is manipulated and operationalized.

Swedish welfare state culture

What, then, is this Swedish culture that we should focus on? I think that we need to include here the culture of the Swedish welfare state administration. The welfare administration is in fact that part of Sweden that has most contact with immigrants. SD is aware of this, and many of their statements deal with the Swedish welfare system and its problems. Healthy Swedes who are working good jobs and living in their various enclaves certainly have periodic contacts with the Swedish welfare bureaucracy. But this contact is not as intense, nor as all-encompassing, as the kind of contacts that immigrants have with their various Swedish offices, agencies and handläggare. The Swedish bureaucracy for example, can tell immigrants where to live and even how to live. It can send their family members out of the country, or refuse to let others in. Now we often describe all this as ‘bureaucracy’, but this term is all too general. Instead, I propose that we conceive of the Swedish welfare state culture in terms of three sets of cultural practices, all of which are the objects of SD rhetoric.

The first type is the culture of the front-line welfare functionaries (the teachers, social welfare workers, personliga assistenter, healthcare workers, policemen, refugee case workers), all of whom who deal face to face with clients (or increasingly by email or telephone). We have many studies of the cultural practices, pressures and dilemmas of this group of front-line bureaucrats. ‘Handläggning’, in its combination of pedagogy, authority and ‘förmynderi’, is an overlooked aspect of Swedish culture.

Second, the welfare state has the managers, those in the back office who set the standards for how the front-line bureaucrats should do their jobs. In Danish, this group is called Djøfere, from their union, the Dansk Jurist og Økonomi Forbundet. Djøfere are the legal and financial administrators who tell the teachers, social workers, pedagogues, etc. not just what to do, but how to do it. Djøfere then also measure their performance to make sure they are efficient. In Danish one speaks of Djøficiering, or the creeping management or audit culture that we are all familiar with. In university life, we observe the rise of the pedagogical consults, administrators, assistant rectors, assistant deans, the quality and excellence specialists all imposing their programs onto our teaching and research. This is the culture of management, and regrettably, it is not readily available to anthropologists, unless you are a management consultant or accountant. The back office managers are largely uncharted territory for most of us. Nevertheless, Swedish welfare culture is incomprehensible without understanding the management assumptions and practices behind it.

Third, we have the culture of reform. During the periodic scandals and political debates, the political landscape is constantly subjected to new schemes of reform: schemes to ‘make things better’, to ‘improve efficiency’, to ‘reduce bureaucracy’, to ‘let the professionals do their jobs’ and ‘to take away the burden of regulations’. Reform movements and policies have their own cultural practices, bringing together activists, interest groups, consultants, statisticians, politicians, journalists, and victims of outrageous abuse by the system, abuse that is depicted in scandal articles in the press, or in programs such as Uppdrag Granskning.

This Swedish welfare state culture in all its three aspects is well understood by Jimmie and SD. Hence, SD are defenders of the front-line bureaucrats, who are viewed as being burdened with too many and too demanding clients, especially the migrants, whom they accuse of abusing the system. The back-office managers are accused of hiding the harsh realities of immigration from ‘folket’ or by selective use of statistics (the most well-known being the refusal to publish ethnic crime statistics). Finally, Jimmie and SD are advocates of a reform, to make the Swedish bureaucracy work better; their reform solutions are to retreat from EU regulations and to reduce the welfare burden by deporting immigrant clients back to their countries of origin. There is nothing inherently racist or Nazi-like about such policies. Similar platforms exist in many European countries, and can be found among political parties ranging from disillusioned social democrats to more conservative groups.

The threat to svenskhet

Like other populist parties, SD and Jimmie have been successful in applying sophisticated cultural tropes, including both the ‘politics of recognition’ and the ‘threatened identity’. Swedish political and cultural elites are accused of promoting a multiculturalist ideology, but of also escaping having to live with the reality of multi-ethnicity in their neighborhoods or schools. The theme of ‘threatened identity’ has been with us for decades in many forms. For SD the threatened identity is not that of some minority group, but that of svenskhet. This svenskhet is a unique combination of universal liberal values (human rights, free speech, gender equality, public associations, welfare care, and trust in state institutions) and the more everyday Swedish practices embodied in Midsummer celebrations, Allsång från Skansen and Ikea’s köttbullar. It is a truly unique vision of what svenskhet is all about.


Culture, as we anthropologists learn, is about how people see the world and how they act on the world. It’s time for us to re-consider how our own concepts of culture can be applied to groups like SD and their supporters, groups with whom we may not be in any kind of solidarity, and with whom we may profoundly disagree. There is no shortage of identity research in anthropology. New ‘suffering subjects’ are being discovered and promoted every day, groups such as deported asylum seekers, transgender people, bullied schoolchildren, etc. Identity politics is about the recognition of new minority groups. These projects of identity, and people’s resentment over lack of recognition, have been on the agenda for decades, as Fukuyama has recently reminded us. Jimmie and SD, and the right populist groups generally, have been successful at mobilizing a significant segment of the Swedish adult population into a new kind of ‘us’: svenskarna. Their project is not racist, nor is it just a therapy for ‘losers’. It is a project for cultural recognition, and a political platform that is as complex and multifaceted as other cultural projects. It is nostalgia for a past and a vision for a future. It is both simple and sophisticated. It constructs friends, allies, and enemies. And it mobilizes an ever changing configuration of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In short, it does what all movements and parties do. The job of Swedish anthropologists is to look beyond our universal liberal value set, and to explain the complexities of the SD project without reducing it to class, or utanförskap, or to racism, or to a ‘gathering of losers’. Anthropologists have been told to take ‘suffering subjects’ seriously. Jimmie and SD have done just that.

stevensampson-224Steven Sampson is professor (emeritus) of social anthropology at Lund University and lives in Copenhagen. He has researched state socialism in Romania, NGOs, corruption, conspiracy theory and business ethics. He is white, male, hetero, and a bunch of other things.