Johan Norberg

Why Sweden has riots

The fault-line in Polly Toynbee’s perfect society

Why Sweden has riots
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 ‘All of them should have been very happy,’ Robert A. Heinlein begins his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon. The material problem has been solved on this future earth, poverty and disease have been eradicated, work is optional. And yet parts of the citizenry are not enthusiastic. Some are bored, others are preparing a revolt. Why should that be, in such a utopian world?

A similar puzzlement has been the dominant reaction from commentators after riots broke out and cars and buildings were burned in heavily immigrant-populated suburbs of Stockholm in late May. Sweden? Since the standard interpretation is that violence is the only weapon the marginalised have against an oppressive socioeconomic system, it is more difficult to explain it when it takes place in ‘the most successful society the world has ever known’, as Polly Toynbee once called it.

But it hasn’t stopped some from trying. If all you have is two terms of sociology studies, everything looks like a justified grievance. Leftists abroad have blamed the rioting on the liberalisation that has taken place in Sweden in recent years, and the supposed increase in inequality and poverty. The country’s big social democratic daily, Aftonbladet, tried to point to the effects of austerity (in a country where it has not been implemented) and claimed that the kids in the suburb of Husby rioted because ‘the health care centre, the post office, the midwives’ centre and the youth centre have been wound up’.

In fact, there are three youth centres in Husby. Its old health care centre closed, but a new one took its place. The midwives moved, but just one station away on the metro. You can find postal services 14 minutes from the centre, on foot. Where I live, you need to walk for 12 minutes. One shivers at the thought of what I could have been like had I lived another two minutes away. Would I also spend Friday nights torching nursery schools?

The Swedish poverty rate may very well be too high, but at 1.2 per cent, no European country has a lower one. The average in the European Union is 8.8 per cent. If poverty is the cause of riots, almost every city on the continent should have been burned down before Stockholm’s turn came, including most of those in Norway and Switzerland.

But inequality has increased, you say. Yes, since the extremely egalitarian mid-1980s (the last time Stockholm saw large-scale youth riots, by the way). But since 2005, when Toynbee proclaimed Sweden the egalitarian utopia, it has barely moved. My country is the most equal in Europe save for Slovenia. Of course, some might argue that you need equality at Slovenia’s level to maintain social harmony. That’s unless you had heard of the series of mass protests — sometimes violent — which have rocked Slovenian cities since last November, resulting in the fall of the government.

Low poverty and inequality, generous welfare benefits, and schools, universities and health care for free. A society in which you are not poor just because you don’t work.

All of them should have been very happy.

In fact, there is serious inequality in Sweden, but the divide is not so much between the rich and the poor as between those with jobs and those without. And frequently this is an ethnic divide. As the author Fredrik Segerfeldt points out in a new study, Sweden has the largest employment gap between natives and foreign-born of all the rich countries where data is available. Only 6.4 per cent of native Swedes are unemployed, but almost 16 per cent of the immigrants are. In Stockholm, as in Paris, this problem is concentrated in the suburbs. In Husby, where the riots started, 38 per cent of those under 26 neither study nor work.

So what’s to blame? The aspect of the Swedish social model that the government has not dared to touch: strong employment protection. By law, the last person to be hired must be the first person to be sacked. And if you employ someone longer than six months, the contract is automatically made permanent. A system intended to protect the workers has condemned the young to a succession of short-term contracts. Sweden’s high de facto minimum wage — around 70 per cent of the average wage — renders unemployed those whose skills are worth less than that. Sweden has the fewest low-wage, entry-level jobs in Europe. Just 2.5 per cent of Swedish jobs are on this level, compared to a European average of 17 per cent.

Those with poor education, experience or language skills have found that Sweden is not such a utopia after all. If you never get your first job, you never get the skills and experiences that would give you the second and third job. All that labour ‘protection’ has created a society of insiders and outsiders. Sweden has generously welcomed immigrants into its borders. But there is another border — around its jobs market — and it is heavily fortified.

The result? Young men with nothing to do and nothing to lose, standing on the outside, looking in, with a sense of worthlessness, humiliation and boredom. It’s not the first time that such a situation has ended in violence. When this happens in Sweden it shocks the left, because it shows that money isn’t everything. A government can supply you with goods and services, but not with self-worth and the respect of others. A government can fulfil all your material needs, but it can’t give you the sense that you accomplished this yourself.

‘There’s always one.’
Written byJohan Norberg

Johan Norberg is a historian of ideas, based in Stockholm. His latest book is 'Open: The Story of Human Progress'

Topics in this articleSocietylawinequalitysweden