The Stockholm Uprising and the Myth of Swedish Social Democracy

By Catharina Thörn at the New Left Project

Even in Sweden.  The title of geographer Allan Pred’s book, published in 2000, pops up in my head while reading international reports on the uprisings in Stockholm.  In a Europe in the midst of economic, social and democratic crisis, urban uprisings were likely to erupt again (following disturbances in urban France, Greece, England, and Spain) sooner or later. The question was when and where next?  When the poor suburb of Husby lit up, the surprise in the newspapers was palpable: even in Stockholm!

“Who are they?”, the reporter from Sky News asks.  The New York Times writes: “In Sweden, Riots Put an Identity in Question”.

In his wide ranging historical-materialist analysis, Allan Pred challenged the dominant image of Sweden as a country of tolerance and equality and showed how the country is imbued with racism and discrimination. He wrote about the “dirty metonymical tricks” whereby isolated incidents involving individuals are taken as evidence of the behavior of entire groups or neighborhoods, which in turn rationalizes the racist structures that characterize much of Sweden today—discrimination, marginalization and exclusion.

The death of Swedish social democracy

International media surprise that revolts can emerge in Stockholm, the supposedly prosperous “capital of Scandinavia”, stems from near-total ignorance of what has happened here over the last 30 years. Behind the urban revolts that set Stockholm on fire lies another, less visible revolution: the slow, deliberate, devastating assault on the Swedish welfare state.

The editors of the book Transformations of the Swedish Welfare State summarise Sweden’s neoliberal shift as follows:

•    re-regulations to support the privatization and marketization of public sector •    responsibilization – citizens are remade as customers and co-producers •    new forms of disciplinary power (increased surveillance and new strategies for policing urban protests) •    new forms of governance (public-private-partnerships) •    a move from full employment to “standby-ability”.

These have been implemented, above all, through the restructuring of urban spatial and social relations.

Sweden may be liberalizing in a faster pace than any other country in the Western world right now. In March 2012 Svenska Dagbladet published an article titled, “The liberal revolution”. Based on an investigation by the Heritage Foundation (a right-wing American think tank) commissioned by the newspaper, the article boasts of Sweden’s membership in the “world elite” of privatization and deregulation. It proudly recalls 16 January 2012 when a “free school” license was advertised on the Swedish eBay, an event that has been celebrated as a liberal triumph.

Liberal celebrations mask another reality. A recent OECD report shows that Sweden has the fastest growing income gap of all of the 34 countries surveyed. Social inequality is expressed most dramatically at the urban scale, sharply divided into wealthy, corporate, bureaucratic central city districts and impoverished outskirts. Swedish housing policies that once regulated the housing market have been dismantled since the 1990s.  Non-profit municipal housing companies, created for everyone but also issued with social responsibility via the provision of housing to low-income families, have been privatized, and those that remain are now profit driven (see Clark & Johnson 2009, Christophers 2013 for a more detailed analysis). A deregulated housing market combined with urban growth politics (with “growth first” on the agenda) inevitably creates major inequalities—political reforms become visible on the ground, vividly written into the starkly contrasting streets and buildings of the urban landscape. The full consequences of this are yet to be seen, but already Sweden’s three largest cities have seen increased homelessness, overcrowded housing conditions and a serious housing shortage.  The “million dwellings program”, initiated in the 1960s and 1970s to resolve the housing shortage at the time, has been subjected to systematic disinvestment, which has left many residences in need of extensive renovations. So far it is tenants who have to pay for these renovations, with over 50% rent increases.  Many will never be able to pay, and tenants with low incomes currently face a future of being shuffled around in areas yet to be renovated.

Gentrification and disinvestment are part of the same process, which causes one part of the city prosper and another to decay. In poor areas in Stockholm, according to the report Urban Development Areas, more that 40% of young people aged between 20-25 neither study nor work, and more than 50% of children grow up in poverty. Crucially, urbanization in its current form is deeply racialised—Stockholm’s city centre has become a thoroughly gentrified enclave for the white middle/upper-class, whilst its poorest suburbs are increasingly non-white. The stigma of place and othering overlap with profound effects on the lives of residents. To be sure, capital flows in and out of Stockholm, but it is rarely redistributed. There are no “trickle down effects”. Rather accumulation is made, in the words of David Harvey, by dispossession. This is the other side of prosperous Stockholm—beyond the seductive theatre of consumption that characterises the central city, people fight for a decent life, or just to get by, while common resources are continually being snatched away and privatized.

Husby and the question of democracy

Contrary to reports in the national and international media that the uprisings are a youth problem—of vandals and criminals according to the conservative and liberal press, or of employment according to the social democratic press—they are first and foremost a democratic problem, concerning Swedish society as a whole. It calls for a radical transformation of the current political condition of Sweden.  Analysing the revolts in Paris 2005, geographer Mustafa Dikec wrote that we need to understand them not as “mindless” looting and burning but as unarticulated justice movements. That point is valid in the Swedish context, but here we can also detect new urban social movements emerging, claiming both space and voice. And it is to those movements, unarticulated and articulated, that we need to turn to in order to understand in what manner Sweden can be democratized. In an open letter published in Aftonbladet, The Panther Movement based in Gothenburg writes to “A Nation on Fire”:

If you insist on reducing every single political question to a police matter, then maybe we just should start electing police instead of politicians. Yet another part of society died in that Husby apartment. That’s why there are fires. But you already knew that.

In the darkest weeks of last December, an infected debate on racism, language and culture played out in Swedish media. Experiences of everyday racism, in the system, in the state, in culture, in the urban landscape, were trivialized. Racism was, once again, associated narrowly with the growing nationalist movements in Sweden, as if it had nothing to do with the white middle class, still a vast majority in media, politics and academia. Poet Johannes Anyuru wrote:

We who had parents from black Africa saw how smart, educated and ambitious people just got shitty jobs in Sweden, we saw people whose lives and dreams pissed away by something in the Swedish mentality that obviously cannot see the value in a black face. And the years went by.

This blood has been poured into a bowl. Put yourself on a tram or subway car and travel to the high-rise suburbs and see with your own eyes where black bodies in general are situated in Sweden: in the periphery, far out on the line, in the silence, in poverty, deep in the fight. (SVT Debatt, 10 December 2012, my translation)

Then, at the beginning of 2013, the REVA project was implemented. Part of an intensifying program to deport undocumented immigrants, REVA gave the police authority to perform internal border controls. Numerous witnesses have described being stopped in the streets and subways by the police on no other grounds than “looking foreign”.  The spark that eventually set the suburbs of Stockholm alight was, as in so many other urban uprisings, a lethal police shooting.

Days after the shooting the local social movement Megafonen, based in Husby, organized a manifestation and demanded an independent investigation of the shooting. The report from the police, that the man died in a hospital, was false. He died in his apartment and no ambulance was sent. This violation, a reminder of the violence that is performed in daily visitations and police controls with which young people in Husby are so familiar, was gasoline poured on embers that had been glowing for some time.

The day after the first night of burning cars, Megafonen organised a press conference. They talked about police violence and racism. The words that they heard: “nigger”, “monkey fuckers”, “hobo”, words that are not isolated to Husby.  Some years back, when Rosengård in Malmö was on fire, racist statements by the police were captured on film—“little fucking monkey bastard”. The investigation that followed was quickly dropped.

When Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt commented on the events in Husby he repeatedly called for respect for “Swedish law” and “Swedish police”, concluding that it is “up to the people in Husby” to solve this.  The thinly-veiled implication was that the residents of Husby are not Swedish and their problems are not Sweden’s.

The people of Husby know all this. That is why they have organized for a long time. Their fight against the so-called Järva investment (Järva-lyftet) has been going on for years. It was announced as a large-scale investment in the area, based on citizen dialogue and the improvement of housing conditions. The inhabitants of Husby soon realized that “dialogue” was more form than content, and did not amount to real participation. It was a politics of the surface, not based on needs of the neighbourhood. Megafonen, a tenants’ movement, grew out of this, issuing basic demands for democratization and giving voice to the marginalised. For years it has fought for control over the neighbourhood and the plight of its people—against cutbacks, against renovations with increasing rents, and for a more just city. In 2012 it squatted the community cultural facility when the city wanted to close it down. Its fight for the community has inspired people all over Sweden to mobilize against the privatization of housing, increasing rents and the replacement of welfare with surveillance.

Recent events, however, have turned the public debate against Megafonen, with many blaming them for the burning cars. Their response was published in Aftonbladet:

Megafon does not start any fires. Why are journalists and politicians so interested in Megafon denouncing the rebellion? Young people are being demonised to prevent all of us from seeing the truth—because the truth will sting. The editorial pages and the police also demonise us in Megafon, saying that we are responsible for what is happening—because we didn’t keep silent.

We understand that it is uncomfortable, even depressing, to have to reflect on what is happening in Sweden today. It is even more difficult for the government, the police force, and the large portion of the media that is a part of the reason all this is happening.

From our side, we see a government whose answer to social problems is more police. We see police brutality and harassment in our neighborhoods. We see verbal racist abuse, fists smashing faces, aggravated assault with batons. We see the police aiming their service weapons at youths and shouting: ‘I’ll shoot!’

We see a school system being ‘reformed’ over and over again, where we, our friends, and our brothers and sisters struggle to cope in schools that lack resources. We see that they can send their children to other schools. We see housing policies that create housing shortages. The human right to a home tossed aside for luxury condominiums. We see our rent increase steeply on the pretext that our building is being renovated when only the façade has been repainted.

Now everyone is on the side of the suburbs and competing to propose solutions. Where were you before everything set off? We were here and arranged homework help, lectures and concerts. We fought for our community centres and homes. Now we continue to stand up for our neighborhoods and our city.

New Urban Movements

Contrary to popular belief, Swedish democracy was not built by politicians, but by social movements. Radical working class movements laid the foundations of the Swedish welfare state. A major rent strike in the 1930s was the starting point for a housing politics where “good housing for all” for a long time served as a central goal of political reform. But the Swedish welfare state mutated via a political culture of consensus that is most accurately interpreted as a technocratic decision-making practice, balancing demands from business and civil society. Today this mutation forms the basis for Sweden’s post-political culture, and with it the steady erosion of social welfare.

Hanne Kjöller, editorial writer for Dagens Nyheter, argues that Husby has become a Rorchach test—people read into the events whatever suits their political agenda. Being critical of Megafonen and what she calls “left-wing analysis”, Kjöller challenges the view that media and politicians have not neglected Husby, citing as evidence the number of media articles on Husby over the last two years.  Whilst it is true that the movements in Husby have created a public debate on the failure of Järvalyftet, and that their continual fight for their area received attention in media, merely gaining media attention is not sufficient for them, even if it satisfies Kjöller.

The real challenge is to make a difference on the ground and urban movements are emerging all over Sweden aiming to do just that. The tenants of Husby are not alone. In Alby, Stockholm, people fight the privatization of municipal housing stock under the banner “Alby is not for sale—we are not for sale”.  In Gränby, Uppsala and Skarpan, Linköping, and Pennygången, Gothenburg, tenants resist “renoviction” plans.  In Gothenburg, The Panther Movement in Biskopsgården fights discrimination, racism and segregation. These are just few of new urban movements emerging in Sweden, based on local struggles but with claims that point to a political agenda that goes far beyond them and unites their struggle into a collective call for a more radical transformation of Swedish democracy to include new voices and create common spaces for an alternative social and spatial order.

The flames have hardly faded, and the future is now radically open.

Catharina Thörn is researcher/lecturer at Department of Cultural Sciences, University of Gothenburg.

Thanks to Håkan Thörn and Tom Slater for helpful comments on early drafts.



Bengt Larsson, Martin Letell and Håkan Thörn, eds., Transformations of the Swedish Welfare State. From Social engineering to governance? , Palgrave 2012.

Eric Clark and Karin Johnson, “Circumventing circumscribed neoliberalism: The ‘system switch’ in Swedish housing,” in ed. Sarah Glynn, Where the other half lives: lower income housing in a neoliberal world, Pluto 2009.

Brett Christophers, “A monstrous hybrid: the political economy of housing in early-twenty-first century Sweden,” New Political Economy, 2013 (online early version)