A review of Vit melankoli – en analys av en nation i kris [‘White melancholy: an analysis of a nation in crisis’], Catrin Lundström and Tobias Hübinette, (Makadam: Stockholm, 2020), 104pp.
Three phases of whiteness in Swedish self-perception
Since the birth of the modern Swedish nation state in 1905, the authors of White melancholy: analysis of a nation in crisis argue, cultural self-perceptions of whiteness have undergone three distinct developmental phases: white purity (1905–1968), white solidarity (1968–2001) and white melancholy (2001 and ongoing). During the first phase, the ideal of a homogenous white nation, residing in mutual solidarity within the “People’s Home” (folkhemmet) as a metaphor of the coercive national welfare state was pushed in a consensus between governing political and economic elites and the population. This happened at the same time as Sweden positioned itself as a leading nation in the scientific study of race (eagerly received in Germany after 1933). Unaffected by the Second World War and lacking any reflection of potential guilt, Sweden after 1945 started to expand its societal model to the international sphere. The country played the role of a ‘global conscience’ in international organizations, anti-colonial liberation movements and development politics as well as displayed ardent commitment to anti-racism, after 1968, in particular.
This self-image of white solidarity lasted – according to the authors – until the early twentieth century, when due to the ‘war on terror’, Sweden was caught in the discourses of purported civilizational antagonisms. With a growing influx of non-European migrants, in combination with the neo-liberal dismantlement of the welfare state, a growing emotion of melancholy could be observed (related to the loss of the traditional redistributive justice), which helped propelling the radical-right Sweden Democrats (SD) into parliament in 2010 and since then to double-digit electoral support mostly among Swedish men.
But the rise of SD triggered yet another backlash of melancholy, namely among those who now lamented the demise of white solidarity and the image of Sweden as a ‘good’ international actor. 2015 marks the year of the final collapse of that particular self-image. It was then Sweden gave up to the pressure of the ongoing (so-called) migration crisis and – under the applause of SD in parliament – closed its borders and since then is actively engaged in the all-European race to the bottom with regards to humanitarian standards in asylum rights. The contemporary crisis of the Swedish national state of mind is thus triggered by two imagined losses: that of a) white hegemony during the first six decades of the twentieth century and that of b) international solidarity during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Whereas SD were able to capitalize politically upon the first sense of loss and deprivation and nurture their success by the promise to restore the golden age of the ‘People’s Home’, the collapse of the self-image of Sweden as a country always doing ‘good’ to the rest of the world has to date not been met by a political movement. Yet, something the authors do not reflect upon is the figure of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who has recently provided Sweden with some solace in this regard, as much as she at is despised among the core electorate of SD.
But let us start from the beginning. When Sweden separated from Norway in 1905, with which it politically had been in a union since 1814, the last rest of Sweden as a complex, early modern (conglomerate) state was chipped away. Since the seventeenth century, Swedish nation building was otherwise a matter of political and cultural expansion: parts of Denmark were incorporated, Estonia and Latvia and possessions within the Old German Empire belonged to Sweden until 1720/1815 and Finland was an integrated part of the realm until its loss in 1809. Huge migration movements to North America during the nineteenth and early twentieth century accelerated the need to reflect upon the essence of Swedishness placed in an almost insular self-perception of supremacy and neutrality. Furthered by romantic essentialism and Nordic exceptionalism, first unloading in the movement of Scandinavianism, Sweden was embraced fully by the pan-Germanic visions of the German empire post-1871 in which the idea of a ‘hyperborean’ Germanic authenticity was excelled. It is during the first phase of Sweden’s national formation, Lundström and Hübinette claim, ideas of white purity were formulated and channeled into an understanding of a homogeneous and distinctive nation managing to stay outside both the First and the Second World Wars.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, when the modern national electorate and party system were developed, the concept of the “People’s Home” as a national metaphor was born (pp. 27–30). At the same time, Sweden elaborated state-sponsored scientific study of (Nordic) race. The authors argue that these both features conjointly contributed to the definition of an exclusionary and “specific Swedish whiteness” (p. 33). The Swedish national program of progress was one of tidying and cleansing, both on a concrete and metaphorical level. Racial hygiene and science aimed to rinse the body national from unwanted deviations, the Swedish sterilization program was one of the largest outside Nazi Germany. National minorities like the indigenous Sámi and Roma were targeted in frequently misdirected integration programs. At the same time, in a spirit of national understanding, the working class was set to receive better life conditions in housing through welfare benefits and affordable consumption. The ideal of the ‘diligent worker’ – refraining from alcohol abuse and immersing himself in (spiritual) self-education, sports and culture – was abundant. It was also a period in which industrious white masculinity was rewarded and where the role of the woman mainly was reduced to support her male earner as a housewife and to give birth to new national offspring. At the same time, ideas of (state-sponsored) equality between the sexes were developed. This formation of a specific Swedish whiteness, the authors argue, generated ‘probably the most exclusive borders of whiteness in the world’ (ibid).
Prepared by a transition period starting around 1950, when Sweden turned into “the leading Western voice advocating human rights” (p. 34) a new concept of benevolent whiteness saw the light, guided by the “idea of internationalizing the Swedish welfare state and the People’s Home and not the least to export the Swedish model of society” to the ‘third world’ (p.35). Anti-imperialism, de-colonization and anti-racism turned into distinct features of Sweden’s (neutral) foreign policy, spending more on developmental aid and engaging more in foreign adoptions per capita than any other country. Sweden acted as the most “radical proponent and role model for social justice, equality and human rights” (p. 40). Internationally “adopted children became in turn the largest and a more coherent group of non-white immigrants living permanently in the country” (p.41). International adoptions were regarded a token of global solidarity, multiculturalism and anti-racism. Lundström and Hübinette posit that a shift took place “from one regime of whiteness [the homogenizing construction of the national state during phase 1] to another type of hegemonic whiteness”, that of perceived moral superiority. Sweden positioned itself at the vanguard of progressive countries and considered itself not burdened by neither Holocaust nor being tainted by the moral abyss of colonial wars of independence or racial segregation such as in the USA and in South Africa (the apartheid-politics of which was particularly ostracized in Sweden). But apart from international adoptions, Sweden also during the 1970s and 1980s opened its doors towards political migrants from South America and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It was also now Sweden started to reject any notions of race and color and started to discard any associations with these terms in official language or statistics.
While multicultural diversity thus became more and more visible, Swedish society also moved forward in integrating its politics of equality into the concept of the “People’s Home”. The liberation of women was promoted by a string of legal and fiscal reforms and turned into a specific feature the Swedish self-image in which independent women also worked, earned money and took more and more societal responsibility. Simultaneously, the public sector organized comprehensive childcare and stimulated reproduction while also tolerantly allowing for contraception and choices, a peculiar Swedish version of ‘pro-life’, rarely perceived as such. White women, Lundström and Hübinette argue, where placed “in a privileged position in relation to Swedishness and equality” (p. 47). The arrangements between working-class and middle-class from the first period of the Swedish welfare state were continued and intensified, while the new emerging segment of immigrants increasingly were perceived as the ‘problem’ of the Swedish body politic, just as the working class had been eight decades earlier. As consequence of an economic downturn at the beginning of the 1990s, neoliberal reforms characterized a transition period until 2001, the authors argue. It was also now the first anti-immigrant party Ny Demokrati (“New Democracy”) entered the Swedish parliament, racist violence erupted and when the embryo of SD was formed in a strange alliance between old upper-class Nazis and more proletarian skinheads (see my review of Maria Robsahm’s book on SD and Nazism).
For Lundström and Hübinette, the third period of white melancholy starts with the reactions upon the ‘war on terror’ following 9/11. Sweden had to position itself among the global ‘coalition of the willing’ and Islamophobia entered the societal discourse. At the same time neoliberal politics with de-regulation, privatization and lowered taxes dismantled the welfare state further. It was now the apparent paradox of the rise of an ethno-nationalist party in the most anti-racist country of the world emerged. When SD started to increase their electoral support during the period, the political establishment reacted with disgust and disbelief. It was simply not perceived possible that a party crafting its program around an aggressively exclusionary nativist agenda could exist in Sweden. When the party finally entered parliament in 2010, the spine reaction was to establish a cordon sanitaire, but electoral support continued to grow exponentially, both in 2014 and 2018. Since then, the question is not if but when the mainstream conservative parties will seek active support from SD to form a government, either in coalition or with agreed parliamentary support. Lundström and Hübinette explain the rise of SD with complex positioning-exercises of whiteness. First of all, SD could capitalize upon the demise of the welfare state, the “People’s Home” into which generations of hard-working Swedes had paid their contributions and which now were swallowed by a seemingly endless caravan of benefit-claiming immigrants. But on a deeper level, the close association between the “People’s Home” and true Swedishness opened up towards cultural processes of identification from which the ‘foreign other’ easily could be excluded. At the same time, segments of immigrants who associated with these concepts of Swedishness could receive ‘white rewards’ of submissive assimilation. Even the Swedish politics of gender equality could be turned against immigrants. Swedish gender equality together with tolerance of HBTQI+-positions were constructed as incompatible with the primordial and unalterable foreign ‘other’, leading to phenomena like femo– and homonationalism. Neo-liberal reforms also stimulated the growth of a low-wage service sector into which most non-European immigrants to Sweden now seem to be trapped indefinitely. This concerns for instance also reforms, in which (rich) households receive tax breaks for employing (poor) women to carry out domestic work. While officially serving the purpose to reduce remaining inequalities between (white) couples with a steady income, these tax breaks in reality contribute to lock non-white workers into occupations obstructing social mobility. To cover, analyze and potentially counter these growing divisions, the authors suggest that Sweden should start capturing diversity data, a step hitherto ardently refused by those steeped into the color-blind and anti-racist world view of white benevolence.
Lundström and Hübinette acknowledge that we currently (during the phase of melancholy) also witness a crisis of white masculinity. This is manifested in the rise of populist right-wing and neo-conservative parties and movements across the globe or the messianic popularity of public figures (like Jordan B. Peterson). Identification with white masculinity in Sweden increasingly transgresses borders between societal classes beyond the previous left-right divide (p. 69). SD has managed to tap into the perceived loss of white masculinity and to mobilize members from both ends of the political spectrum. Whether this trend will spill over to female support remains at this stage unclear. However, during the period of white melancholy, we also have seen how women have emerged to leading positions in right-wing parties in Europe and how female neo-conservative nostalgia has inspired a host of female writers, journalists and influencers to long back to the perceived harmony of the golden age of the “People’s home”. The new stress on ‘family values’ and family cohesion simultaneously erodes the ideal of modern meritocracy and replaces it with a clan mentality in which those included into the ideal of white Swedishness reproduce with and support each other in opaque zones of informal economies, self-gratification and open nepotism. These patterns and ‘invisible walls’ are clearly observable when it comes to accumulation of capital and job recruitments but do also manifest in more subtle areas such as higher education and the housing market. Compared to the ostracized ‘rule of clans’ in organized crime (among immigrants) in Sweden, this new regime of white ‘consecrated’ self-gratification appears as nothing else than a hypocrisy with the ultimate goal to establish a clear hierarchy between ‘good’ (white) and ‘bad’ (no-white) Swedish citizens or individuals (pp. 77-79).
Conclusion: Toward a theory-driven diagnosis of White Melancholia
To conclude, ‘White melancholy’ provides with ample theory-driven explanations of major changes in the Swedish political psyche over a period of more than a century. Two phases of imagined supremacy, first in openly racial terms, then anti-racist but still in a morally superior white self-perception are fueling the current state of melancholic resentment and feeling of loss: the demise of the homogenous national state and at the same time the loss of status as the impeccable ‘good’ force in global progress. The “power of this double binding, to once upon a time having been perceived as the whitest and racially purest nation on earth and as the most progressive and antiracist country produces all these seemingly contradictory and paradoxical emotions and reactions characterizing contemporary Sweden” (p. 91). The authors hope for a new transition period in order to escape what they characterize as a “white psychosis” (p. 93). Lundström and Hübinette convincingly explain major drivers behind the electoral success of the Swedish radical right as located in the realm of culture and self-perception rather than in economy. Nostalgia, melancholy and -what Zygmunt Bauman has called – ‘retrotopia’ are powerful agents in mobilizing support, particularly when fused with emotions of existential fear and loss. The presence of the minority immigrant body provides native populations with a screen upon which all these emotions constantly and easily can be projected, since it is the ‘other’ who constitutes the strongest sense of the own identity. This explains why ‘immigration’ is far more than a policy area, but one into which the radical right has been able to entrench all other political issues as well.
One of the main advantages of ‘White melancholy’ are summarizing tables in which the authors try to capture major developments of each phase in the book. Another exciting element is the attempt to locate these developments of ideas into ‘stable’ cultural attributes, which merits further investigation. It will now become important to back up the predominantly theory-driven account of the book by a host of empirical studies. Lundström and Hübinette provide with new approaches to studying the modern history of Sweden without prejudices. It is necessary to understand how ideas of racial supremacy transformed over the first two phases. Like it or not: benevolent and anti-racist whiteness constitutes a problematic continuation of its antecendent exclusionary and openly racist variety. And it is only in overcoming both we will be able to find sustainable models of co-existence in an increasingly diverse Swedish society today.
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor in Intellectual History at the University of Erfurt, Germany. See full profile here.
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