Comparing the incomparable: multicultural Swedishness versus national statehood of the Baltic States I

2014 har för min del främst ägnats åt Ukrainarelaterade saker, både medialt och populärvetenskapligt kring den nu pågående konflikten i landet, och forskningsmässigt om minnet av förkrigstida kulturell mångfald i en stad i västra Ukraina. Det har inte funnits mycket tid att fundera över ett annat av bloggens huvudfokus, nämligen tankar om den svenska utvecklingen och de ideologiska och identitetsmässiga landskap som avtecknar sig här.

Jag publicerar därför nu på bloggen i två avsnitt ett kapitel ur den litauiske filosofen och författaren Tomas Kavaliauskas bok Conversations about European Transcultural Memory (Vilnius 2014). I boken samtalar Kavaliauskas med forskare och intellektuella från olika europeiska länder om minnespolitik, identiteter, och politiska och socio-kulturella transformationer.

I nedan publicerade kapitel diskuterar han Sverige och Baltikum, men nog i första hand Sverige, med mig och statsvetaren Andreas Johansson Heinö. Kavaliauskas ställde fem frågor och här följer samtalet kring de två första. Den avslutande delen publicerar jag om någon vecka. Frågorna och titeln på samtalet har formulerats av Tomas Kavaliauskas.

Samtalet ägde rum under våren 2013.


Conversations about Transcultural European Memory

Hela boken kan laddas ner här.


Comparing the incomparable: multicultural Swedishness versus national statehood of the Baltic States. Tomas Kavaliauskas conducts an academic conversation with Andreas Johansson Heinö and Niklas Bernsand

Tomas Kavaliauskas

Let me start this intriguing conversation with a reference to Andreas’ article “Democracy between collectivism and individualism: De-nationalization and individualization in Swedish national identity.” There we learn that the discourse of Swedish cultural and political elite has been anti-nationalist and pro-multiculturalist. The article emphasizes that Swedish national identity has been deconstructed and the words like “patriotism” or “fatherland” have acquired a negative meaning. Thus, if “patriotism” and “fatherland” have a negative connotation, how do we then explain Swedish love for the royal family and monarchy, which represents Swedish honour?

Andreas Johansson Heinö

First, one has to understand that there are at least two competing, or rather, unrelated but co-existing, discourses in Sweden when it comes to the question of the monarchy. There is an elite discourse, which I mention in the article you refer to, which strongly rejects the monarchy and despises the whole idea of royalism. The monarchy is repeatedly described in terms such as ”reactionary”, ”old-fashioned”, ”un-modern” and not seldom understood to be shameful for a country that in so many other aspects are considered to be very modern and progressive. It is for Swedish intellectuals an annoying distortion to the otherwise beautiful self-image of Swedes.

But at the same time there also exists a completely opposite attitude. Although the rates are decreasing, the royal family is still very popular among Swedes and a stable majority of them wants to maintain the monarchy. That is of course the only reason why almost no politicians seriously advocate to get rid of the monarchy.

In fact, pictures of the royal family are one of very few nationalist symbols that are available for use in Sweden. These pictures are common on birthday greeting cards, many people in middle-class neighbourhoods hoist their flags on the birthdays of the members of the royal family and they are always on the front pages of the best-selling weekly magazines.
What is interesting from a multicultural perspective is that the official Swedish discourse is out of touch with large parts of the new Sweden. The national holiday, introduced as lately as the 1980s and not becoming a work-free holiday until the 2000s are in fact celebrated more among non-native Swedes. So when intellectuals in Sweden ridicule the royal family, they are playing a risky game of offending immigrants who appreciate one of the few available symbols for national integration. In fact, immigrants trying to integrate into Sweden face a real choice, not between the ethnic and the civic, but between the elitist and the popular.

Niklas Bernsand

As you mention in your question, our fellow conversationalist’s article focuses on elite discourses of national identity, which might or might not coincide with popular views. The monarchy in Sweden as an institution has a very stable level of support, while personal trust in the king and other members of the royal family shows more variation over time. Although support for abolishing the monarchy has increased somewhat since the mid-1970s, in the most reliable survey only about 20% of the population were in 2011 in favour of such a reform, and the monarchy was supported by a majority of respondents from all sociological categories. Interestingly, surveys also show that support for and trust in the monarchy is significantly lower among elite groups such as parliamentarians and journalists than in the population at large. So there seem to be a disagreement between elite and popular views on this matter, although many critics of the monarchy argue in terms of principle and do not see this as an issue of immediate political importance. Since the monarchy is a genuinely popular institution with functions restricted to the symbolic and ceremonial sphere the passive republicanism of important political actors does not translate into political action, and there are few signs that the long-established political consensus on the monarchy will be seriously challenged in the foreseeable future.
Some researchers have argued that Swedish political and media discourse on national identity and multiculturalism long remained inside the framework of a hegemonic multiculturalism, while others have pointed to the comparatively low level of actual institutionalisation in Swedish society of multiculturalist policies. Andreas Johansson Heinö argues that “tolerant” Swedish political and media discourse celebrating cultural diversity and the cultural contributions of immigrants to Swedish society and fighting to keep xenophobic rhetoric out of public space to a large extent has masked expectations that immigrants eventually will succumb to progressive and modern Swedish norms and values. In this view, the Swedish self-image of tolerance while not being outright false is a serious distortion that prevents a better understanding of the changes Swedish society is going through.

This Swedish anti-nationalist discourse should rather be understood as a modernist Swedish nation-building that included nationalist assumptions about the specific moral content of Swedishness. If earlier conservative and particularistic versions of Swedishness were based on a perceived unity of monarchy, church, fatherland and people, modernist Swedishness had universalist ambitions, and was seen as reflecting the building a new democratic and progressive Sweden that was to be a role model for other countries and peoples. Modernist Swedish national identity was conceived as rational and modern, with no need for old-school national self-aggrandisement and explicit nationalist manifestations, and it was, paradoxically, implied that Swedes carried those virtues to a larger extent than other nations, and thus had been able to move exceptionally far on the road to a mature, decent and fair society.

As for pro-multiculturalism, if you allow me to paraphrase the famous slogan from Soviet nationality policies, much Swedish discourse praising cultural diversity can be seen as multiculturalist in form, but the expectations and assumptions behind it have often rather been Swedish modernist in content. Diversity in terms of food, music and other safe markers of ethno cultural otherness was encouraged, but it was expected that newcomers eventually would embrace the hegemonic rational and progressive norms of modern Swedish society.

Modernist Swedishness took shape in an ethnically homogenous society where ethnos and demos to a very large extent overlapped – with the exception of a few small ethnic minority groups – and the actual experience of handling widespread everyday ethno-cultural diversity was limited. This is still felt even in debates on immigration and cultural diversity in the profoundly heterogeneous Swedish society that has emerged over the last decades. Obviously, today national identity discourses are much less stable and homogenous then during the heyday of modernist Swedishness in the 1970s or 1980s, with both new evolving postnational elite discourses on Swedishness and anti-elite counter discourses emphasising ethno-cultural notions of Swedishness. All those visions of Swedishness seem, though, to conceive of Swedishness as a one-layered identity. Johansson Heinö in fact is one of the few participants of contemporary Swedish identity debates who sometimes argue in terms of the parallel existence of two layers of Swedishness – an ethno-cultural one being the equivalent of the various immigrant ethnic cultures, and an inclusive civic form encompassing all Swedish citizens irrespective of ethno-cultural background. It is quite amusing to see how almost everyone – anti-immigration activists, pro-immigration multiculturalists or liberals – is united in a complete lack of understanding of such an identity concept. Even now, when Swedish identity discourse slowly grows accustomed to the fact that otherness actually can mean something and that not everyone wants to identify with (all the more divergent) Swedish norms, Swedish thinking on cultural diversity is still structured by assumptions inherited from the not too distant past when there was much less diversity to deal with.

T. Kavaliauskas

By comparing Swedish anti-essentialist politics with the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – where politics are based on essentialist ethnic-national identity, we face a striking cleavage. On one coast of the Baltic Sea we have dismantled (or an attempt to dismantle) essence of national identity, on the other shore we have a continuous tradition of ethnic essence. Then the question is: should the Baltic States take lessons from Sweden?

If yes, then we run into major problems, for instance, what to do with the legacy of the Singing or Velvet Revolutions of the 1989? What I mean is that 1989 is the sacred year for the entire East Central Europe that celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain, which was accompanied with patriotic-fatherland symbolism and national movements claiming independence. The second independence of the Baltic States signified the end of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the latter is unimaginable without National fronts of Latvia and Estonia and of Lithuanian Sąjūdis just as Solidarność in Poland. Moreover, the second independence is understood as a restoration of the independence of the interwar period between1918-1939. Needless to say, this period is very nationalistic as at the time national projects were flourishing as a modern idea.

However, in Sweden already in the 1960‘s national identity was under criticism, whereas in the Baltic States a critique of nationalism even today is precarious, since national identity here is directly linked to sovereignty discourse and statehood. The Russian language referendum in Latvia in 2012 that raised so many tensions between Latvian Russians and ethnic Latvians sheds light on how mentally and politically the Baltic States are unprepared for multiculturalism. The word “unprepared“ is misguiding, since the issue here is not only psychological, but also geopolitical. Any linguistic or cultural cleavages between Latvians and Latvian Russians or Estonians and Estonian Russians (suffice to recall riots in Tallinn in 2007 due to the removal of Alyosha monument) has been instrumentalized and over politicized by Moscow, which leads to geopolitical games of protecting Russian minorities in “hostile” Pribaltika. The same problem was facing Lithuania between 2010 and 2012 having a cold war with Lithuanian Polish over “w” letter, street names, and bilingual education programs.

Would you see then the Baltic States and Sweden as living in different paradigms and in even different time horizons (using Hans George Gadamer’s term)? If so, is it because of a different history or is it because of different levels of open-mindedness? After all, it probably also has to do with a sense of security – insecure nations are reluctant to abandon their national identity based on fatherland’s essentialism? So where does the secret of Sweden lie?

A. J. Heinö

Indeed, the differences between Sweden and the Baltic States are huge. One way to illustrate the cleavage is to look closer at the Swedish nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats, that entered parliament in 2010 after five failed attempts, the longest road to a European parliament for any – eventually successful – anti-immigrant party.
The Sweden Democrats are regularly described as an extreme party in Sweden. And the distance between them and the other established parties in terms of both ideology and policy is huge. In fact, the Sweden Democrats are commonly rejected as being ”un-Swedish”, due to their intolerant attitude towards minorities, in particular Muslims, and their support for ethnic nationalism. You still cannot find a singular leading Swedish intellectual who even with reservations would say that this party is not bad in all respects. I think Belgium is the only country where the established parties have successfully maintained a similarly clear distance towards an anti-immigrant party. In other cases – Denmark, Netherlands and Austria for example, these parties have been able to influence policy through direct cooperation and negotiation with other parties.
But, and this is my point, if you really look at the ideas and policies of the Sweden Democrats, from a Baltic perspective you would have a hard time to find any extreme standpoints. I would rather claim that in a Central and East European perspective, they represent a mainstream centre-right attitude towards nationalism. When it comes to immigration policy, citizenship laws and minority policies, they argue for what is already the norm in the Eastern half of Europe: restrictive asylum laws, language test for citizenship.

To understand the anti-nationalist norm in Sweden, you have to look at our history. The main reason is fairly simple and has to do with the homogeneity of the Swedish society up until the 1960s. Few other European countries could compete with Sweden in the first half of the 19th century in terms of ethnic homogeneity – Iceland of course, and maybe Portugal among similar-sized nations. Frankly, the degree of ethnic homogeneity made political nationalism irrelevant. There was a quite strong rightist nationalist movement in the first decades of the century, but already in the 1920s and the 1930s, Swedish nationalism became obsolete. With no obvious threats to the national sovereignty, there were no incentives to mobilize around the nationalist issue. And then, in the late 1960s, anti-nationalism came to accompany multiculturalism as the new ideology of the political and intellectual elites.

So before even considering whether Sweden might be a normatively attractive model for the Baltic States, I think one has to realize that it is only in a context where all threats against both the national sovereignty and the ethnic homogeneity have been removed, that such an attitude may become the norm. This is, of course, the main reason why Sweden has seen an increase in political nationalism the last decades. The Sweden Democrats are a reaction against increasing cultural diversity.

N. Bernsand

No, the starting points when it comes to national identity discourses differ so profoundly between Sweden and The Baltic States that is hard to conceive of how the former could function as a role model for the latter. There might also be a time lag inherent in the posing of such a question, since it seems to be inspired by how Swedish identity discourse worked under previous conditions of comparatively high levels of perceived cultural security, a factor which you correctly bring into the game. In contemporary culturally diverse Sweden, however, public discourse reflects a society being very much at loss as for how to deal with national identity. If you feel you need a role model maybe you should look somewhere else.

But if we start with the notion of Swedish anti-essentialism, in connection with the previous question we saw that the modernist project on the one hand was critical to more conservative projections of Swedishness but on the other hand was not anti-essentialist in the sense that Swedishness and the Swedish nation as such were deconstructed. Swedishness was perceived as very real and tangible, although its content was supposed to differ radically from earlier models. Modernist Swedishness really did emerge in conditions of great cultural security: it was connected to social optimism and widespread faith in a bright future, and was born in a time of rapid and stable economic growth and greatly increased living standards for ordinary Swedes. It also took place in a society which was only accepting the first waves of work immigration from various European countries, but was still very ethno-culturally homogenous. In such conditions this kind of national identity could, for several decades, thrive.

Modernist Swedishness lingers on as a deeper cultural text, but it is increasingly challenged by various competing liberal universalist, postmodern and postcolonial strands and by ethno-cultural anti-elite discourses. Swedish identity discourse is presently in a state of flux, and if modernist Swedishness emerged in conditions of cultural security now the context is rather marked by deep-felt cultural insecurity, triggered by processes of economic and cultural globalisation and the loss of faith in ever-increasing prosperity, the transfer of significant powers of the Swedish nation-state to the European Union, large-scale immigration transforming the ethno-demographic make-up of the country, and last but not least individualisation and subcultural and socio-economic fragmentation.

In this context, anti-essentialism in the sense of a more fundamental deconstruction indeed has become an important component of political and medial discourses in the last 10 or 15 years. This happened after the breakthrough of social constructivism, first in academic circles, and then, often in strikingly superficial and inconsequential interpretations, in political and media discourse. The notion that national identities are socially constructed is unfortunately here often misunderstood as if such identities are less ‘true’, something that better informed people know does not really ‘exist’, but, that in any case ought to be properly managed by the social engineering of language use. Here the linguistic turn in the social sciences enters Swedish public debates as a kind of magical thinking.

Constructivist thinking is selectively applied to those social occurrences which are found to be, for various reasons, unpleasant or dangerous. What is worse, the actual social rootedness in Swedish society of various national identity constructs as, in Brubaker’s terms, ‘categories of practice’, are sometimes poorly understood, which is not helpful for coming to terms with the complex realities of contemporary culturally diverse Sweden. Furthermore, constructivism is often selectively applied to some groups but not to others, as in a well-known case when the chairman of the Swedish National Heritage Federation a few years ago in a debate with a representative of the nationalist Sweden Democrats political party deconstructed the notion of (ethnic) Swedish culture because of the multiple origins of its various expressions, while taking the existence of a – seemingly holistic – immigrant Kurdish culture for granted. Certainly, in the self-image of some participants in the public debates on Swedish identity one could trace continuity back to modernist Swedishness, as they perceive themselves as being the bearers of the most advanced social visions, both in relation to those whose sense of Swedishness is more traditionally rooted, and to some immigrant groups who still are perceived to ‘have’ a culture which should be supported by society in the name of diversity. The chairman of Religious Social Democrats of Sweden recently argued that organizations for young Muslims, Catholics and Christian Orthodox cannot at the moment be expected to show the same degree of tolerance towards sexual minorities as the Swedish majority ought to show, but implied that those groups can change thanks to cooperation with progressive believers from the majority.

To borrow another concept from Soviet nationality policy, the majority should here allow minority cultures to flourish in order for the latter, dialectically, eventually to overcome their backwardness. Simultaneously, many younger representatives of immigrant communities, who were born or raised in Sweden, not any longer seem to accept the implicit leading role of progressive Swedes in managing and conceptualizing cultural diversity. They insist on having their own voices. In my opinion, rightly so.

So, the national identity concept that worked well for several decades now is challenged since society has changed and grown more diverse. It has become more individualistic and less confident in eternally never-ending progress and prosperity.

You are very much to the point when you mention how national liberation and democracy were intertwined as parts of the same struggle in large parts of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. The movement for democracy and for national liberation in the Baltic States went hand in hand, and the same can be said about e.g. Ukraine. This movement is inconceivable without nationalism, and could not have stood as firmly on purely liberal grounds. And, as you mention, since statehood was re-established in the Baltics, there has not – even after NATO membership was won – emerged a sense of security that would have allowed for a real weakening of the link between ethnic nationalism and statehood.

Sure, Sweden and the Baltic States live in different paradigms in these issues. Furthermore, the paradigm of the Baltic States is more recognizable in a wider European context, not only in an Eastern Central European. Indeed, if you look into some specific cultural skirmishes of recent years between Swedish journalists and their Norwegian or Danish colleagues, Swedish exceptionalism is sometimes felt to such an extent that it seems as if Sweden lives in a different paradigm also from our Scandinavian neighbours.