With the U.S. release this week of the final instalment of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, the English-speaking world is again given a chance to indulge in a view of Scandinavia that is entirely dystopian. In Larsson's Sweden, the police are useless where they are not corrupt; the countryside is full of violent drug dealers; the rich are utterly unprincipled. It sounds like Mexico in the snow. This is no longer a clean, well-lighted place for Volvo owners. What went wrong?
Crime fiction always exaggerates, and Swedish left-wing crime fiction, the tradition to which Larsson belongs, is a genre quite as stylised as Agatha Christie's. There will always be villainous millionaires and noble women. It is not enough to be a sadistic serial killer: You have to vote conservative as well. But what has changed since the genre was invented in the 1960s by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is the overwhelming loss of confidence in the future, and in the state. This does reflect reality.
The story of Sweden over the last 50 years has been one of a steady loss of exceptionalism. In some ways the outside world has grown more "Swedish" -- we all wear seatbelts, drink less, and believe in gender equality. At the same time, Sweden has grown much more worldly -- it drinks more, works and earns less, and struggles with the assimilation of immigrants. The Swedes themselves no longer believe in a Swedish model, or, when they do, it's very different from the heavily regulated "people's home" of myth.
Last summer, I was on a panel with Pär Nuder, a Social Democrat intellectual and former finance minister whose description of the Swedish model was one of high taxes but minimal regulation; generous parental leave, but very high female employment; and a much greater reluctance to nationalize failing industries than is found in the rest of Europe, or in the United States for that matter. When Swedish car makers go bust, the state does not bail them out. Volvo is now owned by a Chinese company, and Saab by a Dutch maker of sports cars. Even the school system has been partly privatized, along with almost everything else that the state once owned.
The other point Nuder made was that Sweden is now a country with a sizeable immigrant population. Nearly a fifth of the Swedish population today are people either born abroad or the children of two immigrants, and this figure has risen by about a third in the last decade. Almost everyone from outside the EU has come as a refugee: Over the last decade, the country took in nearly 80,000 refugees from Iraq, which is nearly 1 percent of the population. But though they are not recruited as workers, they are expected to work, and the problem is that there is hardly any heavy industrial work for them to do.
In the far south of the country, where the refugees are concentrated, there is also a fair amount of anti-immigrant sentiment. The elections later this year may well see the Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic and populist party, enter parliament for the first time, and they are already quite important in local politics. Larsson spent almost his entire working life combating such groups, and it is a remarkable fact that Sweden has not had any in parliament before now, while both Denmark and Norway, with much lower levels of immigration, have. But there are some real tensions under the surface.
In Landskrona, a post-industrial town across the strait from Copenhagen that has never recovered from the collapse of its shipyard in the late 1970s, an elderly woman died this spring after she was assaulted over a parking place. To suffer from road rage is a great break with Swedish traditions anyway; in this case, however, the woman and her husband were native Swedes, the young man who hit them an immigrant. There was almost a riot when the case came to court, and the trial had to be moved to a neighbouring city where passions aren't running so high.
If you look at the statistics, Sweden is not a particularly violent country, nor a particularly lenient one to criminals. It is in about the middle of the European averages for both figures. And while the homicide rate has been steadily declining in the United States over the past two decades, in Sweden there were 230 murders in 2009, up from 120 in 1990, when the country seemed a utopia. America still has more killings per capita, but there is a convergence here that doesn't flatter Sweden.