Dispatch

We're All Swedes Now

How the world caught up with Stieg Larsson.

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.

The whole of Europe has grown more violent, of course, as it has grown further away from the memories of war and the social disciplines it imposed. But for a long time, Sweden seemed detached from all the turmoil of the world below it on the map. This was enshrined in the idea of neutrality during the Cold War. But there's nothing very distinctive about that ideal now.

The great loss of Swedish independence and distinctiveness was the country's 1995 accession to the EU, which was forced on the country by the traumatic financial crisis of the early 1990s. At the same time, commercial television diminished the country's cultural autonomy; it is difficult now to remember just how rigorously the old state monopoly eschewed excitement. (Was I dreaming one Christmas when I lived there in the early 1980s that I saw a special Christmas broadcast of the year's most interesting weather forecasts?) It had always been a surprisingly Americanized country -- if you want to see 1950s Cadillacs, go to the Swedish backwoods -- but now it became once more a Germanized one, full of rather joyless consumerism. You could drive for a long way through the south of Sweden now without seeing anything that would be wildly out of place in Denmark, Holland, or northern Germany.

But there remains something distinctively Scandinavian about the country that cuts it off from the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. Swedes of any class have a sense of belonging, and of obligation to their country that is entirely different from the British or American attitudes toward the poor. Perhaps I know the wrong millionaires, but I have never met any rich Swedes who did not feel some sense of obligation to the poor, even when they were living in tax exile. It is not just a matter of charity, but of fellow feeling. That is not my experience in Britain or in the U.S., where riches are felt to turn you into a different, and possibly better, sort of person altogether, not least by their possessors.

Perhaps this moralism helps explain why Swedes were always much less secular than they appeared to be, even to themselves. Anything but the most notional Christianity had more or less died out among the middle classes by the 1980s, and the Swedish national church was disestablished at the millennium. Instead of imbibing myths about first-century Palestine, the people took in sermons about social progress and its culmination in 20th-century Sweden. To some extent, those new myths were shared with the whole Western world. But it is in Sweden that their loss is most keenly felt, and the great efflorescence of dystopian crime fiction in the country is perhaps an expression of this loss.

It's also, of course, a new export industry. It is quite likely that there is a crime novel published for every single murder in Sweden: the country's Amazon.com equivalent says there have been 140 mysteries published there in the last six months. That's a statistic suggesting a country that is still, despite itself, pretty tolerable to live in.

 Editor's Note: The original version of this article compared the number of homicides in Sweden and Washington DC. There was a discrepancy, however, in the statistics: the text cited the population of the Washington DC metropolitan area, which is roughly half that of Sweden, but the tally of murders included only those that occured in Washington DC proper.

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Jamaica's Coke Rebellion

U.S. demands for the extradition of a notorious gang leader have exposed an island paradise as a violent narcostate teetering on the edge of chaos.

When Bruce Golding, Jamaica's prime minister, gave a nationally televised speech last week to announce his intention to capture Christopher "Dudus" Coke and send him to the United States, where he is wanted on gun and drug charges, Golding alluded to the heavy pressure he is under to extradite the powerful gang leader.

What he didn't acknowledge was the deep and murky relationship between Coke's criminal organization and the prime minister's own Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which for nine months hemmed and hawed over the U.S. extradition request and even went so far as to hire lobbyists to press Washington to drop the charges.

It was a glaring omission, bordering on the farcical. Indeed, the symbiotic relationship between Jamaica's political parties and criminal gangs -- reliably delivering votes to connected politicians and local social services to neighborhood residents -- has deep roots going back more than 30 years. That's nothing new. But Golding's obfuscation and decision to finally turn on his erstwhile ally is a dangerous break with the past: The capitulation to domestic pressure and U.S. authorities has pit a government with its back to the wall against a seething downtown population that tends to confer upon local gangs more legitimacy than it does a police force widely viewed as capricious and excessively violent.

On Sunday, Golding declared a month-long state of emergency as Coke's supporters, many reportedly members of sympathetic rival gangs, attacked six police stations in Kingston. As police and government troops massed, armed gangsters streamed from the housing projects in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, firing on the hundreds of security forces deployed to arrest Coke -- who generally lives in a tony uptown neighborhood of Kingston but, like the JLP, considers Tivoli Gardens his base.

Since independence from Britain in 1962, political power in Jamaica has seesawed between the liberal-leaning People's National Party and the more conservative JLP. In the early days of self-governance, both parties used local youths to drum up votes, but by the early 1980s politicians and the dons who rule Jamaica's powerful gangs were openly collaborating. Case in point: In 1992, Edward Seaga, then the leader of the JLP, walked at the front of the funeral procession of Coke's deceased father, Lester Lloyd "Jim Brown" Coke, who oversaw the transformation of the Shower Posse (named for its penchant for raining bullets on its adversaries) from a get-out-the-vote community organization to its current configuration as a multimillion-dollar, transnational drug- and arms-running operation. In 1992, Brown was captured by Jamaican forces, but was killed in a prison fire while awaiting extradition to the United States.

The aptly named Coke stands accused of running a violent and sprawling cocaine and marijuana smuggling operation, primarily centered in New York but active across the United States. The indictment filed in a New York district court also alleges that Coke is a major importer of illegal firearms into Jamaica, helping to fuel Kingston's spiraling street violence. Since the violent anti-government rebellion first erupted on Sunday, two police officers, one soldier, and at least 26 civilians have been killed and scores more wounded.

Although most outsiders think of Jamaica as a vacation paradise and the idyllic, peaceful homeland of Bob Marley, over the last two decades the island nation has become one of the most violent countries on earth.

It dependably ranks in the top five -- behind Colombia, South Africa, and a rotating list of Central American narcostates -- in annual homicide indices. Entire neighborhoods are no-go areas for police, who often are not in the crime-busting business anyway. Witnesses quietly speak of police colluding with drug lords, summarily executing rival gang members on the street.

But even for those locals inured to the violence, the recent battles are a different breed.

Ten miles away from the makeshift barricades and the gunfire in the Tivoli Gardens and the Denham Town neighborhoods where Coke is thought to be in hiding, Sara Lawrence, a Kingston medical student, awakened Tuesday morning to the sounds of a national emergency: sirens, the distant tat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire, and the rustle of helicopters overhead. On the street, however, "cars are few and far between. Everyone I know is trying to stay safe, keep travel to a minimum," she told me. "Everyone is a little bit anxious, but I would describe the mood now as somber."

It's a mood shared broadly among many Jamaicans outside the densely populated, impoverished garrison neighborhoods like Tivoli, said Marlon James, a well-known Jamaican novelist. "Jamaicans horrified by the violence are beginning to think that maybe Tivoli should be cut off from the rest of the country," he told me. "With not just Dudus but all the dons, this week shows just how acute the cult of personality among the dons has become. Politicians created these communities and these dons, and they've become monsters they can no longer control anymore because the money is no longer in politics -- the money is in drugs."

Jamaican public opinion of Coke generally cleaves along class lines. For those living outside the impoverished garrisons, Coke is a galling symbol of Jamaica's economic decay and governmental fecklessness. But even some within Jamaica's middle and upper classes recognize that Coke has been a stabilizing presence in a part of Kingston set to a permanent, rolling boil. And many now say that the current push to capture Coke is merely an act of political expediency for Golding and that little will be gained by cutting the head of this hydra.

"I really don't know if this is a permanent severing of links or a really nasty breakup," said James. "I think they are going to realize they still need each other. There is always someone else to come up from where the last one left off. The money is too good. The actual business of drug dealing, gun-running is just too easy. It's kind of ludicrous to think it will be over. Politicians can't survive without West Kingston, and I don't think West Kingston can survive without politicians. It's such a unique case in so many ways. A politician has never turned over a don, but this is no ordinary don."

Even if Coke is soon captured, few in Jamaica expect that the prime minister's standing will recover. With both major political parties stained by association with drug gangs, the more significant damage is to the legitimacy of Jamaica's government overall -- especially its police and armed services -- which was never held in high regard, but is now being reassessed by a much broader spectrum of Jamaican society.

Anthony FOSTER/AFP/Getty Images