Castles in the Air
Living alongside other people can indeed be a confusing ordeal. People believe all sorts of strange things. They act in even stranger ways. In the end, however, there is really no other option than to try to understand them: to discover the reasons why people live out all the strange things they do. The only other option is to retreat to some remote island, along with enough of one's clones, and reflect on one's mirror images forever.
It is in this spirit that I have poured over the recent adolescent outburst from Christian Democrats' youth section (KDU). In a self-perceived quixotic feat, KDU broke a lance in favour of the complete "assimilation" of immigrants into Swedish culture. The word "assimilation" has an unfortunate history. It is under the aegis of this concept, for instance, that minorities – jews, sami, romani – were forced to mulct their cultural identities for good and be absorbed into the mainstream culture. As hard as I try, I cannot really understand why anyone would want to turn the country into a gigantic suburb to Bromma. But perhaps my failure to understand is exactly the kind of catastrophically failed integration (let alone assimilation) that is decried.
"On the one hand, everyone must become Swedish; on the other, the bar for Swedishness is set so impossibly high that nobody actually can."
In any case, there is a deep paradox in these arguments – so deep that I do not really understand why anyone would make them. On the one hand, everyone must become Swedish; on the other, the bar for Swedishness is set so impossibly high that nobody actually can. In fact, the bar is set so high that cultural Swedishness inevitably collapses into ethnic Swedishness. The argument, then, is an impossible equation. (The only real solutions to which are either mass brainwashing or mass deportation.)
What I really want to understand is why this kind of ethno-nationalism is so seductive for so many. To do so, it is perhaps necessary to understand how the concept of homogeneity has influenced Swedish thought. It has become a commonplace to talk of "Swedish consensus culture", the famously narrow straights of the corridors of opinion. This, however, is often considered a cute cultural quirk, as if it were some odd fluke of history. It's not.
It was, rather, set down at the beginning of the last century as something to be promoted politically. Highly influential were the reflections of the Uppsala philosopher Axel Hägerström, a kind of TikTok influencer of the day. Hägerström was a great promoter of the idea of a uniform society, glued together by public consensus. The idea came to have considerable political success. From the very beginning, the idea was deeply steeped in social Darwinism. Society should form a close-knit consensus to win the evolutionary race, by analogy to how a compact herd becomes stronger than a few straddled individuals. As for the unlucky specimens who fall outside the consensus... Darwin suggests an ending to that particular story.
Hägerström's influence "rippled like circles on the water-surface", eventually splashing Alva and Gunnar Myrdal (as they themselves lyrically put it). Ministers, economists, public intellectuals – the Myrdals left a deep imprint on Swedish thought for time to come. Relevant here is their engagement in "social engineering", the project of "shaping" "the human material" (as they themselves lyrically put it) through active political manipulation. The value of homogeneity was of course a guiding star. Social engineers did not stop at a purely philosophical Darwinism; they pursued an aggressively eugenic one: homogeneity was to be engineered forth by comprehensive sterilization of unfit "materials".
"Say North Koreans do not subscribe their laws on a moral and cultural level. If so, then a 'castle in the air' is a peculiar description of concentration camps."
There was a final philosophical cherry on the nationalist cake: a philosophy commending a blind deference to the law, coupled with the denial of anything "beyond" or "above" the law (still very much the dominant ideology in our courts). It was not the content of laws that made them binding. As far as these thinkers were concerned, that was more or less arbitrary. It was the form of these laws that was important, that they were laws. Simply by being laws, they clasped around the human material, firmly holding it in a unified shape. The dream of homogeneity requires an internalization of the law, which thus becomes identical to culture (and thus to ethnicity).
In a congratulatory echo to KDU's text, culled from one of the country's leading papers, we find a perfect crystallization of this philosophy. Decrying the lack of Swedishness among immigrants, the author writes: "This is a universal rule: laws are castles in the air if citizens do not subscribe to them on a deeper moral and cultural level". As far as "universal rules" go, this one is, so to speak, dreadful. For one, it is way too easy to find counter-examples. Say North Koreans do not subscribe their laws on a moral and cultural level. If so, then a "castle in the air" is a peculiar description of concentration camps.
More to the point at hand, however, one can only reasonably ask an immigrant to respect and follow one's laws, not mandate their fetishization. A Swedish law is not a just law by virtue of being Swedish. However ingrained this belief is on the cultural level – however important it is for the purposes of realizing a perfectly homogenous population – is totally irrelevant. It is simply false. Something should be subscribed to on a moral level if (and only if) it is, in fact, moral. A law is a just law if (and only if) it is, in fact, just. As the Latin goes: lex iniusta non est lex.
In sum: our recent history is characterized by a solid century of ethno-nationalist philosophy. It will keep on bubbling up, whenever the acid levels rise. But philosophies are strange things. They can constrict movements of thought, congeal categories, hammer in patterns of behaviour. Their magic is powerful, but fragile. Their enchantments are easily broken: one needs only to stop believing in them. This is a universal rule: philosophies are castles in the air; if people do not subscribe to them on a deeper moral and cultural level, they will, eventually, evaporate.
Lapo Lappin is a philosophy student at Uppsala University. (Photo: Lina Svensk)