I was a natural cosmopolitan. Sweden, and the far right, changed all that

Nordic Resistance marchers confronted by leftwing activists in Borlange, Sweden, 1 May 2016. Photograph: AP
Nordic Resistance marchers confronted by leftwing activists in Borlange, Sweden, 1 May 2016. Photograph: AP

I was born in Turkey and am now based in Lund, on the southern tip of Sweden. Most of my life I’ve probably been the quintessential cosmopolitan, and proudly so. But I’ve also spent too many hours in the consulates and airports of various EU countries coveting a multiple-entry Schengen visa, or enduring the suspicious looks of customs officers, to believe that I could be a “citizen of nowhere” with a Turkish passport.

My cosmopolitanism was more a moral ideal based on compassion, and did not preclude a yearning for belonging or roots. It simply defined them in a different way. I could have roots in many places, and I could nourish my need for belonging from a variety of sources.

With this background, it is not very surprising that I took up a job offer in Sweden in 2011. To be sure, it was not easy to adapt to the notorious Nordic winter and the idiosyncrasies of the Swedish way of life, not least the obsession with moderation (“lagom”) and modesty (“jantelagen”), which manifests itself as an unwavering commitment to consensus and the need to avoid confrontation at all costs.

Sweden has become one of my many homes, and with the birth of my son in 2013, it became the first among equals. Having a family and living in a small university town was perfectly compatible with my understanding of cosmopolitanism, which, drawing on the Stoics, regarded these affiliations as a series of concentric circles, starting with the local and extending into the societal and global. I could not imagine at that point that my cosmopolitanism would begin to crack under the pressure of several developments.

First, I started to appreciate the value of Sweden’s welfare state, which for four and a half years took great care of my son after he fell seriously ill and until he passed away in July 2018. I developed a sense of loyalty to the social contract that underpinned the Swedish state – a feeling I’d never felt before, either in the country where I was born and raised, or in others where I’d spent a good chunk of my life. I wasn’t even a citizen of Sweden (though my son was), but that did not matter when it came to a child’s life, nor did the amount of taxes I paid or the type of permit I held.

But I was also exposed to the more unpleasant aspects of the Swedish social contract: a token egalitarianism that trumps all notions of meritocracy, an extreme understanding of political correctness, and a corporatist alliance between employers and labour unions. These aspects are little known to outsiders, who often tend to glorify the “Swedish model”.

After my son’s funeral, I travelled outside Sweden to resume a nomadic lifestyle. I was torn. I now had a better understanding of the tensions between citizenship and a borderless universalism, or the type of cosmopolitanism the likes of Theresa May or Nigel Farage have attacked. I’d witnessed the immense pressure that the refugee crisis of 2015-16 placed on the Swedish government. Then came the unstoppable rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party, which would soon become the third largest in parliament.

I also found myself to a certain extent sympathising with the opprobrium that populist demagogues and rightwing commentators heaped on prevailing forms of political correctness. I’d become the victim of such vigilantism myself, one that pays little heed to due process or other fundamental values such as empathy.

On top of that, the Europe I’d sought refuge in was not the Europe I once thought it was. Sweden was simply following in the footsteps of a host of other countries that were mutilated by the far-right juggernaut. Nationalism was – once again – the order of the day, with a slightly different script in which the lead role was given to “threatened white majorities” or “majority ethnic anxieties”. All this happened under the watchful eyes of academic snipers who did not hesitate to target any remaining sign of more universalist visions.

Basically, I had two options. The easy one was to jump on the bandwagon, recant my earlier cosmopolitan convictions and start penning pieces about the virtues of the rightwing populist backlash. This would require adopting a politics of euphemism where good old nationalism is sugar-coated as “national citizen favouritism” and where racism is confined to the marginal domain of white supremacists, or the “alt-right”. This goes hand in hand with a politics of whitewashing, whereby far-right ideas and discourses are made mainstream, all with the pretext of understanding the genuine and legitimate concerns of the downtrodden.

The second option was more difficult as it entailed serious, introspective reckoning. If I were to reclaim my cosmopolitan moral agenda, I would have to acknowledge the centrality of shared values to solidarity and trust.

I had to understand that the central question is, as the Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh puts it, whether it is possible to resolve the fundamental tension between, on the one side, “universal moral rules founded in notions of human rights”, and on the other, “nationally bounded claims derived from the idea of citizenship in particular nation states”.

My answer is yes, and the formula is simple: emphasise the connection between rights and duties; speed up the process of integration of newcomers (refugees or migrants) without demanding that they fully assimilate into the dominant culture, but asking them to respect the existing social contract; foster a sense of common destiny that does not necessarily require myths of common ancestry; and engage with the demand for recognition in a fair and equal way, without privileging either minorities or majorities.

The point here is that a sense of civic duty does not entail expecting citizens to turn into cosmopolitans. And a moral concern for the refugees and migrants who risk their lives to provide their children with a better future does not require us to care less about our own children. The yearning for home, or to protect one’s home, does not entail isolation, for there are many homes and many definitions of home.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” the novelist James Baldwin said. Perhaps that’s the answer: to think of cosmopolitanism as an irrevocable condition, much like love.

Umut Özkırımlı is a political scientist based at Lund University, currently on sabbatical at CIDOB, Barcelona and LSEE (research on south-eastern Europe, LSE) and the author of Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction.

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