The Flight from Brotherhood to Nation State Welfare

(Dagens Samhälle, June 4, 2015)

”I’m gonna call my brothers” read the headline of a widely observed article in 2010 in the culture section of the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter by Jonas Hassen Khemiri after the failed Islamist bomb attack in downtown Stockholm, and the text was later developed into a book and a theater play. This was a headline, and a title, that remained in the public conscience because it seemed to indicate a discomfortable societal change beneath the surface.

What was it that made him want to call his brothers?

Over time, something about the brotherly concept has gotten – or regained – a tang; he can actually be so much more than a dear brother. The Brotherhood. Blood brothers. Brothers in arms. Us against them. If sisterhood is often portrayed as a nice tea party, male bonding seems to carry meaner connotations, as displayed in politics, business, religion, and gangster culture. Brothers are the ones you may have recourse to, trust, call when in need. Forming a circle, they also draw a line in the sand. They establish borders.

They are the ones who are expected to protect the family, another multifaceted concept, and its honor.

In the year 2002 an interesting thing occured in Swedish local politics. Edip Noyan became an elected member of the Botkyrka city council, representing the Moderate party, after he had received an unexpected number of personal votes (on the party ballots one can also pick an individual preference). It turned out that some fifty of these had been cast by Noyan’s relatives. They were not necessarily moderates, but voted to elect a person ”who represents us”, as it was expressed in a news story in Dagens Nyheter. A Syrian priest explained: ”Edip will be the voice of the congregation on the council. Everything we need, we can demand through him.”

As an example the priest mentioned that the congregation would now get an opportunity to acquire a particular, coveted lot from the city. After all, it was not the Moderates who had won a seat on the elected body, it was the congregation, the bloodline, the family, the brothers.

In large sections of the world, people rely on their family or their clan since it may be their only chance for survival. Where a functioning state is missing, or where the state constitutes a potential threat, you can only turn to those closest to yourself. There is no confidence in society. Corruption is part of the nonexistent trust.

In Eduardo Grutzky´s and my book about honor culture, ”Heder och samvete” (”Honor and Conscience”), the uniting function of the extended family is being described; once you step outside the framework there is danger of ostracism and loss of the protection previously guaranteed in exchange for giving up your integrity and independence. To a great number of people, belonging to the brotherhood becomes a life-supporting transaction, one part of existence that is so self-evident that they do not even need to reflect upon it. Per Brinkemo, in his book ”Mellan klan och stat” (”Between Clan and State”), expands on this theme discussing the problems that arise when a clan-based culture migrates into a society with different values and a welfare system financed through taxation.

Social democracy had a vision after World War II, not least in Scandinavia, of liberating the individual on a foundation of collective safety. Student loans and public transfers of different kinds would make the individual less dependent on the family. The youth rebellion and the leftist movement of the 1960s may have expressed themselves in communal terms, but the heritage from those years is primarily individualistic. Conformity should be confronted.

The combination of individualism and social safety nets has made the Swedish welfare model uneven in a global perspective. It has also had the nation state as its prerequisite; citizens with an income have paid high taxes to enable all citizens of the nation to lead a decent life.

When this system now seems to begin bursting at the seams, with increasingly devalued pensions and major shortcomings in healthcare and schools, voices are being raised claiming that the injustices here and in the world at large can only disappear if the borders of the nation state wither away. But the many refugees trying to get into Europe choose to come here because they hope to find functioning, stable states; they are escaping the anarchic conditions in their home countries.

Theirs is a flight from the slipperiness of the clan society to the nation state with its welfare institutions.

The entire social democratic project, upheld also by liberal or conservative governments, is now under pressure. Over a relatively short period of time, this societal experiment in a sheltered part of the world has had its qualifications altered. There is no plan for managing the large immigration from countries and regions with entirely different, or shredded, value patterns. The structural benignity can not hide the difficulties any longer. The predictability of everyday life seems to have come to an end. Increasingly Sweden resembles its surroundings, with trains that do not arrive according to schedule and with growing economic gaps that add to the distinct impression that the days of equality ideals are over.

It is a societal vision that has been broken, shattered and maybe even destroyed. The conviction that this has been the most fair-minded society on earth has been replaced by guilt-ridden value relativism. We experience a renaissance for charity work and the growth of a new political party profiting from the hollowed-out feeling of security.

Corruption used to be something that belonged to undemocratic regions of the world. Now a notion is spreading, most likely well-founded, that you can get ahead on different levels and receive favors with the help of money, contacts, family relations, and threats. Trust in the system is shrinking. The dependences associated with clan societies are establishing themselves in the fabric of the welfare society.

It was recently exposed that in United Kingdom the mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, had bought votes, embezzled public funds, and lied about his political opponents being racist. Rahman´s election campaign was based on the assumption that Bangladeshi immigrants are a clan separate from the British society. What he appealed to was their sense of brotherhood. There is a great likelihood that in Sweden, too, local politicians nurture a system of clientelism by supporting groups and associations that promise to deliver votes in elections.

One should perhaps not overinterpret Khemiri´s text about calling his brothers, but the movements and shifts beneath the surface of everyday life are worth taking seriously. The signs of a growing credibility gap are obvious on a daily basis with new cracks where the foundation once seemed solid; it is a gradual expansion of topics and areas open to negotiation, to benefits and privileges ultimately based on the fact that representatives of the system do not want to be bothered with inconveniences, often have doubts about their professional role, or hope to avoid accusations about discrimination.

The affiliation with a clan, an extened family or a group with interlaced notions may be difficult to relate to for those who have grown up with individualism and safety as their ideological framework. Why live within the limitations of the brotherhood in a society which has such greater freedom to offer? Some profit from it, for others it is about coercion, but the simplest answer is: because it is possible, if you prefer it.

The welfare system is more tolerant than the clan culture.

And when the clan and its norms establish themselves within the system, the officials of Sweden seem to lack someone to call.