Sweden, Social Trust, Clans, and Crime

Over at Quillette, Paulina Neuding interviews an Mark Weiner, an American law professor, expert on clan-based societies, and volunteer paramedic on his impressions of Sweden:

Paulina Neuding: Sweden has experienced a rise in violence against first responders in recent decades, including rock throwing against paramedics in the country’s “vulnerable areas.” How do you explain this phenomenon?

Mark S. Weiner: The easy answer is that Sweden has a growing population of alienated young men, and ambulances are representatives of social and government authority. If I were a second-generation Swedish boy with an immigrant background living in an outlying suburb and experiencing the growing contradictions of Swedish society, I might be tempted to throw a stone at anything with lights and sirens.

And then I have a suspicion that some immigrants may perceive the ambulance service in Sweden through the lens of what EMS meant for them back home. In many countries, ambulance services are much less skilled than in Sweden, and they may have different institutional relationships with the police, for instance whether or not they are required to report crime. I also wonder if the way that immigrants view the ambulance service here may have been influenced by their experience with public authority in general in their countries of origin.

The country has a high-level ambulance service, a major tradition of academic medicine, and rapidly-shifting demography. But at the moment it will be hindered from doing so by the impermissibility of collecting statistics on the basis of race and ethnicity, and by the discomfort many Swedes have in talking about cultural differences.

PN: Let’s go back to your main field of study: What is clan culture and in what parts of the world can it be observed?

MW: What I call the “rule of the clan” is a form of socio-legal order that links radical constitutional decentralization to extended kin groups, or associations of fictive kinship, with a culture of group honor and shame. It tends to exist under conditions in which modern central government is weak, because in the absence of effective government, family groups and other collective actors tend to fill the remaining vacuum of power. You can broadly contrast the rule of the clan with societies governed by the liberal rule of law, which have modern government arrangements—for instance, professional, bureaucratic, neutral administration—and which take the individual as their constitutive unit, seeking to maximize individual autonomy along a variety of measures.

The rule of the clan exists along a spectrum. It’s at the core of very traditional communities that we commonly call tribal. It exists in the midst of more advanced but still incomplete or weak states, for instance in parts of the Philippines or Albania. It thrives alongside and often captures developing states, for instance under the Palestinian Authority or in former Soviet central Asia, where it sometimes goes under the name of “clannism,” to use a term from the 2004 U.N. Arab Human Development Report. And it’s present even within modern liberal democracies. Inner-city gangs act a great deal like traditional clans, especially in their feuding patterns—though of course not in their dedication to unlawful activity. Major corporations today likewise threaten to take on certain characteristics of post-modern clannism….

PN: Honor violence is a fairly recent phenomenon in Europe that has received a lot of attention in the past few decades. You say that we cannot understand honor violence without fully understanding clan culture?

MW: Such violence doesn’t grow out of individualism. It arises from a group-based culture in which people’s ability to work their will in the world is dependent upon the relative social worth or honor of their extended kin, and it’s linked in turn to a group-based socio-legal structure. Within that structure, honor violence makes sense—it has its own rationality, just like the reciprocal tit-for-tat of the blood feud. That doesn’t make it any less abhorrent from my perspective, but if you’re going to prevent the practice, it’s essential to appreciate what it represents….

Rinkeby looked a lot like many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and I’m looking forward to spending more time there. They certainly don’t look like “bad” neighborhoods as you’d expect them in the United States—though the only times I’ve visited with either the ambulance service or on my own have been during the day. In a Somali neighborhood in Gothenburg I walked into a bazar with a burly Swedish police officer whom everyone treated like a long-lost brother.

But statistics tell a different story about crime, and about political radicalization, as do newspaper reports about grenades and the new high-level trauma gear that I saw in the back of a Stockholm ambulance. And some things about these neighborhoods were really concerning. For one, their architecture. They seem designed to be alienating and depressing, but then that’s the case for a lot of Swedish housing. Also, although socially vulnerable neighborhoods are troubled by definition, I never saw a single police officer walking the beat. That probably hurts the vast majority of law-abiding community members who deserve public support. Finally, unlike in the United States these neighborhoods are very easy to ignore.

PN: Let’s talk about the “the Nordic gold”—i.e. high levels of trust between individuals, and between the public and the state. Is this something that you’ve experienced first-hand during your time in Scandinavia?

MW: Absolutely—it’s incredible, at both an interpersonal and social level. There’s just a lot less mutual wariness, conflict and friction than in the United States. If you’re at a dinner table in Sweden with people you don’t know, but to whom you’ve been introduced by a friend, the sense of being part of an in-group is deeply palpable, and very nice. I can’t tell you how many times people here have invited me and my wife to their summer homes on first acquaintance, or even to use them while they’re away. And the comparative lack of crime and the comfort people have in public places is wonderful. I suspect that at least aspects of this social trust were historically dependent on Sweden’s ethnic homogeneity, just as the greater social disorder in America stems partly from its pluralism. The trick for Sweden will be to maintain its high levels of social trust under its new demographic circumstances, which is one reason why I’ve advocated that Swedes embrace a thicker sense of national identity—one that’s as robust as it is inclusive….

PN: Finally, you define yourself as a liberal, and you also volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the presidential election. Is there a right-left divide when it comes to the willingness to speak about problems of multiculturalism, such as clashes between individualist and clan-based norms?

MW: My experience has been that I have much freer, more open and genuinely inquisitive conversations with intellectuals on the center-right than on the left in Sweden—and I’m eager to talk with absolutely anyone and everyone I can.

My concern is that the left here is closing itself off, and that its resistance to thinking about cultural differences is a progressive parallel to right-wing climate change denial and that it could eventually eat it intellectually from inside. I have the sad impression that public thinking on the left here is ossifying, which would be terrible for everyone, on the right as much as the left.

I like Weiner’s balanced, earnest tone. He touches on many themes I’ve addressed in this blog, such as social trust, the clan mentality of many immigrants, and the European left’s callow dishonesty when it comes to immigration debates. Wiener also notes something that strikes many Americans as strange and suspicious: the refusal to collect statistics by ethnicity. The consensus behind this see-no-evil hear-no-evil policy is breaking down, but the taboo still remains, and there are forces on the left still eager to enforce it.

I think Weiner’s take is too optimistic, though. He’s right that immigrant-heavy neighborhoods are not particularly dangerous in comparison to poor American neighborhoods (the main difference being cheap, omnipresent, illegal handguns and drugs). But the few statistics that do reveal ethnicity show European immigrants, on average, doing poorly in comparison to people of the native ethnicity. Gains are slow, and there’s still much ground to cover.

Clan-based criminality is notoriously hard to eliminate, and no legal system of any European state — much less the lenient, rehabilitation-oriented, consensus-based justice systems of Northwest Europe — has the tools necessary to make a dent in it. The only way to effectively destroy clan-based criminal structures is to get insiders to betray the clans and furnish reliable, admissible evidence to the authorities. And for that to happen you need criminal sentences which are (1) more intimidating than the clan punishment for betrayal, and (2) a sophisticated and effective system for keeping the identity of informants secret. No Northern European justice system has anything like these tools at its disposal.

Which all goes to show nations need to take care about whom they let in. And why they need to take a very close look at their “family reunification” immigration policies. Both Sweden and Germany screwed up on both points in the past, and are living with the consequences today.

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