A protest after the burning of the Koran in Stockholm - who is behaving irrationally now? (Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

June 20, 2023   6 mins

In 2015, a religious mania descended on Sweden, as long-simmering anxieties — about the growth of crime, the failure to integrate immigrants, and the collapse of the political centre following the rise of the Sweden Democrats — combined to create a spectacular moral panic. The tinder had been stacked for years, and was simply awaiting a spark: in this case, a photo of a young refugee washed up on a Greek shore. After that, the madness truly began.

The details of Sweden’s short-term embrace of open borders, as well as the idea that “Sweden” as a culture or a nation did not even exist, do not need to be relitigated here. Many things were said and done in those years that really shouldn’t have been; things which caused great damage to the country’s politics and society. Suffice it to say that the pressure to conform, to go along and to denounce traitors within the ranks, was simply too strong for many to resist. Anxiety, after all, is an insidious force. It eats away at us from within, until the only way to banish it is to attack the people next to us — to look for witches and traitors to burn.

By 2016, the opponents of this moral panic started to organise. Alternative media platforms such as Kvartal or Nyheter Idag were launched, re-launched or saw their subscription numbers grow dramatically. And as someone who contributed to the re-launch of Kvartal (which had a very similar profile to UnHerd in terms of its ambitions to challenge herd behaviour in media and public discussion), I had something of an “inside view” of Sweden’s intellectual dissident circles during the period.

Back then, people really did believe that this turn towards intolerance was unique to the Left. The hope was that, once the Left’s hysteria burned itself out, there would be no more bullying of dissidents, no more denouncing of those who thought differently as fascists, no more stultifying social pressure to mouth dogma that you knew deep down was incorrect and self-defeating. We were, as the saying in Sweden goes, incredibly naive to think so.

Today, the Left’s moral panic over refugees has largely evaporated. Yet far from ushering in a more healthy climate of debate, it merely gave way to another period of intolerance, one which is even more ridiculous than the last. To understand why, we have to talk about chocolate.

During the tail end of the First World War, a Norwegian chocolatier opened the Marabou factory in Sundbyberg near Stockholm. A century later, Marabou still produces its chocolate inside Sweden, selling primarily to the domestic market. And while other Swedish candy companies have decamped to other parts of the world where wages are lower, the Marabou factory — now located in Upplands-VĂ€sby — still provides well-paying manufacturing jobs to hundreds of workers.

In the last week, however, there have been coordinated attempts to boycott Marabou. The reason is simple, if comical: Mondelez, the American holding company that owns Marabou, also owns many other brands, some of which operate in Russia. Marabou itself does not operate in Russia, nor does it import from Russia, nor does it even sell to Russia, but that hardly matters.

There are, meanwhile, many national companies that do continue to do business in Russia, including the Swedish bank SEB and the state-owned energy company Vattenfall. Sweden also still imports Russian natural gas, while there remains an almost infinitely long list of companies who still sell to both countries. For those who want to make even a symbolic dent on Russia’s economy, it is clear that these businesses would provide more “logical” targets for a boycott. But logic has no part in these proceedings. Quite the opposite: to the extent that almost all of the “dissidents” from the 2015-2018 era are now copying the very Leftists they used to denounce.

In 2015, the moral panic around refugees had two phases. In the beginning, its social energy was directed outwards, and the belief that the world could be changed was the norm. For the first few years, people eagerly volunteered at various refugee organisations; they donated clothes; they raised awareness. Meanwhile, those who thought that accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees per year without an idea of how to pay for it were ridiculed, but this was also a means to an end. People genuinely believed that time and history was on their side; the “fascists” who didn’t understand were thus viewed with almost as much pity as hatred.

In 2018 and 2019, the tenor changed. The bad news — unprecedented economic trouble; stories about refugees engaging in gang rape; ethnic conflicts bordering on riots taking place inside schools — kept piling up, and became harder to ignore. In response, the moral panic evolved into its introvert phase, as the righteous shut themselves off to outside sources of pollution and sin. People no longer volunteered or donated clothes; they tried to police their own hobby groups or ban speakers from appearing at the local library. This was a retreat from politics into personal purity spiralling, and the more the activists lost their grip on the rest of society, the nastier they tended to become.

The Swedish Right’s implosion has followed a similar script. In the same week that Russia invaded Ukraine, the extrovert phase began: people donated money, organised galas and welcomed Ukrainian refugees. They also uncritically approved of Nato’s more far-reaching breach of international norms, the weaponisation of Swift and the seizure of Russian foreign assets. Those who said that these things could end up hurting the West in the long term were shouted down and ridiculed. The sanctions would work, the rouble would turn into “rubble”, and we’d prove once and for all that Russian energy was completely immaterial to the economic health of Europe.

Of course, just as with those predictions about uncontrolled immigration ushering in a golden era of economic growth, the reality turned out to be quite different. Today, Germany is increasingly deindustrialising, while the Russian economy hasn’t collapsed and shows no signs of doing so. Inflation is rapidly eating into the living standards of ordinary Europeans, and the upcoming winter promises to deliver even more crippling energy and heating bills than the last.

The boycott of Marabou is thus the Right’s equivalent to the Left trying to boycott and cancel speakers at libraries — it is the internal phase. The boycott is focused on a company that cannot decide to stop exporting to Russia, because there aren’t any exports to cut in the first place. While defenders of the boycott say that there’s a logic behind it, and that segments of the public boycotting Marabou will somehow lead to Mondelez being forced to shutter all of its interests in Russia, Sweden is a country of 10 million people and Russia is a country of 143 million. The maths simply doesn’t make sense. Again, there are many companies in Sweden that are directly guilty of exporting to or importing from Russia; boycotting one for what is essentially guilt by association in an age of multinational ownership structures is an irrational fight to pick.

But on a deeper level, the boycott of Marabou is in fact very rational, because it is no longer a fight about depriving Russia of anything. Rather, it is a fight about purity and righteousness, and of punishing the unrighteous and those who lack faith. As the West proves to be weaker than we expected, as our own economies enter crisis, punishment must be meted out. And it is because Marabou is a Swedish company, with Swedish workers, manufacturing for the Swedish market, that it is top of the list. This is the basic logic of witch trials: all the anxiety, all the uncertainty, all the cognitive dissonance that has been built up in a society can be solved, at least temporarily, by means of a social ritual that sacrifices the innocent on behalf of the guilty. Everyone agrees the workers at the Marabou plant in Upplands-VĂ€sby have done absolutely nothing wrong, but that is not the point.

Off the record, many people are starting to admit that this is all driven by “emotion” rather than “logic”, that one simply shouldn’t talk about certain things if they don’t want to be hounded and bullied. It’s not hard to see why: if 2015 was a tragedy, this is simply a farce. Even if the boycott is “successful”, the only realistic outcome is that Marabou closes or downscales its production and Swedish workers lose their jobs. On some level, most people surely know this; and that once the mania passes, the attempt to try to hurt the country’s manufacturing sector during an age of widespread deindustrialisation is something they will deeply regret. But, ultimately, the pressure to conform remains too strong.

In 2016, Sweden’s dissidents on the Right claimed to despise the routine virtue-signalling and bullying that had become so endemic to public life. And yet, far from being a product of “Leftist logic” or “cultural Marxism” or “wokeness”, this penchant for moral panic has revealed itself to be deeply human and seductive. All of which suggests something curious about Sweden’s intellectual rebels: they weren’t really interested in abolishing what they raged against — they were merely waiting for their turn.

Malcom Kyeyune is a freelance writer living in Uppsala, Sweden