Dr. Wiggen: “Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”
Interview by F. Zehra Colak
Dr. Mette Wiggen from the University of Leeds studies radical right trends in Scandinavian countries and welfare chauvinism. She has argued that without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, one cannot understand the development of the far-right anywhere. She notes that many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. In this series of interviews on populism, Wiggen observes that “To challenge racism, and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”
Dr. Wiggen focuses closely on the new racism, extreme-right-wing parties, and their impact on mainstream politics and public opinion concerning immigration and welfare. Her research underscores that while most people do not see immigration as a threat, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants, especially during the pandemic.
According to Dr. Wiggen, the colonial mindset is very much at play in Scandinavia despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism,” which has never included “the Other.” She notes how a “lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than in the UK.” Referring to the role of ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism in explaining the reproduction of inequality, Wiggen stresses that right-wing populist views have not necessarily made the representation of Muslim women worse in Western societies. “It has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive,” she argued.
The following excerpts from the interview with Dr. Mette Wiggen have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you think the radical right has gained a strong foothold in Scandinavia? Do you think the mainstreaming of the far-right is linked to the instrumentalization of immigration issues?
There are many reasons, and it varies from country to country. In Norway and Denmark, where the radical right (RR) has been the strongest and most successful, you need to look at where the parties came from. By 1990, such parties were well established and accepted as part of the democratic party systems. They had also started gaining more than 10 percent in national elections. There was a breakthrough then as they put anti-immigration on the agenda in the late 1980s. In both countries, the forerunners of the established RR parties started as anti-taxation parties protesting the social democratic universal welfare state, high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.
The parties were libertarian with no focus on immigration. Nor did they have any links to a fascist past, making the threshold of voting for RR parties lower than in countries where they have clear links to Nazism or fascism. This doesn’t mean that the Scandinavian parties didn’t attract voters with neo-Nazi or fascist sentiments. From the 1990s, the mainstream was challenged by the electoral support the parties got, but instead of confronting the anti-immigration ideology, they embraced it. In Sweden, the mainstream has to this day refused to accept the Sweden Democrats (SD) as a legitimate party despite the SD gaining nearly 18 percent in the last elections (they are now polling at 20 percent).
“Scandinavian Solidarity with Migrants Has Always Been Exaggerated”
Scandinavia is considered nearly the strictest in Europe in legislating immigration, with confiscation of refugees’ assets in Denmark, deportation of young Afghans in Norway, and the construction of refugees as a burden on public finances in Sweden. So, what happened to the famed Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward immigrants?
I think Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward migrants has always been exaggerated. But because of the generous universal welfare states run by genuine social democrats, there wasn’t so much protest in the past. With the privatization of the welfare state and welfare retrenchment across the board, neoliberal politicians have turned limited access to welfare and competition around rights to resources into a central political issue. Most people probably believe there is not enough money to go around. They also hear from the top that the costs of including immigrants are too high but nothing about international obligations.
Liberal democracies have never been particularly tolerant toward immigrants and have often portrayed immigrants as “outsiders” as a “problem” and a “burden” rather than focusing on solidarity, international obligations, and the richness migration can bring. In Scandinavia, scapegoating immigrants (and refugees in particular) as a drain on society must be linked to right-wing ideology and neoliberalism. In the past, the universality of the welfare state sheltered those in need more, and as services were universal, there was broad support for them. Most parties on the “left” as well as the right are, in fact, neoliberal now and argue that the countries can’t afford to extend the welfare state to immigrants and refugees.
With the economic crisis in the early 1990s, there has been a massive drive to privatize healthcare, especially in Sweden. With that comes a focus on profit and not tolerance, solidarity, and human rights. The idea that there isn’t enough to go around has become normalized, and most people fear what might come as they worry about what they might lose if “the Other” is entitled to the same support as those with family roots and connections. This development has coincided with an enormous boost to RR parties in Denmark and Norway as they were the first such parties. Now that it has become so normalized, it’s difficult to know the difference between the RR and mainstream parties on immigration. The Danish social democratic party with their anti-immigrant prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, are particularly extreme. The government recently stripped 94 Syrian refugees of their residency permits, claiming Damascus is a safe place to return to. Amnesty International says the decision is appalling and a “reckless violation of Denmark’s duty to provide asylum.”
In your work published after the terror attacks in Utøya and Oslo in 2011, you hold mainstream political parties responsible for not confronting racism, sexism, and ignorance in debates around immigration and integration, rather for reproducing anti-immigrant extreme right-wing rhetoric. How do you explain this reticence among mainstream politicians in Norway to defy right-wing populist views? What might have they done to effectively respond to the far-right?
I think a lot of it has to do with unconscious bias—many politicians and journalists can’t see it. But many do, and it was made very clear by the then PM Jens Stoltenberg that racist anti-immigrant rhetoric had to stop. It didn’t, and the social democrats kept drifting to the right on immigration. Some of the explanations as to why the social democrats weren’t clearer and more supportive of immigration and immigrant might be found in their concern about electoral competition from the right. Denmark becoming stricter on immigration was also an issue; some central Norwegian social democrats said they were concerned about immigrants coming to Norway instead of Denmark if they didn’t follow Denmark’s lead. The strategy didn’t work, and in the 2013 national elections, the far-right Fremskrittpartiet (Progress Party) was invited by the mainstream right to join a national coalition for the first time. The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric and reporting. I’m actually shocked to see how much of the media compare rates of COVID-19 infection with “country-born” against “foreign-born” and how they have created the term “imported infection” as they focus on various immigrant groups’ behavior without adding any analysis of socio-economic factors.
“Most People Don’t See Immigration as a Threat”
In one of your articles, you mention how the populist and nationalist Senterpartiet (Center Party, SP) in Norway is gaining popularity by tapping into the grievances of people suffering from uneven development and without referring to immigration issues. What might explain this rhetorical shift? Do you think the “migration issue” is losing popularity among populists because the current mainstream attitudes toward immigration already reflect right-wing populist views?
I don’t think SP ever was an anti-immigration party, nor are they on the right. They don’t see immigration as a problem in the same way as the RR or the social democrats, who for many years seem to have copied RR immigration policies. I think the “migration issue” is losing popularity, especially among young voters across the board. Still, the RR has toned it down a bit, considering very few refugees have arrived in the last few years. Local municipalities appeal to the government to accept more refugees saying they have more than enough capacity. Most people don’t see immigration as a threat and have other more pressing issues to think about. Still, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants during the pandemic. There are national elections in September 2021, and the electioneering seems to have started.
What are the specific characteristics of the Scandinavian populist right-wing parties compared to the far- or extreme-right populist parties in Europe? How do you explain similarities across the European far-right, especially regarding the “issue ownership” of immigration and Islam?
In Norway and Denmark, the parties have no links to a fascist past (Sweden is a different matter). Still, more answers can be found in the countries’ and the parties’ colonial past and a shared anti-immigrant, nativist ideology and welfare chauvinism. The links are easier to understand, or more obvious, if you look at Rassemblement National (the National Rally) and its forerunner, the Front National, and legacies of colonialism and anti-republicanism in France. French settlers in Algeria—the so-called pieds-noirs (“black feet”) who came back to the south of France after independence—played an important role in the party’s success that was to become the Front National, one of the most influential RR parties in Europe.
In Norway and Denmark, RR parties have also long been accepted as “normal” by the other parties and have worked in local coalitions, even with the social democrats. In Sweden, as in many other countries, a cordon sanitaire was in operation; mainstream parties refused to accept them as legitimate political parties, never mind collaborating with them in coalitions. This has backfired in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats have established themselves as the main opposition party. The SD has long listened to working-class people’s grievances and now poll at 20 percent.
In your analysis of the radical right, you refer to the history of intolerance and inequality targeting ethnic minorities, such as the Sami population in Sweden and Norway, and the culturalization of racism to establish difference. How do you explain the role of racism in understanding the development of the far-right in Scandinavia and why most analyses of the far-right fail to acknowledge its importance?
We have to understand history and colonialism and how that shaped our world and its prevailing ideas. There is an ongoing competition over resources both in Sweden and Norway over the right to continue exploiting and demanding resources on Sami territory. Still, the Sami are gaining support from international organizations. Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.
“Right-wing Populist Views Are Worse for Muslim Men”
Your work looks at how Muslim women have been targeted by Western media and politicians and inaccurately represented as victims of their culture while their voices are significantly overlooked. What reasons do you think lie at the root of this obsession with the so-called emancipation of Muslim women in Western societies? How has the normalization of the right-wing populist views in Scandinavia affected the representation of Muslim women in mainstream public and political discourses?
I think we can understand this best by putting it into a historical context. Many Western feminists are still influenced by colonialism and don’t understand “feminism is not a
Western invention,” as the late scholar Nawal El Saadawi said. Saadawi reminded us that women fighting the patriarchy and capitalism is historical and global.
In Scandinavia, this colonial mindset is very much at play despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism” that goes back to the 1970s, one that never included “the Other.” On the contrary, the lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than here in the UK. Ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism ensures the reproduction of inequality. There is also a sense of superiority and arrogance that comes with being “the best country in the world,” as several journalists used to report when UNDP human development reports showed Norway on the top. I don’t think right-wing populist views have made the representation of Muslim women worse. Instead, it has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive. In Norway, a survey showed that Muslim women had easier access to the labor market than Muslim men. But there is still an obsession with head coverings—wearing the niqab, and the burqa was banned in Denmark and Norway in 2018.
“Young People Need to Be Heard and Taken Seriously”
Different analyses show how the far-right in Europe has tried to capitalize on the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, others have argued that the pandemic has exposed the political incompetence of the far-right parties. How have the far-right parties in Scandinavia responded to the pandemic, and what might be the pandemic’s consequences for far-right there?
Radical right parties in Scandinavia have largely supported the governing parties, apart from in Sweden where there was no lockdown and more than 13,400 have died to COVID-19. The Sweden Democrats asked for stricter border controls and targeted immigrant communities and blamed immigrants for spreading the virus in March 2020. The governments in Norway and Denmark took a very different approach and locked down on March 12, 2020. The death rate in Denmark is just over 2,400, and in Norway, only 650 and the governing parties have gained support while the RR is weaker than ever. However, this is not due to political incompetence exposure but more because the governing coalitions have adopted the RR’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies largely across the board.
Your work also focuses on increasing the engagement of young people in politics and society. Why is it important to foster political engagement among youth, and what are the most effective ways to facilitate their active and critical participation in responding to the global challenges that affect our contemporary society?
At the top of my list is the eradication of poverty. There must be access to and funding of education for all, from nurseries to primary and secondary schools, colleges and further education, universities, youth clubs, music, and sports. There must be an end to austerity and welfare retrenchment. Young people also need to be heard and seen and taken seriously. The young have made an enormous contribution to climate change demonstrations, protests to improve women’s safety, and Black Lives Matter marches in the last year. It’s worrying how police treat protesters, especially in the UK at the moment where things are moving in the wrong direction. Freedom of assembly to demonstrate and protest is more important than ever. A new bill the UK government has recently proposed could lead to legislation that will ban protest. That would be detrimental to democracy and young people’s participation in politics and their chances of having their voices heard.