Oe get into the habit of idealizing Scandinavia. Living in Britain, a country of damp sandwiches, ramshackle housing and sky-high gas bills, makes it easy to fantasize about places like Denmark, with its bountiful welfare state and 37-hour working week. We praise his social philosophies, adore his politics as dramatized by Borgen on television.
The idealized version of this sounds like a social democratic utopia in which the state takes care of your worries. This is unlike the experiences of Muhammad Aslam, a taxi driver I spoke to recently while visiting Denmark. The story of Aslam is one that Nordic model proponents don’t want you to hear. It reveals a darker side of this cozy ideal. And it shows that when the state sees you as an outsider, its generous provisions can be quickly withdrawn and something dystopian can take its place.
Aslam, 42, has lived in Denmark since 1987. All that time her home has been Mjølnerparken, a leafy public housing estate of squatted red brick blocks in central Copenhagen. His children were born and raised here; one has just finished his law studies, the other is an engineer. From her balcony, Aslam can hear the sound of children playing in the courtyards below, mixed with the chattering voices of their parents and grandparents. Local nurseries use the estate’s green spaces and every summer Mjølnerparken organizes a party for teenagers who have finished school.
More than a domain, it’s a community. But the government has classified Mjølnerparken as a “ghetto” and plans to reduce its social housing stock to no more than 40% of the total. Last month, Aslam received a letter telling him he had until September to leave his home. This all stems from a 2018 law aimed at eradicating all ghettos in Denmark by 2030. And the Danish state decides whether areas are considered ghettos not only by their crime rate, unemployment or education , but on the proportion of residents who are considered “non-Western” – ie recent, first or second generation migrants.
Aslam and most of the other inhabitants of Mjølnerparken are Danish citizens but, since they were not born in Western countries, they are treated as foreigners at home. Aslam’s children were born in Denmark, attended Danish schools and hold Danish university degrees. Because their father was born in Pakistan, they too are considered “non-Western”. It is not a story of gentrification or the hidden hand of the market, which excludes people from inner cities. It’s worse than that. This is actually state-directed population control.
A real estate investor, NREP, has already purchased 260 of the estate’s apartments. Once people like Aslam are evicted, the company plans to raise the rent on their old homes by more than 50%. Residents will be relocated, but they will have no control over location or cost. Their children will have to change schools; their communities will be shattered. “What did my family and I do? Why do we have to be removed? My children and my family did nothing wrong,” says Aslam.
What is happening in this area is far from being a local problem. In 2017, the country’s parliament expressed concern that people they considered to be real Danes were becoming a minority in some areas. The law on the ghettos is passed the following year. By breaking up these communities, the government hopes to confront what it calls “parallel societies”. This phrase comes up so often in Denmark that it borders on collective paranoia: the fear that areas that are home to large numbers of minority and Muslim citizens risk shattering a national culture.
The ghetto law was invented by Denmark’s previous right-wing government. Yet it is now being enforced by the left-leaning social-democratic government, aiming to bolster support among voters who otherwise fear it will be lost to the right.
This counts not only in Denmark, but also in Great Britain. It is often said that left-leaning parties must assuage the cultural anxieties of left-behind voters if they are to stave off the electoral threat from the right. This is visible in the distinction drawn between ‘somewhere’ and ‘anywhere’, the argument that working-class Labor votes have collapsed because people feel like ‘strangers in their own country’ , or in books that give an academic sheen to the disturbing idea. that “racial self-interest” of white citizens is not the same as racism. Some even seemed to suggest, as did the Danish government, that whether you are truly British is defined on the basis of your ethnicity.
The Danish Social Democratic Party has been hailed by British commentators as a lesson in how to achieve integration and as a model for neutralizing the right. Mjølnerparken shows how ugly these ideas look in practice. This should be a lesson: take this path and you will find yourself forcefully tearing communities apart in the name of social harmony.
Few residents of Mjølnerparken would deny that the estate has its problems. Unemployment and crime rates are above average and overcrowding is a problem. Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find plenty of stories that challenge that image: Ibrahim Kadoura, an electrician who’s lived here since 1992, proudly tells me about his son’s place in medical school and his daughter’s leading role in a consulting company. . The government views problems in these areas as the product of failed migrant integration, but residents know it is more complicated. The labor market discriminates against people with Middle Eastern and non-Danish surnames, while many people find it difficult to find a job simply because they live in a stigmatized area like Mjølnerparken. Breaking up the estate would destroy a supportive community and do little to address the discrimination its residents face.
Compliance is at the heart of Danish culture. Believing that people are like you and share your values can be helpful in maintaining support for a welfare state. But there is a darker side implicit in this requirement: if the country’s generous welfare state is uniquely Danish, then migrants and foreigners who are not considered genuinely Danish are easily characterized as a threat to him. “The most important thing when people live together is tolerance – ‘I will accept you, and you will accept me,’” Kadoura said. “I accept the Danish people. But I feel like they can’t accept me.