Guest post by Magnus Hörnqvist, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Criminology, Stockholm University.​ He has published extensively on issues of state power, risk and regulation.​ Current research areas include 'social class and cognition' and 'the pleasure of punishment'. This is the fourth post of Border Criminologies Book Discussion Week Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State

Whereas many countries have been plagued by penal populism, welfare retrenchment and neoliberal policies, Sweden is often associated with a strong welfare state, penal moderation, and promotion of human rights on the international arena. Within the sociology of punishment, in particular, the welfare state and its extended social safety net is thought to be casually related to penal leniency – with relatively few people incarcerated under comparatively humane conditions.

In her book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order, Vanessa Barker questions the central assumption underlying dominant explanations to ‘the punitive turn’ as well as the very notion of a ‘Nordic Exceptionalism’ in matters of criminal justice: namely, that ‘neoliberal’ societies such as the UK or the USA are more prone to resort to exclusionary measures. In these societies, in the absence of social services, readily available for everyone, including people ‘at risk’ chastened by neoliberal economic insecurity, exclusionary policies are increasingly being adopted toward poor people over the last three decades or so. However, following the account given in Barker’s book, a resilient welfare state does not protect against punitive policies either. Quite the contrary: it reinforces such policies. By questioning the allegedly protective impact of the welfare state, Vanessa Barker challenges hegemonic opinions on the punitive turn, as well as, for that matter, the rosy but worn-out image of a peaceful egalitarian country, which any Swedish traveler is likely to encounter across the globe, whether in a pub or in a seminar room.

The exclusionary measures and inflicted pains are not necessarily different to those experienced in other countries, instead the underlying logic is different. Vanessa Barker speaks of an ‘internal logic’ that is peculiar to the welfare state, or its incarnation in a Swedish context. When the criminal justice system along with the migration authorities enforced ‘a national project for nationals’ (p 13), by closing the borders for migrants in the autumn of 2015, the process was seen to be driven by the promise of trygghet , that is,  security in an encompassing sense, including economic wellbeing and a sense of attachment. Barker traces the intrusive forms of state intervention, such as forced sterilization or the discrimination of the indigenous Sami people, that constitutes the other side of the inclusionary vision of folkhemmet; the benevolent state which takes good care of everyone. The incarceration and the exclusion of certain categories of people – those who were considered unfit to fulfil the obligations that came with the class compromise, struck in the 1930’s, on which the welfare edifice rests – may appear to be a paradoxical benevolence. Yet according to the logic of the welfare state, not only free health care and good education but also compulsive treatment were being administered for the well-being of everyone, including the ‘unfit’ citizens who were being exposed to such violent interventions (such as the forced sterilization mentioned above). It was all done in their own best interests.

One of the many merits of the book is that it presents the darker side of the Swedish welfare state to an international audience. While it refreshingly goes against the grain of some conceptions in the current literature on punishment, such as ‘penal exceptionalism’, it is very much in line with an earlier critique of a proposed penal leniency in the Scandinavian countries. The golden years of the welfare state, the 1950’ and 1960’s, saw a proliferation of closed institutions, along with a choir of critical voices – researchers, former clients and activists – who questioned the propensity to lock people up based on deviant behaviour other than breaches of the criminal code. Mostly poor and already vulnerable, many people were institutionalized for significant periods of time because of mental health issues, alcoholism, disability, and later on because of drug use. According to one estimate made by Henrik Tham and Hanns von Hofer, during the first part of the 1980’s, the deviant population inside the prison system was roughly the size of those in other closed institutions, mental hospitals excluded. Vanessa Barker continues to widen the concept of punishment, this time by taking the punitive and exclusionary treatment of refugees and migrants into account.

She uses a natural experiment, i.e. what happened when the welfare state was exposed to a stress test. Following decades of high levels of immigration – that is, high on a European scale – mostly composed of people fleeing wars in Africa or the Middle East, the Swedish population is already relatively diverse. In 2015, over a short period of time, the country opened its borders to 163,000 refugees. The Prime Minister held a speech at a solidarity demonstration, passionately arguing against the build-up of walls in Europe, only to announce a temporary border closure two months later. The official justification was system overload. More specifically, the individual agencies making up the welfare state – the school, the border agency, the social services, the public employment agency and so on – could not manage the large influx of refugees. More recently, after the publication of Vanessa’s book, leading government officials have adjusted the somewhat technical argument of system overload. In a Christmas interview, for instance, the Finance Minister argued that refugees are better off in other countries. Once again, they are excluded in their own best interest. That is one of the many paradoxes of the Swedish welfare state. The same kind of people who were welcomed with open arms in the summer, granted asylum and provided with a place to live, basic income and access to health care and education, would have their applications turned down and be expelled a few months later. For the individuals concerned, those are radically different outcomes, sometimes even a matter of life and death. But the reader of this book will learn that both outcomes are the expression of the same logic which is particular to the welfare state.

Countries with hollow welfare states, the USA or Italy for instance, tend to house large numbers of irregular migrants, who are quasi-tolerated – not allowed to stay yet not expelled – by the criminal justice agencies but kept outside the systems of social insurance. People are left to fend for themselves, often providing cheap labor in the informal economy. This is less of an option in countries like Sweden. To understand why that is so, I believe it to be necessary to bring into analysis the entire institutional field that manages mobile populations and social insecurity. Simply looking at one institution, such as the penal system or the apparatus of border control, will provide a partial view of how the world presents itself to the people who are exposed to organized state power.

In my own research on the penal-welfare nexus of the Swedish state, I have brought attention to the ‘generalized mechanism of enrolment’. It means that those without regular work – including foreign-nationals with a resident permit – are managed by one or more state organizations that exercise control and support them in their daily life. Once caught in the nexus, regular work represents the only way out, and all programmes are designed to that end, whatever the actual outcome. The generalized mechanism of enrolment secures the grip of the state. At the same time, it protects people, including Syrian refugees who were recently granted asylum, from the worst forms of exploitation on the informal labor market, since the benefits levels are still above the poverty line. The mechanism of enrolment provides a generalized network of control and support within the Swedish nation state. Vanessa would call it a ‘generalized mechanism of exclusion’, not just on account of how irregularized migrants fall outside the remit of such ‘protection’ but also on the very shape that such practices of care and protection may take. And rightly so; there is no end to paradoxes presented by the welfare state.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Hörnqvist, M. (2018) Enrolment and Exclusion: Juggling with the Paradoxes of the Welfare State. Available at: (Accessed [date]).