Sweden Without Illusions

In the upcoming Swedish elections, despite continued popularity for the country’s welfare state, Left prospects are bleak.

From a distance, the likely result of Sweden’s upcoming national election — victory for the Social Democrats (SAP) and their coalition partners — would seem to confirm the widely held belief that Sweden is still the model country of social democracy.

According to many on the center-left, while the European welfare states have been dramatically restructured over the last thirty years Sweden’s folkhemmet (“people’s home”) still stands strong. They aren’t entirely wrong. The health care system is still generally decent. Real wages for workers are rising, even as the rest of the European economy stagnates. Trade union density remains very high, around 70%. And even though the country’s historic commitment to full employment has been displaced by the concept of “equilibrium employment,” there are still subsidized preschools, free education with state subsidies for students, and 480 days of paid parental leave (with a gender equality bonus if the days are shared equally between the partners).

The SAP has governed Sweden for roughly seventy of the last 100 years. The conservative parties have learned the evident strategic lesson — to win elections, run on a social democratic platform.

In the 2006 election the Moderates (the leading party of the center-right) reinvented themselves, at least rhetorically, and won. They dubbed themselves the “new workers party” (SAP is the Swedish abbreviation for Social Democratic Workers’ Party) and proclaimed their allegiance to the Swedish model and a strong welfare state. Their major political project was the continuation of a workfare regime originally initiated by the SAP under the slogan “do your share, claim your right.”

The results of the 2006 election were interpreted as a rejection of a tired and unpopular Social Democratic leader. Many voters, it was claimed, were still Social Democrats at heart but voted for the Moderates to send a message to the SAP and get them back to true form.

At first, this seemed to be the case. On taking office, support fell for the Moderates and rose for the SAP during the government’s four year term. But a surprise come-from-behind win for the Moderates in the 2010 election marked the first time in modern Swedish history the SAP lost two consecutive national votes.

In its wake the Social Democrats went into disarray – they no longer seemed to know the magic formula for winning elections. Even though it is expected to win the most votes on September 14, the SAP is polling at historically low levels. During most of the twentieth century the party attracted a stable level of support above 40%, but now it only polls around 30%. Since the Moderates also attract roughly 30% of the votes the SAP is no longer the “natural” party of government in Sweden. This is somewhat ironic, as the Moderates have built their appeal on the claim that they are even better social democrats than the Social Democrats themselves.

Kicking Out the Legs

A universal welfare state along Swedish lines requires a powerful collective political subject to establish and maintain it. The strategic breakthrough of the SAP in the 1930s was to incorporate the working and middle classes in a hegemonic alliance to protect and advance the interests of both classes. In Europe the term “public” was once identified with “the highest quality,” and in no place was that more true than Sweden. Nothing but the best is good enough for the public, as the legendary Social Democrat Gustav Möller once put it. The institutions that decommodified and universalized Swedish society were institutions that incorporated the individual citizen into a larger collectivity — public libraries, swimming pools and schools that granted entry to all as a right of citizenship, not as simply a client or consumer.

Of course, twentieth-century Sweden was riddled with conflicts, class struggles and structural problems. But it was — for all its failures — an attempt to construct that very “society” that Margaret Thatcher railed against in her famous speech against the idea of society itself.

But a universalist (as opposed to a means tested) welfare model needs a level of equality to make it feasible. The tax rate has to be high enough to deliver public welfare services superior to private alternatives, otherwise the wealthy will withdraw from the system to seek them out. If it’s not the public systems will deteriorate, and when welfare deteriorates less people will feel inclined to contribute to a welfare state that isn’t delivering the goods. Soon “public” no longer means “highest quality” but becomes the “fall back alternative in a dull grey color” and the system collapses.

Sweden has been in a state of fundamental transformation during the last twenty to thirty years, a transformation that started under a SAP government but has intensified during the last eight years of conservative rule. Even though the conservative coalition ran on a platform proclaiming their adherence to the Swedish model they lowered taxes systematically, while at the same time privatizing or spinning off everything that moves: the railway system, telecommunications, the postal service, schools, health care and education.

The scandals and collapses have piled up. In the health care sector the staff is suffering panic attacks from being overworked while the elderly are lying in wet diapers because no one is around to help them. For the first time, Swedish students are now below the OECD average in the annual PISA surveys of math, science, and reading skills. Approximately one quarter of the country’s secondary school students attend schools that are publicly funded but run by private organizations, some of them owned by private equity firms. This far exceeds the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools in the United States.

How did all this happen in a society that has traditionally been proud of its high level of social equality? According to polls, 90% of the Swedish population wants to get rid of venture capitalists in the public sector and 80% would agree to pay higher taxes if welfare levels are increased. The support for the welfare state is still intact and has even risen slightly during the last decades.

Considering ongoing public support for the welfare state, why is the Social Democratic vote at a historically low level? How can the conservative parties challenge the SAP at the polls even though there is widespread opposition to their major reforms?

First as Tragedy

While current polls put the SAP and its likely coalition partners in the lead, the outcome is still uncertain. We should not forget that the conservatives were not expected to win the 2010 election either.

With their self-confidence in shambles and the “renewal fraction” running the show (“renewal” always seems to be associated with a rightward turn), the Social Democrats are running a fairly conservative campaign. They are banking on the fact that enough people are dissatisfied with the conservative government to vote them out. The SAP platform opposes additional tax cuts but has ruled out tax increases, on the grounds that Swedes have gotten used to the reduced level of taxation and raising it would be a political mistake. They say they oppose venture capitalists in the public sector, but won’t kick them out because they are now a fact of life. And so on.

The Swedish election is full of sound and fury. But the two major parties are, in effect, like those characters in film comedies who don’t really want to fight each other. They may scream and yell, but they ask their friends to hold them back so they can do it from a distance. “If these other guys weren’t stopping me, I’d show you a thing or two!”

Eight parties could enter the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament, after the election. The SAP, the Left Party, the Greens, the Center Party (the neoliberalized farmers’ party), the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, the Moderates, and finally the racist, xenophobic, far-right Sweden Democrats. There is also a new party called the Feminist Initiative that runs on an anti-racist and feminist platform, couched in queer and intersectional politics. They received 5.5% of the vote in this spring’s elections for the European parliament, but at the moment it seems unlikely that they will pass the 4% threshold necessary to enter the Riksdag.

The coalition strategy of the right-wing parties has turned Swedish politics into a system of blocs — first the formation of the right-wing coalition and then the off-and-on coalition of the SAP, the Left Party, and the Greens. The Sweden Democrats are officially ostracized but have provided passive support for the current conservative government.

Because the two main blocs attract nearly identical levels of support, Swedish politics has become somewhat Americanized through the new focus on the “swing voter.” The Moderates took power by sounding like Social Democrats, the Social Democrats now emulate the Moderates, and a hall of mirrors ensued. The result is a race towards the middle that has dulled conflicts, disciplined all but the two biggest parties, and a paradoxical situation where no party seems to offer what the majority of the population actually wants.

While 80–90% of the population wants a stronger welfare state nobody is really running on that platform besides the Left Party, which at 7% has little to show for it. This dulling of political conflict has allowed the Sweden Democrats to gain over 10% of the polls through their single-minded focus on opposing immigration. This is somewhat strange considering Swedes’ generally positive views on immigration. Polls show that less than 4% of the population thinks that immigration to Sweden is too high.

There are two possible explanations for this apparent contradiction. First, when core issues of political economy aren’t up for debate, cultural and identity issues can take its place. A party speaking in favor of “Swedish tradition” can tap into nostalgia for a welfare state without immigration, LBGT rights, and modernist culture, and argue that the only way to strengthen the former is to get rid of the latter. Second, the consensus between the two blocs opens up a space for a party of discontent. To many people, the Sweden Democrats are the only party that tries to explain to Swedes why they feel worse off now than they were a decade or two ago.

Right now the polls have the two blocs running almost even, with the 10% margin in favor of the “red-green” coalition matched by 10% support for the Sweden Democrats. A conservative coalition desperate to stay in power is playing a technical electoral game with high stakes. As the election approaches Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderate prime minister, has begun to make coded appeals to voters who support the Sweden Democrats. Even though the Moderates cannot be described as a xenophobic party, they are hoping that an increase in the Sweden Democrats’ vote will make it impossible for the red-green coalition to get a majority government, turning the racists into kingmakers.

For its part, the SAP is not keen on forming a coalition government that includes the Left Party, which has vowed to end the involvement of private interests in the public sector — a step the Social Democrats are not willing to take. This situation has produced some bizarre political theater, in which the Moderates claim that they will only accept the formation of a minority government if it includes the Left — the historical but reformed communist party. This is somewhat like the US Republicans telling Obama they will only support his government if he lets Noam Chomsky become Secretary of State.

Two Blocs, One Regime

With the blocs so close in the polls there are two probable outcomes, both of them unpalatable. One is a minority red-green coalition unable to govern because the Sweden Democrats will always vote against them in the Riksdag. The other is a minority right-wing coalition that governs with the passive support of a racist, xenophobic party able to punch well above its electoral weight.

In the twentieth century, Sweden undertook perhaps the most successful experiment in capitalism with a human face. Its welfare state has not yet been destroyed, but the foundations of the folkhemmet are increasingly shaky. Regardless of who receives the most votes, a centrist workfare regime will likely be the real winner. It may have a pinch of social democracy or neoliberalism sprinkled on top according to partisan taste, but it will taste pretty stale either way.

Faith in the possibility of parliamentary reforms is at an all time low. A hardcore ultra-leftist might rejoice at this state of affairs, but in reality there is very little to be excited about. Sweden in the 1970s was not a socialist country, but at least the long and dark winters could be endured in the shelter of one of best welfare states in the world. Today, the wind blows coldly from both directions.