Has the Swedish Left Lost Again?: The 2014 Electoral Implosion, Civilian Deindustrialization and the Swedish Dilemma
Fri 10th Oct 2014
The Far Right Victory
On September 14th, national elections were held for the Swedish parliament and led to the departure of the sitting Right-wing government. The new political ali gnment gave the Left bloc 43.8%, of the vote, with the Right bloc (Alliansen) only getting 39.3% according to the latest statistics. The big election winner was the Swedish Democrats (Sverige Demokraterna or SD), the far-Right party hostile to established Swedish immigration policy and many say immigrants themselves. In 2002, SD received only 1.4% of the vote. In 2006, this increased to 2.93% of the vote. By the 2010 parliamentary elections they got into the parliament with 5.7% of the vote (passing the 4% threshold for entry into the parliament). This year they got 12.9% of the vote. The SD got 29% of their voters this year from those who voted for the leading right-wing party, the Moderates in the last election. They got 16% from the leading Left bloc party, the Social Democrats (see: http://www.svt.se/nyheter/val2014/var-tredje-ny-sd-valjare-kommer-fran-m ). This points to a growing disavowal of both major partie s whose similarities were more important to many voters than their differences. The result has led to a failure of either the Alliansen or the Left bloc to gain control of the parliament through their own votes, i.e. SD has imploded the hegemony of both major blocs.
The day after an earlier version of this essay was originally published in Counterpunch, Bo Rothstein one of Sweden’s leading political scientists, Bo Rothstein wrote an analysis of the election in Foreign Affairs. While not necessarily agreeing with all of his observations, Rothstein’s article provides a useful backdrop for my analysis. Rothstein explained part of the Right bloc’s loss as follows: “ After eight years in power, the center-conservative coalition seems to have run out of steam. In the run-up to this election, it dropped one of its main vote-winning policies: tax cuts for those who work. The idea was that such tax cuts, combined with a decrease in unemployment insurance benefits and a tightening of sickness benefits, would increase the incentives to hold down a job and lower unemployment. Although the number of jobs increased, however, unemployment remained at about eight percent over the last four years – very high by Swedish standards” (see “The End of Swedish Exceptionalism,” Foreign Affairs, September 18, 2014, accessible at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141998/bo-rothstein/the-end-of-swedish-exceptionalism).
A central point is raised by Herbert Kitschelt, one of the leading thinkers who has analyzed the rise of radical right policies. Kitschelt explains that “the radical right can establish itself most successfully where conventional mainstream parties have ‘converged’ in their policies on positions that are distant from those held by potential radical right voters.” This “convergence occurs when partisan governments alternate between centre -left and centre -right parties and coalitions, but only minimal policy change takes place, thus revealing effective similarity between the main competing parties or blocs” (see: “Growth and Persistence of the Radical Right in Postindustrial Democracies: Advances and Challenges in Comparative Research,” West European Po litics , Vol. 30, No. 5: 1184-1185).
A perceived Right-Left convergence on immigration policy (and the status quo) was rejected by the SD voters. In 2010, Jens Rydgren, an analyst of radical Right-wing Populist Parties (RRP) in Denmark and Sweden, wrote in SAIS Review:
“a relatively high proportion of the voters want a tighter immigration and asylum policy and consider this issue more important than most other issues. It is among such voters that the RRP parties can hope to mobilize support, leaving us to conclude that there is a relatively large niche for a Swedish anti-immigration party, such as a RRP party, to take root” (see: http://people.su.se/~rydgr/Party%20system%20change.pdf ). Once created, Rydgren argued such parties could make further gains by politicizing immigration.
The Far Right Success and the Left’s Delusional Mythology
From a Left perspective one can ask how these events came to pass. How did a party, that has some of its roots in Sweden’s Nazi movement, gain hundreds of thousands of votes? If SD is the party of the disgruntled, why can’t the Left bloc capture such votes? One answer could be that with the realignment of class relations and stratification systems, th e Left bloc draws its base from persons who are relatively comfortable. The Left bloc is implicated in policies that inevitably lead to winners or losers. The losers, who can’t find jobs in a globalized Sweden, turn against established parties. Rothstein in his Foreign Affairs article wrote: “ From a sociological perspective, most of the people who used to vote for the Social Democrats – blue-collar workers and the lower middle class—now vote for the Sweden Democrats. They have found themselves on the losing side of a new globalized service and high-tech economy, and they have become politically alienated by what they think is a bundle of elitist political projects.”
Another possibility is that the Left itself is filled with delusions or a failure to change its outlook and strategies to enhance success. In his essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell gives us a formula for understanding how even the Left can be subjected to an ideological system and is deluded. Orwell wrote that “a nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.” He argued that nationalism was “power-hunger tempered by self-deception.” Moreover, “every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of servi ng something bigger than himself—unshakably certain of being in the right.” The nationalist looks to support their favorite cause, but “only AFTER this would begin searching for arguments that seemed to support his cause.” Orwell explained that even “peop le of Left opinions” were “not immune” to nationalism. I am less interested in Orwell’s view of nationalism than I am his view of how discourse is deployed and can lead to self-deception by the Left.
If we replace the word “nationalism” with some version of a political party’s ideological belief system, we can begin to appreciate how even “radical” philosophies can lead to delusions or myopia. In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell explained: “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell’s observations can help us understand the larger logic that lies behind th e recent Swedish national elections. Given Orwell’s explanation that even the Left itself can be deluded, we need to examine myths of the Swedish Left. These myths are not uniformly distributed but reveal potential pitfalls that help explain why the Left is not more successful.
There are five core myths within the Left which help prevent a systemic challenge to SD and the respectable Right.
Myth One: The Left’s Victory and a Tolerant Sweden
This myth of a Left victory is not widely shared but is part of the rhetoric of Social Democratic leaders. This myth was self-evident in the victory speech of the Social Democratic Party leader, Stefan Löfven. Löfven’s party is still the biggest and now will try to build a government. Fredrick Reinfeldt, the outgoing Prime Minister and leader of the Moderate Party (Moderaterna) conceded the election and offered his future resignation. In this sense, the Left has somehow won. Löfven declared himself a winner and dispelled any complicating ideas to that thought. Yet, the party only gained 0.6% more votes in this election than they got in 2010. All of the Left block’s leaders pointed to the loss of the Alliansen in the election. Jonas Sjöstedt , the Left Party leader, also emphasized the point. Yet, his party regis tered a gain of only .1% over the last election. Likewise, one of the Green Party leaders Gustav Fridolin also pointed to the Reinfeldt -led government’s defeat. The Green Party lost .5% of their share of the vote compared to the last election.
The myth of a tolerant Sweden, generally accepting immigrants, is certainly true by some quantitative measures, but not others. The intolerance has a qualitative aspect which some intellectuals don’t register. Some polls have shown that the majority of Swedes support Sweden’s policy of immigration or are more accepting of immigrants. Many Swedes will comfort themselves by doing the math, SD did not get 87% of the vote. Yet, this spin of a Left victory and tolerant Sweden has to be balanced by other considerations.
First, while leaders of the Social Democrats, Greens and Left party also acknowledged the SD’s victory, they over-stated the progressive character of Reinfeldt’s loss, particularly when Reinfeldt lost many voters to SD, a party further to his right. Journalists from Swedish Television consistently pointed to the fallacy of a Left victory, but most politicians they confronted always had some qualifier about Reinfeldt’s defeat, a nuance that begs the question of the SD ascendancy.
Second, SD got about 788,000 votes in the parliamentary election. This is a substantial number of persons who have rejected the traditional Left and Right alignments. Many Swedes understand the significance of what has happened, with some recognition that a change in strategies are needed to constrain the SD, but usually the details of needed changes are vaguer than the clarity of the SD’s victory.
Third, SD’s electoral growth, if it continues at the rates which we’ve seen in the past, could lead the party to gain anywhere from 20% to 30% of the vote. This might not happen under four scenarios: a) rates of immigration decrease, b) Sweden grows so fast that it absorbs marginalised non-immigrants and helps promote integration, c) integration policies improve, or d) there’s s ome threshold of support that SD won’t pass because of some deep-seated cultural barrier to the party’s politics. Given current support for integration and economic growth projections, options a) and b) seem unlikely. Option b) is limited by both “jobless growth” and growth that can benefit only certain groups and not others. I will discuss below some of the barriers to option c). The cultural barrier d) is based on a projected level of “progressive” or “enlightened” culture. Yet, the very barriers to comprehensive integration show constraints to d) as seen below.
Fourth, the Social Democratic leader and would-be prime minister Stefan Löfven ruled out cooperation with the Left party. With the Left party, the Social Democrats and the Greens only got 45% of votes in the parliament. By trying to get the Center and Liberal parties on board, the Social Democrats and Greens would have 51% of the votes in parliament. Yet, leaders in the Center and Liberal parties as of this writing have rejected such formal cooperation. They may not block the rise of a government comprised of the Social Democrats and Greens that lacks its own parliamentary majority. A new election may even be called in the wake of the weakness of the current Left bloc formation. In any cas e, the SD’s surge in voters, the growing power of the Right bloc within the Social Democrats and the Social Democrats modest electoral gains have pushed the Social Democrats party further to the right. At the local government level of politics, the only w ay majority votes will be realized in many localities is through cooperation between the Respectable Left and Right blocs. Some left Social Democrats have largely abandoned trying to push their party in a more progressive direction.
Thus, Sweden follows a pattern seen in France and the United Kingdom in which immigrant hostile parties are on the rise. We see the continuing unfolding of a growing Third Way defined by both reaction and the failures of incumbent parties (see: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/09/where-has-french-left-gone ). Aside from SD, all the other parties in the Swedish elections were generally losers or registered relatively few gains. This turn of events partially reflects a mutual denial by both the respectable Right and Left, with the majorities in each clinging in part to self-destructive myths. These myths are important to expose because they are so prevalent and in some ways mirror m yths parallel to those derailing progressive change in other parts of Europe, North America and elsewhere. The myths help sustain the growing Third Way in Europe.
Myth Two: The Power of Electoral Politics
Electoral politics are important, but they have certain limits that many on the Left have failed to appreciate. In conversations with the most sophisticated Swedish intellectuals I have been told that the electoral system has been dominated by parties that really don’t get it or are busying themselves with electoral games rather than organizing people and projecting different forms of power, e.g. economic power. The basic problem is that political power is partially a function of one’s economic and media power. This is explained brilliantly by Gar Alperovitz, in his book What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution . Alperovitz writes that realignments in the power of trade unions have weakened the ability of progressive forces to alter powerful trends. He wrote “a capacity to alter big trends in virtually all advanced nations has almost always depended in significant part on the strength not simply of politics in general, and not only of movements in general, but also on the existence of powerful institutions—above all, labor unions.” As a result, “any serious future politics will have to find some other way—if it can!—to do what labor once did.” This means successful Lefts will have to also organize outside the traditional electoral system and leverage power in new ways.
Research by Anders Kjellberg at Lund University reveals a dramatic drop of blue collar workers has helped push Sweden into the same boat as other countries. In Sweden, the union density of blue collar workers went from 83% in 2000 to 77% in 2006 under Social Democratic Prime Ministers Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson. Under the Reinfeldt government this share declined further to 74% in 2007 and 67% in 2012. Union density of white collar workers went from 79% in 2000 to 77% in 2006 under the Social Dem ocratic-led governments. This share has hovered around 73% for the period 2007-2012 during the Reinfeldt era (see: https://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/ download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=3912694&fileOId=3912695&cover=0 ).
A relatively new feminist party, the Feministiskt iniativ, led by Gudrun Schyman, represented a Left alternative to the status quo but only got about 3.1 percent of the vote for parliament. In the elections for the European parliament some months back, the parties to the Left of the Social Democrats made impressive gains. The Feminist party even entered the European parliament. Their victory has built on a series of house meetings which has created a grassroots network of thousands of persons.
Currently, the Social Democrats will push the parliament into a de facto alliance with the respectable Right that will marginalize much of the political goals of the Green, Feminist, and Left parties. The Greens will likely be in a government dominated by Social Democrats and informally aligned with other parties further to their right. The Feminists will not even be in the parliament. The Left party won’t be part of the government. Yet, collectively the Greens, Feminists, and Left parties got about 953,000 votes! If these persons were properly organized they could form the foundation of: a) support for cooperative banks or a new credit card system to fund radical NGOs, b) an alternative media network and a new media watchdog organization which spelled out biases in reporting (like the U.S. NGO, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, see: http://fair.org ), and c) a purchasing cooperative that rewarded environmental and socially diverse businesses, etc. Today, Sweden’s JAK bank is one of the most important cooperative banks in Europe (see: https://www.jak.se ). Linking a), b) and c) could provide a pressure system from the Left that could influence Swedish discourse. Now, the parliamentary system has simply fragmented the Left and helped to further marginalize it. Sweden used to be a global leader in cooperatives, but these organisations have either declined or become de-politicized.
Myth Three: Multiculturalism and Green Growth Rhetoric are Sufficient for Reigning in Extremists
In many ways the Left cultural elite and progressive politicians have used a liberal immigration policy, multicultural discourse and promises to promote green technology or sustainable growth as a palliative for dealing with social intolerance. Some have supported social welfare programs decoupled from any sophisticated program to generate (sustainable) growth. There is of course nothing wrong with welfare states, green technology, and sustainable growth. The problem, however, is what these things mean to voters and what these things don’t include.
Left promises of increased government investment, Green New Deals, and accompanying training and construction programs don’t convince a sufficient number of voters. These seem more like vague promises to some, perhaps because the Left does not have a lot of local examples to prove that they can really deliver jobs to disgruntled communities of the kind supporting SD. Or, these promises fail to register with SD voters because social welfare investments are still viewed as accompanying an embrace of globalization, deindustrialization, immigration and layoffs which hurt (or are perceived to hurt) disgruntled voters. Media commentators deconstruct such disgruntlement by saying the SD represents a party of dissatisfied voters lured by populism. Globalization and accompanying deindustrialization are just assumed to be givens. Yet, many dissatisfied voters simply view politicians of either bloc as offering vague promises. The “populist” label is what many academics and media professionals use to abort any self-reflection.
Andreas Johansson Heinö, a political scientist at Gothenburg University who works with the think tank Timbro, signaled something of a break from this line of thinking in an editorial published the day after the election. He wrote in the leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “Established parties have in many parts of Europe since the mid-1980s decided in favor of globalization, for deeper European integration and strengthening the rights of minorities. In some countries, Sweden included, this has been combined with a liberal immigration policy and an ideological commitment to multiculturalism. The majority of voters have kept pace with these developments. But there is also a not insignificant minority who are hesitant or directly adverse to those changes. In some countries increasing resistance to multiculturalism and immigration fit wit hin the established right-wing parties, but in many countries, it has also created a space for anti-immigration parties.” While the majority of Swedes support continued integration, neither major party wanted to talk about integration, leaving SD to capture these voters (see: http://www.dn.se/debatt/andra-partier-maste-mota-sds-valjare-utan-sd-politik/).
Social liberalism based on a rights based policy, open immigration and multiculturalism may have different objectives in comparison with social democracy tied to notions of equality and building local communities. Although Heinö recognized the limits of contemporary discourse, he offered few detailed suggestion s about how to win over SD voters. Part of his agenda may be to deconstruct the Left from a Right perspective, so while he has helped open an important question his answer thus far is still limited. Timbro is a market liberal think tank.
Myth Four: Politics Should Focus on Deconstructing the Right, Not also Reconstructing the Left
A fourth core myth is that the Left will gain power by simply or largely attacking the Right. The Social Democrats offered few specifics during the election. As I suggested above, the Left must reconstruct itself outside of the electoral system. It also has to reconstruct Swedish foreign policy by not simply deconstructing arms exports and NATO membership but also advancing economic alternatives to these. A central aspect of the Left mythology sees its identity as being tied to deconstructing the Right rather than reconstructing the Left. It’s true that all parties more or less acknowledge the cloud of the SD ascendancy and their own electoral disappointments. Yet, some Left intellectuals have made their major raison d’être demonizing both Reinfeldt and the respectable Right as well as SD. Demonizing SD would be sufficient if it accompanied some meaningful alternative, but it hasn’t always. It’s also true that Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party-led government has in many ways weakened the Swedish welfare state by supporting various government sellouts and privatization. Sweden has the among the fastest growing income gaps in the OECD. The outgoing respectable Right government has also limited social welfare payments and pushed Swedish membership in NATO.
After the Reinfeldt era reforms, hotel and restaurant workers had to pay a higher co-payment to the Swedish unemployment system to receive benefits. The unemployed received lower benefits than before. Some of these workers even ended up quitting their unions. The level of compensation in health insurance has been reduced, the requirements to work in spite of illness increased significantly. Anna Filipsson, chief editor at the Handelsnytt newsletter argued: “The government increased the possibility for firms to hire using short and temporary jobs, whether they need it or not…Schools, hospitals, housing, state enterprises…were sold cheaply to private owners who were subsequently able to make good profit to put in their own pockets” (see: http://www.handelsnytt.se/nagra-ledtradar-till-tanket-om-valet ). These are indicators of how Reinfeldt pushed Swede n further to the Right. Kjellberg at Lund University says that union declines have been encouraged by “profound changes in the unemployment insurance [system] introduced by the centre -right government in 2007.” After unemployment funds were required “to finance a larger part of benefits” they had “to raise their fees considerably.” As a result of “considerably increased fund fees,” there was a “massive” loss in “both unions and funds.”
There are some limits to the critique of Reinfeldt. First, part of the Left’s attack on Reinfeldt was incomplete or ill founded. Parts of the Left railed against the respectable Right-wing bloc’s use of tax deductions for individuals or restaurants designed to create jobs. Many individuals receive tax deductions to hire persons, a lot of whom are immigrants, to clean their houses or apartments for example. Tax deductions for restaurants also help such employers hire less skilled persons or persons who don’t depend as much on speaking Swedish fluently. These kinds of policies helped create jobs for thousands of persons and many of these were immigrants. One estimate says that 12,000 to 35,000 such jobs were created in 2009 (see: http://www.svensktnaringsliv .se/fragor/rot_rut/ ). Without this program, many jobs would have been performed illegally, with “under the table” payments, such that workers would receive no benefits and would be easier to exploit.
In contrast, the Left insisted that these jobs were d emeaning jobs or were an expensive opportunity cost against training programs. The Left offers training programs without any consideration of where demands are for workers so trained (or the quality of the labor demanded by employers). For example, the Social Democrats said that young people could get jobs in the health sector. Yet, many people in the health sector view the jobs they need filled as requiring rather extensive skills and experience that can’t easily be supplied by young persons. Reinfeldt ’s government used a combination of tax breaks and consumer purchases of social service jobs and restaurants to help lower costs of each job provided. These consumer purchases also provided an effective demand for jobs that a training program, in and of i tself, could not.
Of course, the low level jobs created for cleaners and restaurant workers in and of themselves represent at worst a dead end job or at best a stepping stone into the labor market. Such jobs are better than being unemployed and potentially better than the mere promise of a job after entering a training program. In an era of global recession, fierce global competition, and somewhat stagnant growth any job creation program should be valued against theoretically projected jobs. The Left did not demand complementary programs to create job ladders or cooperatives to enhance the quality or tenure of jobs created by the Right-wing jobs program. Instead, they simply called for abolishing these actually existing jobs that helped lower skilled per sons, often immigrants, gain jobs.
The outgoing Reinfeldt government can point to their helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but this took place against the backdrop of substantial unemployment. The respectable Right’s earlier electoral vict ories were partially predicated upon exposing state failures, underlined by nepotism in Social Democratic appointments. Now, this Right has lost power against the backdrop of certain market failures . These market failures center on the use of entrepreneurs to organize schools, the limits of jobless growth, deindustrialization and growth that sustains segregation and ethnic marginalization. While there has been confidence that the economic recovery may have inspired (leading other issues to gain voters’ attention), there has been aversion to social welfare cutbacks and privatization scandals (such as closing down of for profit schools). Yet, many Left politicians simply talk about market failure without talking about state failure. (Incompetence or indifference to using the state to properly manage railways or the integration system might also be forms of state failure that have hurt the Right bloc).
The demonization of the Right is one reason why a discussion of competence as the alternative to either ma rket or state failure becomes difficult. This demonization displaces (avoids and helps bury) the discussion. The recent election never generated any meaningful discussion about what a competently managed school or hospital would look like in terms of its very organizational design. The Right often assumes the market works better, by pointing to state bureaucratic failures. The Left often assumes the state works better, by pointing to private (for profit) failures. Sometimes these comments are triangulated by accepting some mixture of private and public involvement, but the basic problem is that organizational solutions are often blocked. Such solutions would have the leaders of organizations giving up some hierarchical power to users (or customers) or workers (which sometimes alienates or disinterests the Right). Other solutions involve assessing the limits of certain workers’ competence which goes against the Left’s assumption that there is no heterogeneity or differentiation within workers’ skills. The Left might be correct about this in the long run, but not in the short run. In the short run the ability to implement a policy quickly often shapes the contours of electoral success and short run decisions can influence who is actually hired. Sometime s the Left mistakenly thinks that training is enough to produce competence in a job. Yet, often knowledge comes from experience and labor unions can block access to experiential space by keeping immigrants out.
The educational system (a bi-partisan project of the major parties) has supported equality on the cheap by underpaying teachers and by creating profit centers in under-staffed universities. The system has also weakened reading standards to accommodate quasi-illiteracy (cf. students’ reading loads a re decreased in universities because of the platitude that students can’t really read as much as they used to). Some on the Left have pointed to the problem of underpaid teachers, but it’s not clear whether their financing plans will hurt one group of wor kers (those with low skills) in order to aid another (persons who can enter training programs or enter the education and health sectors).
Another key problem with demonizing Reinfeldt was that parts of the Left have engaged in bad faith about how the Socia l Democrats have embraced many of Reinfeldt’s policies. Under the previous, competing Social Democratic governments, Sweden has participated in secret cooperation with NATO, bolstered Sweden’s military industrial complex, sanctioned weapon exports to shady governments or poverty stricken developing nations, and built a policy of privatization and state devolution that helped diminish welfare state capacities. Sometimes the Social Democrats have supported even greater military expenditures than the Right to keep (or expand) unionized defense jobs and Sweden’s “neutrality” (the former policy) or “non-alignment” (the current buzz word) going. Yet, Sweden is increasingly aligned with NATO, supporting NATO missions and military training exercises. The Left party, Greens and Feminist party all criticize these policies, but these policies have placed Social Democrats with a critical view of militarism into something of a bind. Persons climbing up the political ladder in the Social Democratic party, however, must subscribe to the myth that their party differs significantly from the Moderate party in defense. In sum, while the Left has been correct to criticize Reinfeldt , some have used a deconstruction of his policies as a means to avoid proposing coherent altern atives.
Myth Five: The Swedish Warfare State has Nothing to Do with the Welfare State
The fifth myth is closely related to the previous myth, but is slightly different. It’s not just that some within the Social Democratic party are blind to their own party’s support for militarism. Some even embrace such militarism as part of Sweden’s supposed non-alignment which is really an Orwellian alignment that pretends to be a non-alignment. The problem is that both the Left and Green parties were willing to be in a government whose core pillar involved Social Democratic militarism because they regarded this sacrifice as necessary for reaching common ground on welfare, diversity/immigration and policies to promote ecological transformation. This electoral compromise may have been a wise one, but the core problem that remains is how Sweden’s warfare state compromises its welfare state. As I will show, Swedish military spending constrains the welfare state, limiting both immigrant integration and certain support systems for ecological transformation.
In security policy, the difference between the Social Democrats and the Moderate parties are minimal, with the former party joining the Moderates and the respectable Right recently to approve the purchase of 60 new military fighter (JAS) planes produced by Saab Aerospace. This parliamentary decision, just a few weeks prior to the election, made hardly a dent in the mass media or intellectuals’ consciousness. The premium was placed on simply defeating the Right, not questioning the Left in the middle of an election. There was no protest rally organized in response or objections because critiquing the Swedish warfare state is less important to many than defending assaults on the welfare state or embracing other policies. This non-sequitor arises because many “Left” intellectuals rarely see the warfare and welfare state budgets as being related.