Has the Swedish Left Lost Again?: The 2014 Electoral Implosion, Civilian Deindustrialization and the Swedish Dilemma

October 24, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

From the Anti-Immigrant Backlash to the Swedish Dilemma

Mass immigrant unemployment, together with institutional racism and police abuses, are one of the reasons why a wave of riots swept through immigrant areas in Sweden last year and also why the far-Right SD became even more successful in this year’s elections. The one side of the equation is a backlash against Sweden’s failed immigration policy. In the 1990s, the Social Democrats embraced “neoliberal monetarism over Keynesianism and full eumployment .” As a result, “unemployment rose to levels unknown since the great depress ion of the 1930s; from 1.5 per cent in 1989 to 8.1 per cent in 1993, but among the ‘foreign born’ from 3.5 per cent to a stunning 24 per cent during the same period, and with disproportions in the level of unemployment particularly striking for those born in Africa, Asia and European countries outside the EU, and their Swedish-born children” (see: Carl- Ulrik Schierup, Aleksandra Ã…lund and Lisa Kings, “Reading the Stockholm riots-a moment for social justice?,” Race and Class , Vol. 55, No. 3: 9). I have already noted the problem of a failed integration problem in my analysis of why the Swedish Left lost the last elections in 2010 (see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/09/22/why- the-swedish-left-lost/). This failure to confront failed integration has continued year after year after year. Yet, the anti-immigrant backlash is partially tied to failed integration. Why?

First, during the Fordist era (centered in the 1960s), Sweden absorbed thousands of immigrants who got Swedish manufacturing jobs. These jobs have shrunk and many have been replaced with new qualified, “white collar” jobs that require sophisticated pathways for entry. These pathways in turn depend on policies for their extension, but politicians rarely discuss these, e.g. building social capital or investing in a learning space for skilled jobs, but prefer platitudes about training and language instruction. There has been some gradual understanding of the need for an apprenticeship program or systems to link Swedes and non-Swedes. Yet, training, language instruction, apprenticeships, and social capital initiatives must be integrated somehow, not treated serially or atomized by different bureaucratic fiefdoms.

Toda y, the accelerating sympathy for SD seems almost directly proportional to the accelerated growth in redundancy notices, according to an analysis by Dagens Nyheter, about two years ago (see: http://www.dn.se/nyheter/politik/sympatierna-for-sd-okar-i-takt-med-varslen/ ). Using the results of this year’s election, Lars Ahnland at Stockholm University’s Department of Economic History found that: ” there was a strong cor relation between high unemployment in a municipality and a large SD support” (see: http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/valaret2014/article19588142.ab and http://www.vansterekonomerna.se/artiklar/starkt-samband-mellan-arbetsloshet-och-sd-rostande ). In the current election, SD was projected to be the second most popular party among voters from LO (the industrial labor federation) (see: http://arbetet.se/2014/09/05/sd-drar-lo-valjare-fran-m/). In 2013, 6 percent of persons having high incomes voted for SD, but 10 percent of those in both middle and low income groups voted for this party according to data compiled by Per Oleskog Tryggvason and Henrik Oscarsson at Gothenburg University. That year, 14 percent of those with a low level of education voted for SD, in contrast to 10 percent of those having a medium level of education, but only 4 percent of those having a high level of education (see: http://www .henrikoscarsson.com/2014/06/utvecklingen-av-partisympatier-2001-2013.html).

Can the “stupidity” or racism of the voters simply be the reason for the far Right’s success? If this were the case, one would still have to explain why voters have grown more racist or stupid. On the stupidity question, among all three groups of voters (those with low, medium and high levels of education), SD’s share of the vote has steadily increased. On racism, we turn to Rothstein again in Foreign Affairs: ” The left’s strategy of labeling the Sweden Democrats as racists and fascists backfired. The election results reveal the weakness of this strategy. Compare the left’s poor showing to the Scandinavian social democratic parties’ success in neutralizing the threat of fascism in the 1930s. The parties duly recognized the problems that fed the fascist parties and then provided radical solutions. In turn, they were able to retain power, unlike their brethren in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Spain. But Sweden’s left seems to have fo rgotten the historical lesson.”

While SD had a campaign commercial arguing that “racism is disgusting” (see: http://www.dagensmedia.se/nyheter/kampanjer/article3845429.ece ), many of their members have been exposed in the media for making racists comments in the Internet anonymously and have benefitted politically by a positive fallout from racist blogs. SD may support policies that are objectively condoning and at the very l east fail to oppose structural racism. Yet, is such racism the reason for all of their support? Some commentators suggest that to argue that saying everyone or most who vote for SD are racists is misleading (see: http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/kulturdebatt/maciej-zaremba-strutspolitiken-som-baddade-for-sds-raketval/ ). Of course, a low consciousness of or weak opposition to structural racism makes it far easier to vote for SD. The independent variables that influence SD votes can include: being racist, having a strong or weak understanding of subjective or objective forms of racism, views on the level of immigrants that should be taken into Sweden, views on the success of immigration or integration policies, etc. These factors are not adequately studied by social scientists.

Some suggest the growing support for SD is linked to the more than doubling of the number of persons with immigrant backgrounds from 1970 to the recent past (see: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/assessing-immigrant-integration-sweden-after-may-2013- riots ). By this theory, the increase in the total number of persons with immigrant backgrounds leads to more racism or SD support. Yet, that argument itself is limited because it may not be the number of immigrants that leads to SD support but the growth in immigrants that accompanies policies that complicate the fight against racism, fail to support comprehensive integration, and generally impact immigrants and marginalized non-immigrants badly. So we need to address the relationship between immigrants, immigrant unemployment and animosity to immigrants. One source of this animosity is the backlash against the wave of immigrant riots that swept the country last year, lasting several days and gaining extensive media coverage. Like SD’s victories, these r iots were yet another piece of evidence revealing the failures of Sweden’s immigration policies. The riots were triggered by a police killing but also tied to the economic and political marginalization of immigrants. Likewise, racism against ethnic mino rities is triggered by such marginalization.

This is made patently clear in Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy’s book Monopoly Capital where they discuss the work of Swedish Nobel Prize winner Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma. A key passage is worth quoting at length: “The dynamics of race relations in the United States, according to Myrdal, are to be sought in the tension between white prejudice and what he calls the American Creed. Prejudice results in discrimination, segregation, and a generally in ferior socio-economic status for [African Americans]. The Creed expresses the devotion of the whole people to the ideals of freedom and equality. Prejudice, discrimination, and inferiority interact: the more prejudice, the more discrimination; the more d iscrimination, the more inferiority; the more inferiority, the more prejudice; and so on in a vicious spiral. But it works the other way too. Any measures taken to promote the realization of the Creed will lessen inferiority, diminish prejudice, and count eract discrimination; and this too will be a cumulative process” (Monopoly Capital , New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966: 249-250). Applying the American Dilemma to Sweden leave us with what Dennis Sven Nordin calls The Swedish Dilemma (see: http://www.amazon.com/Swedish-Dilemma-European-Xenophobia-1990-2000/dp/0761831517/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=14107880 91&sr=1-1 ). The links between Myrdal’s arguments and the Swedish case are thoroughly addressed by Carl- Ulrik Schierup in his essay, “A European Dilemma: Myrdal, the American Creed, and EU Europe,” in International Sociology, Vol. 10, No. 4: 347-367).

Baran and Sweezy took issue with some of Myrdal’s conclusions, particularly his optimism about the growing ability of the United States to solve its inequality problems. One key omission is the role of African Americans’ political power in combatting racism and discrimination, but attempts at juridical equality in and of themselves have limits unless connected to an economic program that involves whites, African Americans and others. In the Swedish context as well, immigrant empowerment is a necessary condition for a solution, but in and of itself could generate a backlash if such empowerment is not coupled to some kind of sustainable growth policy (as outlined above).

SD has been able to capture support among those seeking to reduce the number of immigrants (or refugees) coming into Sweden and also has promoted such policies locally. Tryggvason and Oscarsson show that in 2013 19% of those polled who believed that it was a good proposal to support Sweden taking in fewer refugees supported SD. SD has “been the driving force behind the various restrictive migration policy reforms that have taken place in the country over the last decades.” At the local government level, “if the SD possess the balance of power, the reception of refugees is, on average, significantly lower” (see: Niklas Bolin, Gustav Lindén , and Jon Nyhlén, “Do Anti-immigration Parties Matter? The Case of the Sweden Democrats and Local Refugee Policy,” Scandinavian Political Studies , Vol. 37, No. 3: 328, 335).


Some in the Swedish Left continue to hide behind the Right’s failures to mask their own deficiencies. Instead, the Swedish Left needs a good, hard look in the mirror to see their own failings. Why can’t the Left bloc exploit crises in a proactive fashion and promote comprehensive social change? Is blaming Neoliberalism a sufficient argument if such a discourse can’t promote an alternative to the politics of scarcity? Is advancing the welfare state sufficient when you can’t muster the political capital to do so? And, when your far-right competitors are more successful at amassing political capital than you (in terms of rate of growth of support), doesn’t that suggest something is wrong with you? If your discourse is simply to say that objective forces triggered your loss, why is that sufficient when your very discourse is obviously deficient in an analysis of any comprehensive alternative to: (a) win over many voters or (b) consolidate the power of your own voters. If you blame the media, then how do you explain that the Left has not organized any coherent or significant NGO to deconstruct and provide alternatives to mainstream media coverage? The Sartrian “bad faith” of aspects of the Swedish Left is chronic and may even be dangerous in the long run. In sum, an analysis of so-called “political economy” (deconstructing existing formations of economic, political and media capital) is necessary, but not sufficient. Why? The answer is that it is only in the discourses of tactics, institutional development, and reconstruction that a comprehensive solution can be found.

A logjam that blocks solutions to the weakness in immigration and integration policy will create continuing support for policies advocated by SD. Remember again Kitschelt’s point (raised earlier) about how converge a mong Right and Left blocs can lead to gains by radical right parties like SD and you can see why we might expect further SD gains in the future. One alternative would be if the respectable Right began to take on SD positions on immigration. In recent weeks, the emerging discourse has included talk of the respectable Right embracing SD positions as a way for the Moderate Party to secure its future as a major party. In fact, members of the Moderate Party have already cooperated with SD (see: http://alliansfrittsverige.nu/aktuellt/2013/07/den-har-listan-kommer-fa-dig-att-ifragasatta-ms-nolltolerans-mot-sd). On the other hand, t he aforementioned research by Niklas Bolin and his colleagues pointed to a study by William Downs at Georgia State University which shows “that social democratic parties under certain circumstances chose to introduce a more restrictive migration policy as a result of the success of anti-immigration policies.”

As a country heavily dependent upon exports, Sweden’s SDP is highly supportive of global firms and their agenda. Many SDP voters are members of industrial trade unions whose jobs and living standard s are tied to these firms. Yet, the advance of these firms also accompanies mass layoffs, closures of industrial plants or relocation of jobs to China or Eastern Europe. This is a kind of Faustian bargain that trade unions live with and accommodate throug h support for job training programs and welfare for the losers. All three of the incumbent Left parties more or less support some kind of indigenous growth plan to promote alternative energy or rail investments to address the problems of oil imports from Russia, ecological devastation and mass unemployment. Sweden has a mixture of domestic rail manufacturing centered in Bombardier facilities, but no local wind energy champion on the scale of the Danish Vestas. The Left has not spelled out how green investments wouldn’t leak out of the country as they are supplied by foreign transnationals, as they have in the United States. Jobs tied to rail investments don’t last forever. Even if Swedish construction companies and Bombardier could handle these investm ents through domestic production, after this initial investment many jobs would disappear. Before they disappeared many might go to foreign workers.

There are two ways around the twin problems of leakage and one shot growth: (a) diversify existing companies receiving national government procurement to get them outside of their specialized niches, (b) or to turn to firms with potential capacity that are domestically anchored, like Saab Aerospace. Option (a) is limited by Swedish Bombardier’s specialization within transit as opposed to other sectors. This means that Swedish Bombardier basically makes rail-related equipment and serves rail markets (see: http://se.bombardier.com/se/home.htm). It does not m ake other products like windmills (as do Siemens and Rotem). Option (b) is limited by the competing defense industrial policy which keeps military serving firms military markets.

The first alternative to (a) and (b) would be the creation of a joint venture which involved the incumbent firms and an industrial platform that could enter and capture new or multiple markets. The second solution to these problems would be to build up a cooperative or worker owned industrial system that would provide job tenure and a domestically-anchored multi-product industrial system. A third solution would be the conversion or diversification of the defense industry to new products and markets. These kinds of policies might necessitate some form of protectionism, a new co operative industrial development bank, or the creation and expansion of university programs that facilitated the state’s technical capacities. Yet, all of these options are limited by Sweden’s EU membership and EU rules which constrain protectionism, favor competition, and reward incumbent transnational firms.

A possible way out can be seen in how the French are already toying with changes to EU rules so as to promote greater growth benefitting France. Orwell’s concerns about nationalism aside, some meas ure of national industrial policy is urgently needed. A report in The Financial Times in June of this year, pointed to President François Hollande’s “drubbing” in the May European Parliament elections “at the hands of the anti-EU National Front.” The article also explained how the Socialist Party has “struggled to spur economic growth and employment in France and has little leeway to loosen fiscal constraints under EU rules.” The French government backs proposals for what they call “a genuine industrial policy.” This policy would “adapt current EU competition rules to allow for ‘European champions.'” In contrast, “EU law prevents government subsidies to private industry and frequently blocks mergers if they are viewed as reducing competition” (see: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b89dc694-fb9f-11e3-aa19-00144feab7de.html#axzz3DO4j4vgF ). Sweden’s economy is doing far better than France and the Swedish Social Democrats are rhetorically opposed to the austerity policies that have pla gued France (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/opinion/krugman-scandal-in-france.html? _r=0 ). Nevertheless, the rise of the SD suggests that Sweden may have to rethink the status quo. This rethink could involve the creation of a consortia of nations within the EU to challenge established economic orthodoxies. Such an alternative would have to link the joint political capital of Sweden, Denmark, Greece and other states to a new civilian industrial policy and reflation agenda.

U.S. and Russian militarisms represent a threat to this agenda as Sweden has “chosen sides,” and ramped up military procurement at the expense of civilian industrial policy. Sweden’s cooperation with NATO will help reduce the frontier of a civilian industrial expansion. Please note: Sanctions against Russia which impinge on free trade are acceptable for the EU. Protectionist policies which build up national domestic industrial sectors have not been. A key problem is the social construction of the Russian threat based on selective media reporting.

Let’s return now to Orwell’s essay on na tionalism. He wrote: “Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.” What happens when we replace the distant places of the world (as construed by nationalism) with the social structure of the economy (as construed by the Left)? Two dominant trends have plagued the Left.

In one the Left creates its own ideological system focused on exposing the lies of the Right and the state ments of the business class. This works up to a point, but usually fails by not responding to any truths congealed within the discourse of the Right or the business class. Businesspersons often know how to organize an economy and that might just be impor tant. Even the Left once talked about controlling the “means of production.” Here, the Left does not believe in any of the capacities of the business class. Instead, they often embrace the state as a cure all, failing to note problems of state failure or the advantages of democratic cooperatives over state bureaucracies as service delivery systems.

In the other, the Left tries to neutralize the Right or business class by embracing some version of their truths without acknowledging their lies or limitations. In this case, the Left simply supports business groups to create jobs but does not question the politics of managerial failure. Here, the Left believes too much in the capacities of the business class. In sum, the Left usually can’t see beyond the market and the state.

Blind faith in the market or the state is a mind-numbing short cut that will produce further victories for the Far Right. As Jens Rydgren wrote: ” Dealignment and realignment processes provide a favorable political opportunity structure for emerging RRP [Right-wing Populist Parties]. Several cleavage dimensions always exist simultaneously, most of them ultimately based on social identity or interests. Although these cleavage dimensions exist side by side, either manifest or latent, their salience increases or declines during certain periods. Contemporary Western European democracies are characterized by two major such dimensions: the perceived economic rift, which pits workers against capital, and concerns the degree of state involvement in the economy, and the sociocultural conflicts, which revolve around issues such as immigration, law and order, abortion, among others. The relative strength of these two sources of tension influences RRP parties’ chances for successful electoral mobilization. As some of these issues lose salience, frames connected to them become less relevant to people’s interpretation of the world.” The problem, however, is that economic rifts and state intervention have only become subjectively less important to certain voters because the Left, Rights and media’s interpretation of these issues has become clouded in confusion.

Some people on the Left find it hard to realize that they are engaged in a self-delusionary propaganda system. Yet, the only Left crede ntial that might matter is a movement to socially democratize technology and the economy as well as produce a system of truth decoupled from Right and Left propaganda systems. If the old routines were working, all the Lefts would be registering dramatic victories. The party that has won the most has exposed the limits of both the Right and the Left by telling even greater lies, while exposing the failed integration system. The 953,000 voters of the further Left parties can help constrain SD by embracing an economic reconstruction program with one leg outside electoral politics. The accumulation of political capital depends on organizing economic and media capital. The Left must learn the lesson self-evident in the cycle linking political militarism, military industrial complexes, and elite media coverage.

Jonathan M. Feldman is part of the Global Teach-In network, reachable via @ globalteachin on Twitter. The author thanks Daniel Berg, Mark Luccarelli , Akhil Malaki and Birger Viklund for comments on an ear lier draft. An earlier version of this article was originally published in Counterpunch on September 17, 2014 (see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/17/has-the-swe dish-left-lost-again/)


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