Why the Swedish Left Lost


In the parliamentary elections held on September 19th, the Red-Green Alliance comprised of the Social Democrats, Green and Left parties lost out to the conservative alliance led by the Moderate Party. The Moderates were a few parliamentary seats shy of an election majority. According to recent figures, the right block held a total of 172 seats compared to the 157 seats for the left. In addition, the (far right anti-immigration) Sweden Democrat Party won parliamentary representation for the first time with 20 seats (and about 5.7% of the vote). The Social Democrats registered their lowest vote total in ninety six years. The Left Party, lost some votes compared to the last election, with the total inflated by many tactical votes from Social Democrats seeking to keep them in the parliament. The Green Party gained six seats.

One fundamental question that the election results pose is: Why did the Green left register gains? The growing environmental crisis has influenced a core group of middle class, particularly younger voters. As we shall see, the Green Party has undoubtedly been helped by their implicit critique of the legacy of large, bureaucratic state structures which suppress individuals’ development. Many in the Left Party see this as a bourgeois tendency, but they are missing something important about what politics means in the post-proletarian (as opposed to post-industrial) era.

Media Power and the Decline of the Left

Why did the non-Green left lose voter share? There are (potentially) two competing explanations, depending on whom you ask. One set of theories focuses on structural barriers to left electoral power. A central argument is that the Right has powerful allies in the mass media, which systematically set the political agenda on a right-wing course. Analysts and political leaders on the left focus on how the right wing’s lies go unfiltered by the establishment mass media—with the exception perhaps of a few critical documentaries. These lies include the claims by the Moderate Party that it is the “new workers party” or by the Center Party that they are a “green party.” One critic of the Swedish media has reasoned that the “fact that the Moderates refused to disclose the names of their very big donors on the ground of the donor’s right to election secrecy did not make the news and its implications did not face any scrutiny.” Such scrutiny “would have destroyed their credibility as ‘the only worker’s party in Sweden.’” The Center Party’s posters argued for standing up for the rights of automobile owners. The Center Party also advocated building new nuclear power plants, a position that caused splits within the party’s core constituencies. Historically, the Center party was one of the early champions of wind power in Sweden, however.

The media bias theory has some plausibility because influential newspapers like the media trend setter Dagens Nyheter (basically equivalent to The New York Times of Sweden) have a distinct bias towards what they call an “independent liberal” position. The newspaper has not taken up the challenges posed by the need for industrial policy or economic democracy against the backdrop of class polarization in any systematic way. With the exception of some visionaries at SVT24, the television media seems largely to have neglected such questions.

The limit to the media-bias argument is that the extremist Sweden Democrats largely faced a media blackout but still managed to be one of the biggest winners in the electoral system. Similarly, during the somewhat recent elections to the European parliament, the new Pirate Party, was able to gain seats for the first time despite lacking the media power of the incumbents. The Pirate Party supported free use of the internet and opposed state spying of internet users. In other words, despite the presence of media bias and filtering, new parties critical of the status quo (whether on the right or left) have been able to win elections in the present epoch. While some suggest that the Pirate Party is not a traditional left party, taking up a new set of issues, it’s precisely this novelty of ideas that has given it success. As for the Sweden Democrats, they are uniformly loathed by the established media (both print and television) and all the established political parties. Yet, their ability to advocate policies that neither dominant block supported gained them votes. The Pirate Party shows that such novelty in ideas need not be attached to reactionary baggage.

The rise of globalization and the failure of the parts of the left to reinvent themselves have led to a free market consensus in which the Moderates and Social Democrats embrace increasingly similar positions. Social Democrats led the call for tax breaks for retired persons, but many voters identified tax breaks with the right and not the left. Many voters see little product differentiation between right and left, a problem that costs the left more than the right in the media space. In other words, the Social Democrats need political innovations to reinvent themselves, but instead often copy the right’s ideas. Such reinvention would of course require a critical understanding of the limits to one’s politics.

In contrast, many politicians on the left lack any introspection and instead see their defeats as: reflecting: (a) mere manipulation of the public, (b) a lack of class consciousness or (c) forces external to Sweden. Yet, votes for the right were partially based on the limits to the left. For example, Swedish voters dreading rampant nepotism within the Social Democratic party and voting for the right are not simply lacking a class consciousness. Nor are older citizens who saved their whole lives to buy their own homes and don’t necessarily want to be taxed for such property before they sell it. If the media truly explains why the left loses, then the left has no endgame, i.e. they can’t end media hegemony by the next election so they need a way to sidestep the problem. As in the U.S., the left hides behind structural explanations rather than coming to terms with a failure of their very own ideas. (Alexander Cockburn’s critique of the U.S. peace movement in The New Left Review, July-August 2007 offers an interesting parallel).

Some structural arguments are valid explanations for the left’s decline, but these structural factors include problems of the left’s own making. For example, in the period from 1980 to 1995, there was a drastic shift in the ownership and composition of media, with Social Democratic trade union and party-owned media sold or abandoned because of the idea that they were not “competitive.” Some media critics even suggested that trade unions did not want to own and run newspapers that could be (and were) used as a vehicle for criticizing trade union leadership. A few decades ago, many Swedes grew up with only two television channels, both run by the state and four state-run radio stations. Now, there is a flood of ad-financed “light” newspapers and growing concentration of corporate control over publishing companies and other media. One activist notes that “the internet has been a great political tool, but not for the institutional left.” Yet, the unions and left have not created their own television network as a counterforce.

Media hegemony can create barriers, but the new upstart parties’ ability to transcend media filters noted above complicates this view. One also notices that the problem of media bias is a bit more complicated than the left describes. It is true that the established media may give the right a pass on many issues and descriptions of their program. Yet, a central issue is the training of journalists and how they frame questions. Unlike the United States, the major television networks in Sweden include two principal public channels (both part of Swedish television). The major competing network, Channel 4, also broadcasts somewhat critical documentaries, e.g. about the problems of Swedish racism. In Sweden, the ownership of television media can be less important than whether journalists have a comprehensive understanding of corporate power, militarism, and even the reconstructive alternatives of a bygone Social Democratic era, e.g. housing and workers’ cooperatives.

The media discourse on economic issues, such as the ongoing recession, never get very deep in their explanations of core issues. One core issue is how Sweden will confront an increasingly globalized world. Critical observers noted that neither electoral block made this a central issue in their campaigns. Journalists buy into the dominant discussions of open markets and global competitiveness. They know next to nothing about industrial policy, the Asian model or even the historical foundations for Sweden’s industrial success in state guided procurement policies. While the Left Party includes some of the most sophisticated critics of globalization, this critique is not extended to a comprehensive reconstructivist program. The left often compounds the problem of alternatives by failing to clearly explain the history of Swedish industrial planning and constantly portrays the state as a would-be employment agency. Economic democracy has become a forgotten relic of a far away Social Democratic era, rather than a structural way to place constraints on today’s hyper-mobile capital.

The Extremist Threat, Class Polarization and Failed Integration Policies

One irony is that the left often points to structural explanations, but does not always offer structural solutions. Sweden has become highly polarized in class terms over the last twenty years. The extension of lower waged service jobs on the bottom, the erosion of factory jobs in the middle, and the expansion of professional managerial jobs at the top help shape electoral outcomes. First, immigrants have fewer opportunities now to access the middle class via manufacturing jobs. Second, deindustrialization has disenfranchised many ethnic Swedes and made many believe that immigrants are a competitive threat. Third, the platforms for accessing the professional middle class are highly regulated and often exclusive, disenfranchising many immigrants and members of the “ethnic” Swedish working class.

A central problem in integration, which mobilized many voter’s fears as opposed to hopes, was the dramatic increase of unemployment among all ethnicities since the 1980s. This unemployment in turn is tied to the free market consensus. The large firms whose growth the Social Democrats have helped promote became less interested as transnationals in basing production in Sweden or in making alliances with the left. The 1930s era Social Contract linking labor, corporations and the Social Democrats eroded in part because (when in power) the left systematically failed to use its state procurement power to create domestically anchored firms and spaces. Analysts of Swedish cooperatives noted that many became just like any other business because of a breakdown in internal, pedagogic education supporting cooperative values.

The Swedish left’s analysis of the extremist (anti-immigrant) threat reveal weaknesses that helped undermine their position or reveal weaknesses in their understanding. On election night, one prominent left politician argued that the ascendancy of the Sweden Democrats reflected a reactionary wave coming from Europe. This description avoids the indigenous support for this extremist party which received more votes than the Left Party itself. One activist explained to me that in Sweden “the middle class has become rich by owning property, the fired workers at [manufacturing concerns like] ABBB and Hägglunds are left as tenants, with nobody offering them a solution, and academic postmodernists calling them offenders by default.”

On the night of the election, one of the Left Party’s most astute politicians announced that the next day a major national campaign would be launched against Swedish racism. The Sweden Democrats Party’s leader for his part argued that his party gained support even from immigrants because of the failure of the country to integrate immigrants. The Moderate Party leader and Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt more astutely traced the support for the extremists to failures in the regional distribution of growth in the country, although his administration had four years to solve this problem, but failed to do so.

The extremists’ claims that Swedish integration policies have failed unfortunately turn out to be accurate, even if the greater exclusion and national xenophobia of the Sweden Democrats will only make things worse. This failure has become a bipartisan matter, with the left block failing when they held power and the right block also continuing to fail. Some voters recognized this bipartisan failure and decided to vote for neither block. It’s true that some left politicians have tried to create alternatives to the failure, but multi-ethnic Swedish enclaves of relative poverty have existed under both left and right governments. It is extremely rare that anyone would point to the tradeoffs between military budget priorities and the true costs of a comprehensive integration program, even though Martin Luther King is celebrated as a hero among Swedish intellectuals. King’s linkage of military spending to urban underdevelopment has few parallels in Sweden because the true costs of a far more comprehensive integration system are not even on the political table.

One potential solution to the ethnic polarization would be to promote professional associations of immigrants and create job ladders for immigrants to enter more qualified jobs. The growth of an immigrant middle class would be important for supporting middle class ethnic champions for further integration policies. Under the last left government, the Social Democrats supported a series of ethnic urban fairs—symbolic politics which did not cost much, but did not deliver on core economic issues. A social welfare mentality persisted, leading one Swedish left intellectual to refer to government workers as part of an “occupying army” in the ethnic enclaves. These harsh criticisms may refer to exceptional cases, but the problem is that the left only offered immigrants power in restrictive ways. Integration depends on the capacity to mobilize human, economic, media and political capital. Yet, each form of capital has been restricted.

For example, when I tried to publish an article in an anthology on ethnic entrepreneurship about high technology and qualified jobs for immigrants, I was told by a principal editor that this was not ethnic entrepreneurship, i.e. basically ethnic entrepreneurship was about immigrants repairing shoes and making pizzas (an occupational niche that many immigrants in Stockholm hold). The paternalistic attitude towards immigrants’ capacities largely goes unchallenged. Instead, the left often focused on the rights of immigrants to lousy jobs during their hold on state power. Anti-discrimination legislation and education are important, but so too are policies that increase the number of good jobs supplied. Many immigrants are very well trained, held core jobs at high tech firms and a few have even started their own businesses in the information and communications technology sector.

In the university, a lot of the discourse about ethnic groups focuses on “victimology,” which looks at how immigrants are subject to racism and systematically blocked from advancement. Yet, this victimology discourse is rarely attached to structural reforms that would connect immigrants to the advanced pockets of wealth in society, e.g. the left failed to give systemic support for professional associations of immigrants. One potential reason was the left’s support for “equality” which in Sweden has often meant homogeneity despite differential needs.

The political approach of the left and right has often led to a policy of re-dividing a shrinking pie rather than expanding the pie. When immigrants were linked to professional jobs, there was a backlash against the practice, considered a form of reverse racism. This took place when some favored a quota system to promote immigrants inside structures where such persons have been systematically excluded, e.g. schools of journalism. The right also wants to redivide the shrinking pie. One former Marxist turned liberal academic argued that the trade unions systematically excluded immigrants from job opportunities by creating an over-regulated labor market that rewards ethnic Swedish incumbents. This erstwhile Marxist participated in a “march for capitalism” and argues that free markets promote social inclusion by reigning in trade union power. Yet, the “politics of scarcity” can’t be fought by the science of victimology or Neoliberalism. This is not to deny the extensive racist practices that systematically hold even qualified immigrants back, nor the merits of an open economy to a small nation like Sweden highly dependent on exports. Rather, neither discourse manages to understand the failures of both the established state and the established market and the need for alternatives to both.

The Limits to the State I: The Welfare State and its Enemies

In Just Institutions Matter, Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein argues that the universal character of Swedish welfare benefits broadened political support for the welfare state within the middle class. Particularlistic benefits, helping special groups, have been less popular. This reality creates problems for political parties that try to promote more selective benefits or appear to be helping a narrow group. By arguing that the right’s attack on the welfare system was simply based on individualism, the left failed to appreciate how their links to multiculturalism and rhetoric supporting the specific concerns of minorities (even the oppressed) might backfire. It’s not simply a question of ethics, but how such ethics are integrated with power. The political problem with the left’s integration programs can be summarized as follows. They had the appearance of being specialized enough to become a political liability, but not sophisticated enough to create results and political capital.

Sweden has a very efficient welfare system, particularly in providing low cost education and healthcare. Yet, as in the United States, the Swedish right can make claims about the limits of the state in organizing economic solutions. The idea that free markets solve problems is part of a discourse dominating universities and the media. The right also highlighted persons exploiting the welfare system, cheating it because they did not really want to work. The right pointed to numerous persons in the Swedish system, thousands upon thousands, who received welfare benefits or abused the sick leave system but were actually qualified to work. The left identified cases of persons having cancer who were forced to get jobs. Both side made their points, but the left’s failure to adequately acknowledge (even rhetorically) the problem of abuses to the system cost them many, many votes. The limits of welfare politics that don’t encourage productive work result from a welfare state mentality no longer centered on productive labor. The right continually took the offensive by promising to promote jobs, innovation and entrepreneurship. Thus, the effectiveness of the Moderate’s claim to be Sweden’s only “workers’ party.”

The support for productive labor is not simply a reactionary position adopted by Neoliberals. In Man For Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, the Socialist (but anti-Stalinist) Marxist Erich Fromm identified such productive labor as a core principal for human development. His book also includes several significant passages that represent an indictment of the kinds of homosocial thinking (and by extension networks) which the most sophisticated ethnic researchers have attacked as a core integration problem in Sweden.

When in power the Social Democrats and the left advanced the notion that “everyone is the same,” meaning that immigrant groups often did not require special assistance in targeted education and economic programs. They have gradually become more “multicultural,” but the assistance they granted immigrants when in power often took form in the most superficial fashion.

One key exception to this pattern was that during the Social Democratic era, immigrants gained access to specialized high schools and many immigrants from places like Iraq and Iran gained access to university education. Yet, such social mobility still left in place highly segregated pockets of immigrants in the suburbs. The reasons are complex and include not only discrimination which the left opposed, but also the failure to promote programs that helped immigrants with special problems. For example, when I asked a leader of a high school about programs to help immigrants who were falling behind in their homework, I was pointed to a voluntary initiative at the local library. One can compare such tokenistic aid to the far more successful industrial integration program Sweden has for engineers working in its defense production laboratories and plants. This is in any case a taboo topic of a special Social Democratic-inspired welfare program that largely benefits ethnic Swedish males. The key point about defense industrial policy is that it links industrial workers to state investments in technologically advanced sectors. The specialized programs for immigrants were decoupled from such social investments in advanced technology, i.e. many integration programs channel immigrants into lower waged jobs.

Fromm directly attacks the misguided notion of equality directly: “The word equality has also changed its meaning. The idea that all men are created equal implied that all men have the same fundamental right to be considered as ends in themselves and not as means. Today, equality has become equivalent to interchangeability, and it’s the very negation of individuality. Equality, instead of being the condition for the development of each man’s peculiarity, means the extinction of individuality, the ‘self-lessness’ characteristic of the marketing orientation. Equality was conjunctive with difference, but it has become synonymous with ‘in-difference’ and, indeed, indifference is what characterizes modern man’s relationship to himself and to others.” Fromm’s observations (published shortly after World War II) contain the kind of gendered language that one might easily dismiss, but his formulation is extremely useful. He goes on to say that the failure to develop each individual’s unique character leads to the generation of people as “interchangeable commodities” because differences are not realized.

The left instead perceives of the right wing ascendancy as a problem in celebrating individualism over solidarity. The right counters by identifying the lack of solidarity in persons who take welfare rather than working. Or, they point to a bloated welfare state based on excessive taxation and individualized entrepreneurs who in contrast lead the charge for growth. The right points to individuals seeking to develop themselves and being rewarded for such activity. The left talks about solidarity, but that solidarity actually confronts the kind of differentiation in interests associated with middle class stratification and the differential motivations that partially influence stratification and social mobility. Many social welfare programs the left defends have been successful, but the right pointed to abuses and used these to promote tax concessions for the middle class.

It’s clear that there are many myths here about what individuality or solidarity means. The problem is the left has been ineffective in promoting the kind of language that wins over a sufficient element of the middle class, i.e. ideology is partially based on truths and lies. The left has failed to create the kind of institutional platforms that organize the relatively autonomous cultural, media and economic power necessary for promoting individuals’ (or societal) advancement, ethnic integration and industrial development of regions that seem abandoned to political parties that remind many of the Nazis. The extreme right fills the vacuum with lies and myths that selectively tap into the truth and expose the limits of the current left and right discourses.

The Limits to the State II: From Free Markets to Failed Industrial Planning

The left has not figured out how to promote the targeted policies needed without appearing to benefit some groups at the expense of others. One reason why is that they lack successful policies to help certain manufacturing workers and regions. One could rightly argue that the welfare system means investments in education, research and development that actually help firms by training workers and supporting innovation. Yet, the state could play a more proactive role than this. The failure to maximize state planning capacities and weakness in welfare regulation opened the door for the right. Part of the problem is that the Social Democrats ceased to effectively use the state as a lever for shaping the economy because of the incompetence within the managerial staff responsible for economic growth questions.

I will use an anecdote to explain such bureaucratic incompetence. Many years ago, during the period when the Social Democrats controlled state power, I met with a key planning official in the Ministry of Growth and Industry about my research showing the precise conditions under which the Swedish defense giant Saab was able to successfully enter civilian markets and when the firm failed in doing so. These examples showed the existence of an informal, indirect industrial policy supporting defense firm diversification into civilian markets. The official persisted in pointing to the billions of Swedish crowns wasted in trying to prop up the country’s shipbuilding industry and essentially argued that industrial policy was impossible. He failed to make distinctions between types of industrial policy preferring to sweep the problem of industrial development under the rug.

So the Social Democrats’ failure to create a civilian industrial policy was followed by a military industrial policy under the right centered on creating an arms export industry. During the election campaign, the Left Party leader asked about how cutting back arms exports would cost jobs, could not rebut this claim by pointing to the potential civilian conversion or diversification of defense industries. Thus, bureaucratic incompetence is mirrored by symbolic politics that decries the right’s moral lapses without showing how to reorganize state policies. The pattern repeats itself. Volvo was bailed out by a Chinese firm supported by Chinese state industrial policies. The Social Democrats argued that the state should step in and take an ownership stake in the auto firms. The right claimed that they saved the taxpayers money by not doing so in part because the state can’t competently run industries. They are correct, but the question is why the state fails to train people to assume industrial planning roles as can be seen in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. The bipartisan, default, small firm R&D assistance policy can’t generate a series of new, large firm champions.

The Green party had a sophisticated strategy to promote Swedish “modernization,” by investment in high speed trains and wind power. Yet, not enough was said about how the jobs could be created nor how to build up an industrial policy structure that would insure that public investments would lead to domestically anchored jobs. Both major parties have rejected the idea of a significant Keynesian growth stimulus. Moreover, as one colleague reminded me the most sophisticated Social Democrats talk about a Keynesian demand stimulus, but say nothing about the organization of the economy, i.e. who will make things locally. Some left Keynesians discuss how the state’s former telecommunications firm helped promote innovation in Ericsson, the mobile phone operator now-teamed with Ericsson. Yet, growth in large firm mainstays has been held up by conservative managers that failed to adopt to new trends and user needs. Today, the chips that make mobile phones are so ubiquitous that newer Chinese entrants are taking over markets which (Scandinavian-based) Nokia and Sony-Ericsson might have held in the past. As a result, there should be pressure on Swedish planners to create new kinds of large scale industrial firms. If larger Swedish companies like Ericsson outsource jobs, that’s all the more reason for Sweden to develop new (domestically anchored) large firm champions.

Creating more large firm success stories is part of no party’s industrial agenda. No party has a competent strata of development oriented bureaucrats who can advance industrial growth within large (as opposed to smaller) firms. No party seriously challenges the internal politics of innovation in large firms or works to create a competent industrial policy bureaucracy. The engineering and manufacturing elite made deals with the Social Democrats to link job creation and the welfare state, but now the left advocates welfare without large firm growth. The right advocates growth without the welfare state’s expansion. The left says the right wants to shrink the welfare state, but does not itself show how to systematically expand the foundations for welfare provisions in large firm growth. The two parties talk past each other and the formula that made the old Social Democrats successful. The best some Social Democrats (such as the last Social Democratic Primer Minister) come up with is to prop up the military industrial complex and defend arms exports. So, we have lapses of economics and ethics within both major political blocks.

The Left Party continually focuses on state job creation and welfare, but not qualified job ladders tied to the democratization (or even broader socialization) of the means of innovation and production. The discourse about “the democratization of technology” is found almost nowhere, except perhaps in obscure party programs. There’s almost no university course that would even touch on the subject (or industrial policy for that matter). Postmodernism rules—creating confusion and discourses about rights and victims. That discourse is easily trumphed by right wing talk about jobs, innovation and entrepreneurship. The left cried about how the Moderates called themselves Sweden’s only workers’ party. Instead, they should have become Sweden’s paramount (Sustainable) Growth Party, but they could not succeed in showing how right wing policies retarded growth because they were too focused on defending the welfare state. But, the welfare state is not a development state. Sweden lags far behind South Korea in Green procurement and industrial policies, stimulus packages and hence growth.

The failure of a comprehensive industrial and manufacturing policy in the United States that adequately challenges globalized outsourcing has parallels in Swedish policies that leave key regions abandoned and forgotten. The anxiety of the middle class leads to political support that cannibalizes the state to prop up declining living standards. The Green Party of Sweden’s advocacy of a “Green New Deal” is certainly a step in the right direction, but it has not been sufficiently supported by actual local cases or examples that could be used in the Swedish media to highlight an alternative. In Sweden and the U.S., the recycling of 1970s style symbolic protest politics against extremists won’t create jobs or counter-hegemonic examples. A key alternative has to be the promotion of a “Developmental State,” public procurement supporting indigenous green industries and cooperatives. These examples would move beyond the traditional welfare, warfare and neo-liberal state alternatives. For a U.S. example, see Gar Alperovitz and his colleagues’ discussion of “The Cleveland model” in The Nation Magazine (March 1, 2010). To win votes, the Social Democrats need to show, for example, how they have created jobs with a specific model, backed by specific policies, in a specific place. For a plurality of voters, the right’s politicians are perceived as being far better managers.

Alternative industrial policies at the local and national level must be linked to grassroots organizing and alternative media campaigns. Some of the left parties in Sweden and the Democratic Party in the U.S. might benefit from a mild version of Glasnost. In other words, the historical failure of traditional economic development paradigms in these nations warrants serious scrutiny. Here, critical intellectuals might help by asking the right questions in the political parties, university, media and other social spheres.

Jonathan M. Feldman is Associate Professor at Stockholm University’s Department of Economic History and organized the national Green New Deal Conference in Sweden (March 2009) and is part of the Network for Mass Transit Manufacturing and Innovation in the United States. He acknowledges helpful suggestions from Örjan Appleqvist, Daniel Berg, and Mark Luccarelli.<

Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In (www.globalteachin.com) and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.

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