A Vote for Taxes
General Welfare

Support for the general-welfare state remains strong.
But the nation-state of Sweden is being dismantled

Sweden went to the polls on 15 September, and the results seemed to ensure that the Social Democratic government of Göran Persson would remain in power with the support of the Left and Green parties. But to just about everyone’s surprise, the Greens obstinately refused to carry on as usual and, after two weeks of negotiations that were unusually tough by Swedish standards, managed to extract a number of concessions as the price of continued support.

Apparently emboldened by the Greens’ display of independence, the Left Party also sharpened its demands. As a consequence, the renewed Persson government may be somewhat more faithful to Social Democratic ideals than the previous version, which faithfully complied with the precepts of neo-liberalism and abandoned the independent foreign policy most notably associated with Olof Palme.

But such a return to basics is far from certain. The government remains entirely in Social Democratic hands, and its agreements with the Left and Green parties apply only to a limited range of issues. Not included are such crucial items as foreign policy and membership in the European Monetary Policy. In such matters, Persson can rely on support from most of the bourgeois opposition, which of course indicates something important about the current state of social democracy in Sweden.

To judge by the election outcome, a return to genuine social democracy appears to be the wish of the voting majority: The main alternative, the lower taxes and increased privatization offered by the Conservative Party, suffered a crushing defeat at both the national and local levels.

The final polling results were as follows (1998 election figures in parentheses):
Note: The allocation of seats in the Riksdag (parliament) does not correspond exactly with the percentage distribution of votes, as a block of seats is weighted separately to favour smaller parties.
Some surprises

Among the unexpected results were the rise in the Social Democrats’ fortunes and the extent of the Conservatives’ decline. This was the first election since 1968 in which a sitting government increased its share of the vote, and several plausible explanations have been offered. One is that the economy has performed comparatively well during the past four years, with a substantial drop in unemployment and a steady rise in disposable income.

Another explanation is that Göran Persson has become a skilful performer on television which, as elsewhere, has become the dominant arena of the political process. His main opponent, Conservative leader Bo Lundgren, cuts a far less appealing figure on TV or in any other medium, with the look and manner of a stodgy banker striving to appear folksy.

The opposition, in general, is perceived as rather dull and uninspiring. This was embarrassingly underscored by leaders of European Conservative, Liberal and Christian Democratic parties who, in a series of pre-election interviews, attributed Göran Persson’s success to a dismal lack of opposition.

That may explain the lacklustre performance of the bourgeois opposition. But a large portion of the Social Democratic gains was due to the return of voters who had defected to the Left in 1998. That process was almost certainly hastened by the extraordinary rhetoric of Left Party leader Gudrun Schyman who attacked the nuclear family as a patriarchal trap for women, and tried to explain that Swedish society operated according to the same misogynistic logic as the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Given that most men and women remain quite attached to the idea of the nuclear family and that Sweden is probably the country on earth which least resembles Afghanistan, it was a message with rather limited appeal, to put it mildly.

The other major shift in voting patterns was the nearly threefold increase in the Liberal Party’s share of votes, most of them enticed from the Conservatives and Christian Democrats. The Liberals’ success has been attributed almost entirely to the fact that it chose to become the first major party in Sweden to challenge the established orthodoxy on immigration. Among other things, it proposed a basic language test as a precondition of citizenship-- but also increased immigration of qualified workers.

Although the immigration issue was of comparatively little importance to the majority of voters, this was the first time it was raised in such a direct manner by an established parliamentary party. Its significance is almost certain to increase in future elections.

Showcase closed

Perhaps the most significant result of the election occurred at the local and regional levels, particularly in the city and county of Stockholm. They have been ruled in recent years by a Conservative-led bourgeois coalition that has aggressively pursued a neo-liberal agenda, including the privatization of hospitals and the sale of public housing to private interests at bargain-basement prices.

Stockholm has been presented by the national bourgeois parties as a showcase of neo-liberalism’s blessings, a model to be emulated by the rest of the country. There was a widespread belief that the ”system shift” was generally approved by the comparatively well-off citizens of Stockholm. But they surprised just about everyone on election day by handing the Conservatives a crushing defeat and substantially increasing their support for the Social Democrats. The same pattern was evident in most other parts of the country.

Thus, the results of the election at all levels of government indicate an unmistakable desire on the part of the voting majority to preserve the Swedish model of general welfare, taxes and all, and to stop the spread of neo-liberalism. The message was so obvious that even Göran Persson seemed to understand it: ”Neo-liberalism is finished,” he proclaimed some weeks after the election.

However, it remains to be seen whether the beast is really dead, and how strongly Prime Minister Persson is committed to the social democracy that he so warmly embraces at election time. Thus far, he has done little to hinder the march of neo-liberalism, and a great deal to promote it.

Faith in the market

Among other things, he played a key role in manipulating Social Democratic voters into approving membership in the European Union against their better judgement (see Doubtful Referendum). Neo-liberal principles are enshrined within the constitutional framework of the EU and are rigidly imposed on economic policy within the European Monetary Union (EMU), into which Persson is determined to lead Sweden. There is no reason to believe that the forthcoming EMU referendum campaign will be any less one-sided than the travesty of democracy that preceded Sweden’s entry into the EU eight years ago.

As prime minister, Göran Persson has pursued a number of policies taken directly from the neo-liberal textbook, including the privatization of the national telephone company and a pension reform which places considerable faith in the stock market. The latter has only been in effect for two years, but billions of pension savings have already disappeared with the bursting of the IT bubble (see The Market for Social Insecurity). The privatized public transport system has not yet become as big a mess as its counterpart in England, but the general trend is the same. Total costs for dental care have increased by forty percent since the system was deregulated a couple of years ago. Etc., etc.

Despite these tendencies, the accompanying analysis of the general-welfare system suggests that it remains largely intact and continues to function fairly well. If so, it is almost certainly due to the intrinsic strength of a system whose construction was supervised decades ago by Social Democratic leaders with a clear and consistent vision of society.

This was especially true of Olof Palme, as former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson observed shortly after Palme’s assassination in 1986: ”Olof Palme was very clear on ideological questions. Precisely for that reason, he did not hesitate to fight when it was necessary. The most recent example s provided by the last election campaign, when he sharply attacked the neo-liberalism of the Conservative Party. It was necessary to do so, since the foundations of our general-welfare policy were being threatened.”

That insight did not, however, prevent Carlsson from capitulating to the neo-liberal movement without any sign of a struggle-- and the foundations of Sweden’s general-welfare policy are indeed being threatened, as Palme warned. Carlsson’s successor, Göran Persson, has effectively consolidated that process of subjugation (see Things by Their Right Names).

Forked tongue

A key question is what will happen when the next economic crisis arises, as it surely must. The Swedish economy has performed quite well since the mid-1990s, making it possible to preserve much of the Swedish model without offending financial markets and other watchdogs of the current economic orthodoxy. But the next depression or deep recession will test the government’s resolve to defend the system against inevitable demands for cuts in public spending, further infringements on workers’ rights, etc.

The last time such a challenge arose, in the early 1990s, the governments of Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson obeyed the dictates of neo-liberalism and imposed a series of heavy cuts in public spending which caused at least as many problems as they solved-- all at a devastating cost to the national economy. Among the delayed and entirely predictable effects of that policy is the sharp rise in long-term illness that is currently straining the national health budget.

For these and other reasons, there is widespread concern among the Social Democratic Party about the commitment of the current leadership to genuine social democracy. That concern has led to the formation of a pressure group entitled S.O.S. (the Swedish acronym for “Social Democrats for the Public Sector”).

The organization is led by Bengt Silfverstrand, a Member of Parliament who states that, “The government speaks with forked tongue. It says different things in different places and on different occasions.” He maintains that a shift from the public to the private sector is unmistakably underway, “while the party leadership keeps reassuring the faithful that the market will not be permitted to rule.”

This apparent duplicity reflects an obvious conflict between the established doctrine of the European Union and the party’s traditional ideals, according to Lotta Gröning, a well-connected Social Democratic journalist: “To the party faithful, the leadership says that the requirements of EU membership do not exist. . . . They are terrified of telling it like it is, for fear that people will reject the EU-- and that is a strong possibility.”

Disappearing nation

All of this suggests that the clear message of the voters in the recent election may soon be drowned out, as in the past, by the much more powerful din of the European Union and the global neo-liberal system to which the government of Göran Persson has been consistently faithful.

Prime Minister Persson is also in the process of converting Sweden from a neutral country with a 200-year tradition of peace into a vassal-state of the United States’ military empire. He seems quite willing to support just about any war that the superpower chooses to initiate, and gladly adds his influential voice to the chorus of war propaganda.

Accordingly, there is some question as to whether it makes any difference what kinds of messages voters and political leaders convey to each other at election time. Increasingly, the important decisions are allowed to be made elsewhere, and the function of national leaders is largely to persuade the Swedish people to go along with them, or at least not get in the way.

The recent election took place in a nation that is in the process of being dismantled, in preparation for its total incorporation into the nascent United States of Europe and the global empire of the United States of America.

— Al Burke    
14 October 2002