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American Liberals, Beware of Your Enchantment With Sweden

Admiration for Sweden is a kind of nostalgia, understandable in these troubling times, but thoroughly delusional.
Sweden news, Swedish socialism, Bernie Sanders Sweden, American liberals and Sweden, progressive US politics, Swedish model, Nordic model, European socialism, Sweden welfare state, Swedish Democrats news

Gothenburg, Sweden © Maximilian Martin / Shutterstock

August 02, 2019 10:21 EDT

For most Western Europeans, Sweden is nothing exceptional — a relatively small country, in terms of population, on the periphery of the continent. In the 1960s and 70s, Sweden was notorious for its sexual permissiveness. In Germany, for instance, in the 1970s, “erotic” movies had instant success when they included “Swedish” in the title, even if the main protagonists were anything but Swedish.

Against that, in the United States, among students of comparative politics, and particularly among liberals in general, Sweden attained a quasi-mythical status as the perfect social democratic model. At the same time, American conservatives presented Sweden as a quasi-totalitarian dystopia. I still remember Pat Robertson, iconic host of the 700 Club, sometime in the 1980s, staring into my eyes from the TV screen following a report from Sweden, pointing his finger at me and asking, “Would you want to live in Sweden?” I admit I was not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect — I thought Sweden was a relatively boring country — but my first response was, Well, why not?

Nothing has changed in the meantime. I have never been tempted to buy a Volvo, listen to ABBA or watch Stefan Edberg play top-level tennis simply because they are all Swedish. I shop at IKEA, but not because it is Swedish, but because its furniture is reasonably priced, functional and fun to assemble (although this might be a minority opinion). I confess to having watched Ingmar Bergman’s films — don’t ask me why.

Object of Admiration

I profess that I don’t understand the fascination American liberals like Bernie Sanders continue to display with respect to Sweden. The only reasonable explanation is a profound lack of understanding of the object of their admiration — aka ignorance. The Sweden they evoke only lives in their imagination, but has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. Admiration for Sweden — and the so-called Nordic model in general — is a kind of nostalgia, understandable in these troubling times, but thoroughly delusional.

Don’t get me wrong. A life in any of the Nordic countries is certainly preferable to living in the United States — at least compared to the vast majority of average Americans trying to make ends meet. Citizens in the Nordic countries take it for granted that they are fully covered in case of an accident or a life threatening disease, that unemployment will not reduce them to a life in misery, that education and (re)training are universally available rather than the privilege of the affluent few.

This, however, is only one side of the coin. It is the side that liberals like Bernie Sanders like to advance. There is nothing wrong with this narrative, provided it does not undermine or jeopardize their cause. This, however, is exactly what Sanders has done — reflected most prominently by the response submitted by Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, who went out of his way to set the record straight.

In fact, Sweden was never the quasi-socialist paradise with a human face imagined by the contemporary American left. It does have one of the most comprehensive welfare states in Western Europe. This, however, is less informed by socialist ideology than a function of practical reality. As a relatively small, highly industrialized country with a relatively small internal market, Sweden crucially depends on its capacity to hold its own against cutthroat international competition on the world market. In order to assure its competitiveness, Sweden devised a “corporatist” system resting on three pillars — a strong unions confederation, a strong employers association and a strong state — and the commitment by both labor and capital to collective bargaining as a means to avoid disruptive industrial strife.

The bargaining process was led by the unions representing the internationally most competitive sectors of the Swedish economy, which could also concede the highest wage increases. Since these increases were binding for all branches, companies that could not afford them were forced out and allowed to go under by the state. At the same time, the state provided a number of active labor market measures designed to reinsert workers made redundant in emerging sectors. This required a high degree of flexibility, not least with respect to mobility, which is one of the reasons why home ownership was relatively low in postwar Sweden.

It also explains Sweden’s most endearing feature, at least as far as American liberals are concerned: its comprehensive welfare state. Trade theory suggests that an open trade regime can only be viable if workers made redundant by globalization receive compensation. Public policy has generally followed this reasoning. As Princeton economist Dani Rodrik and others have shown, open economies tend to have bigger governments, with government expenditures being “used to provide social insurance against external risk.” Again, this is primarily a function of exposure to the vicissitudes of international competition rather than an outgrowth of socialist ideology.

Trouble in the Democratic Socialist Paradise

This strongly suggests that Sweden was never the democratic socialist paradise envisioned and actively promoted these days by American liberals. At most, their image of Sweden represents a nostalgic glorification of a presumed reality that never existed. In the immediate postwar period, the “Swedish model” did a very good job in mitigating social inequality, yet at a high price. Comprehensive welfare states are costly. Not for nothing, Sweden had some of the highest taxes among industrial countries, with top marginal rates above 70%. As a result, high earners such as doctors and nurses — not to mention the likes of sporting stars like Stefan Edberg — left Sweden, attracted, in the former case, by higher salaries and lower taxes elsewhere (in their case, Norway).

As it turned out, these tax rates were unsustainable. In the early 1990s, during Carl Bildt’s premiership, the Swedish government adopted a range of neoliberal policies, including privatization of state-owned industries, a thorough overhaul of the tax code resulting in a substantial lowering of taxes, and measures designed to encourage private initiative and entrepreneurship. Like elsewhere in Western Europe, these policies were to a significant extent a response to the pressures resulting from the growing preponderance of international financial markets (a process known as financialization), which increasingly limited the ability of the state to exert control over the economy — a reality French President François Mitterrand had already painfully experienced in 1983.

As a result, Sweden today has very little to do with the Sweden American liberals like to portray. The country still boasts one of the most comprehensive welfare states in advanced liberal democracies. But the model creaks. Take, for instance, the health-care system. In 2014, a Swedish newspaper reported that an increasing number of Swedes were buying private health insurance in order “skip health queues” instead of waiting months to get proper treatment.

The model also creaks as a result of immigration. The Swedish welfare state worked as long as it could count on a sense of solidarity among a highly homogeneous population. This was the basis for the Social Democratic concept of folkhemmet (people’s home), introduced in 1928 and informing social democratic welfare state policy for the following decades of social democratic dominance. The notion of folkhemmet, however, is, by definition, highly exclusionary. It worked as long Swedes trusted each other that they would not abuse the system.

With the increasing influx of migrants from non-Nordic societies, support for the welfare state has started to come apart at the seams. The arguably most obvious reflection of this process has been the dramatic gains of the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), a radical right-wing populist party, fundamentally hostile to migrants and immigration. Ironically enough, it is this party that has revived the notion of the folkhemmet, to a large extent in support of its nativist agenda designed to “keep Sweden Swedish.”

America’s Darlings

The dramatic gains of the Sweden Democrats in recent elections — between 2010 and 2018, the party increased its share of the vote from 5.7% to 17.5% of the vote, making it Sweden’s third largest party — are a reflection of these developments. The origins of the Sweden Democrats reach back to Swedish neo-Nazi organizations of the postwar period, which reflect the dark side of the Swedish model. They serve as a reminder of the role Sweden played during World War II as a neutral country that made numerous deals with the Nazis.

Embed from Getty Images

They are a stark reminder of the official eugenics program that led to the sterilization of thousands of women “under a racial purity program approved by the state” well into the 1970s — a policy formally denied until the late 1990s. And they are a stark reminder of the fact that Sweden in the 1990s boasted one of the most successful and vibrant producers and distributors of white-power rock music in the world, Nordland Records.

Against this background, it is rather baffling why American liberals would tout Sweden as a model — or any other of the Nordic countries, such as Denmark, another darling of liberal America, for that matter. Denmark has some of the most restrictive anti-immigrant policies in Western Europe, pioneering measures such as confiscating valuables from refugees seeking asylum in Denmark — a measure explicitly designed to deter potential candidates from seeking asylum in Denmark. Hardly surprising, this measure was quickly emulated in Austria, only stopped by the scandal that ended the center-right/right-wing populist coalition a few days before this year’s European Parliament elections.

Many of these anti-immigrant policies originated with the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) and were put into practice by the center right, which depended on outside support from the radical right. Ironically enough, its anti-immigrant positions were then adopted by the Social Democrats (under the new leadership of Metter Frederiksen) — with prodigious success. In the most recent national election, the Social Democrats won 26% of the vote, the Dansk Folkeparti virtually collapsed.

Given liberal America’s eagerness to emulate the Nordic model, the lessons from Sweden and Denmark appear rather obvious. Most importantly, they seem to be trying to outdo Donald Trump on the migration front. Multiculturalism is a losing proposition; nobody among the “native-born” in the Nordic countries wants it. Islam is a dangerous ideology, intent on subversion and conquest. This is what surveys from the Nordic countries and elsewhere in Western Europe tell us. This is what fuels the success of nativist politics which increasingly infiltrate the traditional social democratic left. American liberal buyers, beware.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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