During my studies at New York University I spent a semester at Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In a country which no longer exists. This was during the collapse of the Soviet union, in 1991.
The professors teaching and Czech friends showed me the reality of what it's like to live in a totalitarians state, why socialism is a really bad idea, and why democracy is worth dying for.
The war in Ukraine brings me back to this time in Prague, and I am worried about developments in my native Sweden today. I try to make some sense of it and translated an op-ed by Lars Trägårdh, professor of history at University of California born 1953, published by Swedish daily Sydsvenskan in September 2022.
He describes what I believe is the curse of this peace-damaged Scandinavian nation and the root cause of current developments: "duties and rights must be balanced [..] and the same rules of the game must apply to everyone."
Historic context and Social Democratic ideology
I'll try to explain the concept of Folkhem for anyone unfamiliar . The words origin is the Germanic volk - volksseele is 'national soul'. Literally 'a people's home' this metaphor is at the ideological core of the Social Democratic Party and was implemented during 40 years of the party's continuous majority rule in Sweden from 1936 to 1976. First mentioned in 1928 by Per Albin Hansson in a speech which included "The good home knows no privileged or discriminated people, no darlings and no stepchildren. There one does not look down on the other. No one seeks advantage at the expense of others; the strong do not oppress and plunder the weak. In the good home there is equality, caring, cooperation, helpfulness."
Also for context, here's a chart from online publication Kvartal.se comparing issued residence permits for asylum seekers and quota refugees between the Nordic countries Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark from 2015 to 2020.
How the Social Democrats lost 'a people's home' to far-right Swedish Democrats
By Lars Trägårdh, Professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. Published September 2022 in sydsvenskan.se
During the election campaign and even more so after the election, warnings about SD Swedish Democrats (far-right party with 20% of voters in 2022 elections, 2nd largest party in Sweden), racism and the imminent takeover of power by the radical right dominated among writers who see themselves as defenders of "liberal democracy" - not least those with a heart to the left. This approach hides the decisive role that the other parties have played in creating the vacuum in the political space that SD has so successfully conquered, election after election.
A replaced rhetoric
Above all, it is social democracy's retreat from what has historically been an almost unique formula for success in the democratic world: a story about Sweden and Swedishness that is based on a reevaluation of classical socialism's dismissal of nation, state, capitalism. At the beginning of the 1920s, they abandoned revolutionary internationalism and instead endorsed both nation and state and "bourgeois" democracy.
They replaced the rhetoric of class struggle with the vision of the public home as a citizen's home. Political bridges were built for both peasants and capitalists. Horse-trading and Saltsjöbadsanda (negotiations and ongoing dialogue between unions and employers enabling a peaceful labor market) paved the way for the prosperity that came to characterize the following decades.
The way of the Swedish people
They also formulated a story about Swedish national identity that was based on the idea, as expressed in an election poster from the 1930s, that the way of the Swedish people was the way of people's freedom and democracy. This pronounced democratic nationalism in turn inoculated Sweden against the Nazi-inspired ethnic nationalism that never came to play any significant role in Sweden. Even today, population surveys show that Swedes stand out in their lack of interest in seeing national identity primarily linked to race and origin. On the other hand, already in the 1930s the idea of law-based order was central, something that is just as true today.
But in the struggle to eliminate the need for corrupting philanthropy and charity, the moral logic was simultaneously rigorous and unforgiving: all citizens had both a right and a duty to work and pay taxes to earn their ever-growing, tax-funded, social rights. In the survey the Trust Barometer (long-term poll of social trust in Sweden) that I oversee, it is also clear that perceived trustworthiness is intimately linked to the primacy of honest work.
A complementary notion of Swedish identity
After the Second World War, however, a complementary notion of Swedish identity emerged. This was built on the shame and guilt that many felt for Swedish indulgence in the name of neutrality and freedom of alliance. Via portal figures such as Dag Hammarskjöld and Olof Palme, the idea of Sweden as a moral superpower arose. The debt was to be paid off through support for peace and aid to poor countries. Sweden would play a globally leading role, free from the cynical realpolitik of the military great powers, always ready to stand for ideals such as eternal peace and human rights.
After the fall of the wall, Swedish 'a people's home' social democracy lost its hegemonic status in the stormy neoliberal era. It was a perfect storm that was aimed at the two mainstays of the idea of a people's home: the state and the nation. And it included both the new right and the new left. All became globalists of various kinds. For the right, the global market society loomed, in which entrepreneurs were freed from taxes and regulations and the state was shrunk to its essential night watchman functions.
If the right's primary target was the state, the left's sights were set on the nation, associated with welfare chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and white power. For the post-national left-idealists of the new era, instead, the dream of realizing universal human rights within the framework of a borderless global civil society was poked. What the left abandoned was economic policy and civic universalism - and over time the idea of a people's home was replaced by visions of diversity and multiculturalism.
Two stories about Sweden
So two Swedish narratives, two stories about Sweden came to compete with each other. One built on the idea of citizenship and Folkhem ('a people's home'), the other on human rights and international solidarity. Superficially, they could be perceived as more or less synonymous or at least closely related. The desire to first create a Sweden based on solidarity and justice, then the goal of spreading the good news to the world. But on closer inspection, the fundamental logic underpinning these two models stand in opposition to each other.
In one case, it is a conditional altruism that builds mutual responsibility. We are again talking about the strict moral logic I described above: work, taxes, rights. The nationally delimited welfare state as a giant insurance company where everyone contributes 'according to her abilities'.
In the second case, an unconditional altruism within the framework of a borderless world where the equal value of all people trumps the civil social contract and benevolence overshadowed the idea that duties and rights must be balanced.
Sweden has become increasingly divided
Today's crisis and the rise of the Swedish Democrats became acute when the moral superpower invaded 'the people's home' (Folkhemmet). As long as this moral superpower was actively deployed in distant lands, the corrupting effects of this benevolence could be confined abroad. Bad enough, but not something that significantly affected Sweden. But when it took on the homeland in the form of uncontrolled immigration and clueless integration policies, the collisions became harder to hide. Since then, Sweden has become increasingly divided in terms of trust and security. Segregation and the emergence of isolated "vulnerable areas" has increased. The current social contract is challenged.
And here we are - you make your bed and you get to lie in it. The fact that SD, as the only party that early on pointed out that the volume and speed of immigration play a role in the ability to assimilate and integrate, today can count on steadily growing support is nothing that should be surprising. And to prize citizenship over open borders, the honest work over benevolence, is probably not primarily a matter of racism, but rather an expression of the idea that in a society the same rules of the game must apply to everyone.
Democratic nationalism and international solidarity
The question now becomes to what extent other parties – primarily the Social Democrats – can find their way back to a better balance between democratic nationalism and international solidarity. There are signs that the party has begun this migration. A break from the wanderings in the corridors of power can perhaps provide the respite required for both new thinking and retrospection.
Base translation by Google Translate and edited for Swedish context. Here is the link to the original OpEd in Swedish