Thursday, September 23, 2010

Watching the elections in Sweden

My grandpa Nelson was already a Social Democrat when he left Sweden in 1899.  The Swedish Social Democrats (SDP) were arguably the most successful progressive movement ever.  And they were brave.  They had to be.  19th century Sweden was exceedingly poor.  The struggles against such backwardness required organizational genius and a clear vision of what a better society looked like.

The real father of the SDP was a guy named Hjalmar Branting who preached evolutionary change.  For example, he was a socialist scholar who was quite horrified by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  He had a degree in math and astronomy and was apparently a very gifted writer who gave up his scientific career in 1884.  In 1889, he helped found the SDP and was the party president from 1907 until his death in 1925.

Branting provided a clear distinction between socialism and communism for his fellow Swedes.  In 1918 he wrote that socialism was an applied theory of democratic development and that communism, on the contrary, was an oligarchy, an enemy of democracy and an enticement to economic disaster in its demand for destruction of proprietary rights.  Branting's socialism would provide a blueprint for Sweden to become one of the most prosperous nations on earth.  His Social Democratic Party would essentially run things for 80 years.

Yet Sunday night when the ballots were counted, the SDP had lost its second election in a row and its vote total was the lowest in 96 years.  So the obvious question is, "What went wrong?"

The answer is obviously complicated but when I was in Sweden in 1995, I stayed with a devoted (and disappointed) party member who had several theories for the decline.  She worked for a bureaucracy tasked with finding jobs and alternative careers for the unemployed.  One of her clients was an economist with important entries on his CV who had been laid off and was seeking assistance.  In spite of his plight, he still was deeply wedded to the schools of thought that had destroyed his career.

This led to a fascinating conversation about the role of Sweden's conservatives in the destruction of the SDP.  This included speculation about the assassination of perhaps the best-known of all the SDP leaders Olaf Palme in 1986.  But the biggest contribution to the death of the left world-wide came through Sweden's legitimization of right-wing economists through the awarding of the Nobel Memorial Prize--especially the one given to Milton Friedman in 1973.

So her theory was that the SDP self-destructed because they forgot Branting and Palme and became a bunch of neoliberals.  The current head of the SDP, Monica Sahlin, is about as far from Branting as George W. Bush was from Abe Lincoln.

I haven't found a lot of real insightful analysis of the evolution of Swedish politics but the following will have to do until I find something better.  It was written by a self-described economic historian and there is actually some economics in it.
An Analysis of the Electoral Fiasco and Lessons for the Democrats
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. more


  1. Thanks for this post. The MSM, sure enough, has been touting how "the left lost" in Sweden with almost no analysis beyond the usual so-called liberals versus so-called conservatives trope and, of course, ignoring the "inconvenient truth" that the Swedish Green Party actually gained six seats.

    I, myself, am an active member of the California Green Party who has argued for years that U.S. Greens need to grow up and get serious during what is clearly an historic breakdown of "liberal" Democrat versus "conservative" Republican politics in the U.S.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Alex. And GOOD LUCK trying get the California Greens to grow up. If you have any success, please let me know how you did it. All I can say is that the Minnesota Greens are freaking hopeless.