Andreas Bergh is, for once, lost for words – or at least he has gone out of steam after systematically rejecting the main arguments in Dan Josefsson’s essay about the Swedish welfare state, published in last Sunday’s DN.
What finally brought Bergh to the brink of desperation was this quote, attributed to Stefan Svallfors, professor in sociology in – yep – Umeå (I quote a bit more of the text below):
Stefan Svallfors tror att regeringens introduktion av begreppet “utanförskapet” är ett medvetet försök att förmå också svenskarna att börja tänka i termer av “vi” och “dem”, snarare än i termer av olika samhällsklasser.
– När man talar om utanförskapet säger man att det finns två stora grupper i Sverige; de som jobbar och de som inte jobbar.
Stefan Svallfors är dock tveksam till om försöket att installera denna nya skiljelinje blir framgångsrikt.
– Jag tror inte att svenskar i gemen uppfattar sjukskrivna och arbetslösa som så fundamentalt annorlunda än de själva. De som har jobb idag vet att de kan bli arbetslösa eller sjuka i morgon.
Stefan Svallfors håller med Stefan Carlén1 om att det i viss mån går att förändra människors värderingar bakvägen genom att ändra på reglerna i trygghetssystemen.
A summary for non-Scandinavian readers:
Svallfors believes that the government’s use of the term utanförskap (which could roughly be translated to social exclusion) is a conscious attempt to get the Swedes to think in terms of insider and outsider groups rather than in terms of social classes – any talk about social exclusion implies that the population can be divided in two groups: Those who work and those who do not.2 While Swedes generally have not seen recipients of sickness benefits and unemployment benefits as fundamentally different from themselves, Svallfors agrees with Stefan Carlén that it is to some degree possible to change people’s valuation of the welfare state by changing the rules in the social insurance programmes.
First of all, I will have to say that I glanced through Josefsson’s essay without finding anything of real interest or at least anything new. From a publisher’s point of view, it is yet another example of DN’s peculiar line of having the editorial page and the review section scream at each other, rather than engage in a critical discussion of political and social topics.
Second, the present government’s long-term goals are fair game in the political and public debate and it is easily possible to find cases where the Conservative Party’s commitment to social equality can be more than questioned. The way Vårdval Stockholm was organised and what is in effect a drive to phase out rented housing are in my opinion deeply problematic.3
But basically, we should read Josefsson’s piece as a case of left-wing political propaganda rather than an analysis of government policies, so the real question is: Why is the demonising of the Conservatives endemic in Swedish left-wing, including Social Democratic, propaganda?
First of all, Sweden is unusual among Western countries as party competition is fundamentally uni-dimensional and class-based. And: What is most obvious about Swedish political debate to a Dane is its high degree of polarisation. I’ve dabbled quite a bit in political history and to me the Swedish Social Democrats of 2006 sounded more like their Danish counterparts of 1926 than the Danish Social Democracy of the 1990s or 2000s. A bit strange, given that Sweden is supposed to be egalitarian and consensus-oriented, but there you go.4
So what the Social Democrats are doing, is following a model which has served the party very well for most of the last 80 years: Fighting the old conservative elite in rhetoric, while adopting a wide range of pragmatic economic policies in practice.
But what about the changes to the social insurance systems? Well, you will find a case of a country which introduced cuts in benefits (especially with regard to the period it was possible to claim benefits) and all kinds of activation measures with the goal of fighting long-term unemployment. The country is Denmark and, yes, the policies were adopted by a Social Democratic government. And no: There are absolutely no indications that support for the Danish welfare state has collapsed – as opposed to support for the Danish Social Democrats which has gone through the floor. There may be a reason why the Swedes sound so altmodisch to my Danish ears.
One final observation: I suspect that Josefsson comes out of a tradition which basically sees the welfare state as redistributive. In this perspective, the success of welfare state programmes depends on the number of people who receive benefits, not the impact on the growth of the overall economy. It may sound bizarre but in this perspective having 10 per cent of the adult population on unemployment benefits with a 1 per cent growth-rate is seen as more just than having 3 per cent on benefits with a 3 per cent growth-rate, and Cuba is a better place to live than Ireland.
Oh, and why did I give this post the heading “Paradise Lost”? Because many on the Swedish left still long for the days when Sweden was a modern industrial state envied by the world (or at least the progressive world) and the welfare state could be expanded without limits. But as any competent economic historian will be able to tell you, the 1960s and 1970s are long gone and so is the economic and social basis of the old welfare state.
- Economist at the Union of commercial employees [↩]
- Or tax-payers and social parasites, if you prefer more blunt language [↩]
- This in no way means that I find the Social Democrats’ insistence on keeping a 1930s-style Soviet style system rent regulation in place just remotely appropriate or successful [↩]
- And let’s face it: There are class divisions in Swedish society [↩]