Jacob Christensen

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Project 52 – 2014: Week 33

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The fair nights have ended for this summer. The weather changed abruptly earlier in the week. It had been cold and the rain had been pouring down all day. Now it is dark and quiet. Time to go to bed.

Written by Jacob Christensen

August 19th, 2014 at 8:00 am

Project 52 – 2014: Week 32

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The theme for week 32 was “Grand”.

In Mikkel Bryggers Gade just off the lower end of Strøget, Copenhagen’s main pedestrian street, you will find Grand Teatret, Copenhagen’s main art-house cinema. I remember watching films like Jim Jarmusch’ Mystery Train, Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and David Lynch’ Mulholland Drive here. During the 1980s and 1990s I used to visit the cinema once or twice every month, then I moved to Sweden and then to Odense and up until last month it had been quite a while since I had last seen a movie here. But during my summer holidays I managed to catch “Enough Said” in Grand. It felt a bit like returning home.

Written by Jacob Christensen

August 11th, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Pape: Next in Line

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Let’s face it: Now everybody in the Commentariat know that Lars Barfoed has been a dead man walking since June and nobody – absolutely nobody – has been reporting it before Barfoed announced his resignation as Conservative leader on Wednesday.

So here is what we know and what we don’t know:

1. The Conservative Party will have its third leader in six years. Espersen led the party from ten to five percent, Barfoed failed to reverse the trend and now Pape is charged with lifting the party back to – no, not its former glory – but the ten percent-mark.

2. We don’t know exactly when the process which led to Barfoed’s resignation began but unlike 1993, 1998, 1998 and 2011 the party has been able to conduct the change of leader without involving the media.

3. That a parliamentary group isn’t able to produce a political leader is, if not unheard of, then highly unusual in Danish politics. I think we would have to go back to the Social Liberals’ selection of Niels Helveg Petersen in 1976 and then the Liberals’ selection of Th. Madsen-Mygdal in 1926 to find parallels among the major parties. Unlike Søren Pape, Helveg and Mygdal had previous experience as MPs. Incidentally, the Swedish Social Democrats found themselves in the same predicament following the Juholt fiasco in 2012 and had to recruit a trade union leader for the post.

4. Søren Pape appears to have been second or even third choice behind Michael Ziegler and – possibly – Rasmus Jarlov.

5. Pape also appears to be well-regarded among party activists. A case of party organisation vs. parliamentary group – even if the members of the parliamentary group should be more concerned about their immediate prospects. The question is if the appeal to activists can be transferred to electoral appeal.

6. That said, the Conservatives did have some successes in the 2013 local election. Having credible candidates for local office (such as incumbent mayors) definitely helps in campaigns.

7. But: Local politics are different from national politics. Individual skills count for more, ideological positions for less than in national politics. Pape may be a more fiery politician than Barfoed (not that that says much) but will he be able to position the party in a way which is attractive to a larger portion of the electorate – remember that what attracts activists and what attracts voters are often two different things.

One final thought about the Danish Conservatives: Their most successful leaders – Christmas-Møller, Aksel Møller, Poul Sørensen and Poul Schlüter – may not have been deep thinkers or outspoken ideologues. In fact, this may have been what made them attractive to middle-class white-collar voters. They were able to strike a balance between business and wage-earner interests which made the party attractive to a relatively large section of the electorate. Under Bendt Bendtsen’s term in office, the party more or less reduced itself to a business interest party whose main programme consisted in demands for company tax cuts with calls for lower income taxes for the highest earners thrown in for good measure. This is a programme which at best attracts some ten percent of the electorate and the party will need to broaden its appeal – something it can only do by putting more of a distance to the Liberals (who are of course the Conservatives’ only realistic partner in the Folketing).

Similarly, the recruitment and training of political talent has been found wanting since the 1990s – something which the choice of a non-MP as new leader is an all too obvious indication of – and it needs at least a handful of MPs which do not come across as spent forces or below-par.

Oh – and one more thing: The fate of the German FDP must serve a as warning to the Danish Conservatives: Just because you have been a mainstay of the political system for generations doesn’t mean that you can’t work your way out of office and into political irrelevance by lacking credible policies and competent leadership. A Folketing without a Conservative group is a distinct possibility, if not in 2015 then at the following election.

Written by Jacob Christensen

August 8th, 2014 at 8:00 am

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Project 52 – 2014: Weeks 28, 29, 30 and 31

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Week 28: “No one remarked that I had brought too much” (Technically a very bad photo but there you go)

Week 29: Solitude. Bruno is contemplating life. And bees and honey.

Week 30: Ryparken – a lucky shot with sunlight of the demolished entrance to Ryparken Station in Copenhagen.

Week 31: Flow. Munke Mose in Odense.

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August 3rd, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Week 27

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A liquor never brewed? Calling a cool glass of water “liquor” is stretching the concept. Still, on a hot day it is one of the best drinks you can have.

Written by Jacob Christensen

July 7th, 2014 at 8:00 am

The Peculiar Danish Obsession with Sweden

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First of all, I might as well admit that I haven’t listened to any episodes of Radio 24Syv’s series “Danmarks Röst” – a programme hosted by Mikael Jalving. Jalving is fairly big on the Danish right, in particular that part which focuses on anti-immigration and anti-islamic politics and convinced that European societies are under a mortal threat from Muslims, multiculturalism and political correctness. You will recognise the stance from parties like PVV in the Netherlands, Front National in France and of course the Republican right in the US. But Jalving is also part of what we might now call a Danish tradition of obsessing with Swedish policies – seeing them as an expression of multicultural political correctness which – surprise, surprise – will somehow lead to the creation of some kind of Muslim controlled polity. My question is this: Given that Denmark and Sweden in many ways are so similar, then why this obsession with Sweden?

One place to begin could be with the observation that Sweden appears almost non-existent in contemporary left-wing political discourse. If we go back to the 1960s and 1970s, things were different as Sweden in many ways was a model for the modern Social Democratic welfare state. The left-wing would also see neutral Sweden with its links to the Third World movement as an inspiration in international politics. But these days, the interest for Swedish politics appear nonexistent. If anything, the Social Democrats take their cues from what is still left of the Blairite tendency in the UK Labour Party and Clintonian triangulation combined with EU economic orthodoxy which has nothing to do with traditional Social Democratic welfare politics. It is also difficult to see SF and the Red-Green Alliance using contacts with their Swedish counterparts actively.

One reason for this could be that Sweden has in fact had a centre-right government for the past eight years. In fact, since 1976 Sweden has had centre-right governments for 17 out of 38 years and in many ways contemporary Sweden is one of the most market-liberal (or deregulated, if you prefer that term) societies not just in Europe but in the Western world. This may come as a complete surprise if you listen to the Danish right-wing debate.

We can also note that even if the days of Social Democratic hegemony are long gone – the Social Democrats have still to discover this but that is another matter – Swedish politics is still characterised by the dominance of the socio-economic left-right dimension both with regard to the political agenda and the composition of the electorates of the political parties.

Here, we have a huge difference between Sweden and Denmark: The Danish Liberals – and the Danish People’s Party – won the 2001 election by attracting blue-collar voters while the Swedish Conservatives won the 2006 election by attracting urban white-collar middle-class voters. And the question about East and Central European workers’ access to the Swedish labour market had already been solved when the Green Party joined the centre-right parties and voted against the Social Democrats’ proposal to impose limits for migrant workers. Despite the attempts of the Liberal Party in the 2002 election, immigration policy never acquired the same salience in the Swedish political mainstream as in Danish politics.

The exception which sort of proves the rule is presented by the Sweden Democrats which have quite successfully tapped into the traditional protest vote constituency of younger non-urban, male voters with no or limited formal education in the 2010 national and 2014 European Parliament election. Anti-immigrant sentiment is one major factor explaining the Sweden Democrats’ success but we should not forget that Sweden Democrat voters are also characterised by a high level of distrust in the established political system. At the same time, the centre-right has preferred not to rely on the Sweden Democrats as a supporting party during the 2010-2014 parliamentary term even though the four-party Alliance lost its parliamentary majority in 2010. In many ways the Sweden Democrats are the point of identification for the Danish right-wing debate, but it does strike me as rather odd to make a party which is in the 5-10% range the Voice of the True Sweden – while the general Swedish opinion is becoming less, rather than more negative towards immigrants. More likely, the Sweden Democrats serve as a projection of the Danish right-wing debate.

Here, we should also note that a liberal immigration policy can be linked with both a leftist, multiculturalist position and a politically and economically liberal position. In my opinion, this – and the marked absence of a nationalist conservative position (like the one promoted by the Danish Liberals and the Danish Social Democratic mainstream) outside of the ranks of the Sweden Democrats – has led to a fundamental difference between Sweden and Denmark. In many ways, Danish politics has been dominated by a nationalist conservative hegemony in the 21st century with Social Democrats playing a game of catching-up. At the same time, Swedish governments have been more radical in introducing market-based (or neo-liberal) reforms of the welfare states than most other West European countries including Denmark. Sweden, curiously, appears to be to the right of Denmark on the socio-economic dimension even if the previous Liberal-Conservative governments and the present Social Democratic-Social Liberal government have adhered to the austerian economic policies promoted by the EU.

Finally, there is the question of “political correctness” and its role in politics. Based on impressions, I would say that Swedish political discourse for better or for worse with regard to issues like immigration and gender is more cautious than the Danish. Here, my guess is that one explanation is that Swedish politics has traditionally taken US progressive politics as its point of departure for much of the past 80 years. “Political correctness” – which in many ways is based on a desire to break with racist and patriarchical traditions in US society and politics – is linked with a specific liberal conception of modernity and this conception was embraced wholeheartedly – albeit successively by different parties – by the political mainstream in Sweden from the 1930s onward. In this way, it fits the Swedish mindset better than the Danish, given that Denmark in many ways was dragged kicking and screaming into the post-war industrial and service economy and society. “Islamization” – the explanation for just about everything in Danish right-wing politics – has nothing to do with it. (Incidentally, Danish right-wingers appear to take their cues from US right-wing think tanks and politics)

Obviously, things are a bit more complicated: The differences between Danish and Swedish immigration and integration policies are smaller than the numbers could lead us to believe. In many ways Denmark and Sweden face the same problems and have chosen the same policies to deal with integration once people have settled in one of the two countries. Multiculturalism also straddles a very complicated cleavage between individualism and the politics of group identity – and group identity politics are not necessarily as progressive as multiculturalists would like to imagine.

We also have to consider differences in the interplay between feminist movements and the state: Denmark was in fact a frontrunner with regard to women’s movements and gender equality during the 1970s but as the feminist movement always kept a distance to the state, gender equality more or less disappeared from the political agenda as 1970s radicalism ran out of steam. Swedish feminists on the other hand created close ties with the political and administrative establishment and in this way kept the issue alive. In fact, the ability of popular movements to infiltrate the political and administrative apparatus has been one important characteristic of Swedish politics since the 1920s. Systembolaget – that perennial object of Danish ridicule – was born out of the teetotalers’ movement, not a state dictate.

So, to sum up: While Sweden and Denmark are quite similar in many respects, Sweden is if fact different from Denmark on a number of important characteristics. While Danish politics for the past two decades have been characterised by centrist economic policies and conservative social (or “value”) policies, Swedish politics have been decided on the socio-economic dimension with market liberalism and individualism as the dominant forces. While Danish society (and politics) continues to have a significant conservative and anti-modern element built into it, Swedish society and politics have embraced modernism and post-industrialism. And finally, while popular movements have kept their distance to the Danish state and formal political system, Swedish movements have worked actively to gain and keep access to the inner corridors of power, but Danes simply do not understand how the Swedish system works and assume that some kind of top-down suppression of popular sentiment is at play.

All of this isn’t to say that Swedish society and politics are without problems or contradictions but from a Danish point of view Sweden is at the same time similar enough and different enough to serve as an object of projection.

Written by Jacob Christensen

July 6th, 2014 at 4:00 pm

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Project 52 – 2014: Week 26

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This is – or rather: was – Thomas B. Thriges Gade, a main throughfare in central Odense which was planned and built in the 1950s and 1960s to connect the southern, residential parts of the city with the industrial districts around the harbour. A large part of the old city was torn down to make way for the street. In many ways, it was a typically modernist project.

As times have changed, so have the commercial structures and traffic patterns. TBT was still a heavily used street but some ten years ago local politicians began discussing the possibilities of closing the street in order to build a new residential and commercial neighbourhood.

Today, we reached an important mark as the street was closed for road traffic and the coming decade will see the rebuilding of the city centre. So, Saturday marked the halfway between idea and execution. (And “halfway” was this week’s theme)

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June 29th, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Week 25

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Sports. And yes, even teddy bears are enthusiastic about the World Cup and polar bears are formidable goalkeepers.

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June 25th, 2014 at 8:00 am

Project 52 – 2014: Week 24

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Personification … say, is that house making faces at me?

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June 15th, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Project 52 – 2014: Weeks 22 and 23

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Week 22: “Fuubutsushi (n.) the things — feelings, scents, images — that evoke memories or anticipation of a particular season” – What says early summer like fresh potatoes and strawberries?

Week 23: Almost nothing. A bench which somehow disappeared.

Written by Jacob Christensen

June 10th, 2014 at 6:00 pm

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