The Lie of Sweden’s Social Democracy

In her astute ‘Letter from Sweden’, written after living in Stockholm for seven months in 1969, Susan Sontag is at first charmed by the response she hears to almost any question: “Why not?” Swedish aversion to conflict is so strong that people never give a passionate “Yes!” or firm “No!” in case it were to offend the other. What if they had in fact misunderstood the tone of the question, and you were being sarcastic after all? What if you secretly wanted them to disagree, but they accidentally agreed? These traumatic possibilities keep Swedes away from strict affirmation or negation, so instead they shrug, “Why not?”

It’s only after a few months here that Sontag became disturbed by this peace-keeping refrain. “Soon I realized that all too often that’s precisely what they mean: not a true yes, which depends on the ability to say no.”

Since moving to Sweden from England in December 2020, I have had a similar experience of Swedish passivity. At first, it fits into the famous narrative of Swedish rationalism and goodwill, but soon this indecisiveness starts to look like a refusal of responsibility.

This indecisive avoidance explains a lot of Sweden’s current political situation. Traditionally, representatives of all the political parties in parliament are invited to the Nobel Prize party, but in 2022 there was a significant absence: the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), the far-right party with an influential position in the ruling right-wing coalition. The party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, was left out, which played perfectly into his narrative of being a neglected outsider whom liberal politics cannot handle.

Aside from the industrial glue he must use every morning to stick his Action Man hair to his head, Åkesson’s most remarkable political attribute is the extremity of his Swedishness. On the surface, he is all exposure. He demands a bold Yes and No to every question, rejecting the indecisiveness of Sweden’s liberal past. But this only works on the campaign trail, when politics exists as a promise. While campaigning, he demands action from the government in power. Once he and his party have become that power, the demands require his own action, at which point he reverts to the familiar Swedish shrug. 

On a national scale, the risk is that immigrants will ask questions that Swedes rarely ask of themselves. They will ask where the evidence of this famous “social democracy” is. They will ask about Sweden’s colonial past. They will ask for a firm Yes or No. The only solution, for Åkesson, is to keep the questioners out: restrict immigration, and deny the questions immigrants ask.

Once the Sweden Democrats are closely tied to the ruling coalition, their demand for boldness is an unbearable demand on themselves. They turn instead to the familiar trick of criticizing others, maintaining Sweden’s anxious fear of conflict, especially any conflict with its fear of conflict. The inability to be questioned can never be questioned.

There is a general denial that this is even happening. The Nobel committee cannot confront the fact that they might not just be fundamentally useless but actually hated by a lot of Swedish people. They are the sign of a liberal bourgeois order that doesn’t need to actually exist for it to be the monstrous menace determining the country’s collective anxiety.

Something of the Swedish attitude to privacy is carried out in these quotidian political scandals. In Swedish society, privacy is shameful. It suggests you have something to hide. Walking around the suburbs of any Swedish city, one of the most surprising absences is garden fences. No one’s garden is enclosed. A patch of land simply extends out of a house, borderlessly meeting the street.

Hiding your garden makes people suspicious of what you’re doing in there. Even closing the curtains in your living room is a mild Sunday afternoon sin. The same dynamic is at work with personal information. To have almost any interaction with the state, to send anyone money, to collect your post, to go to the doctor, to buy a regular transport ticket, to log in to any online service, or to prove your identity, you need to give away your personnummer, or personal identity number, which is formed of your date of birth followed by four unique digits. Using this number, people can find a significant part of your personal information: where you live, where you work, how much you earn, and, of course, how old you are. Anyone has access to this information about everyone’s life. Secrecy is not an option in Sweden.

For years, the distance between my mum’s biological age and her narrative of her age has grown. Every three years, one year is added in her narrative age. Her most recent birthday, however, seemed to be going too far, and she removed a year from her narrative age. This secret play is, I realize now, a quite special luxury of British life. Anything can be hidden. You decide what to reveal and what to keep in secret.

Life in Sweden, on the one hand, is lived in the permanent anxiety of public performance. Everyone knows how much you earn, where you live, how old you are, so you can never pretend, never stage an exciting performance for the evening, pretending you’re someone else, living in a different part of town. On the other, of course, these secrets in the UK are used to make it difficult to trace anyone. You can get away with anything, hidden behind your garden fence.

The result of being constantly exposed in Sweden is not that everyone behaves perfectly according to some Viking moral law. It’s that you need to hide in different ways. It turns exposure itself into a performance. What is exposed is never really the person who seems to be exposed. You can find out anyone’s information, but that information becomes meaningless because the secret is moved to another part of their lives.

The incredible rise of the far-right party here exposes something else that is hidden behind what looks like the open surface of Swedish life. You can’t look up someone’s political opinions online. You can’t google a scale of someone’s hatred of foreigners. And since there’s a collective expectation that everything is already revealed, you can’t demand more exposure.

In the UK, there are constant surveys of people’s general opinions: beans on toast or beside toast? Milk before teabag or after? Should immigrants be encaged on an island on the other side of the world as punishment for trying to move there, or not? Thinktanks are at endless circular work, demanding opinions on everything from everyone, because it is presumed that nothing is revealed. We know we don’t know who we are, so we constantly ask, even if the questions are superficial and pointless.

But in Sweden you can’t go around asking everyone’s political opinions, because then fundamentally you risk exposing the sin of secrecy: maybe everything isn’t already exposed. What this right-wing coalition has done recently is to expose the fallacy of exposure. In fact, nothing was really known about anyone.

Everyone, after all, was trembling in the anxiety of self-preservation, terrified that their status as the global emblem of goodness and objective reason was collapsing precisely because their fear was being revealed. The fear that foreigners—especially the dark ones—are all gang members, that they’re all bringing guns and drugs to the exemplary peace of Sweden. The fear that there is an ethical ambivalence to mining for minerals on Indigenous Sámi land, even if those minerals are required for electric car batteries. The fear, fundamentally, that Swedes are scared.

This fear of having their fear revealed is, at some collective physic level, the basis for the general Swedish trust in the government. The Austrian writer Gabriel Kuhn has lived in Sweden since 2007. When I asked him about this, he said,

I find it hard to believe that anyone would disagree with the assumption that people in Sweden have a particular kind of faith in the government. For a few decades, from the 1920s to the 1970s, there was a good, functioning social system, even if it never worked for minorities such as the indigenous Sámi population. Today, the system doesn’t really work well for anyone except the rich, but the reputation lingers. This implies that we’re dealing with a rather passive, or complacent, society, where motivation to protest and strike, and hence push for social change from the grassroots, is scarce.

In the 1970s, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was trying to implement a policy that would give workers an increasing share in the ownership of the companies they work for, which eventually was passed in a watered-down version in 1983. As a result, however, Sweden’s biggest companies—IKEA, Tetra Pak, and H&M—relocated to tax havens. After the murder of Olof Palme, the Moderate Party (Moderaterna) dissolved this bill in 1991, and along with it the era of Sweden’s social democracy.

Nowadays it is difficult to find any concrete examples of what actually distinguishes Sweden’s model of capitalism from any other, although the fame of its social democracy survives. The privatization of public services is widespread, while the right-wing coalition government is trying to make life a lot harder for immigrants. It is concentrating state support on a stark definition of who is Swedish and who is not. The frequent scaremongering around “violent gangs” and “criminals” during the 2022 election campaigns emphasized a sensitive and heated divide in Swedish politics. It was only with these huge national changes that international perception of Sweden began to change, with Sweden beginning to join NATO and officially removing its recognition of Palestine in 2022, as well as restrictions placed on immigration.

I spoke about this change with Elina Pahnke, the culture editor at Sweden’s left-wing newspaper Aftonbladet. The problem she points out is that almost all the news available in Sweden is produced by presses owned by just three big media companies. This means they’re always in immediate competition with each other for the same resources, so none of them can step out of line. As Elina says,

The coverage of the racist Sweden Democrats party is a good example of how the majority of the newspapers have changed their description as the party has grown bigger. The more votes the party gets, the more neutral its description becomes in the press, from “racist”, to “xenophobic”, to “critical of immigrants”, and now with no definition at all.

They have become a neutral political party. They’re too big to criticize now. Criticizing them would involve a confrontation with a significant part of the Swedish population, and it’s exactly that kind of confrontation that Swedes spend their lives trying to avoid.

In Sweden, as Elina says, there has historically been an expectation that political change comes from compromise. In the early twentieth century, there was a strong and radical workers’ movement, which demanded workers’ rights against the demands of capitalists. However, in 1938

the Swedish Trade Union Association agreed with the Swedish Employers’ Association that the Swedish model would be one of compromise. The social democratic rule has been just that: a compromise between capital and workers. But there’s a natural conflict here, right? Capitalists will always try to exploit the workers.

I think this is the core of the unwillingness to act against the system: resistance is always expected within the system. But what happens when the system isn’t working? This is where we are now, and I think that no true resistance against this government will be possible as long as people still have that faith in Sweden as an exceptional country. Instead, we need to invent new places, platforms and organizations. That exists already, but it needs to grow into a mass movement.

It’s important to notice also, as Elina points out, that there are many movements against this kind of passive Swedishness. Many Swedes see through the duplicity of the country’s self-image. Writers like Judith Kiros and Daria Bogdanska are making important texts that reveal the pathology of Sweden’s collective denial. The Socialist party (Vänsterpartiet), with Viola Bao and John Hörnquist, put on open and accessible readings of Marxist literature to discuss other ways of thinking, in a friendly conversation over fika (Swedish snacks). Artists and art critics like Munish Wadhia and Mmabatho Thobejane are staging ways of confronting Sweden’s colonial past, artistically revealing its hidden legacy of violence. And organizers like Samuel Girma and Sam Hultin enable gatherings where care, contact, and criticism are brought together in a way that totally subverts the isolation of Swedish life. These are just a few examples that I’ve attended in Stockholm of social gathering that undermines Sweden’s generalized psychic repression.

The Danish communist activist and writer Torkil Lauesen has been involved in the struggle against Scandinavian capitalism for many years. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was part of an insurgent anti-imperialist group that conducted heists of Danish businesses connected to imperial wealth. The money they stole was then sent to anti-imperial groups in the Global South. In 1989, Torkil was caught, and spent six years in prison.

I asked Torkil about the ways activism has changed over the last five decades in Sweden. He said,

Anti-imperialism was an important part of the left-wing agenda in the seventies, with protests against the Vietnam war, and the many solidarity movements with Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and so on. This kind of activity has almost disappeared. Instead, there is a narrower national perspective on class struggle on the left.

There has also been a change of efficacy from extra-parliamentary activities to parliamentarian policy in the main left-wing party. The first kind of activity scares the voters away, so they stick to what can be done within parliament.

There are still smaller groups with an anti-imperialist global perspective in Sweden: Samidoun is a pro-Palestine solidarity movement, and the Emmaus groups raise money for their activities by selling second-hand clothes.

There are also significant antifascist and antiracist movements. Sweden has a long tradition of fascism going back to the 1930s and the newer populist right-wing, the Sweden Democrats, have roots in this tradition. Hence antifascism and antiracism are linked in Sweden.

As Torkil suggests, it is striking how Sweden has managed to eradicate its involvement in colonialism, and to remove the urge to anti-imperialist struggle.

For a few months in 2021, I lived in Gävle, a small city on the Baltic coast about 200 kilometres north of Stockholm. Although small, the city has an enormous port. The newer part of the port extends out to sea, formed of huge cranes and thousands of shipping containers, mostly taking timber around the world. Closer to the city, though, is the old port, where many 18th century buildings remain. At that time, as Torkil describes in his book Riding the Wave: Sweden’s Integration into the Imperialist World System, Sweden did not directly own any plantations, but it was where a huge amount of the produce from slave plantations was processed. Sugar, tobacco and coffee, above all, were brought from around the world to Gävle, where they were processed to then be shipped to European homes.

There is very little literature available on Gävle’s colonial history, but anything I could find while living there seemed to conveniently miss out any reference to plantations. The port city is described as the productive hub of Sweden, where global goods have been processed for centuries, without ever mentioning who made the raw materials: enslaved Africans on colonial plantations.

This denial of imperialism is ongoing in Sweden. One of the more hidden sides of Sweden’s historical and contemporary violence is the state’s relationship with the Indigenous population, the Sámi. Gabriel Kuhn has written about this a lot. When I asked him about it, he said,

The situation in Sápmi [the Sámi region, which spans the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia] has never much tarnished Sweden’s international reputation, because few people outside of Sweden (or even within, for that matter) know much about Sámi history. But if you take a closer look at the history, you’ll find a classic colonial tale with religious and cultural persecution, land-grabbing, forced displacement, boarding schools, and the infamous Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology, housed by the country’s most prestigious university until the 1950s.

Now, with the far-right coalition government, any anti-imperialist discourse about Sweden’s continued violence against the Sámi population is removed. A general denial is raised around the country, an invisible fence guarding the secrets that lie beneath a happily exposed surface.

In a way, the new extreme anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies of the government are the perfect cover-up for continued exploitation of Sápmi, since the perception of violence is relative: the treatment of Sámis is only as bad the treatment of foreigners…

At the moment, there’s explicit imperialist propaganda by the state on public transport. Since autumn 2022, the Swedish mining industry’s trade association, Svemin, has been on the marketing offensive with a campaign called Den Svenska Gruvan (the Swedish Mine). There are many variations of its ultra-positive images around Stockholm tube stations.

One shows a youngish man laughing, eating a hotdog and chatting on the phone while waiting for his electric car to charge. Symbols of all the chemicals required in the scene are displayed over the image: copper for the charging wire, nickel for the car’s batteries, iron for the random railings behind the laughing man, and silver for his jewellery. The copy written across the image says, “Metals and minerals make our modern life both better and more fun” (“Metaller och mineral gör våra moderna liv båda bättre och roligare”).

Another shows young women preparing for a party under a huge disco ball. Again, all the metals and minerals required for the scene are shown. A clear emotional binary is staged: the miners are fun and want what’s best for you; the protestors are boring and miserable and don’t like parties or electric cars.

Aside from the fundamental shocking fact that the mining industry can engage in public self-promotion—in a country where advertising alcohol is illegal because it is considered too dangerous but advertising mining on Indigenous land is fine and dandy!—there is also the usual Swedish problem at play here: a surface level of exposure and openness hides a far deeper, pathological secrecy. What can never be revealed is the complex morality of mining for minerals on protected Sámi land.

On the Left, this has caused a difficult debate. The mines provide the possibility of electric cars and improved technology that is less environmentally damaging than fossil fuels, but on the other hand it is an imperial mode of production, dispossessing thousands of Indigenous people and their land. Greta Thunberg, against some people’s expectations, protested against the mines in 2022, finding Sámi rights to be more important than the extraction of minerals.

These debates are rarely played out internationally. It is only very recently that other countries have begun to question the outdated view of Sweden as the paradigm of a perfect social democracy. Entering my third year as a Stockholmer, for me the strangest thing about Sweden is trying to describe it to anyone who doesn’t live here.

I tell my family and friends back in London that the trains are constantly delayed or cancelled, with none of the private train companies ever taking responsibility for the chaos. I tell them that the far-right government is massively cutting support for immigrants and refugees. I tell them about the pseudo-apartheid conditions of racism in Stockholm, where the centre is almost exclusively white and bourgeois while the periphery is almost exclusively black, brown and poor. I tell them about the public propaganda of the mining company, eliciting support for the imperial removal of Indigenous people from their own land. I tell them about Swedish people’s deep, anxious fear of having their fear revealed. I tell them that in Sweden all public life is a performance. Everything seems to be known: date of birth, address, wage, marital status. But this covers the fundamental national trauma of Sweden: they can never say Yes to anything, because they can never say a firm No.

My friends and family react with confusion. They laugh and dismiss me as just an ideological communist who hates anything that resembles capitalism. I don’t deny it. I just say that maybe both are true. Maybe I’m just an angry communist intent on destroying Sweden’s false imaginary, but maybe Sweden also has a hidden underside, a burning core of violence lightly disguised by its obsessive self-promotion as the objective peacekeepers of earth. Maybe.

Of course, I can’t say for sure, neither “Yes” nor “No”, only a tentative and very Swedish, “Why not?”