Sweden’s recent trajectory conforms to a historical law. It is late to catch up with events in other Western countries, before then embracing the spirit of the times in its harshest form. Sunday’s general election, in which the far-right Sweden Democrats captured 17.6 percent of the vote, conforms to this law.
We first saw this law at work during the neoliberal counterrevolution, which set the stage for today’s shifts. Even as Reagan and Thatcher rose to power in the United States and Britain, the right-wing coalition governing Sweden was reinforcing the pillars of social democracy. This was a time of state support for fledgling industries, all-encompassing welfare systems, and centralized negotiations between employers and still-powerful unions. In the 1980s, even as the United States crushed the PATCO strikers and Thatcher the British miners, Sweden’s working-class enjoyed an Indian summer, pulling off a final wave of wildcat strikes forcing spectacular wage hikes across the board.
But in the 1990s the hammer fell. A right-wing coalition implemented an epochal systemskifte, or “system change.” After decades of pent-up aggression, the Swedish capitalist class assaulted the welfare state, tore deep holes in its safety nets, outsourced factories to low-wage economies, and broke the back of labor through skyrocketing unemployment.
Since then, Sweden has seen its income disparities grow faster than any other country in the OECD. It has the most thoroughly privatized education system. Only Switzerland has more billionaires per inhabitants. Sweden has become a late-neoliberal paradise.
For a long time, Sweden was an exception to another European tendency: there was no far-right party in parliament. We had no Front National, no Dansk Folkeparti, no Vlaams Belang or Austrian Freedom Party. As late as the early 2000s, leading specialists on the extreme right puzzled over its exceptional “failure” in this one country. For many of us, this was a source of pride — one of the few remaining ones.
Sweden had a particularly open asylum policy. After Bashar al-Assad’s sarin massacre in Ghouta in August 2013, the Swedish government announced that every Syrian who reached its territory would automatically receive permanent residency. For some time, Sweden received more refugees per capita than any other member of the European Union. But in 2015, the doors slammed shut. Since then, no other EU country has raised greater obstacles to Syrian and Iraqi immigrants who want to reunite with their families. A fence on the border with Denmark ensures no unwanted people slip through.
Today Sweden has Europe’s most powerful far-right party of direct Nazi inheritance. The country is a microcosm of the regressive tendencies at play across advanced capitalist countries today. Sunday’s election results should similarly be seen in this light.
Veterans and Zealots
The Sweden Democrats (SD) hail from “Keep Sweden Swedish,” a neo-Nazi sect formed in the 1980s to unite veterans with younger zealots under the guidance of Per Engdahl, doyen of interwar Nazism. It has an unbroken lineage all the way back to the 1930s copycats of German Nazism. We used to fight the Sweden Democrats in the streets when they wore boots and bomber jackets. But in the late 1990s, their leaders banned the uniforms. Under Jimmie Åkesson’s leadership, the SD began morphing into a “respectable” European far-right party. Today the suits and ties are immaculate; one can even find the odd woman in a top position.
The early 1990s skinhead version of the SD championed two key demands: a total stop to immigration and “repatriation” of those already on Swedish soil. After the borders were closed in late 2015, the SD declared victory on this first count. In fact, except for the Left Party, all the other parties scrambled to adopt the SD position that Sweden was full and could not possibly accommodate any more immigrants.
The SD now mobilized for “the next great battle in migration policy”: removing migrants to the countries “where they should live” (as Åkesson puts it). The SD calls it “re-immigration,” and it’s identical to the “repatriation” demand of the early 1990s. Who should leave? SD spokespeople sweepingly point to “the many who don’t feel at home in this country and live in marginal areas.” They propose converting the Swedish Migration Agency into a Re-Immigration Agency tasked with administering departures.
It is the official policy of a party that won 17.6 percent of the vote on Sunday. Åkesson has vowed to “force the other parties onto this trajectory,” and there are early signs of success. Just before the elections, the chairman of the center-right Christian Democrats’ youth wing published an op-ed describing a Sweden overrun by Muslims and demanding that “those who choose not to adapt be given good conditions to re-immigrate.”
Rather than moderating its demands for the mainstream, the SD has recently radicalized. This is a logical response to the mainstream’s adoption of its central arguments and policies. Party secretary Richard Jomshof recently told Sweden’s leading daily that “Western Europe will perish because of Islamization, if we do not dare tackle the problems we have.” As recently as this June parliament’s second deputy speaker Björn Söder made clear that Jews and Sami people cannot also be Swedes. These pronouncements come from the top echelons of the party.
Below, there is a rich undergrowth of deeper ideology. “One CANNOT force different races to live together. Ethnicity is something you are born with and Swedish genes cannot be acquired, that’s a fact,” writes one SD candidate in the southern city of Helsingborg, notorious for its interwar Nazism. The same candidate rails against “politicians and celebrities with Jewish blood” and Arabs who have “lost their brain cells.” Another municipal candidate has time and again praised Adolf Hitler. Another calls for prosecution of “traitors.” Yet another incites the burning of immigrants — and on it goes, an ever-increasing rot which only occasionally reaches the mainstream media.
When it does, there is usually a scandal. The SD leaders distance themselves from the juiciest statements. They might even remove candidates from their lists. But then new outspoken members are brought onto the stage, followed by another cycle of scandals, none of which has done anything to dent SD support — to the contrary. The excrement constantly leaks from the party. Yet plugging it up would be tantamount to shutting down the metabolism of this political body. This is what nearly a fifth of the Swedish electorate, which cannot possibly have missed the discharge, has voted for.
Discussions of whether the SD still counts as “fascist” tend to get lost in abstraction. More tangible is the fear and alienation that grips those targeted by a party that enjoys mass support from white Swedes.
Meanwhile, the hardcore Nazi fringe is ramping up its own activities. The town of Ludvika is under siege by Nazi combatants who have seized upon it as a base camp. In June, the Jewish association of Umeå ceased operations, after escalating harassment from Nazi activists, leaving Sweden bereft of Jewish community life north of Uppsala. Formally, this activity occurs outside the party apparatus. But it belongs to how the SD functions as a political body. The fatter the parliamentary dog, the longer its street-fighting tail.
In Sunday’s elections, the SD reached 17.6 percent of the votes, up from 12.9 percent in 2014, 5.7 percent in 2010 and 2.9 percent in 2006. Some breathe a sigh of relief. It could have been worse — some polls suggested that SD would score 20-25 percent and become the second or even the biggest party. It finished third.
But for two decades now, Swedish politics have been shaped by the rise and rise of the Sweden Democrats. This election shows that tendency will continue. It has driven wedges deep into the right-wing bloc — or, as it is called in Swedish, de borgerliga partierna, “the bourgeois parties.”
The Moderates, the largest force in the right-wing Alliance, ruled Sweden when the doors were opened for Syrians. Under Moderate prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt neoliberal economics were wedded to relatively generous asylum policies. He resigned in 2014.
Since then, the Moderates have veered ever closer to the SD on migration, diminishing Reinfeldt’s prestige in the party. During this time, it haemorrhaged voters to their far-right rival. The Moderates took 19.8 percent on Sunday, down from 23.3 percent in 2014 and 30 percent in 2010. The most established bourgeois party, the traditional defender of the Swedish capitalist class, is fading into the SD.
Reinfeld’s legacy is upheld by the Center Party — erstwhile agrarian conservatives, now the hippest neoliberals — whose leader Annie Lööf made a point of fiercely attacking Åkesson in this election. With its best result in thirty years, the Center Party finished fourth. The bourgeois bloc is splintering into two main camps: neoliberalism with a human face (the Reinfeld-Lööf axis) and neoliberalism plus nationalist conservatism (the Moderates and Christian Democrats). SD leader Åkesson constantly woos this latter camp in the hope of forming a new reactionary bloc.
It remains to be seen for how long they can resist the SD temptation. Coalitions between the SD, the Moderates, and the Christian Democrats could seize hold of key cities across Sweden.
If these trends persist, it is only a matter of time before the SD manages to break off the Moderates and Christian Democrats and institute a blue-brown national government. Then, the SD may be handed the migration portfolio — its chief demand.
In this context, it would be wrong to label the SD part of an “anti-establishment sentiment.” Unlike other European far-right parties, it has no “progressive” economic profile. In competing for the neoliberal vote, it promotes increasing tax and welfare cuts, defends the privatization of health and education, and pledges allegiance to the class interests traditionally represented by the Moderates.
There is nothing anti-establishment about the party. All of it is anti-immigrant, and the immigrants of Sweden are about as far from “establishment” as a population can get. The last to be employed and the first to be sacked, consigned to remote and dilapidated suburbs, they are effectively cut off from spaces of wealth.
All the more tragic, then, that 26 percent of the members of the main trade union federation, the LO, voted for the SD on Sunday. The governing Social Democrats, through attempting to concede to the SD, have suffered losses to the far-right party only slightly smaller than the Moderates’. It was the incumbent Social-Democratic prime minister Stefan Löfvén who closed the borders, invoking an imminent “system collapse.”
At times the rhetorical similarity makes it appear that social democracy is paving the way for the far right. Combined with moves to restrict trade unions’ right to strike — in an era nearly devoid of strikes — a picture emerges of a complete meltdown of Swedish social democracy. It has no project except clinging to power, for as long as the gradual, seemingly irreversible PASOKification allows.
Inevitably, arguments will arise that the Social Democrats can only stop the haemorrhage by daring to discuss the problems of “integration” (a euphemism for “non-whites”) and “mass immigration” (a rotten misnomer). They’ll claim that we have to acknowledge that immigrants are a drain on our scarce resources. Parts of the German left have begun to travel down this road.
These lines reinforce demonstrably incorrect views. In fact immigrants were not the authors but the first victims of the systemskifte; the drain of resources is executed by the rich; and immigrants themselves supply workforces for crucial if poorly paid jobs in everything from hospitals to restaurants. Such a move is also strategically suicidal. All experience suggests that confirming the far-right worldview can only produce one winner, the far right. As Åkesson himself exclaimed in this past campaign: “Why vote for the copy? We are the original!”
There is one silver lining: the Left Party. It’s the election’s second major winner with 7.9 percent of the vote. Polls predicted much greater gains — above 10 percent. Even so, this was its best result since the elections of 1998 and 2002, a peak only surpassed when the Swedish Communist Party rode the wave of antifascism in 1944.
The Left Party is essentially the same force that once contributed to the founding of the Communist International. Few other post-Communist parties have echoed the Left Party’s success in changing its name, shedding splinter groups, and reinventing itself as a left-socialist force — all while resisting splits and becoming more popular. It provides a striking contrast to the Italian Communist Party and its successors, which disappeared despite far deeper Communist traditions.
Two circumstances separate the Left Party’s current peak from its last one. This time, the Left Party is experiencing a renaissance as a party apparatus. With more than twenty-five thousand members and counting, it is now larger than at any point in modern history, and will soon be twice as large as in the 1970s. The previous peak was centred on the charismatic but erratic leader Gudrun Schyman, who went on to found her own Feminist Initiative (all but obliterated in Sunday’s elections, ripe for dissolution).
Now the Left Party has ballooning chapters, particularly in the main urban centers. Its May Day rallies have become rituals for tens of thousands, far outnumbering the geriatric flocks of the Social Democrats. It nearly equals the membership of the SD even if it wins less than half the votes. It has a vibrant internal debate on everything from ecological economics to feminist strategy.
But the Left Party’s previous peak also coincided with an upsurge of movements outside the party: these were the years of Attac, social forums, anti-summit riots and antiwar marches. Today, Sweden is a social movement wasteland. It once had a vigilant Anti-Fascist Action and surrounding Antifa scene, which is now rarely encountered. The Palestine solidarity movement has shrunk to the level of occasional fund-raising. The antiracist movement is on the defensive and the feminist movement disorganized; the trade unions, which still organize some 70 percent of all employees, are dominated by bureaucracies that support restricting the right to strike.
This situation contains a contradiction. On the one hand, the Left Party is in a better shape than at any point since its World War II–era heyday. On the other, its capacity to push reforms in parliament is severely curtailed by the dismal balance of forces everywhere else.
On its own, it can make a difference on the margins. Over the past four years, the party has used its parliamentary support, on which the Social Democratic government depends, to defend parts of the welfare state and extract concessions, such as free medicine for children, free contraceptives for everyone up to twenty years old, slightly more affordable dental care, somewhat higher sick pay, a little improvement to unemployment insurance, and so on.
But as long as the Left Party is one lonely voice, with few material forces to back it up, it rests on rickety foundations. Indeed, if it achieved its long-term goal of entering a government with the Social Democrats, it could fall prey to the deeper forces that hollowed out Italy’s Rifondazione and Greece’s Syriza after they reached office. It has already allowed itself to be caught in a web of status quo constraints, such as budgetary concerns and the basic parameters of controlled borders.
In the swelling Left Party, the chapter in Sweden’s third-biggest city Malmö stands out for its unique approach. Today boasting 1,300 members — three hundred of whom joined in the last few weeks — it is the party’s largest chapter nationwide. For years, it has channelled its members into Malmö’s social movements. Few demonstrations of significance get underway without the organizing skills of its activists. The chapter approximates the ideal balance between movement and party, street and parliament.
On Sunday, the Malmö Left Party captured 11.8 percent in municipal elections, up 4.3 percent. It thus scored a bigger rise than any other party including the SD. Yet as things stand, Malmö looks set to be governed by the SD in coalition with the rest of the bourgeois parties.
With the SD pitted against the Left, the battles of the mid-twentieth century are still to be resolved in Sweden. In this respect, too, the country may lead the way.