Sweden – Where liberal left is right

Mona Sahlin - Current leader of the center "left" Social Democrat party which has lead the dismantling of the Swedish welfare state over the past 40 years.

Sweden is regularly held up as a model of social democracy, equality and of a “cradle-to-grave” welfare state. But while it still has a welfare state and level of equality that’s ahead of most countries, the truth is that it has been in terminal decline for the past 40 years. The astonishing thing is, this decline has happened under a liberal center-left government – the Social Democrats – who have been the ruling party in Sweden for all but 13 of the last 78 years. It is their failure to stand-up for working Swedes that has seen the country shift even more to the right in this year’s General Election. While many liberal-left Swedes are outraged at the success of a racist far-right party in this year’s election, they show little outrage at this right-wing attack on their society by liberal-left wing governments since the 1970s.

Sweden’s social democracy and welfare state reached a peaked in the 1950s and 60s when unemployment reached virtually zero for a while and it was considered one of the richest countries in the world. Since the 1970s however, Sweden’s welfare state has been subject to a series of vicious attacks by successive center-left Social Democratic governments which have failed to stand-up to corporations and international right-wing organizations such as the IMF and OECD and aggressively applied pro-corporate neo-liberal economic policies ushered in by the Reagan and Thatcher eras and which still continue today.

In the 1990s, after an economic crisis which saw unemployment reach 40% bringing the Swedish economy to its knees, the Swedish government commissioned a study into the state of its famous welfare state entitled Welfare in Sweden: The Balance Sheet of the 1990s. It provided a damning indictment of the performance of the center-left Social Democrat party:

Over the last decade, the most noticeable change was the increase in the proportion of the population that encountered various kinds of disadvantage and ill-health. Negative psychosocial working conditions and short-term employment became more common. Progressively larger groups suffered financial difficulties and low incomes. In the health field, we find a significant decline in specific areas, especially as regards mental well-being. In the area of chronic disadvantage, the number of long term social assistance recipients increased significantly.

The report pointed out that public service workers saw their wage levels fall continually and around 60,000 lost their jobs to private contractors. Immigrant areas became more segregated. Higher fees were introduced for child, elderly, health and dental care. Almost 20% of elderly people who needed home support did not apply for it anymore because it was too expensive. 12% less was spent on teachers as fewer and less qualified teachers were employed to teach ever increasing class sizes. And since 1997, social security was no longer linked to inflation and housing support was removed for single people over 28 years of age.

As the new millennium arrived, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) felt these cuts hadn’t gone far enough and were outraged in particular that in their eyes, too many Swedes took sick leave from work. In a 2002 report, they concluded that there wasn’t enough workers in Sweden because too many were signed-off sick:

The Swedish government spends 113 billion Skr ($12 billion) per year, or 16 percent of the national budget, on sickness and disability payments. The surge in sickness absenteeism and continued high levels of disability retirement have eroded the labour supply.

Perversely however, they acknowledged that the huge cuts in government spending had been mainly responsible for creating high levels of sickness and absenteeism saying:

It is possible that cuts in fiscal expenditures during the second half of the 1990s led to a rise in work-related stress, particularly in the health and education sectors.

The center-left Social Democrats agreed with them that sick Swedes had it way too easy and planned to cut central government spending on sickness and disability benefits in half by 2008 through an Orwellian sounding scheme called “The programme for a humane working life.” They never got the chance however.

Completely disillusioned with the Social Democrats, Swedes abandoned them in the 2006 election paving the way for Frederik Reinfeldt and his center-right Moderate party to form a government with other center-right parties (including one party called “Center” Party which launched a campaign of hate against Swedish workers at the 2010 election called “Fuck Facket Forever” – meaning effectively “Fuck Swedish Workers Forever” since Facket is the biggest workers union in Sweden). Naturally, Reinfeldt’s Alliance government not only continued the public spending slashing of the Social Democrats but accelerated it. Today, claiming sickness benefit in Sweden has been made as difficult and humiliating as possible leading to cases such as this where a woman who was declared unfit to work for the rest of her life by 5 different doctors, was turned down for sickness benefit by the Swedish government.

There is virtually no opposition to this dismantling of the Swedish welfare state in the mainstream Swedish political system. One party in Sweden – The Left Party – has in the past rejected at least some of this path that Sweden is taking. But the Social Democrats have refused to even consider entering into a deal with them unless they water down their principles and accept that Sweden “has to” carry out even more more major public spending cuts – which the Left Party have more or less agreed to. Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin calls this “responsible economics”. What she means however, is that perpetual large cuts to public spending are responsible to the needs of capital and big business in Sweden, not to the social and economic needs of Swedish people.

Only the Trade Unions in Sweden offer any kind of voice for working Swedes nowadays. One Trade Union leader, Ylva Thörn, summed-up the failure of the liberal left in Sweden when she said: “The typical working class feels left out. People with low wages and women need to feel that a better alternative for them exists.” It is precisely this alienated state of the Swedish working class that Thörn talks about which has seen working Swedes turn increasingly right-wards in search of solutions in the 2010 election. While the center-right Alliance looks almost certain to retain power, early indications are that the Sweden Democrats – a far-right party which wants to expel large numbers of immigrants from Sweden – has won almost 6% of the national vote. That’s almost the same percentage of the vote as the Green Party won in a country that’s one of the most environmentally conscious in the world.

Many people on the liberal left who consider themselves Social Democrats will no doubt bemoan this rise of a racist far-right party in Sweden. But they don’t see that Sweden has already been under a right-wing attack from the left for the last 40 years. This is in large part because they are subject to intense subtle propaganda by the mainstream corporate media which perpetuates the illusion of a vibrant left and right debate in Sweden while expressing liberal outrage at the racism of the far right. But while working class Swedes feel that they can’t turn to the Swedish political left to solve their problems anymore, the popularity of those parties on the right that offer scapegoats and oversimplified solutions to the failures of the liberal left will only increase.