How the Swedish left moved right

And what can be done about it.

Swedish PM Reuters
Swedish PM Stefan Lofven has invited the opposition to talks aimed at a "cross-bloc cooperation", after his Social Democratic party failed to gain a majority in the September election [Reuters]

September’s general elections left Sweden with a hung parliament. Two months later, negotiations between parties have not resulted in a viable government. The deadlock is an effect of the new political skyline: Most notably, the old colossus of social democracy has eroded further as its supporters spread out across the surrounding landscape. 

The Social Democratic Party, which once governed the country for 40 consecutive years, received an unprecedented low share of votes at 28.3 percent. Large parts of the party’s voters have turned to the populist Sweden Democrats, who broke a new electoral record this year by gaining 17.6 percent of the votes – up from just 12.9 percent four years ago.                          

The elections clearly manifested a decoupling of workers from leftist politics, and many Swedes see the results and the following attempts by the Social Democrats to cobble together a government across the political centre as the latest humiliation for an increasingly irrelevant party.

Journey to the centre

In order to survive under neoliberal hegemony, Swedish and European social democracy have moved towards the political centre under the banner of supposedly post-conflict Third Way politics. This is actually an adoption of neoliberal ideology, justifying market liberalisation, privatisation and welfare degradation as the only alternative. Over time, the move has effectively narrowed the political field and resulted in rising inequality. Today, Sweden shows the largest growth in inequality among OECD-countries.

As mainstream parties have started to look more and more the same, right-wing populists have managed to use ethnocentric xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and contempt of elites to attract those disenchanted by consensus politics.

This process has been chronicled in decades of writing by post-Marxist political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who have found new renown as key thinkers on the present “populist moment”. Mouffe, in a recent interview, stated bluntly: “In my view, those who are responsible for this situation are the social democrats. Those are the parties who abandoned the popular classes”.

For evidence of this, one needs look no further than the Social Democratic Party government’s recent intervention in an entrenched labour conflict in Gothenburg harbour. Here, Social Democrats adopted the view that the independent stevedore union (excluded from negotiations with employers, although it represents a majority of workers), with its disturbing ability to shut down traffic in northern Europe’s largest harbour, needed to be pacified.                                         

In corporatist union with the more compliant Swedish Trade Union Confederation and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (whose former chairman was forced to resign over tax evasions made public in the so-called Paradise Papers scandal), Social Democrats proceeded to attack hard-won strike rights and independent labour unions. Preservation of the “non-conflict” status quo, benefiting entrenched power, clearly took precedence over workers’ interests.                                                     

The Social Democratic Party has reacted to the rise in populist sentiment partly by incorporating some of nationalist Sweden Democrats’ concerns and rhetoric. In Laclau’s vocabulary, this can be described as a challenged regime trying to appropriate oppositional demands in order to disarm contra-hegemonic actors. Consequently, the party has found itself trying, unsuccessfully, to reinvent itself as a centrist party, promising voters welfare and liberal capitalism and limited migration and openness and security and tradition.

The Social Democratic Party’s desperate post-election bargaining with the mainstream right threatens to further aggravate popular discontent.

This is especially likely since its leader, Stefan Lofven, instantly moved the debate into what Mouffe has referred to as a “moral register” – where hard lines are drawn between friends and enemies – by calling on all “decent parties” to come to an agreement that will keep Sweden Democrats out of power.

The rhetoric pushes mainstream parties even closer towards each other, while implicitly branding popular dissent as “indecent”. This could result in the Social Democrats tacitly supporting a right-wing government in order to sideline Sweden Democrats.

Leftist populism as a way forward?

In response to the increasingly dismal situation, Swedish leftist writers Goran Greider and Asa Linderborg have argued in favour of a leftist populism to counter neoliberal hegemony as well as its right-wing challengers. They do so amid a recent surge in left-wing populism across the world, which would undoubtedly indicate that the populist moment is open for the left as well.

Greider and Linderborg follow Laclau and Mouffe quite closely in connecting the decline of social democracy with the rise of right-wing populism. The solution for Sweden, they argue, is a revitalised left, organised around a new understanding of “the people”, including all those negatively affected by neoliberalism. They aim to replace the populist right-wing model of “People vs Elites/Foreigners” with one of “People vs Elites/Capital”.

While this certainly appears to be a move in the right direction, the politics proposed is still so loosely defined that it’s hard to determine if the writers want to see a rejuvenated social democracy once again appropriating oppositional demands – including contempt of elites and concern for class, gender, race and the environment – or if they envision the type of pluralist alliance championed by Laclau and Mouffe.

The difference is perhaps most visible in the treatment of class. Greider and Linderborg claim that “class is not primarily an identity, it is something that one is, regardless if one feels like it or not”. This statement is diametrically opposed to Laclau and Mouffe’s view that “class struggle is just one species of identity politics and one which is becoming less and less important in the world in which we live.” From this latter perspective, the assertion that class is somehow more fundamental than other identities is seen as an attempt to gain a dominant position by those claiming to represent the working class.

Therefore, the issue is fundamental in the determination of hierarchies within any progressive coalition. Its import was made clear when it caused a fruitful working relationship between Laclau and Slavoj Zizek to deteriorate into a petty squabble. More ominously, the fact that two associated white, male, leftist academics of roughly the same age ended up in irresoluble disagreement gives a practical demonstration of the challenge this matter poses to a diverse movement.

The question of geographic organisation is perhaps equally problematic. In passing, Greider and Linderborg make approving remarks about ideas like European redistributive politics and global democracy. But the main thrust of their argument is that the working class, “while waiting” for such fantasies to somehow materialise, should “look after its interests where it lives and works” – the nation-state.

It is surely important to ground any progressive struggle at the local and national level, but any form of socialism in one country would be easily disassembled by institutionalised neoliberalism or circumnavigated by nomadic capital. Thus, it’s hard to imagine a successful struggle that is not based on a transnational and multiscalar strategy.

A reinvention of Swedish Social Democracy according to Greider and Linderborg’s model would undoubtedly be preferable to a continued drift towards the centre. However, their apparent privileging of class may hinder the forming of broad coalitions, and their focus on the national scale threatens to leave them isolated in a sea of neoliberalism. 

Considering the weight ascribed to political vision in populist politics, it’s ironic that Greider and Linderborg display a certain lack of it here. If one of the components of successful politics at this time is to dream and talk big, it seems rather counterproductive of the left not to put its back into it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.