Thursday, February 26, 2009

King Théoden and the fate of Swedish social democracy

Three years after the election, the centre-right coalition in Sweden continues to undermine the foundations of solidarity upon which our society used to rest. By reforming the tax system in a more regressive direction, by enacting repressive laws on electronic surveillance and by further promoting “free choice” in health care and education, the coalition has struck a devastating blow to our international standing as being the vanguard of progressive politics.

Lamentable as this may be, it should come as no surprise given the stagnating social democratic rule that preceded the current government. Yielding to pragmatism, the former leader of the social democratic party, Göran Persson, failed in the most profound sense to see the possibilities of our times. As I often have argued, the problem was not so much what he did (prescribing fiscal austerity, deregulating markets and so forth) as what he did not do.

After Göran came Mona Sahlin, the lexical definition of a “post-political politician”. Mainly concerned with questions of identity and recognition, Mona has further consolidated the image of the social democrats as a party deprived of all ideological content. As the financial crisis has escalated, this lack of visionary direction has become impossible to hide.

Like the cursed king Théoden, the Swedish social democrats remain incapacitated with a leader unable to make hard choices. While the conservatives take a special pride in the embodiment of their ideas in terms of lifestyle (MQ-shopping in Täby), the social democrats are generally perceived as hypocritical (remember Mona’s “time-out” on the Maldives). I am not implying that leading social democrats should take on the values and attitudes of the working class but rather that they should reconnect with their original emancipatorial project. Social democracy was, from the beginning, always about transformation, about believing that development is possible, both at the individual and the social level.

Today, this faith in the modern project has waned. With fearful eyes we look back upon the transgressions of the welfare state (be it compulsory sterilizations, mental institutions, or the sense of acquired passivity) and think that we can equate these phenomena with the project as such. Nothing could more false. The last hundred years have given us indisputable evidence that social improvement is indeed possible. I can understand those who in the 18th century were sceptical about the prospects of democracy or the value of bold dreams. But not today! Given how far we have come, we give up on those who struggled before us when we resign from our duty to imagine a better future. It has never been about building Utopia but rather about the approximation of regulative ideas through piecemeal reforms, about the constant application of critical thinking and an openness to democratic deliberation about the direction of our enterprise.

With the next election in 2010, it remains uncertain if the curse can be lifted in time, if new leaders can step up and formulate a progressive vision for Sweden, a vision that can “play ball” and expose the flawed economic reasoning of the centre-right, that can show why equality is a key and not a hindrance to economic growth, why we should reverse the trend and strengthen our collective health insurances, why schools should not be left in the hands of religious or commercial interests but be platforms for social cohesion and integration, why we should study more and not less and, finally, why innovation and not flagellantism is the appropriate response to the ecological crisis...


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