- Interview by
- Ben Beckett
In the English-speaking world, Sweden is often held up as the paragon of social democracy, by progressives and conservatives alike. But in reality, since the 1990s, the Swedish state has turned hard toward neoliberalism — with a series of governments pushing for privatization of welfare services, pensions, and education.
As in many parts of Europe, the Social Democratic Party has facilitated and often led this process. With a storied history of building working-class struggle, the Social Democrats still retain a lot of institutional support among Sweden’s strong labor unions, tenant unions, and social organizations. Yet now, under the strains of the COVID-19 crisis, the slow decay of the welfare state has come sharply into focus.
As the Social Democrats move ever further from their roots, the Left Party hopes that it can win over voters watching the state safety net slowly evaporate. This is the task for newly elected chair Nooshi Dadgostar, a member of Sweden’s parliament since 2014. She spoke to Jacobin’s Ben Beckett about the situation in Sweden and how her party is working to build a Left that can win. The text has been edited for clarity.
What is the political situation like in Sweden right now, and what are the biggest challenges working-class Swedes face?
Swedish society is built on very strong popular movements: the union movement, the tenants’ unions, the feminist movement, and so on. But today, the Right is attacking the way the country is structured.
Popular movements have a specific position in Sweden because it is, in effect, legally established. The right to collective bargaining is formalized so that any collective agreement is written into law — and the same holds for tenants’ unions. Technically, we don’t have rent control, but we have collectively negotiated rents, which are also formalized so no one can opt out of that system. The same goes in many ways for the feminist movement, which has long been centered around shelters, providing this movement with a strong material basis.
One of the most important things the Right is attacking is the right to collective bargaining, or at least the legal status of the unions and independent employees. And step-by-step, they’re trying to dismantle the right to collective bargaining in terms of rents.
Who specifically is pushing for all this — and how is the government responding?
The Social Democrats are ruling as part of a coalition government with four parties, at least two of which are proper right-wing parties. In a certain sense, all the others, except for the Left Party, are neoliberal parties. Perhaps you might think that the Social Democrats are not, historically, neoliberal. But at the moment, all of the parties except us are more or less in favor of these reforms. The Social Democrats seem to lack any kind of motivating force or power to push their own agenda. They are giving in a lot to their coalition partners and other right-wing parties.
[After the 2018 general election,] we decided to tolerate a Social Democratic prime minister, as the head of a Social Democratic–Green government, rather than allow a Moderate [Swedish conservative party] government. We judged that would be the better option of the two, in terms of both how bad the situation could get and our position within parliament. Since we accepted this Social Democratic prime minister, we also managed to push the government to discard some of the worst aspects of the proposed new legislation.
You’ve given interviews in Swedish media before, talking about how important the welfare system in Sweden was in your family. Could you share a little of what that was like, and discuss how things have changed since that time?
My parents came here with basically nothing but the clothes on their back. Thanks to the fact that the Swedish welfare system was really strong in the 1980s, when we came, getting an apartment was not an issue. It was not very expensive, and it was easy to get. There was also a strong labor market, and it was easy to get a job.
In the early to mid-1990s, the Swedish welfare system was not dismantled but it was heavily cut back. But there was a huge round of austerity as part of the 1990s crisis, which hit Sweden really, really hard. Social safety nets were cut back. In addition, the state stopped sponsoring the creation of new housing, which had been a very strong part of the welfare state up until that point, and since then, it has not really started up again. Sweden also introduced a new pension system, which is probably one of the worst, from a Left perspective, in the Western world.
What we still have is a very strong foundation in the popular movements; comparatively speaking, those movements are still in a strong position. That’s something that is still with us from the welfare state. Since the cutbacks, neoliberal polices have had a very strong influence in Sweden — from the right wing, of course, but also to some extent from the Social Democrats.
This is something that we know internationally does not work. So a big part of the Left Party’s task now is to promote the understanding that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, and neither does forcing people from welfare to workfare. We need to have a new paradigm in which the state takes on a major role in restructuring society, bringing about growth and a strong social safety net. We think the COVID crisis will help shift this debate in Sweden, and, to some extent, it has already done so.
It seems from the outside that Sweden has taken a different path on the COVID-19 crisis than much of the rest of Europe. How do you view the current government’s response to coronavirus, and what would the Left Party’s response be?
We’ve seen already that the sweeping privatization and austerity that Sweden has been through since the 1990s has left us poorly prepared for dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. We basically have no resilience. We see multiple examples of this. One is the way that the sick leave system has been structured. It makes people more likely to keep going to work even if they’re sick, because you don’t get paid for the first day off. This means people with low incomes keep going to work even when they’re sick — and that has contributed to the spread of the virus. Also, there has been a spread of zero-hour contracts, or temporary contracts, which has led people to work in many different workplaces at the same time. This has made the virus very difficult to contain, especially in elderly care and home care.
The Left Party thinks the government should have done much more to protect the elderly. Even though the virus spreads through society in general, almost everyone who has died from the virus has been from among the most elderly and, more specifically, people in elderly care or home care. We believe a lot more could have been done to save lives, just with a stronger structure. The government could have stepped in earlier and much more forcefully.
Let’s move to the question of housing. I know that’s something you have a lot of experience with. It’s also something the Social Democrats, at least historically, had very big and popular programs on, and that’s largely disappeared. What’s going on with social housing at the moment, and what do you think should be happening?
It’s the local municipal governments that control the system. This is a structure that has benefited Sweden very well in the past but that has been largely defunded. The Left Party demand that we reestablish this council housing structure and give it proper funding. That is something that has disappeared since the 1990s.
We had a famous program in the 1960s and 1970s called the Million Program, which built 1 million housing units. The thing that distinguishes the Swedish council housing system is that — traditionally and in general — these buildings have a very high standard of living and high-quality construction and services. So we need something similar, where both local and national government cooperate to revive the issue of housing. Today, Sweden has no proper national strategy for providing housing for everyone.
There’s a sense in most Western countries — and it sounds like it’s true in Sweden, too — that the neoliberal center is slowly falling apart and that the hard right and, to a smaller extent, the Left is pushing in and gaining more support. How do you see that playing out?
The Left needs to fill the vacuum left behind by the weakening of the narrative of neoliberal progress. For the Left Party, that has to mean a new approach that doesn’t only stand for justice and equality but also for development and a transformation of the economy, with new work opportunities for everyone.
The problem here is that, even though it might seem that the right wing provides an alternative to neoliberalism, in fact, in Sweden — and probably in most other countries, too — it has the same economic policies. It’s just waving the flag while promoting the same neoliberal approach. So the Left has to fill that vacuum. The Right is not doing it, even though it might gain votes from the lack of trust in the neoliberal project.
The truth is that the state’s strong position in the Swedish system is also the explanation for its strong economy and the strong companies that have been successful internationally. IKEA, Volvo, etcetera, have developed so much because of the strong position the state has taken in terms of welfare, in terms of guaranteeing health care, in terms of guaranteeing good education for everyone. You can basically say that IKEA would never have existed if it weren’t for the Million Program, since that was what gave the impetus for ordinary Swedish people to buy that kind of furniture [on a mass scale]. There has always been a close cooperation between the development of the economy and the strong welfare state.
The health care system has also been strongly supported by the state, which has led to developments in this field. The neoliberal paradigm was supposed to fix the economy — but it’s been least effective of all in terms of the economy. If we’re talking about creating jobs and economic development, the neoliberal paradigm has been a total failure.
Much of the energy on the Right is coming from the extreme-right Sweden Democrats. For a long time, all the other parties would essentially have nothing to do with them. But now it seems they have gained a lot more acceptance on the mainstream conservative side of the spectrum. To what extent do you think they are a unique threat or just an outgrowth of a bigger conservative movement?
They are the Swedish example of something that we can see in every European country. Our analysis is that this is the symptom or the outgrowth of decades of defunding and austerity in terms of the welfare sector and in terms of creating jobs, social security, and social cohesion. In that sense, we want to get to the root causes of these issues. And, of course, they don’t have any proper responses to any of these things — they want business as usual, while also waving the flag and talking about “culture.” But as an extreme right party, they are also a threat to our democratic system.
Looking ahead to the 2022 election, you said in an interview with the Left Party’s magazine that one thing the Left has to do is to provide hope. Looking at other examples, like Britain and the United States, one of the reasons the Left grew so quickly is that, for the first time, there were people — namely Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders — who gave people hope that things could change. In other words, it wasn’t that suddenly everybody liked our ideas. The ideas were always popular. Now, they saw something could actually change. How can the Left Party do that in Sweden? What’s your strategy to demonstrate to voters that if they vote for you, change is actually possible?
Of course, the Left Party wants to be the force that pushes the narrative of hope that things can be better. The most important way of doing that is to show that political decisions have been made to bring us to where we are, and that those decisions were made not by some abstract force but by actual people making actual political decisions in Sweden. Of course, we could be making different decisions.
One great example of this is the marketization of the education system. Sweden has gone further than any country in the world in letting private companies run schools for profit. This is basically deregulated in Sweden today. It’s a free-for-all. Any private company can start a school. Since that process started in the early 1990s, Sweden has dropped dramatically in international comparisons between different countries’ schools.
We keep coming back to this basic issue, which is that the right wing does not have answers to the questions they are supposedly best at: the economy, developing the economy infrastructure, innovation, etcetera. On the contrary, Swedish history tells us that the best periods have been those of close cooperation between private companies and the state, in which the state has taken a very central role in pushing development, infrastructure, and high-quality schooling for everyone — not with a privatized school system or welfare sector but a situation where people have been healthy and educated.
For example, if we look at the question of climate change — if we don’t change the entire economy from fossil fuels to a green economy, that will produce a lot of insecurity in the economy and its infrastructure. So, to respond to climate change, you need people to feel safe and secure — to feel that they can change jobs, change sectors, and retrain. Without that, you will either fail or have a reactionary backlash where people resist this shift.
What is your view of the 2022 election? What percentage do you think you can win?
We don’t want to give an exact number, but we are aiming to grow, and a very important part of our agenda is to make sure that the party goes from a niche party for people with high interest in politics to a party for the broad working class — people who have an ordinary job, an ordinary lifestyle — to move away from an elitist conception of the Left toward a broad left-wing coalition.
How you do that is a difficult question. But you have to have concrete answers to the concrete issues people are living through, in terms of employment security, in terms of housing, in terms of welfare. That’s one important aspect. The other important aspect is to work together with the broad popular movements — the unions, the tenants’ unions — to be present in people’s everyday lives. To be present in workplaces, neighborhoods. That’s, of course, a long-term strategy and not something you do overnight. But that’s what we’re aiming for.