Social democracy in Sweden (and elsewhere?) is in acute need of a new narrative. After the great socio-political transformations of first the ‘folkhem’ (the People´s home) in the 1920s and 30s, followed by the ‘great society’ of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the former shapers of a politically, socially and economically more democratic reality have crouched under the weight of the market. At best, attempts at restoring and preserving, not developing, an ever-more hollowed-out welfare-system have become the norm, and all too often the lack of language and conceptualization of developments in the new capitalism have prevented social democrats from formulating a progressive, and credible, road ahead.
It might sound intuitive, but I think the reason that social democracy managed to become a political dimension on its own – not left, not right, not middle – was based on its generous offer of better lives for everyone. Its unorthodox approach to existing ideologies as well as to practical solutions made it surprisingly vivacious, alert and responsive to changes in its surroundings. Despite its impressive size, it did not stand still. As long as ‘utopia’ was not reached, there was still a ‘utopia’ to strive for, without managerial prejudices. For neo-liberalism, utopia meant that individuals would have an instant access to and responsibility on the market. Instead of pursuing a stable and steady development path leading to better lives for everyone, we got an increasingly unstable, but alluring, potentiality of great success for a few. Hence, people of today lead their lives holding their breaths. And social democracy has become less able to react constructively to transformations within society.
The financial crisis has proven many things wrong. One of them is that the ‘middle classes’ do not support a general welfare system. It is clear, however, that when right-wing governments in Europe (as the British government recently) now want to save the money they have spent on bank bail-outs and bad management, they do not propose cuts in those parts of the welfare-system which are general (like the NHS or public transport). Instead, it is the selective and income-related programmes of public support, from which the middle classes gain little, which received the biggest blow in the process of ‘restoring state finances’. This is a strong case for the general welfare-model rather than a more selective one (as it will always be easier to cut public spending on the poor). However, this universal socio-political project, in my eyes, depends on two things: good material conditions and ideological conviction among policy makers.
With regard to the first, the financial crisis has also shown how extremely unequal the distribution of real risks is within our societies. In Sweden, the middle classes, in many cases even benefited from the crisis (lower taxes, low rents), while the lower layers of society were hit hard both by the financial crack down as well as by the austerity of post-crisis financial and monetary regimes. They lose their jobs, they lose their pensions, they have to pay more ‘themselves’ for the sake of surviving. People in our societies are indeed living in separate worlds, not only regarding welfare-systems but also as workers. In Sweden six to eight percent of the workforce is now thrown into what is called ‘structural unemployment’ (i.e. such long-term unemployment that is never coming to an end), and this group is constituted by people who already before the crisis had the lowest productivity. And, what is more worrying, when nearly one tenth of the workforce is structurally unemployed, and unemployment is increasingly seen as an individual problem rather than a common one, the support for the generality of welfare-systems will in the long run decay.
The historical success of social democracy rested in the way it managed to bind lower and middle-classes together, while at the same time securing stable growth in prosperity (with the potential of being evenly distributed). To be able to ‘put yourself in another person’s shoes’ is a prerequisite for solidarity with that person – the relative equality in itself generated the broad support for a general welfare-model.
One important tendency, inherent in our fragmented societies of today, is now separating the lower and middle classes: the ever faster structural transformations of economies are putting increasingly greater pressure on the people in the labour market. Many people manage to adopt to this ever-changing economy, but as the costs of bringing everyone along on this fast-lane train rise, the increased risk of becoming a part of the structurally unemployed statistics rise specifically in the groups with the lowest productivity, not in the middle-classes. The problem for social democracy (in Sweden?) is that its major strategy to combat low-pay-jobs was to support the structural transformation, not combat it, by increasing labour productivity. When a growing number of people are left out of the productivity-chase, and as this transformation intensifies the separation of the workforce, the material conditions for a broad support for a general policy on ‘full employment’ and social insurances (as this seen increasingly as something that only particular groups are benefiting from) are deteriorating. Inherent in the way social democracy successfully adopted to capitalism’s rules and regulations also lies a potential seed for a development of the welfare state that increasingly moves away from the principle of solidarity.
The ideological conviction among social democrats of the essentiality of universalism and generality in policy for redistributing the wellbeing, and therefore the recognition of the necessity to critically respond to capitalism’s whims, is back, which is nice. But while we were hesitating, the material conditions dramatically changed. The winners of globalisation ask themselves why they should pay for those who lost, and the left’s cries for solidarity among lower and middle classes, go unheard. However, ‘increasingly difficult’ does not mean ‘impossible’, and the intensifying insecurity resulting from the uncertainty concerning what the future will bring might awaken the middle classes before social and ecological destruction has gone too far. But it is late in the day and it is not easy. Knowledge-based capitalism together with the still-going-strong financial capitalism provides, if not something worse, a more difficult environment for universal and solidarity-based welfare models. Thus, it is important, but difficult, to be a social democrat today.