Disintegration of the Swedish Model

A Beacon of Social Democracy’s Slow Swing Toward Ethnonationalism

By Emin Poljarević 

May/Jun 2024

The father of Sweden’s welfare society (folkhemmet) is arguably Tage Erlander (d.1985), the country’s Social Democratic prime minister for 23 years. Erlander’s Sweden was marked by a strong economy, progressive taxation and an expansive social safety net that included universal healthcare, free education, and substantial public pensions. For those and many other reasons, this Nordic country of 10.7 million people was traditionally celebrated as a beacon of social democracy known for its commitment to fairness, equality and solidarity. The resulting wide-ranging welfare system and economic stability was called “the Swedish model.” 

Its enviable sociopolitical stability and economic prosperity were secured by the delicate stewardship of a large state apparatus, increased work migration, the self-regulating employer-employee system and a stable industrial base that supplied the world with high quality steel, music (ABBA), cars (Volvo), furniture (IKEA), weapons (Bofors) and a range of various technological products. 

The ideological vacuum among the relatively homogeneous population left by the intense pre-WW2 secularization processes was increasingly filled with the secularized traditional principles of equality and solidarity. Social democracy, just like 19th-century Lutheranism had in many ways, provided an underlying state ideology that was embodied by a robust civil society engagement. 

At the heart of this engagement was the concept of “popular education” (folkbildning), a notion as revolutionary as it was simple. Springing from the Lutheran belief that education should be holistic, it involves the entire human being and holds intrinsic value beyond the mere acquisition of skills. Folkbildning champions the idea that learning is a voluntary free endeavor, one in which individuals aren’t just passive recipients of knowledge, but active creators of their own learning journey. This philosophy ensured that values like solidarity and fairness weren’t just theoretical concepts, but actual lived experiences guiding civil society activism and engaging large segments of the population. 

A lion’s share of civil society organizations took the forms of associations and local organizations created around the idea of educating the public through sports, handcrafting and other creative arts. The main idea behind folkbildning is that learning ought to involve the entire human being, because it has an intrinsic value of its own.

Another important aspect is that folkbildning is not only voluntary and free, but also that participants create the learning process. In many ways, this idea and practice has enabled large-scale broad and well-anchored citizen participation. Values such as solidarity, fairness and equality became some of the guiding principles through which civil society activism came to — and continues to — engage large segments of Swedish population until today.

Sweden Begins to Change 

Yet every story, no matter how idyllic, has its shadows. In many ways, the evening of Feb. 28, 1986, marked a turning point in Sweden’s narrative. The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, the heir of Erlander’s legacy and a towering national political figure, sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Palme was a strong supporter of welfare state principles and forcefully opposed to apartheid in South Africa and the U.S. war on Vietnam. This still-unresolved murder was more than a personal tragedy; it symbolized the toxic and dangerous levels of hatred for the social democratic project among segments of right-wing political circles. 

These circles ranged from mainstream conservative parties that disagreed with the extent of state intervention in the economy and sought more market-oriented reforms to more extreme elements that opposed the Social Democrats on ideological grounds, including far-right and fascist groups that were vehemently anti-communist and nationalist.

The assassination also hinted at an underlying turmoil, suggesting that the Swedish model’s seamless fabric was beginning to fray at the edges. The country eventually became part of the “Great Capitalist Restoration” of the 1980s and 1990s. In most, if not all, traditionally democratic and industrially advanced countries, this has resulted the retrenchment of the welfare state, as evidenced by sizable reductions in social spending, tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, along with a weakening of the influence of organized labor — in effect, dismantling the Social Democratic party’s core policies. 

In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall, during the early 1990s we also observed rapid economic deterioration, social segregation along ethnic and class lines, in addition to radical school reforms overlapping with a rapid increase in refugee intake from the wars in Bosnia and the Horn of Africa. Fast forward to the 2000s, and the gradual weakening of the “Swedish model” sparked further cracks in the welfare system that followed the increased segregation and higher poverty levels that fueled the rising crime rates, drug consumption and, subsequently, gang violence. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis and a number of terrorist attacks in Europe, Swedish society’s perception of security and multiculturalism had shifted dramatically to the right. 

Neo-liberalism, emerging as the new global economic orthodoxy, catalyzed a cascade of effects that undermined the country’s long-standing principles of solidarity, fairness and equality. These processes were most vividly manifested during the 2010s, a decade that witnessed a seismic shift toward higher levels of privatization, thereby weakening the state’s support for civil society organizations, and the rise of Islamophobia, populism and ethnonationalism. By the 2020s, the “Swedish model” had become nothing more than a distant memory. 

Not only have these processes of change threatened the inclusivity and progress that Sweden was once known for, but they have also cast long shadows over its societal fabric. Once a model of social democracy, the broader society is now grappling with how to navigate these turbulent waters and seeking ways to redefine itself while retaining the core values that have guided it for so long. 

Swedish Muslims are Scrambling

This has had a profound effect on entire populations and even more so on religious and ethnic minorities. For instance, Swedish Muslim civil society organizations are scrambling in utter panic to find ways to maintain their identity and faith in an increasingly hostile environment. Their struggle is not just about survival, but about finding a voice in a society that traditionally prided itself on inclusivity and openness.

Organizations such as Ibn Rushd (Study Association), Muslims for Peace and the Bosnian Muslim Youth Organization often highlight the Swedish experience with folkbildning and civil society activism and are searching for a way to be part of a society that is increasingly wary of diversity. Their journey is emblematic of the broader challenges facing civil society in an age of the paradox of globalization and rising nationalism. 

The award-winning Swedish-Ugandan writer Johannes Anyuru, 45, himself a Muslim born in Sweden, has captured some of the scariest effects of this change. In one of his books, “They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears” (‎Two Lines Press, 2019), Anyuru tells a reflective and cautionary tale that intertwines Sweden’s present societal tensions with a dystopian vision of its future. The book delves into themes of marginalization, focusing not only on Muslims but also on other groups facing prejudice, thereby emphasizing the importance of understanding and dialogue across different communities. It oscillates between despair and hope, suggesting that the future isn’t fixed but can be shaped by collective action today. 

A reminder of the Swedish past, a time when solidarity and fairness were the guiding principles, Anyuru’s novels serve as a poignant commentary on the challenges to openness and freedom in contemporary Swedish society. Given this context, he advocates for a reevaluation of societal ethics toward inclusivity and understanding. His works are not just speculative fiction, but meaningful explorations of how to navigate the complexities of identity, belonging and societal change to avoid a dystopian future in which Islamophobia and injustice are institutionalized realities. As Swedes, both old and new, navigate the new social, economic and political landscape, Anyuru’s narrative represents a reflective and cautionary tale that intertwines present societal tensions with a dystopian vision of the future. 

Anyuru inadvertently points toward the importance of community-based education and activism in fostering a society that is inclusive, equitable, and perhaps even united in its diversity. As Sweden continues to grapple with the realities of a rapidly changing world, the principles of folkbildning and the spirit of civil society activism become more relevant than ever, for they are guiding the country toward a future where everyone, regardless of background or belief, can find their place and make their contribution. 

Emin Poljarević is an associate professor of Islamic studies at Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

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