As a Swedish person born in 1980, my relationship with social democracy is disillusioned, to put it mildly. Older generations have the memories of economic improvements of their daily lives, and can remember a time of optimism about future possibilities. Younger people, being brought up into neoliberalism and individualism, might look back with nostalgia and take inspiration from what social democracy once created. My generation on the other hand started out with high expectations, in one of the most equal and prosperous countries in the world, but saw it being scattered in front of our eyes in a process starting around the same year that I was born.
My personal memories of social democracy is from politicians handing out red roses to the police force who shot at fellow protesters in Gothenburg during the EU summit of 2001. It is the invasion of Afghanistan, the first war our country has been explicitly involved in since the Napoleon wars. And it is the lack of memory of who really did what, them or the conservatives, as to making a mess of the schools, railways, housing situation, immigration laws and pension system over the last thirty years.
The situation we are in now, with a former socialist party running a neoliberal economy, is sort of like a more democratic version of China: chaotic capitalism bundled with the paternalism, conformity and bureaucracy that always was the dark side of the welfare state.
So it’s hard to look beyond all this.
The way forward for progressives would be to create the exact opposite of this: rediscovering the tradition of populist social democratic reforms for the collective good, while making a clear break with the authoritarianism of both unregulated capitalism and state socialism.
Since we don’t have a Corbyn- or Sanders-like opposition within the party, and our left-wing alternatives hardly have any popular appeal nor ever had a strategy beyond being a sidekick to the lesser evil-party, there isn’t much hope for the future at the moment.
Clearly, there is a need for a new progressive populist movement, to fill the gap after the fall of Social Democracy and the collapse of neo-liberalism. So should that movement build on the social democratic movement in any way? Or should we do as the rebels of Paris in ’68 and “leave the party in the same condition as we found it” to be left as a something of the past, along with state communism?
The thing about the party, being an institution of power for about a hundred years, is that it is so much more than just a party. It is connected to the trade unions, the food and housing cooperatives, the organisation for study groups, the cultural houses and lots of other once-movement-run institutions.
At its best, it was a strong and diverse movement of cooperatives, self organised study groups, autonomous cultural and political spaces and radical trade unions, in coalition with a political force capable of articulating reforms benefiting the vast majority of the population. This is what Social democracy was at its height.
No other political force has managed to create the kind of populist hegemony around social reforms in Sweden. Their legacy is enormous. The only time the conservative party was close to becoming the largest party was when their pr-people rebranded them as “the new workers party” (and before they once again proved that they were not).
So, beside all the emotional resentment to the party and it’s recent policies, what was the movement at its best? And how can we create something with that same content, but in a different form?