Why the Swedish Left Will Continue To Lose
The Left’s Loss
How did the Swedish Democrats (SD), a party with roots in the Nazi movement, become Sweden’s second largest political party? The Swedish left continues to fail in reinventing itself. The result is continuing failure. This trajectory has been apparent for at least twelve years, dating to the 2010 parliamentary election. A further reminder was provided four years later in the 2014 parliamentary election, but nothing was done then either. This essay explains how a comprehensive solution to problems of regional, uneven development could potentially help win over voters supporting extremist parties in Sweden—and potentially benefit left parties which have failed to promote comprehensive solutions to development challenges. The development challenges contribute to political extremism attached to multi-ethnic suburban communities and extra-urban regions, particularly in Southern Sweden.
In the near time, the left will continue to lose because all left parties in Sweden are stuck in fossilized social movement formations tied to national growth, globalization without sufficient attention to declining regions, identity, complaints about welfare state reductions without attention to wealth creation, and deconstructions of the negative consequences of state or corporate actions. The failure to address ongoing problems constitutes what the American sociologist William F. Ogburn termed a “cultural lag” in his essay, “Cultural Lag as Theory,” published in 1957. An alternative to this absence of accelerated learning requires a deeper understanding of how the right gains power, i.e. how uneven development triggers maladies, and how the direct social control of business, media, and the economy itself is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of extremist power. This cycle relates to how uneven development and diversion of resources into militarism triggers crime and an opportunity cost on development. These factors in turn encourage various forms of extremist politics, this politics in turn push policies that further aggravate uneven development and extends extremism. A similar pattern can be seen in the United States where neither major political party has significantly much to offer in terms of gross economic inequality, decaying urban areas, and neglect of rural communities.
In the Swedish parliamentary elections held on September 11, 2022, the final distribution of parliamentary seats was as follows: The right bloc won 176 seats with 49.6% of the vote and the left bloc won 173 seats with 48.9% of the vote. While the Social Democrats, the largest left party, gained seven parliamentary seats, the supporting parties such as the Left Party and Center Party lost a total of eleven seats (although the Green Party gained two seats). The anti-immigration and nationalist party SD gained the most seats of all, eleven seats, while the Moderate Party (which will likely head the new government) actually lost two seats.
The reasons for the continuing loss in power relative to the right bloc as a whole are complex. One problem is that the Social Democrats prioritized a military mobilization as part of a false understanding of the Ukraine conflict and in part to neutralize the right bloc by taking the question of military transfers to Ukraine, increased military budgets and joining NATO off the agenda. Very much like Joe Biden’s championing of military responses to unite a fragmented country, the Social Democrats have tried to leverage the Ukraine conflict to bolster their domestic political standing. At the same time, the Social Democratic leadership accused its opponents of trying to politicize security questions. As a result of this militarization, energy was diverted from addressing key problems were related to uneven development. These development problems create societal losers and drive or sustain crime (or a politics of crime and race/immigration) facilitating the acceleration of SD’s accumulation of power. The mobilization around the war issue was used to divert attention from the failure of the state to systematically address crime problems.
A Key Problem: Military Mobilization in the Face of Uneven Development
The September 11th election was actually the second Swedish election this year. An informal “election” regarding militarism was held related to parliamentary decisions to send weapons to Ukraine and join NATO. In this election, on the first vote to send weapons, all political parties but the Left Party voted to send Ukraine weapons. Subsequently, on a later vote the Left Party decided to support such weapons shipments. In April 2014, only 28% of Swedes polled believed the country should join NATO. That was shortly after Russia’s February 2014 incursion into Ukraine. This year in a matter of months public opinion on NATO shifted rapidly, breaking a long-standing formalized non-alignment policy. By January 2022, the support figure rose to 37%, 41% in February (the month Russia launched the current war), increasing further to 45% in April, then 58% in May and then 64% in July. This rapid mobilization, together with SD’s rise as Sweden’s second largest party, indicated how various weaknesses of the Swedish model were being exposed. These weakness center on the lack of power for anti-militarist culture, the tolerance of a permanent war economy, the erosion of a peaceful diplomatic engagement which opposes (as opposed to lives peacefully with) military-directed foreign policy and a long-term engagement with NATO.
The Russian invasion, Social Democrats’ failure to oppose the right-bloc’s push to join NATO, and an extensive mainstream media bias against NATO critics and in support of NATO advocates helped turn the tide in favor of NATO. The Social Democrats had hoped to “neutralize” the politics of NATO by taking away a right-bloc talking point. The other left parties by supporting weapons systems to Ukraine, similarly abandoned any idea of Sweden playing a diplomatic role above the fray of weapons transfers. Any voices against increased military spending were drowned out. Meanwhile, the military build-up took place despite Sweden’s falling behind in key environmental objectives (increasing emissions in 2021 compared to 2020) and serious problems in uneven development in two key areas. These development failures also helped promote the right-bloc and helped them win the election.
Crime, Racism and Politics
The first development failure was in the area of crime and ethnic integration. As Isabella Kwai and Amela Mahovic at The New York Times explained: “ in cities like Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg — where a higher proportion of migrants have settled compared with the rest of the nation — the media and residents alike point to two separate worlds: a polished city center emblematic of the nation’s wealth, and poorer, ethnically diverse outer suburbs where police officers carry tourniquets to stem gunshot wounds.”
A study about Swedish crime published in 2021 found that “there are approximately four homicide-related deaths per million inhabitants per year in Sweden, compared to a European average of approximately 1.6.” Swedish television has conducted an extensive survey of Swedish voters over the last several years. In 1998 only 40% of Swedes ranked law and order as being of high importance for their choice in the parliamentary elections. This figure increased to 45% in the 2018 elections and 50% in this year’s elections. For questions related to refugees and immigration, the respective percentages for high importance were 19%, 41% and 29%.
These two issues (crime and migration) have been central to the rise of SD. During the recent election, law and order was ranked the top issue for voters in SD, the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats, being the second most important issue for Liberal Party voters. In contrast, for the Social Democrats the issue was ranked 10th, for Center Party Voters 11th, for Green Party voters 15th and for Left Party voters 16th. According to a Swedish Television poll, 33% of voters thought the left parties had the best politics concerning law and order policies, but 52% of voters thought the right parties had the best politics.
Danielle Lee Tomson at the Brookings Institution outlines key ways SD’s rise related to racism and crime. SD arose “against the backdrop of de-industrialization, public spending cutbacks, rising unemployment, and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia that caused an influx of refugees.” The party “called for restricting immigration across the board, not just of Muslims.” One poll found that “59 percent of Swedes with a positive opinion of the Swedish Democrats” expressed an unfavorable opinion of Muslims in Sweden. In contrast, only 17 percent saw Muslims negatively among “those with a negative view of the Sweden Democrats.” SD members have linked their support for the party to “personal experiences of crime or new refugees in their children’s small class, impacting the quality of education.”
Crime has been linked to immigration. Andrew Sullivan, the American commentator explains how migrants have been linked to crime. He recently wrote: “The vast majority of migrants, it is vital to note, do not commit crime. But a big majority of violent crimes in Sweden are now committed by migrants — who comprise just a fifth of the population. The vast majority of refugees are young men — the demographic most prone to mayhem.” One study, by Göran Adamson, found that “58 per cent of those suspect for total crime on reasonable grounds” were immigrants. Furthermore, “regarding murder, manslaughter and attempted murder, the figures are 73 per cent, while the proportion of robbery is 70 per cent.”
In April Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson declared that Sweden had failed to integrate many of the immigrants received over the past two decades that that had led to gang violence and parallel societies. Prior to her declaration “many Swedes were shocked…after violent riots left more than 100 police injured.” This “violence erupted after a Swedish-Danish politician burned the Quran at a rally and sought to hold more in several immigrant-dominated neighborhoods.” A number of immigrant dense suburban areas have been identified as zones of high criminality.
Amber Beckley at Stockholm University, a leading expert on the links between immigration and crime in Sweden, points out that immigrants and non-immigrants commit crime for the same reason. Beckley has shown that “young male children of immigrants do not seem to be inherently violent as a result of coming from a war-torn country.” In addition, “it is not the age at immigration, but the family situation that seems to dictate criminal propensity.” Moreover, “threats of deportation and stricter immigration policies do not seem to deter criminality.” Finally, “high home country human development was a protective factor against crime.”
The social exclusion of immigrants is a partial reason for a critical crime wave which has shaped electoral outcomes. Magnus Dahlstedt, a leading research on ethnicity and migration in Sweden, explains the underlying issuesas follows: “Among local actors, there is a strong focus on framing suburban areas and their inhabitants both as a problem, and as a site where solutions are to be directed. Here, the main focus is on what could be described as the effects or state of social exclusion—for instance in the form of distrust, apathy, and criminal behaviour—that is geographically tethered to suburban areas. However, what is left un-problematised are the mechanisms generating the effects or state of social exclusion, which is the main focus of the discourses that arise within interviews with youths.”
Social exclusion is a defining characteristic for many immigrants. In the first quarter of 2021, unemployment among persons born in Sweden was only 4.6% but 20.0% for the foreign-born. For the year as a whole the shares were 5.4% and 19.5% respectively, with the unemployment rate 27.6% for those born in Asia and 33.1% for those born in Africa. A comprehensive study of immigrants’ labor market conditions by Benjamin Friedrich, Lisa Laun, and Costas Meghir published by the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy last year investigated patterns in the 1985 to 2016 period. The authors found: “A larger share of the immigrant population has relatively weak labor market attachment, working fewer hours or having more frequent unemployment spells, but there is also a higher share of workers with tertiary education.” There are a number of highly educated immigrants, but many of the newest immigrants have low skill levels. In addition, “while native workers experience substantial convergence in earnings between age 25 and 30, immigrants barely do by their mid-30s and later. This is consistent with natives quickly moving into stable employment, whereas a large share of immigrants still faces precarious employment at later stages of the life-cycle.”
Another form of social exclusion refers to how SD voters outside the big cities tend to correlate significantly with regions having high unemployment, absence of new business development, and a lack of personal investment capital. This uneven development has not been linked to any aggressive development plan and does not fit into the vocabulary of any significant number of politicians. The historically dominant parties, the Social Democrats and Moderate Party both developed by cooperating with industrial interests and supporting globalization manifested in expanding exports and EU membership. These parties support industrial development, but that project fails to deliver to key regions because of a significant investment gap.
The Investment Gap
The investment gap refers to a propensity to dramatically increase military budgets and invest insufficient amounts in wisely designed policies to integrate both immigrant background areas and even regions where SD voters are highly significant. The Social Democratic government argued “that more resources and employment opportunities” needed to be invested in “integrating the segregated, immigrant-heavy suburbs that ring major cities where the gun violence has been concentrated. A recent summary of labor market integration barriers “faced by highly educated immigrants” lists “poor knowledge of the Swedish language, lack of [a] social network, discrimination and lack of recognition of immigrant’s educational qualifications.” In a 2007 study published in The Swedish Economic Policy Review, Lena Schröder argued for improvements in “the functioning of the legal system for combating discrimination as well as proactive measures to change the attitudes and behaviour of employers, trade unions, landlords, street-level bureaucrats and the general population.” Various scholars point to racism in Sweden as extensive or growing.
These problems have been understood by various scholars for over fifteen years if not more. As persons with non-European backgrounds are demonized, it is far from clear how the necessary but significantly delayed investments to change conditions will be made. As Schröder explained “as long as the main problem is considered to be the immigrants themselves, there is only a weak impetus for necessary and urgent changes in integration policy, public institutions and employer attitudes and behaviour.” In any case, a study by Pieter Bevelander and Nahikari Irastorza showed successful integration of some immigrant groups over a longer period of time. Key areas of immigrant absorption include health, social services, and veterinary services, which provide opportunities for both middle and high skilled work. Manufacturing and construction provided some of the better paid jobs, but these sectors have faced periodic problems.
The outgoing prime minister Andersson supported investments in the new green sectors tied to industrial development, precisely the investments which might have created opportunities for new immigrants (provided the necessary training and employment programs were in place). An analysis of seven key industrial companies, including green projects tied to battery manufacturer Northvolt and H2Green Steel, in the two most northern counties of Sweden, Norrbotten and Västerbotten showed that they would create only 17,270 news jobs in the 2022-2026 period. While significant, it is worth nothing that total unemployment in the first quarter of 2022 was about half a million persons. In 2015, about 10% of the population in Norrbotten was born overseas, but many of these came from Finland. For Västerbotten, the percentage was 9%. Therefore, immigrants would unlikely capture a significant share of these jobs and even with relocation the number of jobs was far smaller than the unemployment problem.
In contrast, many more jobs could be created by expanding investments in alternative energy, a growing sector in Sweden but one that has not grown sufficiently to compensate for electricity shortages. One reason is the emergence of a European Union trading system in which Sweden exports its electricity. Domestically anchored cooperativeenergy projects might solve this problem by bypassing a market logic and directly feeding electricity and wealth to immigrant-dense areas. Yet, this kind of discourse is either non-existent or did not show up in any noticeable proposals by any political party. A key problem are rules that artificially inflate the costs of wind power distributed to customers in Sweden.
An article by Paula Neudling, a right-wing commentator, explains the other aspect of criminality. While delusional about SD’s rehabilitation, she does explain clearly the extent of the crime problem. Much of the crime wave in Sweden, including extensive bombing of buildings, is traceable to criminal gangs. There have been almost 500 bombings since 2018, a key factor contributing to the right-wing victory in parliamentary elections. There are now about 40 criminal clans operating throughout Sweden. Neudling notes that “police are struggling to maintain control of some 60 immigrant-majority neighborhoods…where gangs and clans compete with the state for local authority. A few years ago hand grenades were used in bombings and presently bombs “are often home-made IEDs. The Swedish government introduced a thirty-four point program to combat criminal gangs in 2019, but these measures did not reverse the tide of bombings and shootings.
Various criminologists offer competing explanations for how to combat these gangs. One explanation is to increase police investments. Nevertheless, despite the government initiatives (like those promoting green industrial jobs), they have been too little, too late. I compared the number of cases of deadly violence (DV) and deadly violence with a gun (DVG) to the number of actual (non-civilian) police from 2012 to 2021. In 2012, the DV ratio was .34% but increased to .53% by 2021. The DVG ratio was .09% in 2012 but .21% in 2021 (the highest proportions were 2020, with DV .59% and DVG .23%). DV increased by 54.6% over the ten year period, DVG increased by 146.2%. While the number of cases of deadly violence increased by 66.2% and the number of cases of deadly violence with a gun increased by 164.7%, the number of police increased only 7.5% during this ten year period. Any comprehensive policy must increase investments in both policing and long-term social inclusion measures. In contrast, the Swedish military budget increased by 46.1% in real terms, an increase of $2.265 billion 2020 dollars (according to my analysis of Swedish military budget data).
The danger of the misaligned budget priority is rather dangerous for Swedish democracy. As building explosions blur the line between everyday criminality and terrorism, the political elites have gradually moved to militarize immigrant dense suburbs. In July 2016, SD proposed the use of the police’s National Task Force (Nationella insatsstyrkan) in the suburbs to fight crime. The Nyheter24 website referred to this as a “military force.” This police group is a militarized unit whose main task was then to oppose terrorism. In October of 2017, twenty members of the Moderate party made a proposal to “let the military go in to support the police in crime-prone suburbs,” according to a community newspaper. That year a report by Linus Gustafsson and Magnus Ranstorp identified how the counties containing Sweden’s three largest cities, together with Örebro County, contributed 80 percent of foreign fighters in Iran and Syria. There were about 300 people from Sweden who “travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.” While some have criticized Ranstorp in another context, we can see another case of how failed integration could accelerate urban militarization.
By January 2018, Jimmie Åkesson, then and now SD’s party leader, supported sending the military into the suburbs to break organized crime. Thereafter Åkesson was supported by then Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven who explained that it was not his first choice of measures to deploy the military, but he was “prepared to do what [was] necessary to ensure that serious organized crime goes away.” By June of last year, about 80% of Swedes expressed “no objections against deploying armed forces to assist the police in defeating the rise in violent crime,” according to a Gothenburg University study.
The Future is Bleak
Political short-termism has led to explosive policy solutions. In this cycle, politicians help generate crises as there is no leadership or public support for comprehensive measures. Then, a crisis emerges which is addressed by militarist measures. Here we see how the failures of the left and right to substantially eradicate the root causes of crime (in failed integration and under-policing) through comprehensive measures are followed by proposals for increased militarization. These failures represent a division of labor between the left establishment and the far right which in the long run benefit the latter far more than the former. While the right-wing parties push the war against crime and increases in military budgets, so too do the Social Democrats while other left parties have nothing meaningful to say about either crime or how their support for militarism is an opportunity cost against social inclusion or necessary police increases. Investments in outlying SD-rich voting areas have been inconsequential.
Swedish Television polls show how the youngest voters are moving away from the left parties and into the hands of the far-right, Nazi-founded SD. In 2006, of those aged 18-21 about 11% supported the Green Party and 10% supported the Left Party. By 2022, these figures dropped to 5% and 10% respectively (a drop of 6%). In contrast, those in this age cohort supporting SD increased from 3% to 22% over this time period (the only party among youth experiencing radical growth during these years). A recent poll by Ipsos in Italy found that “two-third of young people” thought “the that fascist regime of almost a century ago had certain advantages,” according to a recent Swedish Television news report. A European trend may be emerging.
The left parties failed to sufficiently innovate on crime and the Social Democrats’ short-sighted militarist championing was a gamble. Rather than mobilize the nation sufficiently around SD and crime threat, the Russian threat rose in importance. Yet, once the war issue was neutralized (by the push for arms transfers, increased military budgets and NATO) voters could focus on other things, i.e. the looming crime and bombing wave. In this election defense questions were considered important by only 31% of voters (in contrast to 50% concerned by law and order).
The left’s ability to act fast on green investments is constrained by popular opinion and a decentralized political system that empowers naysayers. Local government decisions can easily block or constrain wind power. In 2021, a news report explained that 65% of Swedes supported “more wind farms” a decrease from 80% “a decade ago.” A backlash involving local opposition and a lack of participatory governance in designing these projects explains part of the problem. In contrast, in Dutch cities like Nijmegen, windmills can be seen throughout the urban landscape. While the Green Party wanted to limit localities’ ability to block windfarms, their limited political clout effectively renders such ideas meaningless. The right bloc promoted nuclear power as the key palliative, despite the significant costs and delays attached to nuclear power station development. Given nuclear plants’ vulnerability during war (as seen recently in Ukraine), it is remarkable that the Moderate Party campaigned both on the Russian’s ability to threaten Sweden and the advantages of nuclear power.
The superficiality of political debate on crime, integration, and energy feed public opinion and parties that harvest superficial understandings. The media provide free platforms to these parties who help manufacture voters saturated in superficiality. The education system has a limited capacity to promote critical thinking and its “pluralism” and growing aversion to radical ideas further undermines any counterweight to the mass media. At the same time, the far right is relatively effective in using social media. The peace movement, environmental groups, unions, and civil rights community have failed to coalesce in creating an alternative media platform to combat mass confusion. Instead, the default is serial TV appearances where each kind of group makes its special pleadings without connecting the dots. In contrast, very much like the Bush and Trump presidencies in the United States, the Swedish right links issues of war, plundering the environment, (soft or hard) racism, and crime, in a coherent (as in connected) package of misinformation.
The right has been helped by missteps by the left and the political confusion among certain immigrant groups. While the Green Party is often the most articulate on ecological issues, its credibility in the past has been damaged by former member (and Minister) Mehmet Kaplan’s links to Turkish Islamists and member Ali Khalil’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in social media. After the election, a September 20tharticle in the tabloid Expressenby Nima Gholam Ali Pour, Rashid Farivar and Nima Rostami (three immigrant background members of SD) claimed: “The left has pursued a policy that promotes Islamism, parallel societies and honor oppression, which primarily affects immigrants.” They argued that the biggest threat facing the Swedish community was “the left’s identity politics and the racism of low expectations.” They claimed that the left-liberals’ policies “led to the segregation, high unemployment and cultural exclusion…among migrants” and “paved the way for systemic crime.” They argued that left-liberals’ unrealistic and extreme migration policy which failed to include an “impact analysis” generated “enormous social problems, great insecurity and a growing dissatisfaction among both ethnic Swedes and immigrants.” They argued that “left-wing liberals … legitimized groups in Swedish society that have spread Islamism and the oppression of honor codes.”
The ethnic SD members writing in Expressen linked multiculturalism to “the establishment and legitimization of reactionary Islamists” as well as “parallel societies with their own moral police that want to control women’s sexuality and rights.” They also argued that the new immigrant-led party, Nyans, was “an Islamist party with a voter base exclusively in neighborhoods with a large population from MENA countries.” The founder of Nyans was expelled from the Center Party for association with the Gray Wolves, an ultra-nationalist organization based in Turkey (which has been described as a Turkish government tool to persecute Kurds).
The left bloc is largely reactive and has failed to create sufficient institutional spaces or networks to accumulate power to promote policies outside established frameworks (tied to corporatist alliances between incumbent businesses and the state). The Neoliberal frameworks are compromised, too slow to respond, and often disproportionately empower some combination of polluters, racists, militarists and technocrats. As I have long argued, the left should marshal their political power to create regional demonstration projects to illustrate how an alternative society might look like. I repeat what I argued already twelve years ago in Counterpunch: “The left has failed to create the kind of institutional platforms that organize the relatively autonomous cultural, media and economic power necessary for promoting individuals’ (or societal) advancement, ethnic integration and industrial development of regions that seem abandoned to political parties that remind many of the Nazis. The extreme right fills the vacuum with lies and myths that selectively tap into the truth and expose the limits of the current left and right discourses.”
The Way Out
The only way out of this morass is for progressive forces, members of the immigrant community and even alienated members of the working class to create three kinds of new institutions. These can emerge locally but extend themselves nationally. Economic, political and cultural power must be accumulated to build an alternative to the status quo. As Roberto Saviano explains, “The far right can succeed in Italy because the left has failed, exactly as in much of the world, to offer credible visions or strategies. The left asks people to vote against the right, but it lacks a political vision or an economic alternative.” One hopes that mainstream or left parties would learn from their mistakes and figure out why they lose votes to extremists. Knowledge will only advance with some kind of alternative power block. A part of the power that drives truth can come in three areas.
First, on the economic front these groups must organize consumption and production cooperatives involved in direct delivery of clean energy to bypass parasitic utilities driven by market prices and food cooperatives tied to farmers and socially responsible restaurants to bypass inflated food prices. Second, on the media front, a new progressive media platform should be created that shows how diverse issues are linked and expose the limitations of both the incumbent left and right. Finally, the consumption and media networks could be linked to patronage of socially responsible banks and a parallel political movement that could redirect local procurement to cooperative formation. More economic democracy and cooperatives are needed to produce and anchor jobs locally and deliver jobs in areas facing uneven development. In the U.S., one Tufts University study found that “fewer rooftop solar photovoltaics installations” existed “in African-American and Hispanic-dominant neighborhoods than in white-dominant neighborhoods, even when controlling for household income and home ownership.” Nevertheless, there has been growth of solar energy even in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. So the Swedish left could take a lesson from that.
Jonathan Michael Feldman specializes in research related to political economy, disarmament, green economics and studies related to democracy. Recent research focuses on reindustrialization via the mass transit sector in the United States, social change in Iran, and transnational networks related to state-building or development in Palestine. He writes periodically for Counterpunch and Portside. He is an associate professor at The Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University.