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Long-term causes of the weakness of the Social Democrats
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By Jan Wiklund
Only some very party-loyal social democrats can believe that the rapidly increasing political misery in Swedish society began in September 2006. Its roots go far back in time - and deep strategic changes are needed to pull them up.
This curve shows that inequality began to increase around 1980 and since then it has only grown more and more, regardless of whether we have had center-right or social-democratic governments. In recent years, before the center right electoral victory in 2006, it grew more than ever, which may be why people were tired of Göran Persson.
The increasing inequality can be a summary of the political misery in the country. It stands for the political weakness of the popular majority - we can’t protect our share of the country's wealth. It stands for a perverse grabber culture where a small number of people seize too much at the expense of the others. In addition, it represents the most concrete social problems - the more inequitable society, the more crime, sickness, empathy, mistrust of other people and, in short, social stress.
For those who, like me, are active in the environmental movement, it was primarily one thing that occurred in 1980: the defeat of the nuclear power referendum, which broke the 70’s vibrant peoples’ movement culture. But this year, the workers' movement was also cracked by a lockout that set the endpoint of the 70’s vigorous movement of wildcat strikes.
Of course, the misery is not due to two isolated events. There have been long-established weaknesses in the public policy - not only in Sweden but in the whole western world - which in the 1970s led to the reversal of past successes - not only in Sweden but in the whole western world.
The successes of the nineteenth century largely depend on the following:
The accumulation of large industries led to an accumulation of dissatisfied people who could easily cause clashes in society by stopping production. The direct producers got more powerful leverage than they ever had.
The earliest industrialized countries were unwise enough, or short-sighted enough, to occupy the whole world military and divide humanity into a relatively small ruling elite and a very large subject class. Of course, the latter did not put up with this, but started national liberation movements, which over time became became very powerful.
Labor movements and national liberation movements in common invented a new resistance technique: the permanent, all-inclusive organization that, in a much more efficient way than older, local rebellions could pool resources, make capital out of success and maintain a constant presence in politics.
In the political culture sustained by labor movements and anti-colonial movements, other movements - peace movements, women’s movements, agrarian movements for land reform and stable food prices, and from about 1965 environmental movements and movements that defended commons flourished.
In the mid-1900s, they had become so powerful that ruling classes felt forced to invite them as partners in power. Labor movements received a mortgage in the power of the north in the form of social-democratic governments. The national movements received a mortgage in the South in the form of independent states.
The decision of the people’s movement to initiate such a ”governmental strategy” was not weakly underpinned. As Karl Polanyi has described in his classical The Great Transformation, it was about saving society from a total breakdown as a result of the 19th century utopian marketization. But the price became high for the social classes that carried out the rescue attempt.
The price of participation in power was that one had to accept and adapt to global competition. This demanded, among other things, that the radical democracy that had characterized the original aims of the movements must be cleared away. Instead, public welfare took its place. This required increased growth to be paid for, which in turn required a trustworthy collaboration with the original opponents of the movement among global investors and capitalists.
And this in turn demanded that the movements that helped the new governments to power must be demobilized in order not to disturb the cooperation. Lay mobilizerd must be replaced by employed officials who obeyed orders from above. Resources must be centralized in order to keep away them from dissatisfied members. Initiatives from the base must be censored before they were released. Ordinary members must be tamed and disciplined and made believe that they were worth less than the employed officers.
The global uprising for about ten years around 1970 was a demonstration by dissatisfied movement members who felt that compromise and central government had been driven too far. In essence, this rebellion was inconsistent and politically disunited, even chaotic, and therefore ineffective in the long run - especially as the constant escalation of capital’s ability to escape from the labor movement, in this case to East Asia, which weakened the movement’s leverage. The destructive tendencies could therefore continue undisturbed. By the end of the 1970s, they had achieved some of the following.
The officials who run the states in the name of the people-based parties could act in the interestt of their own class, without considerations of the political base of the movements. It was not capitalists who were most keen for privatizations, cuts and New Public Management, it was state hierarchs such as Kjell-Olof Feldt and Ulf Dahlsten, thus making it possible for them to establish themselves as irresponsible private capitalists paid with public money.
People's organizations disintegrated, ”lost members” as it is called somewhat euphemistically, because they were no longer considered the key to a better life. The resistance to capitalist advances as well as the policies that the state hierarchies were driving became weak.
The inequality could therefore grow.
Can these developments be reversed?
All popular movements appear in mobilization waves, as laymen engageing in changing the world. All mobilization waves are organizing according to a mobilizing idea that many can join. At best, this consists of actions that directly obstruct the counterparty's activities, as it is this kind of action that strike the hardest. The labor movement used the strike, the Indian Independence movement used the boycott, the black movement in the US’s southern states used sit-ins. In parallel, the movement has built organizations and a popular culture whose purpose has been to connect many different actions and create a connection between them.
But the layman-based obstruction acts have been the basis, without these no movement, and hence no domestic power. Movement researchers Charles Tilly and Edward Shorter describe in their book Strikes in France 1830-1968 how strikes as obviously was about higher wages rarely paid off economically. What paid off was that the workers, by collectively turning against their counterparts, gained respect, which paid off partly through state and capital concessions at the political level, partly by the self-respect the workers gained by getting heard in public .
On the other hand, of course, nothing says that traditional forms of strike are necessarily what works best in a globalized world. The workers’ movements that have worked best during the last thirty years have been those who have coordinated such struggles with issues other than the work-related ones - for example, in South Africa, Brazil and South Korea. And the family farmers’ movement became a leading global actor in the 90’s by coordinating their own mobilizations for higher food prices with slum and church mobilizations against the IMF's debt restructuring project and the environmental advocacy's mobilization against patents on life, in the so-called global justice movement.
The common denominator, however, is the crucial role of laymen. None of these movements were run by employed officers.
Accoring to Beverly Silver: Forces of Labor the labor movement was all time low in 1997. Since then, the laymen’s activity has resurfaced, not least with powerful mobilizations in China, where now most of the workers in the world's industry for durable consumer goods exist, ie the traditionally most easily organized and easily mobilized laymen in the labor movement.
We don’t know if labor movements can assert itself in the 21st century. Probably, mobilization in eastern Asia will grow. Probably, a breakthrough will come when workers’ movements have learned to routinely exploit the globally scattered production lines’ bottlenecks to counteract against the weakest link at any moment.
And probably again, labor movements, together with other peoples movements, will be responsible for the resurrection of the world from the claws of utopian market adaptation. Hopefully, we have learned to avoid relying too much on functionaries. Hopefully, too, to avoid tying to political parties more than business does.
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