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Jonny Budd
As someone predominantly exposed to Anglo-American political discourse, the
most refreshing thing about Swedish society is their rejection our narrow
definition of freedom. We have fallen into the trap of thinking that a society can
induce the greatest amount of freedom through liberalising economic institutions
with no preliminary step to ensure this outcome is realised. The Swedish story
tells us otherwise. Yes, Swedish governments have often gone further than the
British Conservative party would dare in terms of health and welfare privatisation
but the Swedish privatisers understood the need for the “countervailing powers”
of the state and of strong unions. The Swedish state is seen as the purveyor, not
the enemy, of creating freedom for its citizens. Unions (who have representatives
on every publicly listed company) prevent the accumulation of power at the top
of businesses which is exercised to the detriment of worker’s freedom. This
explains not just their higher levels of equality, a more civilised approach to
industrial relations and less disparity in wages and conditions for workers in the
public and private sector but also the “Swedish theory of love”. This is, to quote
its creator Lars Tragardh, the Swedish belief that “authentic relations of love and
friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each
other or stand in unequal power relations”. I believe that this generates higher
levels of trust, an element on which any market system relies in order to work
effectively. The effect of the neoliberal blunders of the 80s has been to
commodify human interaction, reducing relationships to transactions of mutual
utility, not mutual love and respect. In Sweden they take the opposite view in
believing that genuine reciprocity is the only thing that can create stable,
genuine relationships and that moneyed interests should play no part in personal
sphere of life.
However, it would be a lie to proclaim that Sweden had reached the pinnacle of
solidarity. The often-dubbed “homogeneous society” tends only to bring
solidarity if you’re in work and an indigenous Swede. Those who cannot find work
often feel excluded from the fruits of one of the most egalitarian societies in the
world. Many refugees (who comprise the majority of Sweden’s immigrant
population) feel as though native Swedes resent them for not having “paid in” to
their generous welfare state. Genuine solidarity would see those already
pursuing shared endeavours launch initiatives to tackle these problems and be
more inclusive. It would be fascinating to hear from the Fabian reps who take
part in the campaign whether there are any features of our political economy
that the Swedes envy and what advice Swedish progressives would give to Ed
Miliband at a critical stage before the election. It looks as though the 2015
manifesto will contain ideas from many different sources, from the German social
market (e.g. regional banking) to the ideas of Jacob Hacker (predistribution).
Whilst Sweden’s successes have been widely fawned over, on the left and the
right, we are yet to see any meaningful policy pledges that learn the Swedish
lessons of what it means to live a good, meaningful life.

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