Social Democracy According to Daniel Suhonen

Daniel Suhonen’s short book that draws upon the politics of legendary Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander offers a timely vision of what the Social Democratic Party should be.

The political shift of the Social Democratic Party is one of the most depressing examples of the neoliberal turn in Sweden. Indeed, its transition from building what was one of the greatest welfare states on the planet, to it adopting an increasingly centrist position that essentially accepts the neoliberal dogma of its right-wing opponents is what has laid ground for the political shift towards the right that we have seen over the past decades. Today, about 60% of the Swedish parliament is right-wing – in the form of liberals, conservatives and nationalists – which stands in stark contrast to the post-war decades, when the Social Democratic Party alone often accumulated about 45% of the votes. Thankfully, there are still some people within the party who are critical of its neoliberal turn, and who are working towards orienting it back to its socialist roots. One of them is Daniel Suhonen, who cofounded the Social Democratic movement Reformisterna (the Reformers) – whose aim is precisely this – and is director of the excellent think thank Katalys (Catalyst). He has recently published a book entitled Vad hade Erlander gjort? (What had Erlander Done?), in which he lays out his vision of what the Social Democratic Party should be. It is an exciting book, precisely insofar as it provides a much-needed critique of the party’s neoliberal turn and sketches out a different trajectory for it that desperately is needed in our times of increasing social failures and global crises.

The Four Collapsed Pillars

The person referred to in the title of the book is Tage Erlander, who was Sweden’s prime minister for an astonishing 23 consecutive years (1946–1969). This makes him the democratically elected leader who has remained on his post for the longest time anywhere in the world, but, more significantly, he is also the person who played the most central part in the construction of the Swedish welfare state. Although the book is not a biography of Erlander, as Suhonen rather uses the politics of the late prime minister as a springboard when constructing his vision of what the Social Democratic Party should be today. This is indeed desperately needed, now that it has become increasingly clear that the party is barely even a shadow of what it once was – as it lacks ideological visions of how to truly transform society for the better.

To pinpoint what is needed more specifically, Suhonen turns to the thinking of the sociologist Walter Korpi, who identified four political pillars that all previously constituted the strength of the Social Democratic Party. They include: 1) the struggle for full employment, 2) a strong and well-organised labour movement, 3) upholding a strong welfare state with social safety nets, and 4) winning elections through a class-coalition of people from the working and middle class. However, the sad thing is that all these pillars have basically collapsed over the past few decades. Firstly, during the post-war decades and up to the 1990s (when the Social Democratic Party decided to prioritise low inflation above full employment), there was about 2-3% of unemployment in Sweden. This is to contrast with the permanent mass unemployment at around 7-8% for the past 30 years (9% after the pandemic), as well as worsened security for workers and an explosion of precarious labour. Secondly, labour unions have been significantly weakened in Sweden during this time as well. For example, in 2018, the right-wing parties for the first time received more votes of people from the Swedish organisation LO (an umbrella organisation of several Swedish labour unions, with a historically strong tie to the Social Democrats) than the Social Democrats. And whereas the Social Democratic Party could boast with a massive 1.2 million members in 1979, it only has 75,000 today (a decrease of 93,7% over four decades). Thirdly, the welfare state has been massively hollowed out too – to the point where the Swedish welfare state no longer can be described as social democratic. For instance, the amount of tax money that goes to the welfare has been steadily decreasing (under both left- and right-leaning governments) with a total of 350 billion SEK since 1990 – which amounts to a drop of about 7% of the GDP. And fourthly, whereas the number of people who voted for left parties (i.e., the Social Democratic Party and the Left Party) during the post-war decades usually was above 50%, the current number is about 40% or even lower.

Needless to say, this is all extremely troubling. As Suhonen argues, the Social Democratic Party no longer has answers to our current social problems – or, to what the middle and working class needs. The result is that the party slowly is dying, since it no longer is able to organise the working class and its unions as it did when it was at its most successful. What the party thus needs is its own idea of what society should look like, which is what he finds in Erlander.

The Dissatisfaction of Increasing Expectations

According to Suhonen’s vision, the Social Democratic Party is the organised force for all of those who do not own the means of production. It is thus, along with the labour unions, the organised interest for the working class: a collective force against employers and liberal parties, driven by class struggle from the perspective of the interests of production – that is, of how to distribute the fruits of production fairly between workers and owners. Its ideology is socialism – although not defined as a specific means of production, but rather as collective solutions to collective problems manifested in the form of a movement towards equality, solidarity and freedom. Furthermore, the main social democratic project is the welfare state – and its strategy for achieving and enhancing it is political reforms. In Suhonen’s vision, the welfare state thus becomes a public island free from markets within a regulated capitalist economy. This is because it operates according to a different logic than the market – that is, ultimately not aiming to maximise profit – since the market cannot deliver the kind of equality that is synonymous with the welfare state, where wealth rather is distributed according to the principle of the common.

The underlying assumption is that in an increasingly complex and modern society, we become less and less capable of solving problems on our own, but must rather do it together – by expanding the welfare state and the public sector. This is to be achieved through political reforms, or reformism, which Suhonen sees as a massive political force for, step-by-step, providing the working class with a higher social standard (through taxation and the state). The welfare state is thus built through welfare reforms, wherein one identifies a problem and then proposes a solution based on what is good for a broad majority. This is reforms both as a political means for achieving the desired goals of equality, solidary and freedom – as well as an ideological means for building political consensus among a majority in such a way as to enable more and more reforms by winning elections and thus political power. According to Suhonen, all of this is illustrated by Erlander’s idea of ‘the dissatisfaction of increasing expectations’ – which he refers to as ‘reform socialism’s perhaps most beautiful thought’, and which argues that higher social standards generate even higher demands from the people. In other words, the better people’s lives become as a result of previous reforms, the more reforms they will want to have moving forward. What you thus get is a sort of positive feedback-loop, where successful welfare reforms nurture a collective desire for more welfare reforms, and thus higher and higher standards. Hence, it is a positive rather than negative form of dissatisfaction – as it indexes the fact that there will always be new challenges ahead and that things can always become a bit better than previously. This is partly why Suhonen refers to reformism as ‘a dance without an end’.

Finally, the way to implement reformism is by winning elections through class alliances that form a progressive majority of people from the working class and parts of the middle class. In other words, a broad class coalition built out of a majority of voters who support the social democratic and left (working class) parties. In this way, the Social Democratic Party could once again form a movement against market fundamentalism – in terms of a political force for rebuilding the strong Swedish welfare state it still is known for, beyond the neoliberal ‘dissatisfaction of decreasing expectations’ that for example was implemented under the right-wing prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt during his more recent years in power. Indeed, whereas Erlander’s slogan powerfully indexes the collective desire for a better society, its opposite alludes to what Suhonen refers to as the politics of fear of the neoliberal turn associated with people such as Reinfeldt – when the welfare state was disassembled and social security teared apart, with the result of a widespread fear among people for not being properly covered by society. One example of this shift is the privatisation of healthcare and when those who can afford it turn to buying private health insurances, because they want to assure that they will receive sufficient healthcare when the welfare state no longer is capable of delivering it (in contrast with a capable public healthcare, where everyone is treated equally).

How Radical Should We Be?

For Suhonen, the Social Democrats should ideally act as a sort of balancing force between workers and capital. In other words, what he is arguing for is not the socialisation of the means of production, but rather an expanded welfare state that exists alongside capitalism. The idea of reformism as a dance without an end thus also alludes to the fact that there will always be right-wing forces to keep in check, which stands in contrast to the Marxist struggle for a post-capitalist society advocated by various people on the left. From this perspective, one could certainly have some reservations against the modesty of Suhonen’s programme – also since most of what he advocates really is not new at all, but rather very traditional social democratic politics in the spirit of people such as Erlander. As he has put it himself: it is somewhat bizarre that he often is viewed as an extreme leftist, since what he wants in fact is quite traditional – some more welfare and socio-economic equality. The view of Suhonen as very far to the left rather illustrates how much the Overton Window has shifted towards the right over the past decades, which ironically makes the ideas outlined in the book feel surprisingly radical, as opposed to simply old-school, because of how much backwards we have gone during this time.

But then there is the one new component as well: the idea of a Green Keynesianism (basically, a Swedish Green New Deal), wherein the state makes massive investments in a green transition based on an expanded public sector and the socialist idea of common solutions to common problems. The underlying assumption is that the climate crisis is a problem of such a magnitude that the role of the state will have to be strengthened (as during the Covid-19 pandemic), because the market simply is unequipped for solving such major problems. The green transition could accordingly be seen as an opportunity to reintroduce the social democratic programme as updated by Suhonen – which would allow us to not only switch to a green economy, but also to a fairer one. It is thus not about nostalgia for the post-war decades, but rather about reviving the ideological spirit of the Social Democrats, which the party desperately needs to get out of its current neoliberal turn.

Class War, Not Culture War

Something else that initially may give the appearance of Suhonen’s thinking being somewhat nostalgic is that there are basically no mentions of what often is on the political agenda in Sweden at the moment, such as immigration and criminality. Yet this does not mean that he is out of touch with the current moment, but it is rather a quite sobering disinterest in taking up the rhetoric of the right (who often start there). Indeed, to do so would risk falling into the trap of the so-called ‘culture wars’ waged by many people on the far right, in particular. This is not to say that the racial and sexual minorities that often are targeted by the culture warriors should not be defended – but rather that they are not those who are to blame for the major problems in soceity and that by making culture wars one’s primary agenda thus means accepting the problem formulations constructed by the far and conservative right as essentially correct. But they are not, since they fail to address what remains the most crucial issue today – class struggle – which risks being forgotten if culture wars are accepted as the primary zone of conflict today (exemplified in Sweden by the more recent introduction of a second political, so-called ‘GAL-TAN’ axis – aside from the classical one of left and right – which rather classifies political parties based on how progressive/multicultural or conservative/nationalist they are).

Yet it is against the rich we should wage war, not minorities. And, by doing so, I believe that we also will make the social situation better for the latter, since I think that the stigma that they face from culture warriors often is a consequence of the increasingly collective fear that has emerged through the neoliberal dissatisfaction of decreasing expectations. This is not to suggest that all such stigma would simply disappear if society became more equal – but rather that the desire to find an easily targeted scapegoat for what in reality are deeper socio-economic issues certainly would decrease significantly. It is thus refreshing and most apt that Suhonen focuses on the key issue: economic inequality because of an unfair distribution policy, which must be corrected by a new economic politics that operates for the benefit of all. Seen from this perspective, Suhonen’s struggle (through Katalys, for example) to ‘put class back on the agenda’ is equally refreshing and makes me think of my own mentor, the late Mark Fisher, and his analysis of what he called ‘capitalist realism’ (i.e., the social naturalisation of neoliberalism) as a programme of so-called ‘consciousness deflation’ – which refers to how the widespread erasing of the various forms of radical consciousness, including class consciousness, that were prominent in the West in the post-war decades has paved way for the naturalisation of neoliberalism. Indeed, despite Fisher being a more radical writer, him and Suhonen certainly have something in common, also in terms of their appraisals of the post-war welfare state that they both experienced and came to appreciate when they were younger – and then saw slowly fading away – as well as their longing for more culture and more free time, beyond the neoliberal horrors of the present. This is certainly something to struggle for, regardless of whether it, in the end, is realised alongside or beyond capitalism.

Featured Image: Daniel Suhonen. (Katalys)