Populism is on the rise. In Sweden, the right-wing populist party the Sweden Democrats (SD) has grown from a relatively small and unknown political party to the country’s third largest in only 10 years. In this article, MIA student Pernilla Söderberg illustrates how a memory of an imagined past and visions for the future has turned a political metaphor once used to achieve social and economic inclusion into a tool of exclusion, and how by extension this mangled representation has a self-defeating outcome.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In 1928, the then leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, Per Albin Hansson, coined the concept folkhemmet (Volksheim or The Home of the People): a metaphor for a politically organized and well-ordered society in which all citizens are taken care of and given basic security. The basis of this home, he stated, was commonality, mutuality, compassion, cooperation, helpfulness and equality and the following decades would be characterised by a plethora of welfare reforms aimed at eradicating socioeconomic inequalities in the pursuit of a home encompassing the entire Swedish people.
Up until the 1980s, the Social Democratic folkhem-project was rather successful. Not merely in creating the Swedish welfare state but also, and perhaps more importantly, in its ability to become a definer of Sweden and ‘Swedishness’, representing security in national and social identity. Certainly, in many ways, Sweden’s self-identity and Swedish self-understanding became intrinsically tied to the project. To be a Swede was to be a member of folkhemmet and its welfare model.
Today, ninety years after the metaphor first was coined and almost forty years since the project’s decline, the memory of folkhemmet continues to inform Sweden’s domestic politics.
While used and misused by all Swedish political parties, the Sweden Democrats (SD) have gone lengths to re-appropriate the memory. In his 2018 “Speech to the Nation – My Sweden” the SD’s party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, called his vision for the future ‘The Modern Folkhem’. It is a society in which criminals are behind bars, the elderly and sick have access to needed care and all citizens fulfil their obligations under the social contract. A society built on democracy, equality and mutuality. A return to the glory days of the Swedish welfare state.
In the eyes of the SD, there is only one problem. Achieving the modern folkhem is not possible with the current immigration politics. In the SD’s “principled programme”, the party states that “national cohesion” and “joint identification” are key in safeguarding folkhemmet, values that, according to the SD, are incompatible with multiculturalism. Sweden must therefore restrict immigration in order to return to the monocultural and monoethnic society it once was.
But this is impossible. Not because multiculturalism has gone too far or is irreversible, as the SD might argue, but because of the simple fact that Sweden never was a monocultural nor monoethnic society, of which the indigenous Sami population and century long presence of other minorities, such as Roma and Sinti, serves as prima facie evidence.
Yet, the imagined threat of multiculturalism to the nostalgic memory of folkhemmet feeds fire into the SD’s reactionary and dystopian narratives of present-day Sweden, in which (Muslim) immigration is turning Sweden into a violent and lawless society, threatening the unity and purity of the nation.
A telling example can be found in the SD’s 2018 election campaign video, in which Jimmie Åkesson conveys the story of a contemporary Sweden in the midst of a civil war [sic!] of gang violence in which ‘Swedes’ are killed, maimed and forced to move out of certain neighbourhoods due to physical insecurity. A depiction which stands in stark contrast to the memory of the traditional folkhemmet as a well-ordered and secure society, and constitutes the path Sweden will continue to walk down unless the SD stops “mass immigration” and is trusted to enact its modern folkem.
And here is where the SD’s narrative becomes problematic.
While the SD are envisioning both dystopian and utopian futures, the present is only described in apocalyptic terms and the past only in a nostalgic manner. Yes, in the intersection of an imagined past and envisioned future, the present is constructed in a dystopian way in which SD are the only ones who can stop the Swedish “apocalypse” by strictly regulating immigration. Only then will the modern folkhem – the utopia – be made possible. Only in that manner can Sweden reclaim its self-identity and understanding.
In this way, the SD creates a sense of urgency, playing on voters’ fears and mobilising political action. Purposefully or not, in effect they are succeeding. In the 2018 Swedish general election, 18% cast their votes for this populist party. What they are voting for, however, is a construction of a past, present and future far from the realities of the traditional folkhem. Indeed, the SD’s dystopian idea of multiculturalism today and its dystopian and utopian vision of the future are as much imagined as the utopian and nostalgic memory of the monoethnic and monocultural folkhem.
Unquestionably, even before “mass immigration” Sweden was far from the folkhem the SD so desperately are remembering and desiring. Stopping immigration will therefore not provide the SD with the future they envision, nor will it be key to stop the future they fear. But of course, their visions and memories enable them to pursue their political agenda: to create a monoethnic and monocultural Sweden, not only in their imagination, but in reality.
Narratives matter. They have material consequences for our social reality, for people and their lived experiences. By taking part in a discursive struggle of who belongs and whose exclusion is legitimate, the SD are in fact (re)defining the notion of ‘the people’. A redefinition affecting anyone deemed to be an outsider. By emphasising distrust, difference, conflict and antagonism in its attempt to revive folkhemmet, the SD has turned what was once used as a tool of inclusion into a means of exclusion, perhaps eroding the concept of folkhemmet itself.
This is Pernilla’s second article on the Politics of Memory, click here to view her first one.
Pernilla Söderberg is a 2019 Masters of International Affairs candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Stockholm University where she specialized in issues related to gender (in)equality and global justice. Pernilla is fascinated by the role of language in shaping social realities and loves all things creative.