Any programme which involves the redistribution of wealth may expect resistance from those who are thus required to relinquish a portion of what they prefer to regard as their own, private resources. That is no less the case in Sweden, where the taxes and transfer payments that are the life blood of the general-welfare state have always been attacked by economic elites in much the same terms as in other countries-- i.e. as confiscatory, damaging to the economy, injurious to the moral fibre of the lower orders, etc.
Such themes have also been emphasized by the many critics abroad who have conducted a persistent propaganda campaign against the dread Swedish model and its presumptive threat to the free-enterprise way of life. Western media, and particularly the business press, have through the years churned out a steady stream of alarming reports on the terrible state of Swedish society, including so many references to suffocating welfare state and cradle-to-grave security that such phrases have become part of the standard anti-Sweden vocabulary of The New York Times, The Economist and similar paragons of mainstream journalism.
Virtually all of the standard complaints about the evils of the general-welfare state are unsubstantiated, and in most cases downright false. There is no demonstrable relationship, for example, between economic growth and tax levels or the size of the public sector. Neither has the development of the strong state led to the suffocation of individual freedom. On the contrary: For the large majority of the population, it has provided the conditions for a major expansion of freedom in nearly all areas of life. This is particularly true for women, pensioners, the handicapped and other disadvantaged groups whose options were formerly quite limited-- as they still are in most parts of the world. But among antagonists of general welfare, this unsurpassed record of success in improving the lives of ordinary citizens is something that tends either to be ignored, or arbitrarily defined as failure.
Howls of the rich
The primary losers have been the upper echelons of the economic elite, who are now required to share a portion of the wealth they have managed to gather unto themselves by various means. But to look at them, with their pleasure yachts and luxurious homes, it would not appear that they are suffering very much-- although, there seems to be something about owning a shiny new BMW that causes certain specimens of wealthy Swede to conclude that they are victims of an oppressive government. As John Kenneth Galbraith once observed: The lamentations of the poor are as nothing in comparison with the howls of the rich when they feel that their ox is being gored.
In any event, there has evolved a joint national/international resistance to general welfare, one with sufficient financial and propaganda resources to strongly influence public opinion. In the past, that influence has been most clearly reflected in foreign views of Sweden. But its effects on domestic opinion seem lately to be increasing, most likely as a result of changes in the structure of society and the role of mass media.
Sweden's foreign policy has also been subjected to heavy criticism from the right, particularly during the Palme years. His eloquent condemnation of the rape of Indochina, the violent excesses of the U.S. and its client-states in Latin America, and other less savoury aspects of western civilization inevitably rendered him and his country prime targets of abuse for defenders of Pax Americana, including its many adherents in Sweden.
Of the latter, the most prominent has been Carl Bildt, the once and maybe future prime minister on whom the United States and its European subsidiaries have banked to deliver the wayward Swedes into NATO's nuclear-powered embrace-- although it now begins to appear as though the post-Palme leadership of the Social Democratic Party is determined to beat him to it.
Bildt is primarily responsible for the two greatest fiascos in modern Swedish history: a frenetic and very costly 13-year-long chase after presumptively Soviet submarines which turned out to be swimming minks and other natural phenomena; and the devastation of the Swedish economy during the early 1990s. Yet he continues to be regarded as the country's leading statesman.
Carl Bildt's remarkable capacity to rise above the wreckage of his own disasters is due to three related factors: One is the obvious desire of his supporters in the United States and Europe to enhance his political image, and thus his usefulness. This has been accomplished with little difficulty through manipulation of the mainstream news, which they dominate.
The second factor is Sweden's worldwide reputation as an impartial peacemaker. It is a reputation which is due almost entirely to the enlightened foreign policy conducted over several decades by Social Democrats, Olof Palme in particular-- a policy which Bildt has consistently opposed and belittled, even as he continues to fabricate his career on the foundation it provides. (For details, see A Cold Warrior's Transfiguration.)
The third, and probably most significant factor, is the failure of Palme's successors in the Social Democratic Party to build upon the valuable legacy he left his country and the world. In fact, they have alternately ignored, rejected and squandered that legacy, and now seem intent on converting Sweden into yet another obedient vassal of the United States. If their aim was to alter the direction of Swedish social democracy, the forces behind the assassination of Olof Palme have every reason to be delighted with the results of their handiwork.
The strange-but-true career of Carl Bildt illustrates much of what has happened to Sweden since the death of Olof Palme. It also reflects the challenges confronting the nation as it enters the 21st century. Of these, perhaps the most difficult to surmount is the power of the mainstream media to promote the ideas and careers of those who are determined to tear down the Nordic model of society. Those forces have already accomplished a great deal toward that end with a systematic, lavishly financed campaign that was launched in the 1970s with the help of propaganda expertise from the United States.
Against the ensuing barrage of newspaper articles, radio programmes, books, seminars, imported gurus, educational materials, etc., the labour movement and the Social Democratic Party have been comparatively passive and ineffectual. Having developed as grassroots movements based on direct communication at the workplace and in local study groups, they have found it difficult to adapt their message and strategy to a climate of opinion in which glittering mass media play an increasingly powerful role.
This inability and/or unwillingness to compete in the modern marketplace of ideas is reflected in what appears to be declining interest and support among young people. So far, this has been a gradual trend: Having grown up in the humane atmosphere of the general-welfare state, the values and attitudes of Swedish youth correspond fairly well with its basic precepts.
But, oddly enough, they have never received any education in the Nordic model's underlying logic and basic requirements. The hardly unexpected result is that many, if not most, lack intellectual defences against a steady barrage of neo-liberal messages which celebrate the joys of individual freedom, while neglecting to mention the widespread lack of freedom in societies that neglect or reject collective solutions to the problems of life. In effect, this means that younger Swedes tend to share the values implicit in the Nordic model of society, but have little explicit understanding of how those values relate to such dull practical matters as the strength or weakness of the public sector, privatization, taxation rates, political activity, social insurance programmes, etc.
If present trends continue, today's young people are likely to end up as tomorrow's parents and grandparents with their values more-or-less intact, but with the society that nurtured them in ruins. The latter outcome is the currently reasonable expectation of neo-liberal enthusiasts who are eager to replace the Nordic model with a different type of society which very closely resembles the United States.