All entries for Wednesday 14 July 2010

July 14, 2010

Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model

I am at the World Sociological Congress in Göteborg but I won't bore with sociology here. Contentwise, I'll only mention a non sociologist: the Nobel-Prize for Chemistry Yuan-Thseh-Lee, who gave the key note speach on the future of the environment: a much more briliant presentation than Al Gore's movie, with the striking message was that the situation with global warming is not as bad as we believed: it is quite worse.

Humanly, it was nice to celebrate the achivements of the outgoing International Sociological Association's president Michel Wieviorka, famous for having been my co-supervisor in Paris. And it was moving as well as joyful to participate in an unusual very-official+very-informal reception for the retirement of Eddie Webster, held by His Excellency the South Africal Ambassador to Sweden "comrade" Mr S R Makgetla. Eddie has been not just a leading labour sociologist, but has been a prominent intellectual in the South African anti-apartheid movement - having been even jailed in 1985 and taking the opportunity of the trial to deliver a sociological lecture on the importance of free trade unions. Sweden - whose East India Company had narrowly missed colonising South Africa ahead of the Dutch - had been quite important in the international movement against apartheid, too.

What about Sweden today? Sometimes it is still mentioned as a "model", with a series of myths, whether positive (the perfect welfare state) or negative (the high suicide rate: this myth drives Espin Andersen mad). I don't like the ideas of models, whether they are the Soviet Union, America, or Sweden: in this case, you can't imitate a country that missed both world wars and made a fortune by avoiding them, and which has just 9 million people on a huge surface (which is why I limit myself to "large" countries in my 2 years).

But above all, Sweden is no model anymore, starting from itself. In the 2006 elections, it shifted to the Right and the Socialdemocracts fell to 35%, the worst result since 1921. And right now, after a long period in which the Left was well ahead, the opinion polls ahead of the September elections suggest that the Right will win again, with the socialdemocrats down to 30% and even a growing extreme right in the possible role of kingmaker. It would be the first time since the 1930s that the socialdemocrats are out of government for more than one term. Amongst the reasons, the usual suspects: fiscal crisis [but the deficit is v small], immigration, fear for the recession [Sweden has actually benefited from its welfare state and benefits to keep demand up, but more recently, with perfect electoral timing, the government has introduced some vote-boosting stimulus]. What survives is the gender model, with very high female employment (although largely segregated in the public sector), 85% of fathers taking paternity leave, ban on buying sex. But even on the gender dimension voters (the male ones?) are turning their backs to the more radical proposals of the socialdemocrats and the Left Party.

Before the start of the congress, labour sociologists organised an informal meeting, in a culture club in Haga, with Swedish trade unionists. Quite a lot of complaints about the Socialdemocrats shifting to the right, and about the unions themselves. Some - but opinions diverged - contrasted this with Norway, where the unions are more assertive and the socialdemocrats resist in power and do not privatise/liberalise schools and welfare state like in Sweden. Yet, the Norwegian unions are the only ones among the Nordic ones not to have 80%-plus membership (they have "only" about 50%), because they do not have the so-called Ghent system whereby the unions co-manage unemployment insurance, so that workers join them believing that could miss out if they don't. Without wanting to be sectarian, it seems to me that sometimes it may be better to have not so many members, but a bit more committed ones.

Göteborg is still a pretty place, as lively as any port city but without the social decadence: so the remains of socialdemocracy are still visible everywhere. Even if the weather is tropically hot and humid, and the population is all sunbathing on the archipelago: Yuan-Thseh-Lee must be right.

PS1: I'll bow to some populist pressure to write about football, following the South African theme of this entry. I watched Spain-Holland in Italo-Anglo-Dutch company in a dark Göteborg pub. The locals were all for Holland, and asked why, they explained it was because they like "certain Dutch laws". With regard to the Cup, just like in politics and economics, arguments about the decline of Europe (widespread during the first round) were premature, and European countries occupied the first three places, only a slight decline from the four of 2006. The proof of their hegemony is that Brazil - tu quoque - adopted a European, utilitaristic style of play (and left Ronaldinho at home just because he is chubby and enjoys life! On these frankly outlandish criteria, Maradona would not have been selected for Argentina in '86).

PS2: for more in-depth accounts of the 'dark' side of Sweden, especially with regard to gender, I recommend the article in the Observer on the case of Goran Lindberg, the chief of the Swedish police and hero of women right who turned out to be at the centre of a child prostitution ring - the case and its sleazy details were all over the frontpages while I was in Sweden, but I overlooked it as without understanding the text I preferred not to base my judgment on the pictures.

July 2010

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