In an oft-cited radio address broadcast on Christmas Day 1965, Olof Palme declares that “democracy is firmly rooted in our country”. Though he qualifies this statement, alerting the listeners to the deviousness of seemingly harmless everyday prejudices, the soon-to-be prime minister in the Kingdom of Sweden expresses a firm confidence in the sturdiness of its democracy. Would a present-day Palme be as bullish about it today, almost fifty years on? Arguably, the thinking statesman of today would be considerably less sanguine on the issue.
The Paradox of Populism
A diagnosis of the current state of the Swedish democracy may well start from the issue that Palme discussed some fifty years ago – xenophobia. The increased support for right-wing populist and extremist parties in Europe is also detectable in Sweden. For instance, the Sweden Democrats – an anti-immigration, self-professed nationalist party that emerged from the Swedish neo-Nazi movement of the 1990s – is making inroads into the political establishment. At the 2010 national elections, the party won 5.7% of the popular vote and thus secured twenty seats in the parliament. In the European elections of this spring, almost one in every 10 Swedes voted for this party. We have yet to see what effects this presence has on policy outcomes, and whether the party’s discourse and conduct will become normalised.
It is, of course, unlikely that the Swedish Democrat voters actually support neo-Nazism. However, this increase in support is a cause for concern regarding the state of Swedish democracy. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested that contemporary political power can emerge from the exploitation of citizens’ cynicism towards democratic institutions. Voters may play along in the election game, but do not really believe that the public office really means something. In other words, voters are not necessarily fooled by shrewd populists – they simply seem not to care whether their representatives are incompetent or corrupt. Žižek thus concludes that while such an incompetent or corrupt politician “is what he [or she] appears to be, this appearance nonetheless remains deceptive” – because in the end, the cynical voters are ruled by this very politician.
The tendencies towards a concentration of wealth and power are at work in the Swedish society, and so is the financialisation that some would argue signals the return of feudalist relations between creditors and debtors.
Crisis of Confidence
A certain amount of public cynicism towards elected leaders has however been a permanent feature of democracy. Political scientist David Runciman argues that historically, the democratic process has always been characterised by an alternation between two states. The general state of affairs is that citizens are relatively disengaged from the nitty-gritty of politics. Voters are all too happy about ceding power to elected politicians, so that they themselves do not have to worry about the running of things. This general state of affairs is however punctuated by crises, in which voters lose confidence in the people they have elected, and possibly in the system as a whole. So far, however, democratic systems have managed to resolve such crises. Indeed, major political reforms tend to be introduced at these precise moments of crisis.
For Runciman, the 2008 crisis still plaguing both the EU and the United States is another instantiation of this general pattern. Sweden, having remained outside the Eurozone and thus out of harm’s way from the Troika, has remained relatively unscathed by this financial, social and democratic breakdown. It is not however, exempt from the structural problems that the Occupy movement has objected to. The tendencies towards a concentration of wealth and power are at work in the Swedish society, and so is the financialisation that some would argue signals the return of feudalist relations between creditors and debtors. While the relative detachment from the Eurozone crisis has had a dampening effect on dissent, there are good reasons to believe that a democratic reboot of some sort will prove necessary in the not too distant future.
The green movement, including green foundations as well as green parties, is well positioned to point out one factor that further complicates the future of democracy. On the one hand, the democratic reforms of the past century have been pushed through in conjunction with rapid economic growth. On the other hand, economists – even non-green ones – are increasingly sceptical of the prospect of this growth continuing at the same rate. Even though mainstream politics insists that all present ills will be cured as soon as growth returns, HSBC chief economist Stephen D. King suggests that the idea of ever rising incomes is “no more than an illusion humming with quasi-religious fervour”. The question King raises in When the Money Runs Out is fundamental to the future of democracy: “How should societies adjust to a world where economic growth is no longer guaranteed?“
Arguably, presenting such a “growth realist” position may well be the most significant green contribution to the wider discussion about the challenges of democracy. Fittingly, economic growth is one of the main issues that the green think tank Cogito seeks to politicise. It is relatively alone in doing so, as the Swedish think tank landscape is dominated by actors financed by either the employers association or the major unions. Both sides of the labour market agree on the growth issue, as well as many other economic issues. Incidentally, this is the blessing and curse of being a green think tank operating in Sweden. On the one hand, there is a definite space to be filled by a politics that questions the employer-worker consensus; on the other hand, it may be difficult to match the resources of unionised labour and big business.
Such difficulties aside, green think tanks may prove instrumental in future-proofing democracy, uprooting the status quo that sustains the above-mentioned voter cynicism. Here, it is important that policies regarded as economic may well prove beneficial from a democratic point of view. For instance, a rebalancing of working hours may facilitate the deepening of democracy, in which citizens enjoy what Benjamin Constant called “the liberty of the ancients” rather than “the liberty of the moderns” – that is, the freedom to participate in public deliberation on politics, rather than the freedom to ignore it.
At any rate, given the present crisis, it is crucial to remember that democracy can be understood as a profoundly radical concept. While we tend to see democracy as a state of affairs, it can also be associated with an experimental attitude towards societal arrangements. Today, we can scarcely afford to only ask whether democracy as we know it is “firmly rooted” or not – that is a reactive response to the present situation. The democratic challenge is also one of proactive guesswork: What will the term “democracy” have to imply in the future?