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At Home in the Welfare State

Sweden's welfare state imagined a 'Folkhemmet,' or People's Home, which is now being dismantled – but individual stories help us to remember what social democracy meant to the generation that built it.

My paternal grandfather Karl began his working life as an engine repairman in the Swedish merchant navy in the early 1900s, right at the end of the steam era. He soon saw where things—i.e. the job opportunities—were heading and retrained as an electrician, and remained one for the rest of his life, although mostly on dry land.

His youngest son, my uncle Nils, became chief engineer at Hasselblad Cameras in Gothenburg. He was an exceptionally gifted precision mechanic but, unfortunately for him, the digital age was fast approaching, in camera technology as everywhere else. Unlike his father, Nils chose not to cross that bridge. It was the 1980s, he was close to retirement anyway and, besides, he was almost comically dismissive of all things digital.

The twentieth century seemed to trigger these precipitate personal journeys from one age to another, often within less than a lifetime. Something similar happened in the course of my mother’s life, too. I recently took possession of three large box files containing documents, and some personal belongings, relating to her life. It was a life that straddled an equally familiar and equally remote era, the Swedish welfare state.

Marianne was born in 1923 and, with her twin brother Bertil, was the youngest of nine children. Their father was an odd-job man (carpenter, janitor, crofter) while their mother took care of the household. When my mother was eight, Oskar and Gerda both suddenly died, within a few months of each other. Soon after, Marianne and Bertil were placed in the St. Pauli children’s home, and she lived there throughout her school years, until age 14. For some of the younger siblings, particularly, the loss and its aftermath left deep and lifelong psychological scars.

In one of Marianne’s boxes I found three books I had never seen before. They would be called Young Adult fiction today; they were merely ‘girls’ books’ then. From the inscriptions, it’s clear she had been given them as birthday presents between ages 12 and 14, presumably by the staff at the orphanage. I wondered why she had kept them for so long. Reading them revealed few literary surprises, but was nonetheless an oddly touching experience, in the circumstances.

The main characters—called Fia, Lill-Stina, and Britta, respectively—are all around 14 years of age, living desperately poor lives in rural Sweden. As you would expect, all three girls are good-hearted, hard-working, honest, sensible, and spirited, and all three stories are earnestly edifying, their happy endings providing their morals. But those endings come about chiefly through sheer good luck.

Fia’s consumptive mother is unexpectedly taken in by some distant relatives living in healthier surroundings, which means she is finally cured, and the family can stay on in their crofter’s cottage after all. The rich, evil, bullying Captain up the road turns out to be Lill-Stina’s grandfather and a dear, sentimental old fool who loves her to bits.

In the third and last story—‘The Fisherman’s Daughter from Kullerön Island’ by Ester Lindberg (1931)—Britta is a recently orphaned girl whose lonely, unhappy life on the island is suddenly transformed when she is taken in to be fostered by a kindly, well-to-do, childless couple on the mainland. Towards the end of the story comes a scene I could not help but imagine had lived on in my mother’s mind. Britta is not only given a room all to herself, but the room has a window with a beautiful sea view – and curtains! She is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

What Britta has left behind and what she has arrived in are equally important for those feelings. Sweden’s islands at that time were not the prettified, expensively propertied leisure bubbles they often appear today. The majority were fishing communities, associated with poverty, hardship and an unforgiving nature.

As for her arrival, the Swedish word for ‘mainland’ is ‘fastland’—’fast’ as in ‘fixed, solid’—which seems to invite the notion of an island as something unstable and unpredictable, ‘floating’ almost. Britta now not only has her feet on solid ground, but has her own space where she can at last be by herself behind drawn curtains. Or she can open them, and herself, to the world and to the sea, now no longer a threatening, indifferent force of nature surrounding her on all sides, but something that recedes from view the further inland she chooses to go.

The solid and the precarious; oneself alone and the world outside; the domestic and the alien, are dualities absolutely central not only to the lived experience of what was soon to become the welfare state, but to the actual construction of it. In particular, the ‘domestication’ of the project became its emblematic, headline term from as early as 1928, with the Social Democrat leader, and future Prime Minister, Per Albin Hansson’s famous coinage ‘folkhemmet’, the people’s home.

‘We have some way to go before we have achieved that,’ he said. The inequalities all around were still glaring: ‘…while some live in palaces, others consider themselves lucky to be able to stay on in their allotment cottages, even through the cold winters.’ Four years after his speech, the Social Democrats came to power, and stayed there for four and a half decades.

The reason I would like to think Britta’s curtains caught my mother’s imagination is something that happened about twenty years later. In 1946, Marianne met and married my father, Sven, who was a cook. My brother was born the year after and I came along four years later, in 1951. We lived in the Majorna district of Gothenburg, close to the then busy, lively port; the area housed mainly people working on the ships and the ferries, the docks and the shipyards. Ours was a tiny, cramped, and dark first-floor flat, with a communal lavatory on the landing outside. Marianne kept pestering the local housing department and they finally, as she put it, ‘gave in’.

In August 1957 we moved into a one-bedroom flat in what was then the suburb of Högsbo. It was typical post-war housing, of the kind you still see all over Sweden. Built and run by one of the state housing corporations, Bostadsbolaget, they were three-storey, yellow-brick blocks with green, recreational areas between them; about 36 flats in each, none much over 55 sq. metres in size; small but well planned homes: modern, bright, and airy.

The day we moved in, we were all standing in the kitchen, admiring the shiny work surfaces, the electric cooker, all the cupboards and larders, the two windows letting in so much light. The kitchen door happened to open inwards, so I peeked behind it, and – ‘Look, there’s a fridge too!’ There were shrieks of astonishment from my mother. It was our first fridge ever. She put her hand into it and felt the cold. My father, of course, knew his fridges from the restaurant kitchens he worked in, but did not really expect to see one in his own home at that point. We were finally at home in the welfare state proper – literally the gift that keeps on giving, because it did not end there.

In those days Bostadsbolaget upgraded all their flats every ten years in a rolling programme, at no cost to the tenant. If you wanted a new kitchen, or just a new fridge or cooker, or a new bathroom, you could—in fact you should—have it. This upgrade programme represents, for me, one of the most civilized features of a fully-functioning welfare state. You have your small, bright, and airy home, make yourself comfortable, pull the curtains, watch TV all day long – it’s your life. But the amenities we provide you with, and what you partly pay your rent for, have to align with modernity, as that is the point: to open your curtains to the world outside. Old-fashioned squat and deep bath tubs are out; in with the new, longer and shallower ones. No more small and fat 1950s fridges, but the new sleek ones with bigger freezer compartments. The hallway needs repainting. And why not get yourself some new Marimekko curtains, while you’re at it?

Marianne lived in that flat for fifty-eight years, until the end of her life in 2015. It was her world. She did not often talk about her childhood, or the loss of her parents, or the abuse she and her twin brother had occasionally suffered at the orphanage. That had all happened out on the islands. She and Sven saved some money and built a summer house further down the coast, their pride and joy. But she rarely took anything for granted, always assuming the ground beneath her feet could suddenly give way. Generous in her love, careful about promises. The poems she copied down in her diaries talk a lot about consolation, the sudden glimpse of a clearing in the forest, about people who keep their promises, nothing more, just a confirmation that things will remain as they are. That was enough.

As with most of her generation, she was acutely aware of how and why her life had improved. She knew perfectly well why the fridge was sort of just there that day, behind the door. Politics, remote as it often seemed, was a confirmation that things will indeed remain as they are, only upgraded every ten years. She was very comfortable with that, as long as the workmen did not leave a mess.

Trying to Live In It

The Swedish welfare system today is being broken. Whether that is fatally so, or only to a limited extent, and whether it’s a result of ‘economic necessity’ or an ‘assault on the vulnerable to benefit the rich’ depends on who you ask and therefore, inevitably, on the answer you want to hear. Since the early 1990s, the problems, or crises, following on deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing, can be seen mainly in areas as predictable as they are vital: health and social care, public housing, transport, schools, high levels of private debt.

Having lived in the UK for close to fifty years, my perspective on this is inevitably skewed by experiences closer to home, from the Thatcherite 1980s onwards. What Sweden has gone through in terms of cutbacks can sometimes seem, unfairly or not, relatively mild, or at least survivable.

Whatever the realities on the ground, but also as a direct consequence of those realities, the Swedish Model itself has long since ceased to have much imaginative or even metaphorical power, either. The People’s Home is now subject to market rents. A grim joke recently has it that Swedes have accepted such a high level of social and outdoor freedoms during the pandemic because, locked-down at home, they would be constantly and painfully reminded of how much of their stuff was paid for by credit card.

A curious thing happened just as the breaking-up of the welfare state began, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Once again it involved Britta’s curtains. In a speech in 1989, the late Odd Engström, then Budget Minister in the Social Democratic government, claimed the Swedish Model had reached a sort of end point. The age of the great and costly reforms was past, he argued, and all the elements of a fair and just society were now in place. The welfare state had completed its ‘building phase’ and had now entered what he called the ‘managing phase’. In a BBC radio interview I did with him at the time, Engström developed the analogy:

To build a house is one thing; to run the house is quite a different one. And you can’t all the time solve the problem by building new houses. You have to use the house sometimes! […] There comes a day when you say: Oh, it’s a big and nice and beautiful house. That‘s good! But now must concentrate our creativity, our potential, our lust for work, in order to realize things about how to run it! Put flowers in the windows […] buying curtains, furniture […] trying to live in it.

As pure analogy, it certainly had its faults. Despite the obvious nod towards ‘folkhemmet‘, it was a rather clumsy euphemism for the introduction of austerity, providing a cosy domestic setting for the fierce and very public debates within Social Democracy at the time—the so-called ‘War of the Roses’—about how to deal with the ongoing financial crisis, largely due to the deregulation of markets and the banks’ reckless lending practices in the 1980s. One side was led by the trade union movement, dead set against austerity; on the other, much of the party hierarchy argued that necessity dictated it. The latter won.

This was undoubtedly the last time Sweden had any use whatever for any homely metaphors. Britta’s curtains were no longer. Even more, for Sweden’s Social Democracy, Engström’s warped analogy could be seen as the end of the idea of Society as a Project. Of course, building projects do have to reach completion, eventually. But the analogy was faulty precisely because the grand, reformist political project, begun by the party seventy years earlier, was never meant to reach a fixed end, but would continue to evolve just as capitalism did.

One of the most influential strands of Social Democratic reformism, right from its start in the 1920s, was what later became known as ‘functional socialism’ (the economist Gunnar Adler-Karlsson’s phrase from 1965). Contrary to Marx, it regarded ownership of the means of production as basically beside the point; the crucial thing was to limit and steer the capitalist owners’ powers and functions towards socialistic ends, partly from above through democratic reforms, partly from below by wage increases and consumer power.

With the gradual introduction and refinement of the welfare state, capitalism would end up much like the monarchy: the king can keep his crown, his fawning courtiers and his estates, but what counts—his power—must be gradually transferred to popular and democratic institutions.

That cannot be said have been achieved by 1990, and certainly not any time thereafter. Instead, it appeared as though the process had simply ground to a halt before the uncontestable might of neoliberalism. Labour was compelled to stop in its tracks, while Capital continued to evolve in an even more brutal and destructive manner. The idea that the Social Democratic Party at the time cravenly ‘surrendered’, politically and economically, might seem a bit facile as an historical judgement. But one should also bear in mind the shocks the party had suffered in the then recent past, leaving little room for any political imagination.

The party’s loss of power in 1976, for the first time in forty-four years, was a traumatic event, only slightly alleviated by their return to government six years later. The furious backlash against the proposed ‘wage-earner funds’ around the same time—basically a way of buying capitalism out through the mandatory redistribution of shares—gave rise to a militant, far more ideology-driven right-wing and entrepreneurial political movement, which has played a major part in Swedish politics ever since.

The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 shook the party and many state institutions to their foundations. And the fall of Communism at the turn of the decade seemed to many to have completely annulled the foundational idea of a Middle Way in the first place.

Once Engström’s house had been fully furnished, as it were, whatever remaining imaginative powers Social Democracy could cling on to meant the only room left for the Swedish Model was in storage.

Through the Blinds

I never did ask my mother what party she voted for in general elections, but I guess she went with the Social Democrats, at least while it was still a relatively safe and predictable choice. Like most people when it comes to politics, she carried her own contradictions. I do know she voted Conservative once in later life, because she was concerned about immigration. About an hour after she told me this, she had the usual daily visit from her best friend Gloria, from Colombia, who lived just across the street.

In old age, and widowed for many years, she could sometimes seem withdrawn and a bit anxious about the world outside. (I should perhaps add here that she always preferred Venetian blinds to curtains, because they offered a greater choice of angles for viewing the world). At the same time, she could be fiercely combative in protecting the life she had made for herself. Once, a group of drug addicts moved into the flat next door. Alone among the tenants—she was 85 at the time—she took the case all the way to the Housing Court, and won.

The historical framework in which Marianne’s adult life played out—les trentes glorieueses, the post-war settlement—is well enough established by now: a generation-long, one-off convergence of economic and political forces in the capitalist West which allowed for a level of prosperity and social advancement we are unlikely to see again. Sweden, as a non-combatant in the war, with industrial capacity and manpower levels intact, was uniquely placed to take advantage of it.

It would be perverse to think of the story of those years as a wholly edifying one, much less one with a fortuitous happy ending. Sweden in this period had plenty of darknesses, some of them not unconnected to the Social Democratic Party itself: the illegal surveillance and registering of radicals and Communist sympathisers going on for years; the (no longer) secret alliance with NATO ever since its foundation in 1949. Not to mention the stubborn survival of eugenicist practices such as forced sterilisation, decades after most of the rest of the post-Holocaust world had abandoned them in horror. One could go on.

Analogies and metaphors are all very well, of course, but are no substitute for hands-on politics, for proper funding where it’s needed. But imagination helps. For all her fears and her combativeness, the precarity she had left behind and the safe world she subsequently inhabited, Marianne knew all along what sort of life she wanted, so she worked for it, and managed to get there – but she knew damn well that luck had nothing to do with it.