The Swedish class system thrives in Visby

The Almedalen week of political debates might be a "democracy fest", but as such it also showcases the limits of democracy in a Sweden where socio-economic differences are on the rise. It has (middle-class) Ann Törnkvist choking on her own privilege.

The Swedish class system thrives in Visby

It’s been a week since my one-day whirlwind stop in Visby, but I can’t shake it off. It’s like a bad cold.

I think it might have been the white Converse that did it. Or the fact that they were teamed with a well-fitted black shift dress. An odd combo, any sartorialist may squawk, but an appropriate one at this odd politico week, where say-sos and finger-waggers pretend to be relaxed, but are all members of the same team of synchronized blaggers. The middle-class, which admittedly I’m a member of myself.

It’s not that the blagging isn’t well intended, it is even at times heartfelt. It’s that it’s nauseating that bothers me. Because it’s the middle-class staring down the class ladder, and trying to analyze the rungs “below” them despite their limited view.

I was somewhere about ten minutes into a debate about whether NGOs offering free help with homework after school could help integration when I started daydreaming about a stiff drink. The ever-adorable Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag was one of those sparring over the issue.

Ever adorable he may be, but happy he was not, as Social Democrat ombudsman Evin Cetin tore him to shreds. She pretended to be tender but it must have, at least in part, been a bit of an act because frankly… she looked ready to karate chop him in the cojones.

The poor woman from the NGO that was there to talk about her organization’s work with kids in underprivileged areas looked a bit alarmed by having her debate hijacked by an irritated Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) minister and a ferocious Social Democrat upstart. But hey, with elections around the corner, people are getting just a wee bit tense.

NGO woman tried though – she threw in some stats, slipped into that horrible media-trained mode, which turns normal bureaucrats into androids, spouting the party line, all while desperately trying to look like they’re having a good time. She tried. Good on her. Her media trainers were probably proud. But it all reeked of PR.

There’s nothing wrong with delivering a message clearly and succinctly. There is a problem when the message has so much subtext it would make anyone with half a gramme of intelligence choke on their freebie morning muffin (Almedalen is all about the freebies – mostly for middle-class people, because, well, you know, most people in Almedalen are middle-class – simple statistics).

They finally finished. Ullenhag stalked off, Cetin was visibly trembling with anger for being denied the chance to discuss the centre-right government’s new move to make private tuition tax deductible, which left-leaning critics have dubbed “social benefits for rich people”.

RELATED STORIES: Read The Local’s Peter Vinthagen Simpson’s Almedalen Dispatch series here

I meandered on to the next in a series of never-ending debate panels… and behold, the woman in her little black dress accessorized with the white Converse sneakers. There was something stage-managed about the odd fashion mix that had me suspicious from the start. It was very much “we’re all relaxed and in this together”, whereas Almedalen is not relaxed at all until someone opens the first bottle of rosé at about 5pm.

This second panel was statistically worse than the last as every single person on it was an “expert” talking “down”. And middle-class. The political scientist had the good fashion sense to look like a working-class lad, in jeans and plaid and truly ill-fitting shoes. But as he flirted with Converse lady before the debate, I’m unsure I can fully vouch for his taste.

So what do I want. Working-class quotas at Almedalen? Less free rosé and more beer? And why didn’t I stay away? I survived eight days of this stir crazy BS last year, you’d think it was enough to have me avoid the ferry there at any price. For the rest of my life…

Well, time to ‘fess up. I felt left out. It felt like one big happy party was taking place sans moi, and I was missing out. I wanted to get groovy with the cool kids. Just like high school all over again (although in high school I was smart enough to abhor the cool kids). So I cracked. And went for just one day, there and back.

I’m not proud of it. But damn, one does learn something at Almedalen. As long as you’re aware that it is something, and not everything. Almedalen is about setting the tone for upcoming political battles, important with one year left to the next general elections. Almedalen is where the party leaders’ rhetorical skills are put to the test.

Does Almedalen say anything about the real Sweden? About lay-offs and substance abuse, about mobsters and puppy-smugglers? It does… but in statistical terms, in spread sheets and well-prepared speeches… In anecdotal evidence, played up by the well-meaning ruling elite. Second or third hand evidence mostly, although some on-the-ground organizations make an effort to “go up against the establishment” as a youth worker Tweeted me a few days before the political bonanza was set to kick off.

And kick off it does. And while it may inspire you to kick yourself in your privileged (metaphorical) cojones, it is also a bitter sweet pill. Almedalen is a celebration of democracy, but also a warning signal about its structural flaws. Flaws that we need to take seriously. Surely, the voice of the people has to be more inclusive than this?

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

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Swedish PM Löfven to skip Almedalen politics festival

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has again chosen not to attend the Almedalen political week this year.

Swedish PM Löfven to skip Almedalen politics festival
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at Almedalen in 2018. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

The PM told newspaper Aftonbladet that he would not take part in the event, which gathers political leaders and grass roots activists from across the country.

Taking place every July since 1968, Almedalen is a unique festival where political parties, businesses, media, and other organizations gather for a week of seminars and events.

“Almedalen has become too much the realm of lobbyists and business interests and not enough a place for popular movements and individual citizens,” Löfven said to the newspaper.

Instead of appearing at Almedalen, Löfven will embark on a tour of the country, as he did in 2017.

“I want to see all of our country and hear about the dreams, problems and challenges faced by different parts of the nation, and shape policy based on that,” he told Aftonbladet.

Social Democrat economic spokesperson Magdalena Andersson, the Minister for Finance, will take Löfven’s place on the stage at the week-long political festival.

Almedalen political week is scheduled to take place between June 30th and July 7th.

READ ALSO: Almedalen: Sweden's summer politics extravaganza in numbers