Sweden: the world’s most equal country?

Sweden: the world's most equal country?
"When you're used to being privileged, equality feels like oppression." Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT
Sweden is universally thought of as an equality paradise. Economic historian Erik Bengtsson now disproves the belief that this Swedish egalitarianism is rooted in a centuries-old tradition: "Sweden used to excel in inequality."

At a party conference in 1969, Olof Palme, the Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden, referred to the British socialist RH Tawney when he said that “the health of society coincides with the destination its face is directed towards”. Palme noted: “The face of the Swedish Social Democracy must be turned to a future characterised by equality and free exchange between people.”

Palme and his government tried to live up to this ideal. In the second half of the 20th century, the country became famous for its 'Swedish model', a kind of middle ground between socialism and capitalism, resulting in Sweden being not only one of the most prosperous but also one of the most politically, socially and economically equal nations in the world.

This image, of Sweden being a paradise for egalitarianism, has remained. Sweden: it's the country of gender equality, of free childcare and endless parental leave, of fathers pushing prams, it's a country with an outspoken “feminist government”, with free education and healthcare, an extensive social safety net, no corruption to speak of.

The country where, in times of corona, the government hardly enforces anything on its citizens but instead relies on individuals' own responsibility. The authorities, in effect, subscribe to the principle that the majority of people possess both the morality and ability to make the best possible decisions for themselves and their surroundings. They subscribe, in short, to the idea of a community of equals.

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Former Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme. Photo: Scanpix/TT

This Swedish egalitarian image is still largely in place even though inequality, at least when it comes to finances, has been on the rise for decades. Sweden is the number one OECD country where income inequality is growing fastest. Since the early 1990s, the Swedish government has no longer prioritised equality above all. The redistribution of resources is rapidly declining; inheritance taxes have been abolished altogether, capital taxes have been reduced, and social insurances are no longer what they used to be.

The Swedish Gini-coefficient, a statistical measure that expresses inequality as a number between 0 (everyone has the same income) and 100 (all resources go to one person), rose from 21.2 to 32.2 between 1975 and 2017. The Scandinavian state now ranks 11th on the list of most egalitarian OECD countries, performing worse than, for example, Slovenia, Belgium and Austria.

Yet in Sweden – and beyond – there remains this general assumption that egalitarianism was, somehow, “Sweden's fate”. This idea has for example been put forward by the historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh in their book Är svensken människa? (Are Swedes human?).

Sweden's recent, egalitarian history, the two argue, is the natural consequence of an individualism rooted in the country's original farmers' society. The Swedish peasant has always been independent and the state existed by virtue of maintaining and facilitating that independence. The celebrated Swedish welfare state is said to be rooted in this age-old tradition of individualism, egalitarianism and the unusually tolerant relationship between the government and the people.

This idea of Sweden's exceptional and historic equality has been widely accepted and repeated. Where the French have their arrogance, the Spanish their passion, the Dutch their thrift and the Germans their punctuality, the Swedes proudly possess the stereotype of egalitarianism.

In an effort to trace this “exceptional equality” and thereby creating, in the words of British historian Mary Hilson, a “national myth”, historians, political scientists and anthropologists have turned to this “extremely peaceful peasant society” in which the people – that is, the farmers – enjoyed political influence and where local and national policies were the result of compromises and consensus.

But the Swedes have to look for a new origin story. The economic historian Erik Bengtsson, a researcher at Lund University, undermines the image of an “egalitarian tradition” and a “primordial equality” in his recently published book Världen's jämlikaste land? (The world's most equal country?).


A manifestation for 'welfare without profit' in Stockholm, 2012. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Basing his research on previously unused sources, including archival documents of income and capital taxes, combined with a comparative study of the political history of various European countries, Bengtsson concludes that until the beginning of the 20th century, Sweden had no unique position of egalitarianism at all. Quite the opposite: Sweden, in fact, “excelled in inequality”.

Starting with Sweden's long-time lack of democracy; when in 1870 countries like France and Germany already had universal male suffrage and in most other European nations at least the majority of the male population were entitled to vote, only every fifth Swedish man could participate in elections. Up till the early 20th century, voting rights in Sweden were reserved for those with an above-average income and capital. The greater your capital, moreover, the more votes you could cast and therefore the greater your influence on political matters.

Instead of a democracy (one individual, one vote), Sweden could long be defined as a plutocracy (one crown, one vote).

It is therefore hardly surprising that until the early 1900s the country was both undemocratic and experienced extreme economic inequality. The richest 10 percent of the population owned close to 90 percent of all assets. Given that the same upper class enjoyed a power monopoly, the system was destined to maintain this inequality. The raison d'etre of the “simple people” – the large majority – was to provide cheap labour and fill the pockets of their superiors.

This ancient regime, Bengtsson told The Local, was a “system based on the following principle: towards the wealth of the nobility and the misery of the possessionless”.

Of course: Sweden has, at some point, leveled out these gross inequalities. But this process was by no means inevitable nor dated back to several centuries in the past. According to Bengtsson, this equalising trend surfaced “late and quickly”. “Precisely because the system had been so exclusive for such a long time, those who were left out could manage to form a broad coalition for democratisation.”

This coalition of opponents of the elitist regime grew into a massive labour movement, eventually mobilising in the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SAP). When universal suffrage was introduced in 1919 and the old government suffered huge losses in the next parliamentary elections, the newly appointed social-democratic government turned around the course of history. The new administration swiftly developed a system of redistribution; one of capital, income and political participation. The Social Democrats helped Sweden, so to speak, become “the world's most equal country”.

So: that's Sweden's history of equality in a nutshell. But what's the story behind this idea of an “egalitarian peasant society”? And how come that the idea of ​​an age-old egalitarianism has been able to firmly establish itself in Sweden's collective memory?

Let's first address this saga of equal farmers. Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, still used this assumed past during a debate early last year, when he said that “Swedish equality links us to our history of free, independent peasants”.

Turning to archival sources of for example the region Skåne, Bengtsson found that those farmers who had owned land had indeed been relatively equal throughout the centuries. They had had a degree of influence in the local government and were free in the sense that they had no superiors to answer to.

It's the word 'ownership' that is crucial here: only those farmers who worked their own land had some political say. Those with property – land, a farm, savings – could participate in the local plutocracy.

But this group of land-owning farmers turned out to be in the minority; the majority of the population was frälsebonde or a “nobility farmer”, who lived and worked on the land of the powerful and rich. These frälsebönder had neither property nor voting rights and were ruled by those with capital. By the mid-1600s, the nobility made up 0.5 percent of the Swedish population yet owned about 65 percent of all farmable land.

Sweden, in short, had a patriarchal and feudal class society – as elsewhere in Europe. Inequality was embedded in the system: the elites had privileges, while the majority predominantly had duties.

This class society persisted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile, economic inequality only increased. The class of possessionless farm and factory workers made up about 60 percent of the population in 1850. Many of these people lived in abject poverty. So much for Sweden's egalitarian farmers' society.

Why then is this idea so persistent?

“It's a romantic notion of ​​our national origins,” Bengtsson said, and part of the national self-image that sets Sweden apart from the rest of Europe. From the Romantic era onwards, this representation of a simple but free Swedish country dweller appears in prose and poetry, in the visual arts, in folklore.

“In modern history, this self-image has been taken up by politicians,” Bengtsson said. During the interwar years, the Social Democrats referred to this version of the past to convince the population that their socialist views were not strange or frightening (read: German or Russian), but grounded in traditional Swedish ideals.


A Social Democratic party congress in 1969, with in the background the text: increased equality. Photo: Ragnhild Haarstad/TT

In the 1910s, Sweden broke from the official ancient regime's ideology when the popular movements that had emerged in the decades prior made their way into the political arena. During the revolutionary year 1917 hundreds of thousands of Swedes took to the streets in their demand for “bread and democracy”. The old elites were forced to implement universal voting rights, which would eventually result in their own downfall.

The fact that the Social Democratic Workers' Party – the only real political choice for the massive numbers of new voters – was subsequently able to implement reforms and a policy of redistribution, was possible in part because of the existing government apparatus. Though undemocratic, the state had long been well-established and was highly efficient in controlling and taxing its subjects.

Once the Social Democrats came to power they gained access to this efficient apparatus with which they, in turn, could organise and change society. The new government used the pre-existing tax system to redistribute income and property, with, for example, the introduction of progressive capital taxes. The trade unions meanwhile were paramount in increasing the workers' wages. A generous social security system was introduced and segregation in the educational system was abolished.

“The continuity in Sweden's history is not one of equality,” said Bengtsson, “but of government capacity”.

In the last few decades, the redistribution of income and capital has declined dramatically. So much so, that several political researchers wonder whether Sweden can even still be defined by a Social Democratic model. They think the country might be headed for a system approximating that of, for example, the USA.

Only to illustrate that equality has been a political construction rather than an inevitable fate. What follows is that equality can equally be reversed with political means. Egalitarianism is not some innate disposition; it requires political willpower, decisiveness and prioritisation – all of which seem hard to come by these days. 


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