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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Who gets a place in Sweden’s modern ‘Folkhem’?

It has been nearly 100 years since the concept of Folkhemmet, meaning "the people's home", was coined by the Social Democrat prime minister Per Albin Hansson. Our contributor Ankita Sharma fears that the far-right Sweden Democrats' moves to adopt and adapt the concept risks destroying everything it once stood for.

OPINION: Who gets a place in Sweden's modern 'Folkhem'?
Somali people in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. Photo: TT

The concept of Folkhemmet (the people’s home) was first developed in 1928 by Per Albin Hansson, then-leader of the Social Democratic Party.

For him, it was a metaphor for a society that was politically organised; a home secured and cared for on the basis of harmony, mutual compassion, helpful cooperation, and equality.

The idea was born out of the need to stop the mass emigration of Swedes to the US, by drafting policies that gave all citizens equal socio-economic rights, subsidised healthcare, and the chance to have a healthy work-life balance.

In the following decades, the concept became the rallying point for focussed effort on a host of welfare reforms rooted in socialism to abolish socio-economic inequalities and create a decent home and life for every person in Sweden.

It was also this policy that made Sweden a desirable place for immigrants who come from countries where the state often oppressed the weak by withholding support.

READ: ‘Folkhemmet’ – how a revolutionary political idea changed Sweden for good (thelocal.se)

Per Albin Hansson makes a May 1st radio broadcast. Photo: Bertil Norberg

By the 1980s, the folkhem was considered one of the Social Democrats’ biggest successes. More than just a symbol of the Swedish welfare state, It defined Swedish identity, and Swedes’ understanding of themselves as a nation. 

But in September, a new Moderate-led government was voted into power in Sweden, the first ever with the support of the far-right Sweden Democrats, a party that has grown from having 5.7 percent of the vote when it entered parliament in 2010 to being the second-largest party after the Social Democrats today. 

To get there, they have tried to reappropriate the memory of Folkhemmet.

The Swedish Democrats’ party leader Jimmie Åkesson laid out his vision of The Modern Folkhem in his 2018 speech to the nation, transforming a Swedish political symbol of social and economic inclusion into a weapon for excluding immigrants. 

Åkesson’s Modern Folkhem is one that proposed strict punishment of criminal activity, provision of care for the sick and elderly and citizens mutually obliging to the standard social contract and who pay their dues without hesitation. On paper, it’s a return to a Swedish welfare state built on democracy and equality. It is socialism with a dash of conservatism.

The big difference is that not everyone is invited.

For Åkesson, the immigration policies that helped shape Swedish society’s multicultural fabric are incompatible with his “principled programme” for the modern folkhem where, the party states, “national cohesion” and “joint identification” are key.

Immigrants to Sweden can take part, but only on strict conditions.

“In our modern people’s home, you are welcome to live no matter where in the world you have your background”, Åkesson famously said. “But if you’re going to settle here, then you have to have the will and ambition to become one of us.”

But the monocultural, monoethnic society the party wants for its new “home for its people” means restoring an imagined state that has never in fact existed.

Calling Sweden a monocultural or monoethnic society once meant erasing the centuries-long presence of the indigenous people of Sweden: the Sami population, as well as the Roma or Sinti peoples.

Multiculturalism was a point of pride in Sweden until quite recently, when the changing political tides amplified the Sweden Democrats’ call for restricting immigration and severely punishing crimes, with Muslims sometimes explicitly blamed for social problems. 

By selectively picking instances and contexts that played on the public’s fears, the party created a sense of urgency that captured the entire political debate. By this year’s Swedish elections, both the right-wing Moderates and the left-wing Social Democrats were echoing Sweden Democrat rhetoric. 

It is also important to note that Sweden’s social problems in the 1920s were worse than anything the country is facing today, and yet it was then that one of the world’s most successful welfare states was born.

Sweden Democrats might argue that too many of those who have moved to Sweden do not support themselves, that the original folkhemmet involved a duty to contribute as well as receive, and that the combined policies of open immigration and a generous welfare state are not working in Sweden’s favour.

It is impossible to say how Per Albin Hansson would have viewed today’s multicultural Swedish society. It is natural, then, after all this time, that his policies might need to be revised to suit the present, to tackle more immediate issues of the future, as Folkhemmet policies once did.

As citizens, we should recognise multiculturalism as a necessary result of globalisation and recognise the good that has come out of Sweden’s open-armed approach towards immigrants. Narratives matter, especially those created in the political sphere. Their ramifications can alter not just international but also domestic socio-economic policies.

It is sad to see how the tenets of folkhemmet that once united Swedish society in harmony have been twisted to the point of destroying everything the concept once stood for.

Such an aggressive reversal of current immigration policies, targeting immigrants and refugees of a particular faith and origin and then calling that a return to folkhemmet ideals in the same breath ruins the legacy of Per Albin Hansson’s policies and the foundation of Sweden’s compassionate reputation in the modern world. 

With a little more empathy, Sweden’s political parties could make the idea of folkhemmet into a rallying cry which could once again be used to unite rather than divide people.

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INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW: ‘Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger’

Andreas Cervenka, the author of the hit book Girig-Sverige, or Greedy Sweden, is, you can safely say, not the cheeriest of economic commentators.

INTERVIEW: 'Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger'

The situation the country is in, Cervenka explains in this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, is in some ways worse even than what it was in the run-up to the 1990-1994 Swedish financial crisis. 

“In the beginning of the 90s, we had a huge real estate and housing bubble that burst and sent Sweden into the deepest financial crisis since the Second World War, and we’re still actually feeling the effects of that,” he says. “What’s happening now is roughly the same, only the numbers are bigger.” 

Girig-Sverige, which won Cervenka Sweden’s most prestigious journalism prize last year, tells the story of how the decision to scrap a string of taxes on wealth and assets combined with years of zero or negative interest rates to make Sweden dramatically more unequal as a society, while turning its people and companies into the most indebted in the world after Hong Kong and Luxembourg.

For Cervenka, the Riksbank bears a lot of the blame for this depressing development.

“All parts of the state should be evaluated on their results. And the result is: have they fulfilled the target of inflation? No, in practically no period over the last 15 years have they been able to stabilise at around 2 percent. Has something else happened in society? Well, we have become the most indebted country in the world.” 

The bank, he believes, has been wrong to turn a blind eye to the extreme inflation in assets like property and equities, while focusing exclusively on consumer prices. 

“There’s obviously a lot of talk about inflation these days. But in fact, we have had inflation in Sweden for quite a long time, not in consumer prices, but in assets,” he explains.

“That’s rising prices of property, stocks, land or all kinds of financial assets, and that’s been quite explosive for a long time, which benefits people who own assets, and specifically people who own assets that they financed with debt.”

Normally, central banks only use negative interest rates as a last resort when the economy is in a deep recession, but the Riksbank has had them in place while the economy has been booming and unemployment low, changing the balance between rich and poor in Sweden.

“The central bank is supposed to be an apolitical institution. But low interest rates do create inequality in the way that they actually transfer money from people who don’t own things, who don’t have mortgages, to people who do. And that’s been a huge transfer of wealth.” 

The central bank has not acted alone, however. Parties of both left and right have acted to reduce the taxation on assets. 

“Sweden is still a very high-tax country when it comes to taxation of labour. We’re not number one in the world, but we’re still in the top five. But when it comes to taxes on assets and property, we’ve been abolishing a lot of taxes,” he explains.

Someone making a million kronor from dividends and rising stock prices would only have to pay about 7 percent tax on that income, he estimates, whereas someone making a million kronor in salary would pay about 35 percent. 

For Cervenka, it is not only the indebtedness in society which is a problem, but the way gross inequality slows economic growth and leads to rising crime and health disparities, while the near-impossibility of getting rich through earning a salary skews people’s choices. 

“The difference between a very high taxation of labour and relatively low taxation on assets definitely alters your incentives as a citizen,” he says. “It’s been much more profitable to own a house over the last 10 years than to work.” 

Soaring house price inflation has also led to segregation, with the young, immigrant populations, and other groups priced out of upmarket parts of Sweden’s cities. 

“If you look at the centre of Stockholm, you can almost have a sign saying, ‘If you’re young, don’t bother coming here, because you can’t afford it’,” he says. 

“It also affects, you know, ‘can you afford to have kids?’, ‘What kind of job should you be looking for?’ If you’re living in Stockholm, if you are a teacher, a nurse or a policeman, it’s almost like an economic sacrifice because the cost of living is so extremely high.”

“In the US, they talk a lot about gated communities, and in Sweden, we have that, but we have something much more effective than walls or barbed wire, we have high square metre prices.” 

Those who haven’t managed to get a mortgage or benefit from the low rates have ended up crammed together in the same segregated areas, he adds, fuelling some of the problems Sweden has had with gang crime. 

“The people who don’t own anything, they all stay in the same area and that creates some social problems and just this crazy tension in the fabric of society.” 

So will the economy have a hard landing? Cervenka believes the high level of indebtedness, both in the population and in the corporate sector, makes Sweden vulnerable. 

“I would say we are one of the most rate-sensitive economies in the whole world,” he says. “The Swedish state has very low debt, but the private sector is very highly indebted, so the rate increases have much more impact on Sweden than on a lot of other countries in Europe.” 

A huge proportion of many people’s income already goes to paying off their mortgages, he adds. 

“A lot of people in Sweden are practically working for their banks now, because that’s where the the lion’s share of their income goes. We talk a lot about how the price of eggs or butter has increased 20, 30, 40 percent. But interest payments have maybe gone up by 300 to 400 percent – four or five times what you used to pay – and a that’s a huge increase.” 

In the near future, Cervenka predicts, we will discover whether Sweden’s economy is in for a soft landing or a devastating crash.

“Right now, the markets are betting that we can avoid the worst-case scenario. But the jury’s still out, and I think the next six months will be quite crucial.” 

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