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.
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.