The Mercy Killing of Socialism, launched so hopefully throughout Central and Eastern Europe in 1991, has failed. Most visibly, Polish voters returned the communists to parliamentary control in 1993, while Russia swung toward a version of National Socialism. Even in the smaller but symbolically important nation of Sweden, the “conservative revolt” sparked by right-wing election victories in September 1991 has ground to a halt.
For a while, all things seemed possible. as Swedish voters appeared to repudiate the widely admired “Third Way.” The Social Democrats, who had ruled Sweden with few interruptions from 1972 to 1991, found their voting strength reduced to 37 percent, the lowest figure since the 1920’s. Today, however, polls show the socialists claiming 50 percent of would-be voters, a historic high, while the “Green” and “Left” (read communist) parties pull another 7 percent. Meanwhile, the four-party “bourgeois coalition” government—composed of the Moderate Party (formerly the Conservative Party), the Center Party (formerly the Agrarian Party), the Peoples Party, and the Christian Democrats—has lost nearly a fifth of its support, falling to 38 percent. With elections set for early autumn, few doubt that socialism will soon be back in control.
This conservative coalition blames its troubles on a four-year-long recession, caused by past socialist excesses and the crushing burden of the welfare state. There simply has not been enough time, they claim, to cut through the tangled legacy of 60 years of socialist intervention into private life. Yet the deeper problem may lie within the government itself, where a dominant neoconservative vision has made a true assault on the bloated state apparatus impossible. Accepting the welfare state as an inevitable and necessary aspect of postindustrial life and buying into the overarching principle of equality, these intellectuals work only to reposition state power in line with “traditional values,” crafting their own version of Big Government Conservatism.
In family policy, for example, the coalition government has done nothing to dismantle the web of child allowances, daycare entitlements, housing subventions, and parent insurance—all of which make single-parenthood very attractive (over half of Swedish births are still out-of-wedlock), marriage legally and economically inconsequential, and family autonomy but a memory. The government’s major initiative has been to propose a new vardnadshidrag, or childcare allowance, for all families with children ages one to three, including those with a parent at home. While resting in theory on “family values,” this plan emerged only as an addition to existing schemes and costs, not as a substitute. As such, it marks little more than a deepened level of state intrusion into what remains of private households.
Even more telling was the October 1993 report of the government’s “Daddy Group,” appointed to review family policy in light of fathers’ interests. Did these “conservatives” plot some resistance to the liberal feminism that had revolutionized Swedish social life in the 1960’s and 70’s? Did they dream of some timid reassertion of patriarchy? To the contrary, the panel urged new steps to engineer the full victory of gender equality within each family. The Daddy Group’s central recommendation was a radical change in Sweden’s paid-parental-leave program.
At present, parents can claim up to 12 months of leave from work after the birth of a child, receiving 90 percent of the insured value of their income (up to $2,700 a month or $32,400 for the year, tax free) and a guaranteed job of equal merit on their return. This generous benefit has, not surprisingly, become wildly popular among younger Swedish women, and baby prams are once again a common sight in Stockholm. (Indeed, Sweden’s birthrate has climbed 30 percent over the last eight years, making this nation one of the few in Europe with above-replacement fertility.)
Accordingly, conventional politicians fear to touch the program, despite the crippling burdens it places on both the state budget and the private business sector. Feminist leaders, however, have fretted that paid leave has been utilized overwhelmingly by women. Parents themselves may decide how to split the 12 months, and the vast majority choose to have the mother at home for nearly the full period.
Most people would see this as a minor triumph of common sense or nature over egalitarian nonsense, but not the “bourgeois” government’s Daddy Group. It recommended a change in the law to require that at least three months of the paid leave be taken by the father, and its long-term goal is to mandate that the leave be equally shared. As one member of the panel—Andreas Cadgren of the Center Party—explained, it was time to toss the notion of parental choice “into the garbage can.” All other forms of social insurance, he noted, ignore family bonds such as marriage. Allowing parents to opt exclusively for maternal care for their children was “old-fashioned” in an age when the individual’s relationship to the egalitarian state was all that really mattered.
Meanwhile, the one Swedish political party with a willingness to tackle the welfare state head on—the New Democrats—appears to be dissolving. Holding 25 seats (and the balance of power) in Sweden’s parliament after the 1991 vote, this newly organized party mobilized populist anger over high taxes, uncontrolled immigration, and an unresponsive political elite. While the New- Democrats were not invited to join the ruling coalition, the new government relied on their votes to survive. For a period in 1992, New Democracy claimed the loyalty of nearly 12 percent of Swedish voters, and it seemed on the verge of still greater success.
But then came trouble. Political dealmaking over budget cuts began to backfire, while vicious assaults on party members as “racists” and “xenophobes” mounted in the media. Badly shaken, several of the weaker New Democrats in parliament denounced their party and defected to the coalition government (to applause in the press), while the party’s leaders—Count Ian Wachtmeister and amusement park-owner Bert Kadsson—worked with diminishing success to weave together a constituency ranging from “rednecks” and medical doctors to libertarians. Last summer, Wachtmeister suggested that Islamic mosques should not be a regular feature of the future Swedish skyline. Not long after, someone put a torch to just such a mosque, and the newspapers went ballistic. In August, a prominent early party member, Lutheran minister Kenneth Landclius, launched a verbal attack on New Democracy, labeling it “antidemocratic” and “foreigner-hating.” As he told Svenska Dagbladet. “New Democracy envisions a Swedishness that cannot be found, because most of our cultural vitality is imported.” Meanwhile, Karlsson’s business empire fell into bankruptcy, and a battered and exhausted Wachtmeister resigned as party leader last January, leaving the New Democrats in turmoil and with a meager four percent support in the opinion polls. Promising party initiatives, including family policy reforms based on tax-relief and diminished government, have withered away.
So one may count Swedish socialism among the political Undead, both in the form of a reenergized Social Democratic Party and in the more opportunistic guise of the Daddy Group. It stalks the streets of Stockholm once again, looking for what little blood remains among a fearful, dependent, and ever-so-politically-correct citizenry confident that other would-be Doctor Von Helsings dare not raise their heads.