Solidarity in Globalization – Reflections on Challenges to the Swedish Model

Presentation by

Peter Weiderud

Peter Weiderud, President of the Christian Social Democrats of Sweden

at the Conference “Socialist Approaches to Armenia’s Challenges: Global Perspectives and Local Realities” organized by the ARF-Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian socialist party), Yerevan, March 25 2010

Your Excellencies,

Unger, ungerouhiner,

Shad ourach yev hebard yem vor Hayasdanoum em tzez hed aysor- genoches yev zavgis badmagan hayrenikoum.

It is with great honour and a lot of joy I participate in this important conference.  I am very much encouraged by your approach to reflect on the role of socialism in a changing society.

We are living in a time of drastic change. Globalization has radically changed the role of the nation state, which has become too small for some political challenges, too big for others.

In fact, the very concept of the nation state is changing. The nineteen century idea of one state for one nation or one people is gradually giving way for a modern concept, where we look at the state as a provider for democratic and human rights – including minority rights – for all people living inside its borders.

With growing multiculturalism and interdependence in every country, principles of human rights and international law are growing in importance and should guide our political reflection and actions.

One expression of this is the decisions by the Swedish Parliament two weeks ago, to work for political recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which was unanimously supported by my party after a similar decision by our party congress in November last year.

We are fully aware of the short term difficulties this will create in relation between your country and Turkey. But this decision is not about favouring one countries reading of history over another. It is based on the understanding that a solid future policy for human rights and international law has to be based on a trustworthy description of history. To seek and tell the truth is a necessity for reconciliation to work, for victims to overcome their traumas and to strengthen the collective responsibility to ensure that never again will the world witness genocide.

It is my hope, that all stakeholders involved, and in particular Armenians and Turks, can make use of the decision by the Swedish Parliament in the needed dialogue towards reconciliation.


I will use the experience of my home country to reflect on how the changing society might affect our political approach. My strong conviction is that Social Democratic values – of equality, justice and dignity for all – is more appreciated and needed than ever.

However, in order to fulfil them, we need to adapt some of the methods we developed in the modern, industrial, secular and homogenous 20th Century, to better fit in the globalized, trans-modern, knowledge based, post secular and heterogeneous 21st Century.

Sweden can be described as a model country for Social Democracy. Since we got the majority in 1933, we have had a Social Democratic Government 64 out of 77 years. The Swedish people very much think and act according to Social Democratic values. The Swedish Model is a Social Democratic model.

Foreign visitors can be fascinated by the Swedish Model.  The American conservative journalist P.J. O´Rourke, when visiting Sweden, found that it reminded him of Disneyland. He described the Swedish model like this:

Sweden takes care of its citizens from erection to resurrection but taxes them to death. And they love it.

However, in a context like this, it is important to focus on the political achievements from the perspective of the poor and the concerns for equality, justice and peace:

* a society with very small differences between rich and poor and no unemployment. Used to be true, but not for the last 20 years.

* a society with free health care and education for everyone. Still true, but both areas are struggling with budget cuts and structural change.

* the world’s lowest infant mortality rate. Still true.

* a country that has kept out of wars longer than any other country. Still true.

* a country which allocates one percent of GNP to development cooperation assistance. Still true, although some areas that used to be covered outside the development budget are now within the one- percent.

* a country which receives a large proportion of refugees – compared with other industrial countries. Still true.

* a country which tops the Human Development Index ranking for industrial countries. Today, Sweden is number 7.

* a society with high gender equality. Sweden is ranked number five in gender-related development and among the first with regard to gender empowerment measures, according to the UNDP.

* a strong independent voice, outside military blocs and most committed to the multilateral work of the UN. Still true, but much more complex today.

I was born in 1957 – as the son of a single mother who worked part-time. In most countries it would have been a difficult start, with no father to support the family. My mother received financial assistance in the form of something called maintenance advance, introduced by politically empowered women in the 1930s. The idea was that the state should assume the financial responsibilities of the father when there is no father or when he is unwilling to pay an allowance, in order to save the mother from financial difficulties and to avoid placing her in a humiliating position. The father, in return, is obliged to pay back to the state.

This is just one, small, but for me personally very important, example of the Swedish model. You can talk to almost any Swede and find similar experiences in their personal life. This is also the reason why Swedes use the word welfare with pride. To us, it indicates positive responsibility, while for example in the US, many people connect the word welfare with lack of responsibility.


When the Social Democrats came into power in 1933 the focus was on national identity, unity and citizen empowerment. The spirit of collectivism was stressed, rather than the individual as the basic unit of society.

The reformist orientation of Swedish Social Democracy stressed cooperation, pragmatism and compromise, rather than conflict with the capitalist class. (Agreement of Saltsjöbaden 1938). The term “people´s home” was introduced in a debate in the lower house of the Swedish Parliament by the Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson in 1935:

In the good home, equality, consideration, cooperation and helpfulness prevail. Applied to the great people´s and citizens´ home, this would mean the breakdown of all social and economic barriers, which now divide citizens into privileged and neglected, into dominating and dependent, into rich and poor, propertied and pauperized, plunderers and plundered.

Tax policy changed in order to finance welfare reforms and reduce differences between social classes. A new economic policy was formulated, later known as the Swedish middle way. As a result, unemployment remained below 3 per cent until the 1990s and within a few decades Sweden made the journey from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest in the world.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the welfare state developed and Government expanded its operations. The Social Democrats gained an unusually strong position in Swedish politics. Dialogue and mutual respect, rather than conflict and mistrust became the method for interaction between social classes. Labour peace became part of the Swedish identity.

As governing party, we chose an inclusionary rather than exclusionary strategy and shared policy-making power with other actors. The dialogue between government and interest organizations became institutionalized (corporatism) and solved problems in a pragmatic and quiet manner. The organizations argued rationally, presented expert opinions and evaluated policy proposals in a publicly responsible way.

Many of the tasks previously handled by collective organizations were taken over by government and they were willingly or unwillingly marginalized by the welfare state project. Some lost contact with social reality, with a declining member commitment as a result.

This, together with the international influences of the 1960s, created a reaction in the 1960s and 1970s. New political actors emerged who rejected the underpinnings of the Swedish model, and this led to government instability. Post-material values became more important. New left (and right) forces confronted Social Democratic hegemony. Solidarity with the Third World was upfront. Women mobilized for political recognition.

The public sector continued to grow, in particular expanding in health care, child care and education. This, besides fulfilling important needs, gave women the opportunity to enter the labour market. It helped to hold down the rate of unemployment to some 2 per cent, at a time when unemployment in other countries in Western Europe reached 7-10 per cent.

The last 20 years have experienced a re-pluralisation of Swedish civil society. New political parties have entered Parliament. New lines of conflict overshadow left-right political concerns. Organized business has decided to withdraw from corporatist exchange and corporatism has become a less desirable method for policy-making. Labour unions have difficulty in analysing the new challenges and renewing objectives and activities.

It is more difficult to finance the welfare state in a globalized economy. Public spending grew from 43 per cent of GNP in 1970 to 67 by 1982, and the increase in government spending could not be supported by economic growth. Today public spending is about half the GNP.

Sweden’s’ decision, in a referendum in November 1994, to become a member of the European Union also confirms that Sweden is gradually distancing itself from a position as different from other countries in Europe.


As President of the religious branch of my party, I have had reasons to reflect upon the ethical and spiritual roots of the Swedish model.

Sweden is often described as one of the most secularized countries in the world – a post-Christian society. The role of the church and religion has become marginalized in Swedish society. Very few people go to church. Few people care about what church-leaders say. They have limited importance in the Swedish public debate, although they have become slightly more relevant in recent years.

Does this mean that the Swedish people are less Christian or less religious than people in, for example, the US? My personal answer is no.

The main reason for the process of secularization in Sweden is that Swedish society, in modern times, has been able to solve the most important task of Christianity – caring for those who are in need and giving voice to the voiceless – without assistance from the organized church.

In, for example the US, the church congregation is vital for the fulfilment of a lot of practical needs that in Sweden are provided by the community – social assistance, child care, women´s “working” community, elderly care etc.

If the churches and religious organizations are important for people in their daily struggle, that naturally gives them an important position in society. However, that is only on a practical level. On a deeper level, it is much more complex.

The late Krister Stendahl, former Dean at Harvard University and bishop in Stockholm, has described Sweden as “in some ways (being) one of the most Christian countries you can imagine”, because the nation´s welfare and humanitarian undertakings perpetuate concerns that have preoccupied Christians for hundreds of years.

The Swedish model is mostly described as result of a political struggle, which has taken place during the last 100-150 years. However, if we are to look for ethical roots, we need to go back much further than that.

One aspect is that industrialization and urbanization came late to Sweden. That might have helped the village spirit of the agrarian Sweden to survive when the modern project was created. That village spirit differs from that in other countries in Europe. Sweden never developed a medieval social system marked by serfdom. A large section of the Swedish population consisted of independent farmers, which created the preconditions for strong communal relations.

The spirit of the old Swedish villages has been described in nostalgic terms by the Swedish author, Wilhelm Moberg:

The most positive aspect of the village community was its unwritten laws for mutual aid and assistance. Here their fellowship was without flaw. People behaved above all helpfully toward one another, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Anyone needing help must at once be given it. ´You help me, and tomorrow I´ll help you, ´ was the rule. ´Neighbours are brothers´ is an old Swedish saying. Whenever a villager fell ill or suffered an accident, when he could not sow his field or do his haymaking in time, then his neighbours got together and did it for him – without compensation.

You can identify the same moral logic in many of the speeches made by Social Democratic leaders when describing the “people´s home” and the Swedish model. This quote from Olof Palme could serve as one example:

What I mean is that a one-sided seeking after private, individual solutions is a retreat, because in our industrialised society no one can create an island, where he, independent of others, can build a secure life. We all of us depend on each other for our material standards, for our future security, for our cultural experience, for our personal growth.

Going back to pre-modern Swedish history we enter into a very different society. It was a mono-religious society. Everyone had to belong to the Lutheran state church, which had a very strong position.

There was no immigration to Sweden between 1850 and 1950, however a large emigration mostly to the US.  The national minorities – sami, roma, jews, finnish people and other groups – where not recognized. It was a nation made unusually homogeneous in language, ethnicity and culture – the opposite of a melting pot.

You might find theologians who could present some ethical roots to the Swedish model from the teaching of Luther, such as work ethics, individual responsibility or loyalty to the state. Although being a Lutheran myself, I do not consider that fruitful. The spiritual roots we are looking for and which are relevant, could also be found in Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or other traditions.

However, I believe that the Swedish homogeneity made it a lot easier to create the Swedish model. It made it possible for Swedes to regard themselves as being “one people” with the task of creating a common national project. Embarking upon the modern project, the Swedes did not need a threat or an enemy from outside to feel united.

This doesn’t mean that the Swedish model, once the power had been mobilized, couldn’t work in a multicultural context. After the Second World War Sweden changed rapidly, due to immigration. Those newcomers had no problems adjusting to the model and on the whole it is not people from other cultures who are challenging the model today.

As the Swedish model looses ground – partly because of forces beyond our control, and partly because of a new political climate – it presents a major challenge to the Social Democratic values.


Since the peak of the Swedish Model there are three global changes which are seriously affecting political and social affairs. These trends are here to stay and they are challenging some of the specific solutions of the political struggle of modernism and industrial society – the prime time of Social Democratic traditional approaches. The three changes are:

  1. Globalisation
  2. The limits of linear economic growth
  3. Changing values of the post-industrial society

Globalisation has given new hope for the future to many, but taken away hope for others. During the last 30 years there has been a dramatic increase of the international interdependence for economy, culture, technology and values. This has undermined political and democratic power, which instruments have remained national.

To meet the challenges of globalization it is necessary to strengthen the individual to better handle the growing pressure for change, as well as strengthen international cooperation. For a Swede, international solidarity in globalization is no longer limited to what we can do for others, but a necessity to develop our own society. In a globalised world, no country is big or rich enough to survive on its own.

As for the second trend, the Swedish economy has grown with between two and three percent annually for the last hundred years. This growth has been well distributed and made important priorities possible. Hence, economic growth in itself has been an important instrument for expressing true human dignity.

But the growth has been clumsy. An average Swede, like other westerners, is using about 50 kg of raw material every day to sustain his life. Extrapolating the 50 kg to a global level for everyone to enjoy the same kind of life, would need about10 planets, to supply enough raw materials and take care of the waste.

For many years we did not bother, but in the recent years Mother Earth, through climate change indications, has reminded us that we do not have 10 planets, but this only one. The fever of Mother Earth has to be addressed now, or the illness might not be possible to cure.

For a Swede, international solidarity, while understanding the limits of economic growth, means we no longer have the solutions that can be offered to solve the problems of others. We are all part of the problem that has to be solved together. It means that we have to show solidarity not only beyond borders, but beyond times, and include future generations.

Value change, finally, is a natural part of social and political change. When Sweden 100 years ago moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one, traditional values such as family, religion, hierarchy and tradition were replaced by rationality and legality, secularism, materialism and a strong sense of collectivism within society.

Today we are rapidly moving from an industrial society to a post-industrial knowledge based one. Subsequently, people are starting to think differently. Post-modern values are immaterial rather than material. They are searching for spirituality rather than stating secularism. They are anti-hierarchical and freedom oriented rather than collective. Justice is more of a moral issue than a legal one.

These changes are more visible among young than old. More among city people than rural, More with women than with men. More among well educated than among people with shorter education. Armenia is different than Sweden, but I understand you are facing a similar trend among, in particular, young urban professionals.

As a result, we are witnessing a new a political divide in Sweden between urban and rural areas. Urban people, in particular in the Stockholm region and university towns, think and act differently politically.

So far, the Social Democratic Party has been most uncomfortable with the value changes, for obvious reasons. The member base of my party reflects the industrial society, and the political visions as well as the practical solutions we formulated for the industrial society were so successful that it is painful to question them.

But the value changes themselves do not bring society towards the political right. The difference between right and left is not about practical solutions. It is about the quest for equality, justice and solidarity. And those values are not obsolete.

On the contrary, post-modern values are more gender equal, more environmentally concerned, more independent, more tolerant and more international compared to the values of the industrial society.

But post-modern values might mean that you express solidarity in a different way.


There is a great future for solidarity. I believe that the work we did together when solidarity was aiming at sovereignty and majority rule, as instruments for oppressed majorities to achieve hope, dignity and prosperity, has taught us a lot. However, we need to move on.

All countries are today multicultural and increasingly so. Although majority rule is necessary to ensure that a minority cannot oppress a majority, it is not necessarily sufficient to ensure the opposite. Democracy is sophisticated and complex. The interplay with human rights and the rights of minorities are critical. Democracy needs constantly to be refined, reviewed and regained.

As socialists we have learned that the market is a good and fruitful servant, but a dangerous master. Our response was national frame works to regulate the market. However, with a global economy we are facing a serious imbalance between economy and politics.

This imbalance has made some traditional social democratic methods insufficient, and other clumsy. The effects of the financial crisis have showed the necessity to improve international cooperation and regulation for the financial market. Previous proposals, like global taxes on financial transactions or an economic security council, are not socialist dreams any more, but common sense also to bankers.

Solidarity in globalization will built on the achievements made during the 20th century modernism, industrialism and nationalism, but go beyond some of the earlier achievements.

  • Future solidarity will be more impatient and more curious. It will be guided by an enlightened self interest, which in fact is spelled mutual interests with the future of mankind and with Mother Earth.
  • Future solidarity work will include new and different actors, even the business community. Consumer power will increase and businesses that take social and environmental responsibilities will be the most successful ones.
  • Future solidarity will be more diverse, sometimes even difficult to control. It will be more far reaching, covering the need to be in solidarity even with future generations.
  • Future solidarity will recognize the responsibility and the need for liberation of the individual. Education, culture and spiritual growth – assets that cannot be taken away from a human being when suddenly life changes, but on the contrary can help the individual to coop with the changes – will be more important.
  • Future solidarity will challenge particularly those who tend to limit its solidarity to the national arena. Future solidarity must strive not to get stuck in national perspectives but leap into a global sphere and establish new practices for trade, consumption, production and waste management.
  • Future solidarity will be crystal clear on the importance of democracy, human rights and international law. There are basically three ways to govern. It is letting the strongest decide. It is anarchy. And it is democracy within countries and international law between them. Both democracy and international law have shortcomings, but they are the only civilized way to handle international and national relations.
  • Future solidarity will have to include new generations of Christians, Muslims and Jews who anchored in their respective traditions are seeking a deeper sense of humanity and seriousness. True dialogue beyond cultural and religious lines which bring civilizations together instead of resisting the concept of one mankind is imminent, in particular after September 11 2001.

Human dignity for all should be a guiding principle and help us to se beyond ethnic, cultural or religious boundaries. The Danish priest, author and philosopher Nikolaj Grundtvig said that first of all I am a human being, only secondly Christian, Muslim or Jew. Europe’s violent history has taught us that the right way ahead is not via religious, ethnic or racial purity. Stating the superiority of our own group over others is a concept for oppression, insecurity and violence, which ultimately can turn into ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We need to develop national concepts which are generous and as flexible as the migration patterns are today. The road ahead goes via an inclusive nationalism that offers the same rights to all ethnicities – majorities and minorities – and to Muslims, Christians and Jews equally. It goes via active foreign policies based on respect for human rights and international law. Armenians know this better then any other people.

The decision in the Swedish Parliament two weeks ago is an expression of solidarity along these lines. It is a sign that Sweden’s and Armenia’s future are linked together and that you are not alone when asking for justice, questioning impunity and when taking brave initiatives for peace and reconciliation with your neighbors. A sign that we are building the future globalized world together.


We have reasons to be optimistic about the future for socialism. But not in a superficial way. The political challenges we are facing will not be solved by themselves. As socialists, we have reason to be proud and confident of our values, ideas and political goals. They have proven right and are shared by a growing number of people. At the same time, we might need to rethink some of our methods and approaches in order to better fulfil those values.

Our optimism should therefore go deep and help our reflection.

25 March 65 years ago the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in the prison cell in which he was put by the Nazis, waiting to be executed two weeks later for his participation in the conspiracy to get rid of Adolf Hitler. From that cell he wrote this about optimism:

The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.

Ungerner, be optimists!

I thank you for your attention.