By Jonathan M. Feldman, Posted, August 7, 2015; Revised August 8, 2015
The racist and demagogic poster campaign aimed at Swedish tourists and centered in the Östermalm undergound station is part of a larger problem which is the repressive tolerance of Sweden’s political elite towards not only racism, but the inequality in media, political and economic power. Groups like the peace movement, anti-racist organizations, environmentalists and mass transportation advocates have less power. Even when these groups are granted access to the media, media representation proves insufficient for sufficiently accumulating power to address underlying problems. While parts of the elite have tried to represent a decent and fair Sweden, the actions of SL (Storstockholms Lokaltrafik) and its apologists reveal a rather indecent Sweden. SL is the transport agency running the greater Stockholm collective transportation system. The larger problem, however, is not just racism in Swedish society and inequality in the distribution of resources, but also the ideological system of repressive tolerance and displacement which also supports militarism and perpetuates myths about democracy and equity. Simply put, repression is tolerated and tolerance becomes perverse as the language of rights, lawyers and judiciaries is used to legitimate a system that cannot properly police its own racism.
While the recent campaign against the posters launched by various activists was an important first step in trying to reform this society, there are limits to this initiative and its political language which are important to describe. The activists have to be given much credit for broadening the understanding of the limits of SL’s policies and actively helping to challenge these policies and SD propaganda. Ultimately, this campaign was an important counter-reaction to the repressive tolerance of public racism, but a broader kind of discourse is needed to transform SL, challenge SD, and ultimately remake Swedish society.
This discourse involves an exposition of the links between Swedish mythology, militarism and racism, each tied to a concentration of media, political and economic power in the hands of the Swedish power elite. This elite sustains its power by filtering out larger realities and justifying itself in the name of established laws, democracy, free speech and sometimes even gender equality, even if that sometimes involves using women to help sell military products to developing nations. We also see that one key problem is that ethics takes the form of an investment in the mainstream corporate society which helps to regulate advertising, even when such corporate-financed regulators potentially find fault with SD’s campaign. The background issues show us how the political and cultural elites’ language of free speech, free commerce and openness is also tied to both militarist and racist cultures.
Even when an investment form of ethics (to be described below) is not applied, the Swedish legal system and politicians who help shape it have been largely ineffective in limiting the political trajectory of the racist far right or even continuing racist attacks. The impression one has is that the far right recedes when economic times are good and when the integration system works. Given new economic developments, expanded immigration and the limits of the current integration model, racism and xenophobia are on the rise. One key problem is the unemployment which contributes to SD’s vote share and power. The other is the absence of a discourse supporting policies that would link immigrants to higher qualified jobs, particularly for persons with immigrant backgrounds who don’t come to Sweden with advanced skills. The families of such persons also potentially risk marginalization, even if second generation Swedes can do better on the labor market. This discourse about integrating such new Swedes into the higher qualified labor market is not an important part of the immigration debate, existing only at the margins. Nor do we see a significant debate about de-industrialization and how that might affect the rise of both SD and the limits of economic equality. While newspapers like Dagens Nyheter have shown linkages between SD’s rise and layoffs from companies, they don’t really explain what could be done about this. If one wants to know why highly educated persons also support SD, one has to consider the logic of displacement explained below.
The Logic of Displacement: A Joint Enterprise of Racists, Mainstream Society and the Left
The political, economic and cultural elites of Sweden can be defined by: the top politicians, the heads of various agencies and their lieutenants, the heads of corporations and trade organizations, the leading newspapers of the country, the large mass media outlets, the dominant discourses in the university system, and a core group of spokespersons who repeatedly show up in public media commentary. There have been past investigations of this power structure and some have called for a new study of the power elite. In any case, the elite have created and sustained very powerful displacement systems vis-à-vis Sweden being: a) militaristic and b) racist. By “displacement” I mean a system which pushes something to the sidelines by emphasizing something else in its place, i.e. Sweden as anti-militaristic and anti-racist. I will use selected examples to illustrate a larger phenomena at work. It is true that these elites do not work in entirely the same way at the same time. There is no one homogeneous consensus that works that same way among all people at the same time. Nevertheless, clear patterns emerge in history regarding what can best be referred to as “sins of omission.” In an earlier study, I have thoroughly documented these sins when it comes to Swedish foreign policy.
Mainstream Society and Displacement
These displacements work in the following fashion. First, the mainstream society covers up its own dirty laundry by using the language of “objectivity,” law, bureaucratic procedures, and ignoring or aborting the language of morality, critical engagement, sociological principles concerning racism or militarism, or the historical legacy of a Sweden which partially tolerated its own indigenous Nazi movement and anti-Semitism or ties to German defense contractors (within limits). In the academic system, there is a refrain among many academics to strive for “objectivity” and to reveal various competing intellectual positions. This is partially desirable but usually what is ignored is the greater media and representational power of orthodox and liberal elite opinion. Also, pure objectivity is impossible as every choice to use a book, article or film in a course necessarily involves a point of view regarding what should be included and excluded and what the standard of objectivity is, e.g. does showing “both sides” assume that there are only two sides, when the number of different opinions is much greater than two factions, with great heterogeneity within the Left as well as Right. Another thing that is ignored is the soundbite culture that dilutes and marginalizes more complex arguments in the mass media.
Sometimes the worst aspects of racism and arms exports are addressed by half measures, or measures which limit but do not obliterate the cancer of anti-Semitism, racism, objectification of minority groups and militarism. The cancer then resurfaces and expands, particularly when it can be joined to the host of economic crises and scarcity politics or economic opportunism tied to profit making (see below). The language used by politicians to defend this system sometimes centers on law and procedures. Yet, these laws often reflect the accumulation of political power by persons who sweep problems under the rug. Or, in some cases the architecture of really existing laws turns out to be insufficient to address racist problems, hence it functions as a kind of alibi system. At different periods in its history, Jewish activists concerned with Nazis or anti-Semitic practices in Sweden have tried to put pressure on the country. Among such activists in places like the United States, or holocaust hunters in Israel, the repressive tolerance of Swedish elites is not accepted and often condemned. This phenomena is echoed in the fact that elite outlets like The New York Times are not bound by the moral and political code of Swedish nationalism, having their own American nationalist code to abide by. This shows up in the history of Times coverage of Sweden’s immigration and foreign policies.
Kristoffer Tamsons, the Chairman of the Traffic Committee of the Stockholm County Council, the group that is responsible for overseeing SL, argued: “when it comes to political advertising, it is our fundamental laws, the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, which controls what gets said and appear in public space.” These “fundamental laws” have sustained repressive tolerance, tied to a political system that continually substitutes law for moral judgments tied to any critical thinking. The failures of the Swedish legal system to irradicate anti-Semitism should be proof enough for the interested reader. These failures are not just evident in the problems of Jews in contemporary Malmö, but also extend to the history of Jews in 20th Century Sweden.
Sweden never accommodated the worst aspects of an indigenous Nazi presence, although it did create great leeway for various anti-Semitic activities. This is made clear in a study by Heléne Lööw, called “Incitement of Racial Hatred,” published in the Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Crimonology and Crime Prevention, Vol. 1, Issue 2: 2000: 109-129. When it came to anti-Semitism, “there was no legislation on the incitement of racial hatred during the period between the two world wars,” although anti-Semites, racists and National Socialists were “sentenced for calumny or disorderly conduct for what today would be considered as incitement of racial hatred” (Lööw, 2000: 109). The case of Einar Åberg, a well-known anti-Semite, illustrates how the legal system did not quite tolerate yet made possible his activities. In 1942, Åberg was prosecuted for anti-Semitic calumnies and utterance. The police court, however, rejected this prosecution, leading the prosecutor to appeal to the Stockholm Court of Appeal, which then “changed the sentence to a fine for disorderly conduct.” In the period between 1941 and 1945, Åberg “was sentenced on nine different occasions and fined for his anti-Semitic agitation” (Lööw, 2000: 110-111). Sweden was also not terribly cooperative of efforts to hunt down living Nazis during the period from 1986 to 2002. In sum, the system has a tendency to make adjustments but leaves the larger problems in place.
The ability to act against the posters in legal terms suffers because of a displacement system that limits the political cultural capital within the Swedish population. Because the racism found in the posters was based on coded language, the Justice Ministry decided after the protests that no laws were broken. Also, the Justice Ministry might want to ban political advertising by any organization whose origins are based on the concerted organizing activities of Nazis, but de-Nazification in Sweden did and does not involve a sufficiently deep educational process, e.g. aspects of Swedish culture that may have facilitated the rise of the Nazis in Sweden is considered less important than expositions on the Holocaust. Of course, education about the Holocaust and other genocidal actions is important, but education against the Holocaust has been used to displace other significant education related to Swedish actions, responsibilities, and the history of its far right.
When making proclamations about its advertising policy SL does not address the Nazi origins of SD, although its treatment of SD is consistent with the pattern of repressive tolerance documented by Lööw. The key forces which limit, resist or challenge the accompany system supporting repressive tolerance include scandals and direct action as well as long-term lobbying or social movement campaigns. For example, the Social Democratic government and Swedish parliament admirably called for limiting arms exports to dictatorships. This comes against the backdrop of scandals tarnishing Sweden’s reputation because of potential or actual weapons transfers to countries like China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. Here we have a victory, but what will be displaced is the problems caused by arm sales to countries like South Africa, a country with massive poverty and thus where arms sales represent an opportunity cost against equitable economic development.
Second, even oppositional movements can directly (if sometimes unconsciously) engage in sins of omission even as they gain victories. Anti-racist and anti-militaristic movements exist on the margins, building on an historical legacy which can be seen in various ways, for example the anti-racist protest in Stockholm which took place August 4th against a series of political posters designed by the right-wing Swedish Democrats. The protest can be seen in the first photograph above, directed at the posters or political wall paper depicted in part in the second photograph. The protest aimed to challenge the normalization of racist opinions represented by these posters. The posters use coded language that make allusions to poor Roma who are forced by economic necessity to beg for money and food in more affluent European countries.
Amie Brammie Sey, one of the organizers of the protest, was quoted in Dagens Nyheter as follows: “We are many who reacted strongly against the new SD advertising in our underground, where beggars —who everyone knows are mainly Roma—are portrayed as parasites in our society. We turn towards the normalization of racism and wonder about where SL puts limits on these activities. It is completely incomprehensible.” The problem is that this normalization is comprehensible and this comprehension is what is displaced by elements of the Left’s own discourse. The comprehension is based on the larger logic of repressive tolerance and mainstream morality which conceals as much as it reveals as I will also demonstrate below. Thus, the Left has a language which sometimes in limited in its ability to describe what is actually happening.
This is a generalizable phenomenon. Social movements like the Swedish peace movement have focused on limiting arms sales to dictatorships as an important tactical argument. While they have noted the economic costs of arms sales to countries like South Africa, some of the peace movement’s rhetoric has not sufficiently addressed these costs. These costs are thereby displaced. A related issue is that by opposing arms exports to dictators and not saying much about civilian economic conversion of Swedish defense firms, the cutback in arms exports that the peace movement has proposed risks a backlash effect. As defense companies lose sales and fire workers, these companies and workers may mobilize against the political incumbents backing arms sales regulations. Or, the companies may simply expand their military operations in another country. With disarmament and economic conversion, such military commitments would be reduced. General and complete disarmament reduces all military markets, conversion creates new economic opportunities for firms and workers in the civilian market. The spread of militarism and possibilities for alternative civilian planning are thereby displaced by a narrow focus on ending Swedish arms exports to dictators.
What the Swedish peace movement and Swedish politicians making these reforms gain, the military industry workers and citizens in potential countries in which their state gets weapons from different suppliers potentially lose. Of course, the Swedish decision on arms exports is a victory, but the limits to the current design of educational campaigns prevent even further victories. In contrast, by understanding the language and logic of displacement, we can achieve more comprehensive victories.
Using Social Movements as Tools to Defend the Status Quo
Third, these marginalized movements concerned with racism and militarism are expropriated by the majority society as a kind of alibi. The alibi takes the form of propaganda to cover up or displace the mainstream society’s very own militarism, racism and attempts to normalize the far-right. This kind of substitution system where bad and good are equated (or can easily be substituted for one another) is part of the logic of equivalences spelled out long ago by Herbert Marcuse. The logic of equivalences treats all public opinion the same, whether it be liberal, fascist, racist, or anti-racist. Everything is treated as being the same, although the mainstream society tries to marginalize the most direct forms of fascism and racism, it clearly accepts its “softer” variants as demonstrated by SL’s granting space for SD’s continuing wave of propaganda campaigns. The Ministry of Justice’s recent decision also embraces soft forms of racism A very superficial notion of democracy and “free speech” guides politicians who find more complicated understandings of power, militarism and racism inconvenient to their larger agendas of staying in power by promoting the lowest moral common denominator. The far right in turn has skillfully used the electoral and mass media systems for its own ends.
Thus, while the Left often enters into even mainstream debates, outside of these debates its ability to frame the larger context in which such debates are understood by the mass public is limited. One reason for these limits is that the Left often uses a kind of insurrectionist rhetoric which the mass media has trained itself to filter out. While the Left could make more legitimate sounding argument about cooperatives and creation of new institutions, instead it bashes the existing system. It is not wrong on moral grounds to bash the system, but it is meaningless verbiage if meaningful institutional designs for alternatives does not accompany the bashing. Sometimes, as in the August 4th protest, the blunt rhetoric that the system is irrational, racist, etc. is warranted. Yet, the inability to use sustained economic power to create an alternative media framing system makes Left appearances in the mass media a double-edged sword. Until persons marginalized by ethnicity, gender, class or (most importantly) ideology are given their own autonomy (or greater representational power) in news programming, we can expect that the debates organized by the mass media which let the Left in will partially broaden the discourse while potentially narrowing the scope of proactive action. One piece of evidence for this position is that the far Left parties usually get far less than ten percent of the vote. The Collapse of the Swedish Left can be seen in an analysis of the share of total votes received by the Feminist, Green and Left parties combined as a proportion of the total votes received by the Swedish Democrats. What the data I have collected show is that the combined vote total of the three left parties went from 4459% of SD’s total in 1998 to only 122% in 2004. Is somebody asleep at the wheel? Yes. These statistics can be explained in part by the Left’s political language, with these limits also a part of Swedish political methodology (only the Left’s variant of the mythology). Many Left intellectuals who understand these realities respond by being depressed, not breaking the taboos within the Left, or simply try dance their way around a political mythology that provides at best incremental change.
The Displacement Cycle: From Repressive Tolerance to Clean Hands Branding
Let us first examine how the system works with respect to questions of militarism. The cycle of displacement begins with the elites playing first the card of repressive tolerance and that hand is played over and over until the scandals or political pressure produce a new synthesis. The new synthesis is clean hands branding which combines reform and Swedish nationalism, but does not question the control over economic decision making of the larger, global institutional base of militarism that is the alleged trigger for reforms.
In the case of the peace movement, the Left’s rhetoric about the limits to arms exports to dictatorships is used to justify the newly reformed status quo that may end up limiting such exports. This victory (associated in part with Left or peace movement discourse) will displace other questions of militarism, economic planning, and the concerns of victims of militarism tied to arms exports from other countries. Therefore, we have to both acknowledge the victory in a potential reform in Swedish arms exports policy and also the limits of this victory. Sweden emerges with cleaner hands, but the global system is continually defined by dirty hands. Sweden sets an example for the world, but the example is not one of how a country promotes the conversion of defense industries to civilian production. We see a kind of clean hands branding which leaves in place the larger institutional power of militarism.
With clean hands branding, we solve an immediate problem which is how Sweden or some other organization no longer engages in the most publicly illegitimate form of behavior that causes the public to become angry or causes the state/organization to lose legitimacy. Yet, while Sweden or the organization having their legitimacy threatened get their reputations partially restored, the larger problems are swept under the rug. In the case of the arms export crisis, the larger problem is global militarism and the need for national examples of how to take national military assets and convert them into civilian-serving pursuits. In the case of the racist SD poster campaign, the larger problem is SD’s growing political power and the foundations for that power. In each case, clean hands branding is a victory, but if the victory makes people complacent it is not a sufficient victory for addressing the larger problems. In one case, the Swedish state looks better but the dictators getting weapons get them from somewhere else. The larger problem is not solved. In the other case, the racist posters are swept clean and SL looks better, but the larger problem of institutionalized far right power accumulation is not solved.
The potentially new Swedish policy on arms exports and the removal of SD’s posters from the Östermalmstorg underground station are also victories which potentially form the basis for new victories. We saw the collapse of repressive tolerance and a fighting spirit among protestors to expose its bureaucratic champions. This collapse and spirit create positive precedents for further reforms and are not simply negative developments. I am not engaged here in a far left, nihilist analysis. Rather, I am trying to create a new political language that would promote more thorough or deeper political victories. I don’t believe actually existing political parties and social movements do a very good job in promoting this language. The reason is that critical intellectuals, political parties and social movements tend to be separated, in part for reasons specified by C. Wright Mills as well as because of the limits of what often passes as postmodern analysis. Mills not only pointed to the divide between intellectuals and sources of power. He also showed why the university system tended to produce intellectuals who were stuck in accepted or popular intellectual fashions or paradigms. Ironically, Michel Foucault himself examined displacement systems (although not like I have done), but this part of his work has not been extended.
Left activists and intellectuals are often limited in their ability to promote political innovations. There is a kind of implicit escalator clause within the Left such that if one says things the Left wants to hear, then it gets escalated. There must be a demand for an idea before there is a supply. The Left has its own definitions of popularity which often put style over substance, even or especially a radical brand which lacks a radical content. This emptying out is how capitalism colonizes the formal aspects of the left, such that a radical sounding language can have very little actual radical contents. There is a secondary gain from this manipulation of language, it follows the logic of popularity contests everywhere, i.e. there is nothing organically linking the Left to critical thinking. In contrast, the Left might figure out how to produce ideas for which there is not yet a demand, analogous to supply push innovations.
A Case Study in Media Displacement: The Microscope as Refraction
The Blow Up Analogy
Given the continuing crises associated with racism, the environment, the distribution of economic wealth, and militarism, a deeper understanding is needed regarding how social movements, the Left, the media and the Swedish power elite interact with one another.
When things are put under the microscope, our very analysis of them can be misleading as various philosophies of science and Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up suggests. The media’s treatment of the anti-poster campaign is instructive. On August 4th, 2015, SVT’s leading news program broadcast at 9:00 pm, Aktuellt, burried the story in a short report, although the local Stockholm news goes far deeper. The webpage for the the program, accessed on August 5th, strangely portrays the campaign as if it is the lead story (see photo below). TV4, in contrast, led with the anti-poster protest and placed it higher on its media agenda. TV4 also showed footage of protestors tearing down posters. The journalistic routines focus clearly by putting the posters under the microscope and linking the protests to the posters (as seen in the photograph below). The larger questions about how the society allowed these events to transpire are usually never addressed. The problem of SD’s growing power advantage over the Left electorally is not addressed, nor how SVT’s relatively uncritical view of SD helps promote SD. Thus, SD, SL, the media, and to a certain extent the Left, all are complicit in the logic of displacement (with the Left the least guilty and often in the forefront of resisting the worst aspects of the displacement system). The image of the camera focused on the posters is the perfect metaphor for a media system that conceals as it reveals; this is the essence of the logic of displacement.
By August 5, Aktuellt did better and organized a debate on the poster campaign as part of its coverage. The debate raised important questions about who can afford to organize poster campaigns and whether the posters promoted racism. Yet, the larger questions of the long history of moral inversion that lies behind the poster campaign was not actually addressed. SD’s growing power in comparison to the Left was not addressed.
These debates rarely provide any historical context so that each new controversy that is debated seems like a new or ephemeral event. The mass media loves topicality and usually this love involves a repression of historical analysis. Unfortunately, the Left is often taken up by this same topicality love as it is partially shaped by the media spotlight. The anti-poster campaign is not exactly a campaign to eliminate the foundations of SD’s power, even if it is a good stepping stone for such a movement. Yet, this stepping stone will probably not function well unless the Left’s political language changes. The mass media will probably not assist this language transformation, although news outlets like Arbetaren, Etc., Ordfront, Swedish Radio, and others could play such a role. If an intellectual argument is too complicated or profound, it rarely has a place on Swedish TV.
The Advertising Ombudsman: Morality as an Investment Process
On August 5th, SVT also provided coverage of the decision-making by the Advertising Ombudsman’s office called RO (Reklamombudsmannen), in which Elisabeth Trotzig is the ombudsman. According to the webpage, RO is “a self-regulatory organization founded by the industry.” The organization was established after politicians began to threaten the advertising industry with harsher laws concerning, for example, sexist advertising. RO is supported financially by various companies and Trotzig suggests on Aktuellt that the SD’s campaign could be considered problematic. She also said in 2010 that she hoped her agency would be “self-financed.” It is remarkable that an ombudsman’s office to regulate advertising is supported by funding from the very companies which in theory it should and could be regulating. The RO webpage states: “A well-functioning self-regulation requires that companies take responsibility for a high ethical standard in advertising. Reklamombudsmannen is funded on a voluntary basis through an annual fee from advertisers, advertising agencies and media.” The webpage also says: “Contribute to a high ethical standard…Any company can contribute to RO and the fee is related to the companies’ annual media spending, according to TNS SIFO’s advertising measurements. Minimum fee is SEK 10 000 and the maximum fee is 70 000 per year.” Ethics takes the form of an investment that clearly not everyone can afford. This kind of “self-policing” suggests a clear conflict of interest, e.g. how does the financing structure influence directly or indirectly who is hired to work for this organization? Yet, RO’s decisions are represented by Aktuellt as part of the legitimate institutions to consider when assessing how moral judgments are made with respect to political posters. The news program may have contained an implicit criticism of RO (that is hard to tell), but the key thing is who gets invited to the party. Clearly there is a need for a more enlightened and proactive version of RO.
SL’s commercial (capitalist) logic in granting advertising space to erstwhile Nazi groups is mirrored in moral policing that is backed by private investment monies. The anti-poster protest focused in part on the system of racism and the for-profit orientation of SL. This organization has used what should be public space to support a campaign organized by the Swedish Democrats against public begging and implicitly the Roma people living in Sweden. SD’s political support, however, is not simply based on racism, but also on failed economic policies of the established parties, something recognized by many of the speakers. Nevertheless, none of the August 4th protest speakers spelled out a comprehensive program for challenging SD. Instead, the synthesis or reaction to these racist posters (or wallpaper) was either to offer anti-racist chants or to tear them down, leaving in place the constellation of forces which allows SD to recruit members, accumulate funds, and further promote its political program. One exception is that some on August 4th spoke of legal challenges to these posters, but the SD poster campaign very much plays a role similar to the Confederate Flag in the United States, i.e. the posters are just the tip of the iceberg, albeit a rather offensive tip with a significant public display function.
The tearing down of the posters was a kind of victory against this display function which nevertheless sidestepped the larger challenges of: (a) forcing SL to directly revoke the posters on political (as opposed to technocratic security) grounds and (b) the legitimacy which these posters and SL’s repressive tolerance policy have conveyed on SD. This legitimacy was thereby left in tact by activists doing what was actually the responsibility of SL and the County Council which governs them. Incremental ad hoc actions against SL are also part of the logic of the Planka movement which attempts to defund the public transportation system through individual actions of refusal to pay for it. The basic idea of Planka is that public transportation is too expensive, so direct individualized attacks on the system are expected to transform it. Planka has tried to also broaden its outlook to promote alternative transportation modes, but they really should figure out how to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of actual transportation users instead of alienating many of them.
One of the speakers said the SL must be disrupted if they failed to revoke their racist policies. Here we have a key problem, i.e. what happens when an important public utility is hijacked by narrow public or private interests and suffers from an under-financing by the national government? Do we rebel against this entity or attempt to resocialize it? Resocialization involves deeper strategies of expanding popular control rather that rebelling against the control system.
The individualized or even collective rebellion against SL leaves in place the larger decision-making structures, ownership patterns and monopolies of service provision. This system is responsible for not just racist media projections but also systematic incompetence, e.g. it has been unable to properly organize the signalling system on the newest light rail line. Instead, we should turn SL into a cooperative owned by the state and its users and governed by academic experts, citizen elected representatives, cooperative owners, and administrators vetted by the public. Cooperative owners of a new SL must be given more power because the leading politicians who now supervise SL now are closely tied to Sweden’s automotive industrial complex. Shares in a new SL should be distributed relatively equally and controlled by a trust, so that no one user accumulates an ownership share that is too great and so that shares are not sold out to narrow, private interests. Users can accumulate shares in part based on deductions from their contributions to their own monthly SL cards.
It would have helped if the speakers at the demonstration made a comprehensive list of the names of the persons actually running SL or the politicians who are ultimately responsible for SL’s managers. As is typical of much Swedish so-called “hard left” rhetoric, the scale of focus is microscopic (posters) or macroscopic (capitalism, racism), with the meso level decision-making structures usually ignored. The larger framing system here represents a combination of syndicalism, the logic of absenteeism and consumer boycotts (exit options), which does not take aim at the local power structure (through voice) but merely attempts to sabotage it. Such exit options are one form of power, but will never lead to the systemic accumulation of power via elections, dominance of the airwaves and formation of companies.
The far right has made significant inroads into the first two means and what will this politics of exit accomplish when the far right begins to organize the economy locally as well? If SD manages to achieve 15 to 20 percent of the vote without directly organizing economic power, is it unreasonable to think that their organizing economic power will not get them an additional 10 percent or more of the vote? Does the Left have a strategy in response to SD’s political innovations, i.e. beyond reacting to their next move?
Of course, tearing down the posters was a rational response to a system of bureaucracy, repressive tolerance, and liberal objectivity which rationalizes away racist and repressive discourse in the name of “free speech,” commerce and “legal procedures.” This logic of legality, bureaucratic regulations, and free commerce is precisely the same approach used to rationalize away both arms exports to dictators and the larger phenomena of the Swedish military industrial complex. Thus, the problem at hand is much larger than racism, SL, or SD for that matter. Some of the speakers recognized the complicity of the larger parties, but the language of eliminating racism is partially a necessary but hardly a sufficient discourse for limiting the power of the larger institutions that actually project racism.
Yet, it should be noted that the politicians were put under pressure and began to discuss a possible rethink of their political advertising policy as a response to: a) the protest taking place on August 4th, and b) the collective movement to rip down the posters. Thus, disruption potentially works by putting pressure on bureaucrats who want to restore a continually changing version of what they define as “normalcy.” The metaphor of a wind up toy robot that propels forward and continues on its path until pushed in a new direction seems apt. Thus, the safety criteria the were used to end this specific poster campaign are very much linked to a robot that does not want to tip over although if blocked could simply propel itself somewhere else. We have a kind of robot psychology encased in flowery language about democracy which is marred by the larger system’s historical record of arms deals with German defense contractors, indigenous Nazis, and White Power music exported across the globe.
As SL does business with SD, whose origins lie in the Swedish Nazis, German militarism and pan-European racism, it is not difficult to understand that SL is itself part of this larger logic supervised and orchestrated by political, economic and cultural elites. The larger institutions that project racism are tied to the mass media, the educational system, the class of owners and job organizers, and the politics of scarcity in which immigrants and people of color are set up as the cause of contemporary economic difficulties. The Latin Kings in their song Krossa Rasismen (“Crush Racism”) have a line that goes: Latinos, araber, afrikaner och turkar i massmedia alltid utpekade som skurkar (“Latinos, Arabs, Africans and Turks are always depicted as villains in the media”).
Eliminating racism, like eliminating war, requires alternatives to the existing system. While many speakers spoke against capitalism, they hardly operationalized how they would eliminate capitalism, i.e. this kind of discourse amounts to a form of “name calling” and “deconstruction,” which in its worst forms (not necessarily present at the demonstration) effectively simplifies issues to get an expected affirmative response from an audience.
The demonstration also replicates a kind of hierarchical politics, which the Occupy Movement tried to move beyond by taking a protest moment and turning it into an ongoing teaching experience and space for democratic engagement. This hierarchy is a long-standing convention in the Swedish political Left and is hardly new or unique, although it is somewhat obsolete. The protest was effective, however, in galvanizing a counter-pole to mainstream society’s complacency with patently offensive, racist demagoguery so in this sense was a partial victory. Many of the speakers represented new Swedes, who are marginalized by some parts of the Swedish Left. The mass media in their coverage of the poster campaign did give such persons representational power, but only within the confines of statements related to the poster campaign. Much of the media did not reproduce the most radical sounding statements of the speakers at the protest; they were filtered out as being inconvenient for the dominant frame, i.e. a localized incident regarding SD’s posters and SL’s policies.
The educational (and parts of the racist monitoring) system promotes racism by treating it largely as an ethical breach or a problem of cultural attitudes. Even when academics discuss racism as part of a larger system of economic or political power, they rarely connect that representation of systemic power to ideas about organizing a counter-power. Such counter-power requires the design and promotion of new media, political and economic institutions. This in turn depends on reconstructionist and utopian thinking, not deconstructionist and dystopian critiques of the system as racist, capitalist or sexist, i.e. vocal complaints. Therefore, radical sounding language—like mass media reports—conceals as much as it reveals. As SD has more quickly accumulated power, the superficiality of the Left (while impolite to discuss in certain circles) represents a dangerous intellectual vacuum.
The Case of the Vietnam War, Swedish Militarism and the Plight of the Roma
Another way to understand the larger system of displacement is to examine Swedish cultural elites’ view of Sweden as a peace loving country. Exhibit A is an exchange of letters between a U.S. businessman who visited Sweden and reacted to its opposition to the U.S. genocidal venture in Vietnam. The next three photographs represent the letter of the businessman which appears in a museum exhibit currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm (summer 2015).
The most interesting part of this letter by Hendrik C. Gillebaard, President of the Holland Import Company, is not his ranting about “Swedish” anti-Americanism and his support for the tragic Vietnam War, but his argument that Sweden can not honestly face its own treatment of the Roma people, i.e. Swedes are hypocrites because they too are racists, not just Americans. The response of the Swedish Consulate General in Houston to Gillebaard’s letter is rather interesting. The Swedish official writes, “Virtually everybody in Sweden abhors war. Most Swedes are critical of the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.” His letter in response to Gillebaard is reproduced below.
The Swede’s letter is certainly accurate as a critique of most of Gillebaard’s aguments. Note the following key points, however. First, nothing is said about Sweden’s treatment of the Roma people. Second, Swedes’ formal opposition to the Vietnam war is addressed, but not Swedes’ support for the war in Vietnam. This took place in two ways. First, some Swedes actually served in Vietnam in support of the American side against the Vietnamese people. Second, Swedish weapons were used against the Vietnamese by Australians who got Swedish weapons after Sweden broke its own embargo. At one point, Sweden attempted to ban weapon sales to the U.S., but this did not prevent the Swedish military contribution to the forces fighting against Vietnamese liberation. While Olof Palme spoke against the Vietnam War in public demonstrations, this is not the only side of Swedish realities. Yet, this is the side of things many want to represent. In contrast, the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström (whose artworks are now on display at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art) shows in a piece not part of the current exhibit that Swedish realities are filled with contradictions. He exposes the myths of “Swedish neutrality” and reports on how radical journalists in Sweden have written about how Sweden cooperated with foreign spy agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. Fahlström has largely been forgotten or is largely unknown to the younger generations of Swedes, although one has to give credit to the Swedish Museum of Modern Art for trying to revive interest in this important artist. Fahlstöm’s work shows how the display function can be used to convey a richer intellectual content.
The Unfortunate Continuing Hegemony of New Left Ideology in the Swedish Left
We now come to one of the more controversial aspects of our story, at least controversial for parts of the Left. I have tried to show that SD growth is part of an emergency which the present Left trajectory cannot hope to stop. I have shown that the Left’s very language limits its ability to promote comprehensive change are reverse the power of SD. Yet, behind the Left’s discourse are Left institutions and political myths. While parts of the New Left embraced reconstruction, the dominant part of that movement settled for a rebellion against the system and favored deconstructionist rhetoric. There were currents in the New Left supporting cooperatives then and now, but the hegemonic New Left position became part of a trajectory linked to deconstruction, identity politics, resistance and rebellion.
The larger problem is that the dominant discourse of Fahlström’s era and that of today is one that seems to be defined by various closures. First, there are the reactionaries in the Swedish Democrats who correctly point to the failures of existing parties, but are unable to offer anything but a dumbed-down version of solutions through racist and demagogic scape-goating. They blame immigrants, refugees and poor Roma for European, Romanian and Swedish failure to properly absorb them. The money spent for just one JAS military fighter could be used to create business cooperatives for Roma that could be carried back to their home countries, but no leading politician has ever raised such an idea (at least in a way that would be noticed). The Left political parties which resist military spending increases don’t connect issues very well, somewhat obediently following the mass media’s preference for treating every problem as atomized and separate. I have already shown how trying to explain the connections by speaking about “capitalism” is not very useful because the Left does not have a language that shows how to limit, get rid of or even systematically reform capitalism.
Second, there is the mainstream society which refuses to offer a systematic economic alternative to the status quo defined by deindustrialization, globalization, and class polarization. This constellation has closed off opportunities for many Swedes even as it enriches others. The cultural elites don’t really challenge the larger economic system even if they champion the fight against the symptoms of these problems. To a certain extent, racism is a long standing problem in Sweden and can’t just be reduced to economic problems. Yet, the displacement of economic inequality and an inequality in economic power by a discourse of anti-racism is clearly and similarly problematic.
Third, there is the “loyal opposition” which opposes the first and second groups, but has usually been unable to speak the language of policy alternatives and social innovations. The constituency of the Feminist, Left and Green parties (together with supporters) is something on the order of one million persons, more than enough to build a movement and process to re-organize the Swedish economy on far more democratic lines. Instead, the discourse of the Left is often simply anti-racist or anti-capitalistic, but not sufficiently reconstructonist, i.e. it is not a discourse that operationalizes how to build new legal, media, economic and political institutions, but seemingly rebels against the far-right and repressive tolerant status quo. Rhetoric that bashes capitalism as an evil system amounts to a kind of Freudian “talking cure” or a kind of magical thinking in which saying words produces systemic transformations. This talking cure is only natural in a Left society in which cultural framing has gained ascendency over radical economic language. So-called “Marxists” and “Anarchists” who do not address the meso level of power discussed above, further contribute to the intellectual vacuum. They are politically innocuous even as they rant about capitalism and the like.
It is not a coincidence that those embracing what sounds like a radical position gain entry into the Left’s own version of a cultural elite, its own voices and celebrities whom we hear from over and over again, and who seem to have mis-educated or misled the new generation of activists. Among this group, the New Left and reincarnations of the political styles of previous Left protest groups seem hegemonic. One can debate the fine points about the advantages or disadvantages of the Feminist, Green, Left and Social Democratic Parties. However that debate ends, the most important fact is that SD is collectively kicking their ass in the electoral arena as seen in the data presented above.
The Left does not seem to understand that it has its own hegemonic, filtering and propaganda systems embracing a dysfunctional political mythology. If the New Left (the environmentalists, anti-racists and anti-sexists) challenged the Old Left (the Communists, Socialists and Social Democrats), is it any surprise that we need a new movement that challenges the New Left itself (or its legacy)? In many ways, the Swedish Left (like counterparts elsewhere) seems to resemble the movie scripts of V for Vendetta or Equilibrium, scripts in which there are “good guys” and “bad guys.”
The Left is tied to a version of Millenialism which seems to be a kind of recycled (yet in many ways inferior) copy of Christianity but framed with Socialist, Feminist or Anarchist logos in which operational interventions like: a) cooperatives, b) media accountability organizations, c) civilian conversion of defense firms, d) new budget priorities, e) industrial policy, f) cooperative or green public procurement, etc. are nowhere to be found. These alternatives are often unpopular in rhetorical discourse because no one knows about them, particularly in the younger generation. These discourses rarely have any peer buzz and can’t be tied to political fashions.
Fewer persons in the younger generation know about them because of the ways in which the university and academic system have marginalized the economic reconstructionist discourse. It is an intentional marginalization in which radical lite trumps a deeper understanding, creating an intellectual vacuum which the far right has been rather successful in filling (if power accumulation is the measure). I’m not saying that racism, the gender system, and capitalism are not promoting the very problems I analyze. Rather, I am saying that this intersectional approach (which usually leaves out militarism which is reduced to some other problem), is hardly sufficient for challenging SD or building counter-power. There are some movements tied to alternative banking and environmental transformation that go deeper, but they remain isolated from the mainstream Left discourse.
A kind of diluted or pseudo-anarchism which involves rhetorical bashing of the system (rebellion and revolutionary sounding rhetoric), actually displaces real, transformative if not revolutionary anarchism of the variety which once thrived in Spain. Perhaps this is the byproduct of a Left Party whose origins lie in the Communist Party and not the anarchist movement. Or a syndicalism centered on trade union power and not economic democracy defined by consumer and producer cooperatives. Or even the university which likes to label things rather than remake society. Or a reflex action against a mainstream stupidity among those who are emotionally satisfied and are perched at the highest rungs of the economic, political or cultural ladders. Or foundations and educational institutions that recycle intellectual conventions and support intellectual inbreeding.
This hegemony of the 1970s-era New Left, recycled by various left movements in Sweden (like the mirror copies in the United States), contributes to a now failed trajectory which continually recycles itself. The recycling is successful because the now dated and incomplete rhetoric of the past fits nicely as a deconstruction of the far right racist and/or mainstream repressive tolerant society. Unfortunately, just as the racists and mainstream repressive tolerant “silent majority” displace larger truths, so too does the “loyal opposition.” For example, reactive resistance and identity politics are no match for far-right ideologies that show connections among diverse issues, albeit in the completely wrong way.
This cultural and political log jam must be broken as the relative success of the far right exposes the political weakness and inabilities of this opposition. One promising development is criticisms of the Left Party’s anti-racist strategy as a failure by two activists in the party, Abe Bergegårdh and Anders Jarfjord. They diagnose the failure and try to ask deeper questions. One question which should of course be asked is how the “New Sweden” or Swedes with immigrant backgrounds can move beyond being just potential victims or champions of anti-racism, to constructors of a new set of institutions that would more fully democratize Sweden. At the rhetorical level, the loyal opposition supports a more fundamental conception of democracy, even if this conception is not very well articulated. The August 4th protest wisely asked us to rethink what actually existing democracy in Sweden really means. In terms of protest rhetoric, there were certain advances over the norm, despite the obvious limitations.
Who is Immediately Responsible? From the County Council to SL as a Prime Countractor to Nazi-Originating Parties and the U.S. Media-Military Industrial Complex
The politicians who are ultimately responsible for the advertising policy of SL are the members of the traffic committee of the Stockholm County Council (ordinarie ledamöter i trafiknämnden, Stockholms läns landsting). I have reproduced the list of these persons below, together with their contact details (see Appendix I below). At the very least a campaign should be organized to identify those supporting the policies permitting the current advertising policy of SL and then one should work towards the defeat of these candidates and their political parties. One should also direct protests against the political parties that sustain these advertising campaigns, rather than simply against SL. The Social Democratic Party at least has gone on record against these policies, although they still support the use of the public space for political advertisements. Given that these political advertisements offer very little useful information, my own view is that such political advertisements should be removed from the public space. As it is SL states that it can not treat the political parties differently in its advertising policy, so it should then treat them the same by keeping their superficial political discourse out of the mass transit system. This newer, alternative policy alternative was not supported by the Social Democrats in their critique of SL.
On August 5th, SL decided to stop SD’s poster campaign at the Östermalmstorg underground station for security reasons. These reasons were based on how those standing on the escalator dividers trying to take down the posters could hurt themselves or other passengers. Nevertheless, a report in Dagens Nyheter noted: “discussions are ongoing between the company Clear Channel who provide advertising space in the subway and the Sweden Democrats on the continuation of the ad campaign.” The Left Party also criticized SL’s advertising policies. SL said nothing about how its support for a poster campaign with a group linked to the Nazis might be bad for Swedish security.
The Clear Channel company, based in the United States, helped organize rallies in support of the disastrous Iraq war. As a report in The Guardian explained then: “They look like spontaneous expressions of pro-war sentiment, ‘patriotic rallies’ drawing crowds of tens of thousands across the American heartland. In a counterpoint to anti-war demonstrations, supporters of war in Iraq have descended on cities from Fort Wayne to Cleveland, and Atlanta to Philadelphia. They wave flags, messages of support for the troops – and also banners attacking liberals, excoriating the UN, and in one case, advising: ‘Bomb France Now.’ But many of the rallies, it turns out, have been organised and paid for by Clear Channel Inc—the country’s largest radio conglomerate, owning 1,200 stations—which is not only reporting on the war at the same time, but whose close links with President Bush stretch back to his earliest, much-criticised financial dealings as governor of Texas. The company has paid advertising costs and for the hire of musicians for the rallies.” In sum, SL which does business with these people is part of the extension of the profit-making system for the war culture.
The Clear Channel company and SL also get money from Electronic Arts, the company that promotes video games in which the user is invited to drop napalm on Vietnam. As a web announcement states clearly: “Grab your M-16, ready the Napalm, and prepare to enter some of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War.” In other words, SL has entered into contracts with a key part of the U.S. media-military-industrial complex as well as making deals with a political party whose origins lie in Sweden’s indigenous Nazi movement. SL’s relationship with Clear Channel has been discussed in the media, with a focus on the former’s long-term commitment to the latter. An article in Dagens Media shows how the American media giant has corporate opponents or competitors within Sweden, i.e. the basis for an interesting alliance or dialogue.
SL’s public space is now used to embrace video games which basically support the Vietnam War, an irony which very few seem to notice, given Swedish elites’ previous identification with rhetorically opposing that war. If the public space were to convey useful information about politicians, then the mass media might contribute by vetting statements by politicians through a committee of academic experts, rather than simply allowing journalists to play the key role of ideological, ethical and political gatekeepers. In this role, the mass media have proven as incompetent as SL, as they have provided a sounding board for SD.
The broader Left might wake up, pool their money, and actually run intellectually-rich and deep advertisements as an alternative to the status quo. For example, could not large numbers of persons at the demonstration on August 4th have donated money towards an alternative poster campaign? Couldn’t this be easily accomplished by donations from the thousands of persons in attendance? Yes, but that idea is not part of the current political language of the loyal opposition. The dominant narrative is about the evils of SD, SL, capitalism, unfairness, justice, etc., but rarely about how to build tactics that create alternative means of projecting power.
Such alternative advertisements could call for a new governance system to run SL, to promote cooperatives and new media platforms that would challenge the cultural, economic and political elites with meso level reconstructive reforms. Or perhaps a poster campaign to support a new media accountability organization against racist and militarist advertising, i.e. a left alternative to the mainstream RO? Such truly radical ideas are actually far more subversive than Left complaints about capitalism and racism or the tokenistic appearances of the peace movement in the mainstream media itself.
After this article was completed, Dagens Nyheter ran an editorial on the protestors and the SD campaign. I have written a detailed analysis of this editorial which provides a useful example of the kind of thinking I have criticized above.
Appendix I: Members of the Traffic Committee of the Stockholm County Council
|Svanström, Sara||FP||1:e vice chairperson|
|Wikholm, Nanna||S||2:e vice chairperson|
|Roxby Cromvall, Gunilla||V||Member|