The Politics of Activation: Technologies of Mobilizing "Multiethnic Suburbs" in Sweden

By Dahlstedt, Magnus | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, October-December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Activation: Technologies of Mobilizing "Multiethnic Suburbs" in Sweden


Dahlstedt, Magnus, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Since the 1990s, the idea of "mobilization from below" has become a salient feature in Swedish debates on "multiethnic suburbs." In this article, the idea of "mobilization from below" is analyzed in three different policy areas--democracy, urban, and education policy. Following Michel Foucault and his theories of power and governmentality, the ambition of "mobilizing multiethnic suburbs" is analyzed as particular "technologies of government" creating citizens as "active" and "responsible" subjects. In the urge to "activate" citizens, it is argued, a neoliberal agenda has gained momentum in Swedish politics, further emphasizing the role of individual responsibilities and initiatives against public arrangements and interventions. Keywords: responsibilization, activation, partnership, multiethnic suburbs, Sweden.

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In recent years, political parties and social movements from left to right have stressed that a "rejuvenation" of democracy needs to view the exercise of power as a pattern of movement from "bottom up," rather than "top down." This is the case in Sweden, where the bottom-up perspective has largely become a political slogan, a panacea for various societal and democratic challenges. In Sweden, as in other Western countries, calls for "activation," cooperation, and partnership between state institutions and local communities--"empowerment" of local residents--the application of a bottom-up perspective punctuates discussions of a number of areas of public policy. This quest for a bottom-up perspective reflects a far-reaching political shift--not only in Sweden but also in many other countries, where large parts of the political field have gradually moved to the right. (1)

The shift in Swedish politics began as early as the 1970s and 1980s, but accelerated after the deep economic crisis of the early 1990s, which really put the Swedish model of welfare provision to the test. The postwar "Swedish model," with an international reputation as being a successful "middle course" between capitalism and socialism, was based on the pillars of centralism and universalism, social intervention, and consensus. (2) According to Rune Premfors, the model was characterized not least by "a readiness to give democracy considerable scope in substantive terms," by the fact that "democratic organizing was regarded as natural and desirable in virtually every facet of society," and "an emphasis on lively democratic participation also 'between elections,' especially in popular movements and political parties." (3) Starting in the late 1980s, several of the cardinal principles underpinning the "Swedish model" came to be challenged more and more. The model was criticized for, among other things, its alleged inefficiency and highly centralized micromanagement, which was said to stand in the way of individual initiative, hampering people's will to participate and have their say. (4) What gradually emerged, according to Premfors, were the contours of "a new Swedish model," with an ever-growing emphasis on power and participation "from below," "a model that combines continued and further elaborated welfare policies with a highly noticeable decentralization of politics and administration." (5)

This article dwells on one aspect of this shift. It sheds light on how the advocacy of "activating" and "shouldering responsibility," a sort of "will to activate," during the 1990s became a more and more prominent feature of the discussion about the situation in "multiethnic suburbs," often referred to as "immigrant dense" (invandrartaia), throughout Sweden. The quest for cooperation and partnership, "empowerment" of residents, and "bottom up" perspective appears to have had an especially great impact on the debate of the last few years regarding Swedish policies on integration, multicultural ism. and urban renewal. (6) How can this shift be understood? What are the arguments regarding "multiethnic suburbs?" What might the consequences of the shift be in terms of efforts to counteract the continuing polarization of the urban landscape in today's Sweden?

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