Lessons from Sweden: Social Democracy and Trade Unions in Canada

Article excerpt


AXEL VAN DEN BERG TEACHES sociology at McGill University. He has been involved in a series of interconnected research projects, in collaboration with Canadian and Swedish colleagues, investigating the sources of resistance to change and flexibility in Swedish and Canadian industry.

He has been especially interested in the implicit social bargain -- trading labour market security for flexibility -- that is said to underly the "Swedish Model."

This article is the fruit of a long-standing interest in "actually existing" social democracy.

The right has seized the high ground, not of morality but of power, by mindlessly restating what it has always stood for, i.e. let the market rule and let the chips fall where they may. The left says: put limits on the market and redistribute the chips. -- Mel Watkins

Some old things are good, but some old things are not so good. Those who refuse to recognize this constitute what might be called the neoconservatism of the left -- the refusal to recognize that the world has changed and that our agenda should change with it. -- Chris Axworthy

WITH 13 OF 15 EU COUNTRIES NOW RULED by left-leaning governments, reports of the death of social democracy in Europe have proven greatly exaggerated. True, most have given up many of their traditionally most cherished policy instruments, accepting the need to reduce public deficits and the size of the public sector, to deregulate markets, to privatize, cut welfare spending and so on. But the fact remains that large to very large chunks of the European electorate can still be mobilized by political parties committed to protecting the interests of the less privileged half of the population -- hardly the case on this side of the Atlantic.

Of course, especially in Great Britain and Germany, there is an important element of electoral changing of the guards in the recent successes of the European left. The same cannot be said, however, of Scandinavia where, as Henry Milner's article recounts, the Swedish Social Democrats won 36.4 per cent of the vote -- their worst showing in decades -- in last year's general election, and were still returned to power -- which they have held during 56 of the past 66 years. Clearly, whatever their current and long-term problems, the Swedish social democrats have managed to retain the support of groups of the population that in Canada have succumbed to the appeal of a Mike Harris or Ralph Klein.

The reasons for the Swedes' remarkable durability and success are, of course, complex. In this article I bring to bear the results of a decade of research in which I have been involved to address one peculiar feature of the Swedish social democratic tradition that has received less attention than it deserves, partly, I suspect, because it suits the ideological purposes of neither friend nor foe. In office, Sweden's social democrats have been remarkably prepared to flout social democratic orthodoxies and dogmas when faced with hard economic realities. For them, state interventionism, a large public sector, progressive taxation, regulation of markets, protection of jobs, and so on, are not ends in themselves but primarily means. With respect to economic policy, they have displayed an unusual willingness to "get their hands dirty," often pursuing a fairly ruthless "productivism" concerned as much with efficiency -- in particular the competitiveness of the heavily trade-dependent Swedish economy -- as with equity and social security.

At least part of the political success of Swedish social democracy is due to its tough-minded insistence on economic efficiency and productivity as an indispensable precondition for the long-term social democratic project of constructing a more equitable "people's home" (folkhem). From early on, Sweden's social democrats have tried very hard to persuade the Swedish electorate that their programmes and policies were not mere luxuries but would actually increase the efficiency and productivity of the Swedish economy. …