Populism boosted by economism

12 September 2018

Sten Widmalm, Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University.

The rise of a populist party like the Sweden Democrats in Sweden is usually said to be linked to the past few years’ refugee flows. But the explanation lies deeper than that: in how the welfare systems function in today’s Sweden, says Sten Widmalm, Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University.

In an article in the journal Respons, Widmalm writes about how Sweden’s political climate has been affected by the increasing subjection of welfare systems – care, schools, law and order – to economic considerations: ‘economism’.

Using governance models from business (New Public Management) in the public sector has had various negative consequences. At the same time, the politicians have failed to address the problems, Widmalm thinks.

“The crowded centre in politics has been a problem for a while. You can’t really see what the parties stand for. Nor have they raised issues that matter to people, like profits in welfare (schools, healthcare, elderly care), which in many people’s view should be removed or restricted.”

Rising sick-leave figures in the public sector indicate that many people are not thriving at work. Teachers complain that they are too busy to meet their pupils, doctors lack time for their patients and police cases are piling up. Stress is increasing, but not efficiency.

Effects of economism

According to Widmalm, economism is the cause. Everything is seen in economic terms, which in turn calls for constant evaluation and a great deal of administration, at the expense of core activities.

“It’s disastrous. We’re one of the world’s richest countries, yet so many of us don’t feel good at work. We’re so prosperous, but much of the benefit is wasted. It’s a grave problem that can lead to democracy being undermined and populist movements starting.”

Increased immigration in 2015 and 2016 is widely thought to explain why the Sweden Democrats are gaining more votes. But Widmalm sees it, rather, as a triggering factor.

“We have a system of high stress levels and major problems in youth education, healthcare, elderly care, and law and order, and when people are in touch with these institutions they can see that things aren’t working. And we’ve got a situation of a rapidly growing refugee influx, which in some respects is managed very badly.”

Countering segregation

Widmalm believes it is important for politicians to not just stand up for human rights but also invest resources, a certain percentage of GDP, to combat segregation. The pressure will only increase in the future with the threat of vital resources, such as water, disappearing in parts of the world, which will lead to increased migration here.

“We must learn from history and look into the future to address this and be prepared when it comes. I believe it’s the key issue for social (especially political) scientists to tackle.”

According to Widmalm, Sweden has been transformed in recent years, from a welfare state into something else.

“The olden days shouldn’t be romanticised, but what we’ve done is squeeze out many other virtues and norms, replacing them with the norms of ‘economism’. These are highly simplified: they’re all about financial incentives. So we’re basically trapped in that structure. It’s getting really hard for us humans to find a way out and jointly mobilise our strength – and I mean more than just Facebook petitions and calls for action, which are at a very superficial level.”

Alternative solutions required

At the same time, surveys show that many Swedish voters think the political parties are addressing the wrong questions. This makes it easy for the discontented and populist votes to have a big impact. Many have called the Riksdag election of 9 September ‘fateful’. The Sweden Democrats won more votes than ever. It is too early to foresee the implications, but obviously this will change the political arena.

“Taking a positive view, we may need a wake-up call to find our way back to the essentials in politics, such as more humane management of issues related to elderly care, healthcare and youth education. But, to be a bit more realistic, I think Sweden’s becoming more like the rest of Europe. We’re getting less to decide on because of our EU membership. It shouldn’t have to be like that, since the EU is meant to be a force for democracy. But now it’s mostly a force for market liberalism,” Widmalm says.

Democracy threatened

In times when few want to engage politically, become party candidates and attend meetings, there are huge challenges for democracy.

“We political scientists have too long projected the idea that democracy in the western world is very deeply rooted and can meet major challenges, but the roots are turning out not to be that deep. As soon as we’re in a situation where resources are getting scarcer, and many feel insecure, the picture swiftly changes.”

Widmalm admits to painting an extremely dystopian picture of the future, but nonetheless sees a glimmer of light. A native of Tranås, a municipality and village in Småland, he knows that outside the metropolitan areas, much is being done in purely practical terms to boost integration and help refugees get jobs.

“That’s the cornerstone: people must find employment and enter the world of work. We can’t have people who are shut out, year after year, in segregated housing areas. In rural areas, an incredible lot is being done that gets no attention. On the hopeful side, the fact is that there are good forces, prepared to act, out there.”