Saturday, August 28, 2010

Of Swedes and conservatives

You can tell that it's election season in Sweden by the presence of the little mock cottages that have been erected in public squares. Each party has their own house, with different coloured trim and their respective flower (the dandelion for the Greens, the cornflower for the People's Party, the rose for the Social Democrats, the clover for the Centre Party and so on). But on the quiet Kungalv riverside, the Sweet Williams of the Left Party dominated. If Kungalv's riverine pedestrians decided the election, it would undoubtedly be a runaway victory for the Left Party, which is predicted to garner around 5% of the vote on 19 September.

But if you were expecting radical sloganeering and far-fetched promises from Sweden's former communist party, you'd be badly disappointed. The local branch of the party that had put up the posters had its feet firmly on the ground and its imagination on a short leash. True, they were uncompromising on the need to preserve the integrity of the local riding school (bourgeois, no?). But otherwise, they were modest: there would be more summer jobs for young people, more bus routes, more bike lanes, etc. Their schools policy, a Swedish friend remarked, translating, was a particularly masterful exercise in restraint: they only promised to maintain standards, not to improve them ('If you can dream--and not make dreams your master')!

To an American audience, used to being promised, well, little short of the Promised Land itself, that wouldn't go down very well. But what the essentially uncontroversial demands (well, they were a bit too modest to be described as demands) of the Left Party made me think about was the degree to which defenders of the role of the state, of the community and of social democracy are the conservatives in political debates in the U.S. today.

Normally the title of 'radical' has been associated with the left--and indeed has often been embraced both by those on that side of the political spectrum who were promoting strikingly novel ideas meant to transform society, and by those who get an adrenaline rush from proclaiming their militant radicalism to all and sundry. But today it is the right, the growing fringe in the Republican Party that is increasingly calling the shots in Congress and in state legislatures around the country, which is radical, leaving us on the left to play the unfamiliar role of the conservatives. Conservatives in the sense that the left is defending what seemed a settled ideal of a society that was responsible for the well-being of all its members.

And the re-writing of the political script by a group of people who want to mutilate the Citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, who think that guaranteeing basic physical and social welfare to people (healthcare, free and equal education) poses a threat to our liberties, who are happy to send young men and women to kill and be killed in the mountain passes of Afghanistan in the name of collective security whilst denouncing the war that society has traditionally waged on poverty, ignorance, unemployment, hunger and is not, as they claim, about returning to a version of the recent past, but about a radical reshaping of our country.

Although never as universally accepted as in Europe, after the depression and war years, when state spending--whether battling crippling unemployment or fascism--brought the country up from its knees, there seemed to arise a political and moral consensus. It went something like this: in a democracy, in which the state is accountable, that state has an important role to play in guaranteeing the welfare of all its people; in maintaining some kind of basic living standard; in ensuring that its laws protected the civil rights of its citizens. And these things were comparatively uncontroversial, even to lifelong Republicans like my grandparents, because they'd seen, at home and across the water, what happened when a nation-state turned in upon itself and then exploded outwards in fury and violence. They'd seen the columns of the unemployed streaming westward across an arid heartland, reaping the consequences of unchecked individualism, rampant greed, and years of warfare followed by a thirst for retribution under the guise of a peace treaty signed at Versailles.

When my grandmother, born the year before the Great War ended, seemed to break a lifelong habit and voted for John Kerry in 2004 she was repudiating an administration that put a bloody and unnecessary war ahead of the needs of the people it was supposed to represent; and when she cast her ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 she was recognising, like so many others in the wake of the financial (and moral) crisis that gripped the country's attention in those heady days, that we needed to rediscover our belief in the collective good and in the need to look out for each other as a people and a nation. But in reality, though her views had shifted with time, it was the political kaleidoscope in which she lived that had been upended. She was, in a way, simply going back to the place, to the set of ideas, where she thought she'd always been.

Left-wing conservatism, of course, isn't anything new. G J DeGroot, an historian of the Great War, wrote, 'as for the workers, I have to thank Arthur Scargill [leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during its herculean struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s] for teaching me a lesson in working class conservatism. During the 1984 miner's strike, he said the dispute was not about pay, but about the future of the industry--the chance for sons of miners to be miners'.*

This is a sentiment as jarring to the ears of many Americans, for whom the notion of constant upward social movement is so sacrosanct, as the Swedish Left Party's cautious education promises. But both represent the realisation that a social model, a set of values and ideas about collective responsibility and the good that accrues to the whole from the welfare of all individuals, is under attack. Of course, the attack on society, on community and on a common good was already well underway in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan masked his assault on labour, on a fair tax system, and on 'government' with sunny language. Today, whether it's Newt Gingrich equating Islam with Nazism, Sarah Palin ranting about a healthcare death tax, John McCain throwing the rights of migrants to the wolves, Meg Whitman promising to disinvest from public education, or Dianne Feinstein beating the war drums at the Capitol, we can see that the shining city on the hill is in a state of decay.

Conservatism struggles to imbue its proponents with the same fervour and urgency as radicalism, but all of those groups and individuals who were and have been party to the consensus about the common good of the union that emerged afresh in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s should rediscover a little bit of the inspiration that caused people to demand that the benefits that accrued from a collective national labour reach all members of society. We should recapture the terms of the debate, and inject some moral and intellectual vigour into the conversation about our future, reminding people that the things we're defending are not some radical departure from our way of life, but rather the fulfillment of long-term historical ambitions, and representative of what has long been a shared vision of our national community.

*G J DeGroot, Blighty: British society in the era of the Great War (New York: Longman, 1996): xii.


  1. We should start by being disciplined about referring to right-wingers as right-wingers and not using relatively non-threatening terms such as "conservative" or "republican". The right-wingers (especially Gingrich) play this game very well. This has an impact on the polity in as much as it has turned "the left" into a term of abuse, so that any idea that is tagged as being of the "left", is at a significant disadvantage from the outset. A "conservative" idea, like pre-emptive war or a "republican" idea like pre-emptive war, sells much more easily than a "right-wing" idea like pre-emptive war.

  2. But I think we should also be intellectually honest and recognise that they aren't the same thing. What I'm trying to say here is that at this historical moment, it is the left that is conservative, that is defending a particular, established set of ideas--relatively straightforward and once-noncontroversial--which are under assault by your right-wingers (and here I'd agree that it's an accurate description). I suspect that we largely agree on this. This attention to language in politics is what Lakoff's always on about. It's something that the left is abysmal at...people get lazy and assume that ideas speak for themselves, and that you don't have to do any explaining or contextualising.

  3. That's exactly what i'm saying. Unfortunately, 'conservative' has become something of a proper noun these days. A right-winger is called a "conservative republican".

    Gingrich once wrote a memo, sometime around 1996 about Language being a mechanism of control -