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On Civil Society In Sweden

A strong civil society has recently been highlighted as a vital factor for democracy. A weak civil society leads to weak democracy, because the state in that case does not have to listen to citizens.  One main reason for the strong democracy that exists in Sweden is the strong civil society where citizens are politicized. Strong civil society in Sweden has a long tradition.

A strong civil society is the foundation of democracy. Lately in academia focus towards the civil society’s importance in a democratic process had gain more attention. An increasing number of scholars raise civil society as the major element in a democracy.

Civil society has become a term that encompasses social activities, organizations that directly or indirectly affect and support democracy and democratization. Civil society is also an arena of associations; individual and communitarian.

The political scientist Gordon White argues that a democracy can’t develop if civil society is not involved. Civil society is important for democracy because it is an arena where public and private spheres meet and where civil actions arise. It is through civil society interactions that organizations and individuals can really affect the state. Civil society organizations influence the government to implement deeper reforms and to some degree they transform the state through collective action.

When I travel, people sometimes ask me how Sweden succeeded to develop into a strong democracy? I usually mention that it is due to several factors. First of all, Sweden has not been in wars for over 200 hundred years; even more important than tha, I usually say, is the civil society’s impact to the democratization process.

The first grassroots’ movement emergence in Sweden can be dated to the 17th century. At that time locally based organization’s start to grow.  But it was in the 19th century when politicization of citizens took place.

Politicization is an important element in civil society if the civil society wants to influence the state. A state can have a strong civil society, for example many sports associations, but if civil society is not politicized then the impact on the state will be minimal.

The birth of the politicized civil society in Sweden took place in the mid 19th century. At that time the bicameral government was developed. The institutionalisation of the bicameral government was a process that was both top-down and bottom-up driven. The upper classes got the first chamber, while other classes could be elected to the second chamber. Due to bicameral government the party system start to evolve and more citizens became politicized.

At that time, Sweden was not a complete democracy, many groups were still excluded from politics, however more and more inhabitants required political rights.

Tollgate battle (Tullstriden in Swedish) in the 1880s became a crucial event to the breakdown of the political apathy. A brief background to this formative event; Swedish farmers felt threatened because of the cheaper wheat from Russia and the United States since tariffs were removed due to free trade adoption. Swedish farmers demanded reinstatement of duties. This event led to political mobilization. The organization called “Swedish labour friends” began a campaign work to reintroduce duties. This event was focused on contemporary problems and civil society actors were the major force behind it.

When the political apathy disappeared new movements arose: One of the issues was to reduce alcohol consumption that result in passive citizens. In that case the temperance movement started to work closely with the growing labour movement, which struggled for a better life for the workers.

Horizontal solidarity were replaced by vertical solidarity and social movements focused on dialogue instead of confrontation. That became the classic Swedish model of consensus, which influence different structures of the Swedish society.

In 1890s the suffrage movement appeared and the women’s suffrage movement was formed in 1902. Thanks to these movements the emerging political parties embraced the demand for universal suffrage. Meanwhile, the idea of ​​proportional representation emerged, in this system the minority would also gain rights and influences.

Scholars that studies the role of civil society in the democratisation process points out that during periods of transition the civil society’s role is most evident, but after the transformation from one regime to another the movements usually disappear and political parties adapt some of the movements’ demands and interests. Other movements live on but mostly as interest organizations.

In the case of Sweden, it is noted that when democracy was consolidated in the early 20th century the civil society organizations did not disappear, they continued to work in symbiosis and in some cases in opposition to the political parties. The strong civil society persisted.

Sweden got 1911 suffrage for all men over 24 years, but the struggle for female suffrage continued, again driven by civil society actors. Finally, the 1918 reform led to universal suffrage and from 1921 it was legislated.

During the first decades of 20th century a concept developed that haw been now under the name of “Folkhemmet”, in translation: people’s home. The concept meant that the democracy should embrace socialism and develop a welfare state, where all people have equal rights and opportunities. Society as a whole must be democratized. People’s home was in a way a recognition of the importance of a strong civil society.

One of the reasons why the Social Democratic Party grew in popularity and then for many years ruled Sweden was that the party created relations to civil society actors and listened to what the civil society actors had to say. It could be about youth politics after the youth organizations put pressure on politicians to create better conditions for young people, it could be about work issues when trade unions raised the issues. The economic development that was created was rooted in civil society pressure for better conditions for people.

During the 1930s, the concept of “Folkhemmet” replaced the concept of classes. The consensus seeking welfare state was born. The Social Democrats adopted an economic model based on theories of Maynard Keynes; it meant that the state should stimulate the economy. Thus, Sweden was the first country, which implemented Keynesianism, which was one part of the welfare state construction.

Throughout 20th century Social Democrats ruled Sweden in close symbiosis with civil society actors. The goal was to constantly improve people’s conditions. An important aspect was the pension reform that led to better pensions for the working class.

As in many other countries, there have been moments when the positive trend stopped, Sweden is no exception from that, and there are some dark sides of the Swedish success story like sterilization of certain individuals, shootings during the strike in Ådalen in the 1930s etc. But the key point is that civil society has always been a recovering force when problems emerged. Here is one such example when civil society was a recovering actor.

During the latter part of the 20th century a wave of right-wing extremism swept over Europe, it affected many countries and in Sweden a number of neo-Nazi organizations were formed. These organizations began attacking immigrants who came to Sweden. While development in Germany and England escalated, in Sweden it took another direction due to early emergence of many groups who fought against the neo-Nazis. These anti-racist groups sought the support of public and private actors and together with various agencies such as schools and civic centers could the neo-Nazis be effectively opposed.

This has been one of the most important struggles in recent years in Sweden, as the threat from neo-Nazi groups was palpable. Anti-racist actors formed a group called “Exit” where individuals who wanted to leave neo-Nazis groups could get help. The group “Exit” was the first of its kind and many countries with the same problem were influenced by this idea. “Exit” contributed a lot to the reduction of neo-Nazis.

A strong politicized civil society cannot exist without a supportive state. Swedish government recognizes the importance of civil society; by distributing the funds to civil society organizations the state keeps civil society actors in progress.

There is a consensus among parties in Sweden that civil society evolves democracy. That is the true politics of democratisation. When people are not involved and not politicized then you have a false democracy.

Richard Shelley

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