Professor of Social Anthropology at University of Uppsala in Sweden.
Sweden’s three main left-leaning opposition parties have just announced plans to build a coalition for next year’s parliamentary elections. The Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party say collectively they’ll try to wrest power from the Moderate Party, which leads a coalition of center-right groups. We speak with social anthropology professor Brian Palmer. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re looking at the politics of Sweden. Its three main left-leaning opposition parties — the Left, the Green and the Social Democrats — have just announced plans to build a coalition for next year’s parliamentary elections. They say they’ll collectively try to wrest power from the Moderate Party, which leads a coalition of center-right groups. The Social Democrats were swept out of office two years ago, after dominating Swedish politics for most of the last seventy-five years.
Brian Palmer joins us now, professor of social anthropology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and a former professor at Harvard University. He joins us here in Sweden.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
BRIAN PALMER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Brian Palmer, talk about the shift that’s going on in politics here — you’ve written a biography of the current prime minister — and how this fits in with the story we just talked about, the story of Alfred Nobel, both the Peace Prizes and his founding of, really, the weapons industry in this country.
BRIAN PALMER: One can begin by saying that the reasons for Sweden’s reputation as a progressive paradise, the strongest labor movement in the world with 87 percent of workers unionized, creating over many decades the strongest welfare state, the one that on the UN Human Poverty Index has the least poverty in the world. And then, what we’ve seen over the last twenty years, but particularly since the 2006 election, is a move away from all of that.
We have a prime minister who in the 1990s wrote a book, The Sleeping People
, where he said that the welfare state should only prevent starvation, nothing beyond that, no other standard should be guaranteed. After being elected, Fredrik Reinfeldt, one of his first major visits abroad was to George Bush in the White House, this in spite of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, a visit that many people thought shouldn’t have happened, his coalition then getting — bringing over Karl Rove for advice and support —- Karl Rove, the architect of President Bush’s electoral victories.
AMY GOODMAN: They brought Karl Rove here?
BRIAN PALMER: This past summer.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
BRIAN PALMER: Because he can offer good advice on how to win the 2010 election. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: Is this unusual for Karl Rove to do this kind of international consulting?
BRIAN PALMER: According to his website, it’s his only foreign consulting, for the Moderate Party of Sweden.
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t the current prime minister visiting Bush in the White House?
BRIAN PALMER: Yeah, and there was much — many people writing that this shouldn’t happen. He justified the visit, that he would persuade Bush to sign the Kyoto Accord, but people who were there say that he didn’t even really attempt that.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about his politics, the prime minister, and how, after seventy-five years of the Social Democrats ruling — fit it into US politics, how you’d categorize what we’re talking about here, the spectrum.
BRIAN PALMER: The first piece to notice is really in the electoral campaign, when he tried very hard to appeal to working-class voters, described his party as the new workers’ party. And after one speech, he was asked by a journalist if it wasn’t a speech inspired by Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” And he answered that it was, to some degree. Bush was so successful at winning the white working class, especially in 2004, where white working-class voters favored him by 23 percent. Reinfeldt brought over only a small percent of working-class voters to his coalition, but enough to tip the balance.
And then, we have a real kind of silent war on the labor movement, where it’s been made much more expensive to be part of a union, where the legal prerogatives of unions have been made much less. We have a rather dramatic change in the tax system, abolishing the inheritance tax and property tax — most property taxes, cutbacks in social welfare institutions, some changes that will be very hard for future regimes to undo.
AMY GOODMAN: Can talk more about the starvation index, the measure that the prime minister here has laid out?
BRIAN PALMER: That was in his book, The Sleeping People, from 1993, where he wrote — I quote — "We do not want to see a society where people starve, but beyond that, no particular standard should be guaranteed by tax money." And then he was asked on television after the book’s publication what he meant by that, and he said the boundary for social support should be the starvation boundary. That’s, of course, not his policy now, but it shows the danger of electing someone who is a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher to the highest post in the land.
AMY GOODMAN: I’ve been very interested in the social welfare system here, as the United States deals with greater unemployment, the crisis of healthcare. You have a social welfare system where healthcare is free in Sweden. And yet, you’re seeing increasingly private hospitals and private insurance?
BRIAN PALMER: Yeah, many small changes to, in some way, make it harder for the general welfare state to function — for example, creating — allowing the creation of a private children’s hospital in Stockholm only for paying customers and people with —-
AMY GOODMAN: “Paying,” as opposed to “pain,” customers?
BRIAN PALMER: “Paying,” yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Paying customers in pain.
BRIAN PALMER: Indeed, who will pay the full cost of their children’s care, or people who have private insurance to do that. What this will do is start to create this kind of thing, will start to create groups of middle-class people who no longer have such a stake in the general welfare system, because they feel, well, I’m buying it anyway privately, and that will gradually erode middle-class support for the general welfare system that up to now has had very high levels of support from the middle class.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the health insurance companies that are coming in?
BRIAN PALMER: They are very, very eager for this business. And it’s a tremendous irony that, just at a moment when Americans, some of them discussing Michael Moore’s film Sicko, see the very unethical behavior of different kinds of health insurance and health management companies, many of those same companies are getting the opportunity to buy pieces of Swedish healthcare clinics, parts of hospitals -— according to a new law, even entire university hospitals can be sold out to private companies —- so that as Americans have mostly become skeptical of these companies, they’re being invited to Sweden to do damage here.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Brian Palmer, the issue of the left parties, or at least the left-of-center parties, now challenging the right in this country, the current government, what is the significance of the Social Democrats, and what is the Left Party joining with the Green Party, in this?
BRIAN PALMER: The Social Democrats are the largest opposition party now. The Left Party’s smaller, an ecological—, feminist-oriented labor party, and they have been excluded from previous coalitions. They’ve tacitly supported them, but not allowed — not been allowed to have minister roles. Now, for the first time, as of two days ago, the Social Democrats have accepted that the Left Party and the Green Party would be part of their coalition government —-
AMY GOODMAN: Ruling coalition.
BRIAN PALMER: —- if they win in the 2010 election.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, as people can hear from your accent, you are an American, a citizen who is now a Swedish citizen. You taught at Harvard and have an interesting story to tell about someone who’s become a significant national figure now, Larry Summers, who is the former president of Harvard. In your class in 2004, you invited him to your class to address the class and to answer questions from the students. Tell us what class you taught. This was the most popular class at Harvard, elective class at Harvard. You had 600 students in the class. You won the — was it the Livingston Prize?
BRIAN PALMER: Levinson.
AMY GOODMAN: Levinson Prize for teaching. But you ended up having to leave in 2004, shortly after your encounter with Larry Summers —-
BRIAN PALMER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- who’s now going to become, if — the chief economic adviser to Barack Obama.
BRIAN PALMER: Larry Summers was then Harvard’s president, and the 600 students and I invited him to be interviewed by us. And I think that in the environments in which he traveled, he wasn’t —-
AMY GOODMAN: The name of your class?
BRIAN PALMER: Personal choice and global transformation -— that he wasn’t used to getting very probing questions. For example, one student asked President Summers, “As a champion of meritocracy, how can you defend Harvard’s policies of giving an edge in admissions to the children of alumni?” And he became so irritated by these questions that he really fell into quite a bad mood and began to declare to the class that my ideas were “silly,” as he put it. And this was the souring of our relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: Your contract was not renewed?
BRIAN PALMER: No, no.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the fact that you had the most popular elective class at Harvard.
BRIAN PALMER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And had won the teaching prize.
BRIAN PALMER: But as a consolation, I got to move to Sweden, which has its plus sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Professor Brian Palmer —-
BRIAN PALMER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —- teaches at University of — how do you pronounce it?
BRIAN PALMER: Uppsala.
AMY GOODMAN: Uppsala, here in Sweden. He’s a professor of social anthropology.