These are the notes I prepared for a talk I gave to a meeting in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. The context of the talk is some discussions about reorganisation on the radical left in Copenhagen. I was asked to give a talk about how the radical movement has developed in Sweden over the past ten years or so, with the assumption that some of the developments should perhaps be emulated over here. My approach was not to give a historical dissection of the period, but to look at some of the main themes that I think are worth emulating.
The talk was generally well received and there was some interesting discussion about why a similar shift towards class struggle had not also taken place in Denmark. I argued that the pre-existence of the SAC (a syndicalist union) in Sweden had made the shift towards class struggle a lot easier. The lack of a radical trade union structure in Denmark makes it very difficult for many radicals to stomach working heavily with the social democratic trade unions, and starting trade union activism ‘from scratch’ is a very difficult prospect for inexperienced left wing activists. A member of the audience also made the point that the radical left in Denmark have been very focused on combating the highly racist turn that there has been in Danish political life. I think that there may also be a lot of truth to this. Of course, these hypothetical questions can never be satisfactorily answered, at the end of the day, we have to relate ourselves to where we are, rather than where we would like to be.
Anyway, without further ado:
An activist’s history of the Swedish radical movement since 2001
Disclaimer: I am not a historian – this is a rather selective history.
So why is some Irish guy here talking to you about some things that happened in Sweden? Well, the reason I got interested in the Swedish movement when I first started reading about it and meeting Swedish activists was that I saw a movement that had managed to develop a practical orientation towards the type of struggles that affect the vast majority of people. In my experience, activist movements in many countries tend to be interested in projects and issues that only affect a relatively small number of people. While these projects might in themselves be very valuable, the ability to develop a large scale social movement around fringe issues is highly limited. And I don’t think you can create a new society without a large scale social movement.
The Swedish movement’s development over the last few years is interesting because it has moved from being a movement focused on single issue campaigns and spectacular actions to a movement rooted in people’s everyday life. I think that the Danish activist movement is in a similar trap of only prioritising single issue campaigns and not tying them in to issues that affect the vast majority of people.
The anti-globalisation movement
Around the turn of the century, the radical left wing in Sweden was very engaged in the anti-globalisation movement. This movement saw capitalist globalisation as involving an ongoing war against humanity. Institutions such as the IMF and the WTO enforced an ever increasing capitalist control over society, plunging millions into poverty. Activists in the Global North made connections with activists and social movements in the Global South, creating a feeling of a global movement against injustice. Despite the slogan ‘think global, act local’, the main practice of the anti-globalisation movement was confined to symbolic actions at summits of world business and political elites, such as the WTO meeting in Seattle 1999, the G8 summit in Genoa 2001 and the EU summit in Gothenburg 2001.
It was the experience of this EU summit at Gothenburg that marked a significant turning point in the development of the Swedish radical left. A massive series of actions and demonstrations was met by huge police repression and violence including the shooting of one demonstrator. At the end of the summit, many activists were forced to ask themselves: what had they actually achieved? This in turn led to a process of theoretical and tactical re-thinking.
A lot of this theoretical thinking focused around discussions of what capitalism is. Many participants in the anti-globalisation movement had been anti-capitalists, but the failure of capitalism to crumble after an endless series of summit protests had led to a few questions, among them, what is capitalism? And, how should we fight it?
So people started looking at analyses of capitalism, they became particularly interested in Marxist analyses, especially those of a branch of Marxism called ‘autonomist Marxism’.
Now I don’t want to go into a long discussion about the theory of autonomist Marxism, but there are a number of things that are important.
- Capitalism is a social system based on labour, waged and unwaged. Profit is made through exploitation of labour at the workplace, but this profit depends on exploitative relationships throughout the society, including unwaged labour in the home (childcare, cooking etc) and relationships such as racism and sexism.
- Capitalism is a system that is constantly changing. Workers struggle for higher wages and better conditions force capitalism to change and this change influences the way that workers struggle on both a practical level (what tactics are used) and a political level (the ideological character?). For this reason, the traditional left wing often seems like it is out of date and useless – because it is basing its ideology and tactics on past rather than present struggles.
Now these are nice ideas, but what do they mean on a practical level?
Well first of all, if the basis of capitalism is labour, then we need to take activism based around waged labour and unwaged labour (e.g. housework) a lot more seriously than was done under the anti-globalisation movement.
This recognition led to a large influx of activists into the SAC (a syndicalist union – i.e. a union that is based on direct action instead of negotiation, that is democratic and under the control of its members) and into other forms of workplace activism. This influx of activists had a big influence on the SAC, which had been previously going through a bit of a low period. The new energy from activists from the autonomous movement helped kick off a process of reform and re-energisation that had a number of results. First, SAC became a lot more bottom up, meaning that a lot of the full time positions were removed and more power was given to the people involved in workplace conflicts to control them.
Second, there was a recognition that recruitment was not the most important goal of conflicts. Even if there was only one member in the workplace she or he should focus first and foremost on developing a strong solidarity with her or his co-workers. This solidarity should be the fundamental basis of struggles against the boss. Only after a strong workplace collective was formed was there reason to talk about joining the union.
SAC wasn’t the only place where workplace activism took place, some workers believed that it was more important to be in the same trade union as their co-workers: rather than being the “only syndicalist at the workplace” it was important to use the trade union structure as a means for influencing their co-workers, and building up their consciousness. Other activists believed that trade unions could only have a negative influence on workers struggles, and it was necessary to organise outside them in order to develop struggles.
Secondly, if capitalism is constantly changing and if the struggles against capitalism are constantly changing, then we need to pay a lot more attention to our own experiences in order to figure out how capitalism is organised now, and where the struggles against it are located. How are our workplaces organised? How does our boss keep the workers divided? How do I and my workmates fight against the boss and the work? So, what you have is a lot of people investigating their work and their role in the labour market.
People started blogs, wrote articles and told stories about their specific situations, whether it was as students, temp workers, unemployed workers, factory workers or whatever. The important point was that people started looking at their own situation as something very political – instead of saying: “Well, I can’t be active right now, because I only have a temporary job, or I’m unemployed, or I’m studying, etc etc…” , They said, “What is political about my current situation? How can I make my situation better? How can I make contact and connections with other people in the same situation?”
Thirdly, another tendency was to look at the forms of resistance that people are taking throughout the society and develop them. This recognition led to a few interesting initiatives, among them Piratbyraan (the Pirate Bureau) and Planka.nu, a campaign for free public transport.
Piratbyraan emerged out of a recognition that internet piracy was an extremely common form of anti-capitalist struggle. People everywhere were actively engaged in ripping off the capitalist class, in putting their own desires before the needs of profit. Despite the implicit political content of the act, digital piracy lacked a political context. Piratbyraan was formed to develop this context, to promote piracy and develop an identity around it. The most successful initiative of Piratbyraan was The Pirate Bay which combined technical support for piracy with an attitude and identity that created a politicisation of sorts for digital pirates, placing piracy within the context of a struggle against corporations.
Planka.nu was an initiative that sought to develop the already widespread practice of fare dodging on public transport, and give it a more overtly political context. To do this, they created a form of collective insurance whereby fare-dodgers could pay a small amount into a fund every month, and those who were caught could have their fines paid by this fund. They combined this with propaganda and media campaigns, for example creating videos showing people how easy it was to skip fares, and encouraging people to do it themselves.
What is interesting in both of these initiatives is that they begin with a recognition of some activity as a form of anti-capitalist struggle. They then tried to make these activities public and to create a political context for them. By doing so, people who had previously done these activities in an unconscious way could begin to see the political content in them, begin to see themselves as a movement of sorts, and begin to have some common voice and activity within the society.
The Swedish radical movement has undergone a broad tactical shift in recent years. From the spectacular activism of the anti-globalisation to a movement that is based on expanding and deepening everyday struggles inside and outside of the workplace.
- We need to base our struggles in everyday reality, on problems that affect most people, not on abstract issues. We can look at our own experiences and our own needs as the starting point for collective action. Student activism around SU (student wage in Denmark) or cutbacks for example, or unemployed workers organising could be good places to start.
- We need to make our tactics relevant and easily adopted. Tactics such as large demonstrations or symbolic direct actions might be good for getting media attention once off, but it is generally only a small minority of society that will participate in such actions. Tactics like fare dodging or internet piracy are easily adoptable. You don’t need to be an experienced activist to use them, you can just do it.
- We need to move away from seeing resistance and struggle as something that is only done by a small part of society. Nearly everybody in society is fighting in some way, but often this way is unconscious and undeveloped. We need to recognise the forms of resistance that already exist and we need to stop seeing activists as an enlightened minority with ‘the right ideas’.