The State, Civil Society and Sovereignty: Sweden
The idea with Swedish folkhemmet (almost untranslatable but it literally means “people’s home”), was good. From the 1930s onwards the democratically elected social democrats took responsibility for all citizens working towards equality and the right for all to a decent living standard, education, and work through reforms. Thus the Swedish folkhemmet was created, a home for all people of the country.
This is an achievement that has become known world-wide, for very good reasons. The problem today is not that equality, qualified as above, would not be desirable today. What has happened in Sweden is something else, and it is a matter of surprise that this has been so little discussed lately for example before the recent election. The idea with folkhemmet must have been to create a space for people so that they could develop their own kind of life, own interests, own ideals. One excellent example may be the need for freedom of religion. Thus it must now be an open question whether you belong to the traditional church, or opted for another church, like the Pentecostal church or remained un-churched. However, the traditional church, the Church of Sweden, for many years remained a state church (a complete contradiction of terms) till the end of last millennium.
However, in a subtle way, and here the clinging to the state church system may have played a negative role, folkhemmet gradually developed into something more than providing a framework for a life in freedom. We wanted to control people’s use of alcohol; thus we have for all these years had a state monopoly called Systembolaget. The state is now regulating parents’ right to maternal or paternal leave, and the discussion is about legislating around this leave; the idea is to ensure that the father will take out as much leave as the mother.
It is then a matter of no surprise when the main evening TV news programme Aktuellt takes up a request from a lonely woman whose sambo (co-habitant) had died suddenly. The woman: “I grieved for weeks and did not go out, I stayed in bed. I find it completely unacceptable that there is no one to ask for help. There must be a way for the government to step in.”
Wicked tongues have called this development into a state that takes care of everything for it becoming a “sheltered or protected workshop” (skyddad verkstad).
To be honest, behind this kind of society is a struggle between a socialist and a liberal standpoint, a struggle between the wish to regulate as much as possible for the sake of equality (above all in material terms) and the wish to safeguard liberty based on a deeper conviction of the human being created as a free agent, but with obligations towards others.
What should be agreed upon, before the whole thing is muddled up, is the basic and utterly necessary need for a society built on justice, which automatically means an independent judiciary. But it is not just about justice of a very crude kind (stealing is an offence that must be penalized). Justice is also intricately involved in issues regarding gender. This example shows how difficult this is, for gender issues are on the one hand outright political, but at the same time utterly personal.
In that sense it is far easier to deal with domestic violence as there is widest possible consensus that this is something that must be curbed and that it is an offence. Much harder it is to say how this should be curbed. Most of us would still wish our bedrooms to be kept as part of our private sphere.
So where to draw the line? For a line must be drawn; if not, we are steadily moving towards not only increasing state control but also towards a repressive state.
When it comes to identifying the framework that should be there in any democratic state worth its name we could be aided by the Dutch Abraham Kuyper, so heavily misinterpreted and abused by apartheid ideologues in the mid-twentieth century. Human activities should take place in societal spheres that are quite independent, sovereign, and here again the church comes in as an ideal such sphere. With Christian rhetoric one could say that we do pay taxes to Caesar but we will at all costs avoid “Caesarism”. But here is a tension. But as said, the state has its sovereignty especially in terms of justice and even has to see to the individual if she or he is subject to tyranny. So Kuyper says: “Furthermore, since personal life can be suppressed by the group in which one lives, the state must protect the individual from the tyranny of his own circle. This Sovereignty, as Scripture puts it, ‘gives stability to the land by justice’ (Proverbs 29.4), for without justice it destroys itself and falls. Thus the sovereignty of the State, as the power that protects the individual and defines the mutual relationships among the visible spheres, rises high above them by its right to command and to compel. But within these spheres that does not obtain. There another authority rules, an authority that descends directly from God apart from the State. This authority the State does not confer but acknowledges.”
In Sweden, I am worried that these issues now are put under the carpet. The only decent way is to open a real debate regarding our various socialist and liberal leanings and try to find a reasonable modus vivendi that puts justice in the centre when it comes to the state but still safeguards that desperately needed liberty to take life in one’s own hands and take responsibility for that. That debate we need now and does not follow simply drawn party political lines.