Is a Swedish Green Conversion Possible?: The Strengths and Limits to the Left’s Response

By Jonathan M. Feldman

The Politics of Climate Change: Sweden’s Response

Sweden is often regarded as an environmental pioneer but the country’s emissions have increased in key sectors. The 2019 Socialist Forum held in Stockholm’s ABF building addressed the urgency of climate change and the left’s response to the climate crisis. This essay analyzes one panel discussion there to raise general questions about the state of Swedish left thinking on the environmental crisis.  I use this discussion to explore both the strengths and weaknesses attached to such thinking.  While noting important steps forward attached to new social movements and ideas to link labor and environmental movements, I point to four key problems with the way the left frames or acts on ecological questions and suggest ways to overcome these limits.

On November 23rd of this year Green Party spokesperson and Vice Prime Minister Isabella Lövin and author and university lecturer Andreas Malm led the discussion “We Must React!”  Lisa Pelling, the moderator, is a political scientist and research director at the Arena Idé think tank.  The panel discussion was part of the annual Socialist Forum held at ABF in Stockholm every year.  I begin this essay by reviewing the arguments made by Lövin and Malm.  My main conclusion is that while parliamentary action by environmentally oriented parties may be necessary but not sufficient, even ecological social movement action which pushes all parties is necessary but not sufficient.  What is missing is an analysis about why the far-right side of the spectrum has grown while the left has not and a discussion of the ability of the left to sufficiently organize and expand its resources.  The right has the power to limit if not block the necessary systemic changes which both Malm and (to a lesser extent) Lövin say they want.

Pelling, the moderator, began by asking whether the environment movement should point to the dangers facing us from climate change or instead focus on positive examples of sustainable development.  The latest United Nations study warns: “Even if countries meet commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world is heading for a 3.2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, leaving to even wider-ranging and more destructive climate impacts.” Lövin began by stating that “we do have not time to lose,” political pressure must be placed on all political parties. She continued by stating that while we are 100 percent certain of what science tells us and positive forces promote a green conversion, there are forces working in the opposite direction, such as companies tied to fossil fuels worth billions of crowns “fighting for their survival.” She said these companies support war in the Middle East and produce other types of problems.  Lövin argued that something must be done to address that concentrated political power because these companies will do everything they can to survive.

Lövin said that when it comes to the climate crisis, “it is not enough to talk about alternatives if people don’t see it is an emergency.” The problem, however, according to Lövin is that some people are more afraid of green conversion than climate change itself.  She referred to psychological research suggesting that people are won over by positive examples and by implication not necessarily by negative ones. Lövin argued that a green conversion can be promoted without a lot of economic casualties.  Several Swedish industries are making or planning to make a green transition and these industries strongly believe that they can do what is ecologically necessary without sacrificing profit. Many companies are convinced that a green transition makes them more competitive in the marketplace than otherwise or at least believe a green transition is feasible.  Winning over industries and green conversion are necessary for addressing the concentrated political power of fossil fuel industries and their allies.  Thus, Lövin basically said, “when we have industry behind us, things happen.”  In sum, we need a concrete politics which shows that change is possible, backed by social movements that contribute to social change.

Andreas Malm argued that peoples’ anger represents a key mechanism promoting proactive social change advancing the environmental movement is.  He pointed to an article in the journal Nature Climate Change about this topic. The article by Daniel A. Chapman, Brian Lickel and Ezra M. Markowitz, “Reassessing emotion in climate change communication,” was published in December 2017, in Volume 7 of that journal. The authors write:

Anger, for example, is often considered a destructive emotion causing aggression, but in fact anger only rarely leads to aggression toward others. These links certainly exist, but operate in complex ways moderated by the context in which the emotional experience unfolds. Contrary to a simplistic view of anger as destructive, research shows that anger is typically the emotion most strongly associated with motivating individuals to rectify social injustices.

Malm pointed to the Extinction Rebellion and Friday for Future movements as involving such anger and useful as counter-movements, even if they have various limits.

Lövin argued that overfishing in the Baltic Sea long went on because politicians did not react. For that reason, she welcomes Greta Thunberg’s recent refrain “how dare you” which questioned political elites for their failure to act quickly and substantively to address environmental problems. Yet, she argues that when politicians act, they can then produce the needed changes.  Whereas Malm emphasized that “politics changes when people are in the street,” Lövin argued that if the majority of parliament represented by parties don’t have it in their DNA to systematically address the ecological crisis, we will “go over the cliff.” Therefore, it is costly if not “dangerous” to abandon political contestation in parliament as doing so amounts to “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”  In other words, deconstructing existing parties as limited is not an excuse for abandoning parliamentary contestation.

Lövin’s statement led Malm to emphasize the limits to political parties—even if not especially the Green Party.  By way of background, the Green Party’s parliamentary vote share decreased from 6.9 percent in 2014 to 4.4 percent in 2018.  The party reached a membership peak in 2014 with 20,214 members, which reduced to 10,719 in 2017.  Malm argued that the Green Party collapsed in the 2018 election because it failed to fulfill a commitment to close coal mines in Germany owned by the Swedish government through the state-owned energy firm Vattenfall. Instead Vattenfall sold them off, causing a political scandal which damaged the Green Party severely. A report in Reuters before the sale explained that this ownership transfer “would reduce Vattenfall’s electricity output by about 30 percent, but also cut its carbon emissions by about 70 percent, making it one of the greenest utilities in Europe.” At this time, Sweden’s Greenpeace affiliate “said the plants should have been shut down and said the sale was a catastrophe for European climate policy and tarnishes Sweden’s environmental reputation.”  Malm said that Vattenfall should have immediately closed the mines. Due to political bargaining coal will only be phased out of Germany by 2038, a timeline criticized by both Malm and Lövin.

Malm noted that Germany’s slow withdrawal from coal incentivizes the nation’s ecological movement to escalate its tactics. In October the Clean Energy Wire reported how the Extinction Rebellion in Germany had launched “two weeks of blockades and acts of civil disobedience by occupying two main traffic intersections in Berlin.” Malm said that the ecology movement should support dismantling of coal, not systems tied to offsetting damage through the purchase of emissions credits. He noted that Spain is phasing out coal. In a news story E3G explains that the reduced profitability for coal power generation in that country led Endesa, a utility company, to announce in September 2019 that it would  “retire two additional power plants in 2020, which had previously been intended for life extensions.” By 2020, a total of 83 percent of Spain’s existing coal capacity was “set to be retired.”  The European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) reforms have encouraged these changes in Europe.  Malm argued that Sweden still imports oil and that the country’s climate politics is significantly limited by “business as usual.”  As can be seen in the figure below published by, Sweden imports thousands of short tons of coal year after year (Figure 1).  A November 25 report in Carbon Brief  noted “continuing increases in coal generation in south-east Asia,” but that “global electricity production from coal is on track to fall by around 3% in 2019, the largest drop on record.”

Figure 1: Swedish Coal Imports in Thousands of Short Tons

Svensk import av kol

Source: EIA as cited in

Malm said that the Swedish Greens also collapsed electorally because they abandoned their policy of being more generous to immigrants. Instead, the Green Party supported closed as opposed to open borders after the so-called “migration crisis.”  As a government website explains, these changes took place in 2015 when the Swedish government attempted to limit migration.  One official reason was “to be able to provide for those already in the country.”  The closures involved making it more difficult to enter Sweden without a valid passport or official identification document.  The legislature made it more difficult to gain a residence permit and reunite with family members. For example, “of the around 35,500 asylum seekers [who] got a decision from the Swedish Migration Agency in 2018, 11,000 (32 per cent) were granted asylum in Sweden, compared with 27,000 of 66,500 (41 per cent) in 2017 and 67,000 of 112,000 (60 per cent) in 2016.” In sum, “Sweden went from having the EU’s most generous asylum laws to adopting the minimum EU level.”

Lövin side-stepped the migration question, saying that the party lacked the tools to control the disposition of the mines.  Instead, she argued that the costs of emissions have now increased substantially thanks to EU ETS reforms.  These reforms were promoted by the Green Party and other Swedish political interests more generally. Furthermore, Lövin argued that the Green Party could not promote the fight against coal because they are a minority party in the ruling government coalition dominated by the Social Democratic Party in cooperation with the Center and Liberal parties.  She agreed that “anger is useful.”  A larger problem is that planetary conditions are bad, but politicians deflect responsibilities. The planet is being used “like a garbage dump” and the environmental movement must show that this practice is wrong.  Lövin pointed to the dangers of a self-serving variant of nationalism.  She argued that Donald Trump’s arguments against systematic climate change agreements are based on the idea that environmental regulation helps China and hurts the United States.  The Swedish variant of this thinking is that Sweden’s climate footprint is like a drop in the ocean, so it doesn’t matter what individuals do.  Lövin countered that this misguided approach fails to oppose moving down the wrong path and fails to oppose setting a bad example.

Lövin pointed to both legislative and industrial good examples taking place in Sweden. On the political front, Green Party successes have included “climate change legislation,” a “flight tax,” and many other reforms which both limited emissions and contrasted to the years of passivity of “the Alliance,” i.e. the coalition of bourgeois parties led by Fredrick Reinfeldt from October 2006 to October 2014.  Sweden’s “Climate Act and Climate Policy Framework” was adopted in 2017.  This legislative project codifies Sweden’s “long-term target” for having “zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest.” The Climate Act and Policy Framework, including the target, is backed by all but one party in the Swedish Parliament, the Sweden Democrats (SD).  The disagreements related to this initiative primarily focus on which policies will be initiated, particularly energy policies that might be used to reach the long-term target of “net zero emissions” by 2045. Some might argue that Greenhouse Gas Emissions declined between 2006 and 2014 under a right-wing government. Others can counter that the easiest emissions reductions were made then.

On the economic front, Lövin pointed to SSAB’s green conversion as a good example.  This company, a global steel maker, has been responsible for 10 percent of all emissions in Sweden.  Now the company plans to convert from using coal to using hydrogen gas in steel production.  SSAB reports that in 2016 the company, LKAB (the state-owned mining company) and Vattenfall “joined forces to create HYBRIT—an initiative that endeavors to revolutionize steel-making.” HYBRIT is the name of the initiative that replaces “coking coal,” the traditional method needed for “ore-based steel making, with hydrogen.” The Hybrit initiative will lead to “the world’s first fossil-free steel-making technology, with virtually no carbon footprint.”  Lövin also notes that prices for emissions in Europe are now going up because of the EU ETS reforms.  These reforms will further boost green conversion in Europe and support companies already trying to convert such as SSAB and others. The Green Party and many Swedish companies both see a global competitive advantage in being the first movers towards green conversion.  Therefore, these companies see green conversion as a benefit rather than as a burden.   In sum, Lövin argued that the Green Party has been and is an indispensable political force in setting the conditions for Sweden on the path of green conversion.  Furthermore, without such conversion both Sweden and the world won’t achieve the necessary climate targets.

Linking the Labor and Environmental Movements

Lisa Pelling pointed out that about a third of Sweden’s wealth is controlled by the top 10 percent of the population.  Wealth concentration, she argued, provides a foundation for linking the labor and environmental movements to address these issues simultaneously, a linkage made by Green New Deal proposals in the United States and similar efforts elsewhere.  Pelling’s argument about wealth concentration is confirmed in a report by Mike Bird in Business Insider on October 14, 2014 explaining that “the celebrated social-democratic nations of Scandinavia have some of the highest wealth inequality in Europe.”  Credit Suisse explained these findings in their Global Wealth Report.  Thus, “the top 10% of wealth holders in…Norway, Sweden and Denmark…hold between 65 and 69 percent of those nations’ wealth.”  In other words, “Scandinavian inequality on this measure” is “significantly above British, French, Italian or Spanish levels.” Germany and Austria which “come a little closer” are “still behind,” with Switzerland being the only nation reaching “higher levels of wealth inequality.”  One reason for this inequality, not explained by Pelling, was that Scandinavians often get resources like pensions, health and housing provided by the state which diminishes the public’s need for a certain degree of savings.

Andreas Malm agreed with Pelling’s view that a Green New Deal was possible and useful.  He argued that the climate crisis is above all driven by the production and consumption for and by the rich and not the average person or the poor, both in Sweden and globally. Malm therefore used class and justice criteria to inform his vision of the green transition.  He also argued that the environmental movement should appeal to the working class’s material interests.  He believes that “the best” model for joining these interests can be found in the British Labour Party’s political program.  Among other things that program has advocated:

  • Nationalizing the postal and rail industries
  • Massive taxes on the oil industry
  • Opposing petroleum-based transport
  • Financing green conversion
  • Free broadband services
  • Higher pay in the public sector

Malm argued that this plan has received extensive support by the British labor movement and goes farther than either the Swedish Green or Left parties have gone in comprehensive ecological planning.

Lövin said that workers in various carbon-producing sectors like energy and transport don’t actively oppose a green conversion, but they must see that such a change is in their interest.  She argued that social questions and ecological solutions must be joined.  She noted that companies like Volvo were slow to introduce electric cars when they already had these available for many years. Malm countered by asking why companies like Volvo were not nationalized if they have been slow to react to needed green conversions.  Lövin responded by saying that such a policy measure would be possible if green interests controlled more than half of the parliament—which they don’t.  In any case, Lövin rejected the politics of scarcity (and implicitly zero growth discourse) by arguing that “we don’t have to go backwards and live a worse life,” but in contrast “we need to live a better life.”  This improved life can be achieved with improved public transport, more clean energy, vegetarian diets and other such changes.

Lövin’s intervention led to the question of whether a green conversion was going to cost the average citizen more.  She addressed this point by arguing that it should cost the rich more and weaken their control.  Without an economically equitable solution, green and working peoples’ interests can more easily diverge.  Therefore, Lövin advocated a “redistributive politics.”  Malm agreed with that assessment, supporting what he called old-fashioned Social Democratic policies.  These policies must, according to Malm, include guaranteed workers’ employment if their jobs were eliminated during a green conversion.  If conversion leads to job loss, workers losing jobs should be guaranteed alternative employment. Malm suggested that capital flight, defined as businesses closing operations or moving jobs to other countries, will aggravate working class resistance to proactive measures. In other words, dirty industries can use what some in the U.S. have called “job blackmail.” Malm said the provision of public mass transit, alternative energy and nationalization of industries can provide measures of security for working people.

After Pelling asked about needed improvements in public services, Lövin agreed that Sweden should strengthen municipalities’ capacities to address sustainability demands (which might include needs related to recycling, alternative energy and local infrastructure to support clean transportation).  Malm said capitalists have used their power to weaken public services and oppose green conversion.  Politicians have presented voters with false choices such as between improved schools or improved public transportation.  Thus, he argued ecological activists should attack such capitalists’ power.  After Malm pressed Lövin about whether Greens would advocate this strategy, she replied that the Green Party supported “solidarity with all people around the world,” with future generations, and with the ecosystem including animals.  The Green Party, she said, was working daily to address the climate crisis.

Malm placed less faith in political parties than in social movements like the Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future.  He said that these movements explain why political parties in the United Kingdom, particularly the Labour Party, now propose more proactive and systemic ecological policies.  Malm said social movements have been the key to social change and would have to play a central role if Sweden ended up later with a bourgeois government.  In other words, protests are an essential way to influence both Green and non-Green parties.

Lövin acknowledged the lag in political parties’ actions. She pointed out that Malm was earlier than most in showing the need for comprehensive ecological change. Malm’s book, published in 2007, was entitled, “It is our firm belief that if nothing is done now it will be too late.” Lövin said that when the Green Party was founded (in 1981), ecological concerns that now dominate today’s debate were already clearly in focus.  Lövin made the point that other political parties, including those to the left, were very late in adopting any kind of systemic ecological policies, particularly with respect to the climate crisis. She also implied that her party’s cooperation with the Social Democrats has presented difficulties because the Greens are a junior partner without enough leverage.  The Green Party has therefore found it difficult to advance climate politics as the Social Democratic Party places more emphasis on non-ecological priorities.


Four Key Limits to the Swedish Model and Swedish Discourse

The Cultural Lag

The limits to the Swedish model and present Swedish discourse related to social change can be seen in at least four key areas.  First, if we have on the order of ten years to prevent major cascading tipping points related to climate change, then we must investigate the mechanisms blocking rapid political change.  Yet, we see many areas where the Swedish left has moved slowly to address climate change, despite its obvious successes. While Fridays for Future was a key Swedish “political innovation,” we nevertheless have seen slow development in important elements of the country’s ecological discourse.  The lag between current realities on the one hand and the Green Party’s original ambitions and Malm’s agenda in 2007 on the other points to the existence of a “cultural lag.” In his 1957 essay, “Cultural Lag as Theory,” the American sociologist William F. Ogburn argued that such a condition exists “when one of two parts of culture which are correlated changes before or in greater degree than the other part does, thereby causing less adjustment between the two parts than existed previously.” Thus, Ogburn showed that while “the atomic bomb was produced in two and on-half years…a decade later we have developed no defense against the atomic bomb, nor have we made an adjustment in the dispersion of urban populations or in controlling atomic energy or in agreeing to ban the atomic bomb.”  In the climate change case, we have a similar “ticking time bomb” in which companies, political parties and social movements have proven insufficient to solve the underlying problem.

This lag raises the question as to what has been going on politically in Sweden for the last forty or so years. John Bellamy Foster explains that “the phrase Green New Deal took hold in 2007 in a meeting between Colin Hines, former Head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit, and Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott.”  Based on my past communications with him, Malm was clearly interested in a Green New Deal ten years ago (if not earlier). A few weeks after I organized the national Green New Deal conference in Stockholm (March 9 and 10, 2009), Peter Eriksson and Maria Wetterstrand, the Green Party spokespersons at the time, wrote about the topic in Dagens Nyheter on March 29th of that year.  In fact, Lövin herself was a participant in that conference as was Eriksson.  The Green Party has long campaigned on the theme of “modernizing Sweden” through green investments and that has slowly happened, but not on a systemic level. The Marx 2019 conference gave some attention to the Green New Deal as well, but it was hardly a dominant theme in that event several weeks ago (October 25-27).  The focus was on “the climate and capitalism,” but it is probable that capitalism will not end in time to limit the arrival of severe ecological tipping points.  One suspects, however, that if the U.S. or British lefts were not presently taking up the Green New Deal, neither would the Swedish left.   In sum, while the idea of a Green New Deal has been floating around Sweden for ten years, the uneven commitment to this idea further underlines the cultural lag.

One thing that seems certain is that ideas developed elsewhere, decades ago, in other countries have now been rebranded as new considerations when entering Swedish discourse. Malm correctly points out the resemblance of these ideas to old Social Democratic conceptions, yet those older conceptions did not have environmental criteria as foremost considerations. For example, the argument about job blackmail organized by dirty industries was made as early as 1982 by Richard Kazis and Richard L. Grossman in the book, Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment.  At the same time, Seymour Melman addressed the need to provide alternative employment for defense workers when military installations were closed or employment reduced because of military budget cutbacks or disarmament agreements. Melman argued in 1988 that conversion should involve legislative changes like “advanced planning” to support alternatives, “advanced notification of contract termination,” “mandatory occupational retraining,” “community adjustment planning,” “income maintenance during civilian conversion,” “relocation allowances,” “a national network for employment opportunity,” and “capital investment planning by government” in the book, The Demilitarized Society.  Closer to home Inga Thorsson, a leading Social Democratic politician and peace activist, championed conversion and associated retraining programs. While the old Social Democrats certainly considered proposals like Melman’s, the majority faction also developed nuclear and defense industries at the expense of the alternative energy (wind power) and (to a lesser extent) the mass transit industry.

One way in which social innovations occur is by promoting diversity through immigrant groups (noted by Peter Hall in his book Cities and Civilization) or by empowering a new leadership group (as I have documented in my research on firms).  The Swedish Left is assumed by many to be a cosmopolitan entity, yet it is strange how insular it actually is.  At the Socialist Forum I spoke to one left intellectual with an immigrant background and he told me the meetings are the same “year after year” and that if one went back ten years the same things as were said then are said now. Events tend to feature the same speakers year after year.  If anything, this year’s event had considerably fewer international speakers than in years’ past suggesting that the Swedish left has either fewer resources or has become less cosmopolitan.

Nationalization is Insufficient

The second key limitation to Swedish discourse on ecological matters concerns an over-confidence in the state and government administration.  One thing that we know for certain is that while the left in Sweden has asked for the state to have more resources, with some now backing nationalization in the United Kingdom and Sweden, the right has consistently questioned the efficiency of the state and its programs and policies and favors the market.  Therefore, if the left wants to give municipal governments more resources and use the national state to take over industries, one should know if these various scales of state power have the necessary competence.  This is true even if “the state has been an underappreciated driver of growth and innovation,” as economist Mariana Mazzucato argues. The basic question is whether and how power and knowledge can be integrated in various organizational forms that promote sustainable innovations and outcomes.  These organizational forms can be private (in the case of cooperatives) or public (in the case of a revitalized and modernized public sector).

If the state lacks competence and is given power to organize economic activity, then political scandals and a potential legitimacy crisis may result and potentially disempower the regime responsible for that activity. In the U.S. anti-ecological forces in the Republican Party made successful and unfair use of the failed Solyndra alternative energy firm supported by the Obama Administration. Therefore, an essential pre-requisite for increased state intervention into the economy (including nationalization) would be the development of capacities within state personnel so that they can organize any economic activities that they are responsible for.  For example, public service workers should get training in management and engineering if they are to oversee and run state-owned businesses.  Yet, current Social Democratic policy is that the state lacks competence in key areas and must defer to the wisdom of corporate managers (even when managers clearly lack wisdom or engage in malfeasance, as in the hidden fees that periodically have been introduced by Scandinavian Airlines).  The idea that government workers should receive improved training and capacities development is not a question high on the Swedish political agenda, however. In addition, any government run industries would have to address questions of accountability to workers, consumers and the public.  In other words, blaming the rich or taxing them won’t automatically lead to improved accountability systems.  Poll data shows that one of the most important reasons why the British public has supported nationalization is that many there believe organizations “should be accountable to taxpayers rather than shareholders.”  Yet a redistributive politics without competence may simply empower unaccountable bureaucrats and change the unaccountable management team from a private to a public one.

The Swedish discourse on environmental transformation usually leaves out a discussion about the role of a revitalized democracy in speeding up that transformation or promoting its competence.  There is a Swedish democratic green conversion movement, but their engagements are on the periphery of both mainstream and mainstream left discourse.  In Britain, the National Organisation for Local Economies (CLES) promotes democratic control over the economy in a way that does not depend solely on the proclivities of national states and parliamentary majorities. For example, CLES’s “The Manifesto for Local Economies” reads: “In policy terms every single local authority needs to pass a local Green New Deal. As a subsidiary of the national Green New Deal movement, the local Green New Deal will spell out how each place will need to respond to this challenge by 2030, including how they are to contribute through local industrial strategies, planning, regeneration and the role of anchor institutions.”

The first democratic question that can be asked is whether nationalization per se will deliver the speed and competence required for a green transition.  The basic problem remains that neither nationalization nor the market guarantee responsibility or accountability in service performance nor delivery.  In Sweden, we have seen failures in administration of airlines (SAS), hospitals (Karolinska) and real estate companies (Akademiska Hus), but successes in the alcohol monopoly (Systembolaget), space industries (Swedish Space Corporation), and administration of healthcare (although now that success is plagued with problems).  In any case, the dominant Swedish debate is usually between the market or the state, sidestepping advantages to the direct public control over the economy through cooperatives, workers’ control, and a supporting banking and technological system to maintain that control (as in the Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives).  No Swedish politician says much about how state programs are designed and how to improve consumer and worker power vis-à-vis public bureaucracies. The Green Party talks abstractly about “decentralization,” but there is no  active public consumer accountability movement.  SVT’s Uppdrag Granskning program is constantly doing the work of the government authorities in exposing malfeasance in corporate and government organizations.

Social Change Mechanisms beyond Social Movements

The third limitation to present Swedish discourse is that it begs the question of how parliamentary and social movement power both are dependent on other kinds of interventions.  In order to address the concentrated political power of polluting industries and their parliamentary allies one must also address alternative social change mechanisms.  The discussion between Lövin and Malm raises the question of how and whether a green faction could gain control over the Swedish parliament.  Malm argued that social movements could influence parliament, but not how the political capital could be gained to support nationalization.  By implication, he may assume that nationalization is advanced by green social movements promoting the British model.  Yet, this formulation does not address how social movements themselves may be dependent variables. A British YouGov poll in May 2017 showed that 65 percent thought the postal system should be run by the public sector, for the railways the figure was 60 percent but for banks only 28 percent.

The need to think beyond nationalization and into the question of social movement design has been addressed by British leftists. In an essay entitled, “Revolution,” published in New Left Review in 1960, E. P. Thompson asked whether Britain’s nationalization of steel and chemicals, the so-called “commanding heights of the economy” would leave “the mass media, with its surveillance over the means of communication, information, controversy, in the hands of irresponsible oligopolists.”  Thompson argued that nationalization was not “the only alternative to private ownership,” with changes in ownership amounting to a kind of social revolution which begged the question of a cultural one. G. D. H. Cole, supported what he called “guild socialism” as an alternative to nationalization as a vehicle for controlling key economic sectors in the United Kingdom.  Cole argued that a shift out of state control could take place in a mixed system. The economy would not just be divided between large public and private actors, but also involved accountability mechanisms more directly under citizen control. As Paul Hirst explains in the book Associative Democracy, “Cole sought to transform the division of state and civil society, reducing the power of the central state and increasing the scope of middle-range institutions of social governance, subjecting them to democratic control.”  Such middle-range institutions not only promote accountability of private and public actors, but also include exactly the organizations which can affect the quality and extent of social movement participation, e.g. cooperatives, town meetings involving face-to-face deliberation, study circles, folk high schools, etc.  One of the most positive developments in recent years is the Extinction Rebellion’s call for citizen assemblies to directly address climate problems, like a kind of “shadow state” system, similar to the general assemblies of the Occupy Movement, which took place even earlier during the 1960s era New Left, and were linked to intellectual deliberation in the Global Teach In.  These ideas have echoes in classical Greek democracy, the American Revolution and anarchist Spain. Therefore, one limit to social movement re-design is the cultural lag.

The Far-Right Challenge to Ecological Transformation

The fourth limit to Swedish discourse on ecological transformation concerns how the far-right has been able to quickly and systematically accumulate political power to limit the scope of what Green political tendencies might accomplish.  Thompson’s emphasis on the cultural dimension is highlighted by the ascendancy of the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) in Sweden.  In the September 2018 parliamentary election, SD received 17.5 percent of the vote.  According to a poll conducted by Swedish Television (SVT) SD’s share of voter support had increased to 21.5 percent in November 2019, making SD the second largest party after the Social Democrats (whose share of voter support slipped from 28.3 percent to 26.0 percent during this time).  A Dagens Nyheter/IPSOS poll for October 2019 said that SD was favored by 23 percent of the population. An even more recent poll shows SD supported by 25 percent of the population.

Essentially more than one in five Swedish voters (if not one in four) favor a political party established by Nazis, something made possible by their normalization in the larger society. This ascendency returns us to E. P. Thompson’s concerns for culture and cultural transformation. The November 2019 Novus poll showed that 14.1 percent of voters in total supported the Left and Green parties and 28.6 percent supported SD and the Christian Democrats (the two parties furthest to the right). The left share was less than half of the further-to-far-right share. A more recent poll shows the Left and Green parties with 14 percent, but SD and the Christian Democrats with 32 percent. The Christian Democrats have followed SD’s lead and are becoming yet another right populist party when it comes to issues related to migration and preservation of “Swedish culture.”

In some ways, SD has been Sweden’s most innovative, even if most unethical, political party. One simple way to oppose SD is for state and regional authorities, backed by social movements, to promote local economic alternatives in the regions where SD is strongest. CLES in the U.K. provides clues on how to advance such alternatives. The idea that local alternative economic models could challenge SD is hardly new, however, but again we see a cultural lag—an inability to take up ideas that are more than nine years old. The regions where left parties dominate governments could be pooled into a green procurement and joint development network to organize jobs, develop cooperatives, and support a pro-active green bank promoting alternative investments.

Cornelia Fraune and Michèle Knodt explained the larger importance of the rise of the far-right in an article published in Energy Research and Social Science (September 2018), “Sustainable energy transformations in an age of populism, post-truth politics, and local resistance.”  They write that “populism, especially right-wing populism, and post-truth politics indicate rising political polarisation on climate and energy policies.”  In “The legitimation crisis of democracy: emancipatory politics, the environment state and the glass ceiling to socio-ecological transformation,” Ingolfur Blüdhorn has written in Environmental Politics (2019), that the current crisis has neither led “to the end of capitalism” nor to “any new social contract for sustainability,” but rather “to the installation of right wing (coalition-) governments that have launched a head-on attack to the eco-democratic project and the cosmopolitan sprit of emancipatory social movements and political parties.” Blüdhorn cites others who speak of “a great regression” and “the politics of unsustainability” which “appears to be even more deeply entrenched than before.”

The right-wing populist parties represent a challenge to sustainable energy transformations because they advocate political positions at odds with mainstream parties. In fact, Blüdhorn writes that such parties “blame mainstream political parties and elites to subordinate the national authority and national interest in international cooperation in the context of climate change policies.”  These parties believe that “climate-change-related policies such as the transformation of national energy systems to low-carbon are only legitimate if they benefit the nation and their core people directly or even exclusively.”  While Lövin and Malm underscored the need to win over voters to the economic or social benefits of a comprehensive ecological program, they said far less about how far-right parties like SD gain power.  A Gothenburg University study showed that 48 percent of those on the left and only 8 percent of those on the right thought a higher carbon dioxide tax on gas was a very good proposal in 2018. The same report found that 61 percent of those on the left and only 17 percent of those on the right thought that investments in an ecological society was a very good proposal even if it meant low to no economic growth.  In total 46 percent thought this a good proposal and 26 percent a bad proposal, however.

Conclusions: The Need for Economic and Social Reconstruction

The four problems enumerated above are partially related to a common phenomenon, i.e. the limits to the paradigmatic framing of both New Left era and post-New Left Green parties and social movements and how they analyze problems.  While the Green New Deal discourse partially echoes back to the movements in the United States and Sweden during the 1930s, the conditions which led to this original political innovation are often neglected.  The original New Deal was not simply based on a social mobilization from below, but also involved a response to an economic collapse.  Both Blüdhorn and Trump reveal that a non-sustainable economic accumulation drive can be marshalled to promote right-to-far-right parties if not keep them in power.  Thus, while a Green New Deal could overcome the economic opportunity costs of ecological transformation, an abstract plan in itself might not compete with the actual wealth and power manipulated by the non-ecological industrial complex.  A moral campaign at this point has not sufficiently won over enough persons to limit the fast growth of the far-right—even in Sweden, although the recent Danish election reveals that Social Democratic-led immigration limitation can be married to a pro-ecological discourse.  Malm clearly did not want to go down the Danish anti-immigration road, arguing that the Swedish Green Party lost because of it.  Yet, what interests Greens and the sizable far-right block in Sweden are clearly not the same things (often enough).

The “bubble” is a cultural trend of the 2010s in which society has been divided into groups of persons with common political proclivities and cultural preferences (with dominant groupings isolated from one another).  Like the right, the left is often in its own bubble. This bubble defines both cultural lags and an insufficient interest in what motivates those voting for and supporting the far-right.  Even if we were to ignore the far-right, we would still have to address how globalization (or capitalism) hurt both workers and the environment.  Yet, nationalism assumes electoral power to nationalize that doesn’t presently exist. Again, we therefore should look at factors that accelerate the power of social movements to influence politics.  Malm may think that social movements becoming more radical will do that, but if he uses “anger” as the key intermediate variable we are left to ask how the right rather than the left has been more effective in mobilizing that anger in the electoral arena.  The Danish political scientist Rune Møller Stahl  argued in an interview with U.S. journalist Doug Henwood that “the Greta effect” helped the left bloc in the recent Danish election, however. Yet, there is no significant post-Greta bump in the Swedish Green party’s numbers (perhaps for reasons Malm has stated); the latest poll shows this party with support from only 5 percent of the population.

An alternative to bubbles and over-reliance on both parties and social movements requires that we analyze the very design of social movements themselves.  Thinkers like Paul Goodman, Seymour Melman and Barry Commoner were scholar activists who lived in the U.S. and asked precisely this sort of question.  They argued that social movements themselves had to be reconstructed and redesigned.  For example, Melman and Commoner believed that ecological movements should join forces with peace movements and vice versa. In an era in which the dangers of nuclear weapons grow more severe, one would think that such linkages would be obvious.   The linkage is self-evident when the monies used for bloated military budgets come at the opportunity cost of ecological investment, yet the linkage is not made because in some circles it is easier to question the existence of capitalism than the Swedish military budget.  One could argue that the abstract idea of “socialism” is more popular than the notion that we should convert military firms to produce clean energy and mass transportation technologies. Melman and Commoner also understood how social transformation involves mobilizing elite forces from above, in the political mainstream, as well as activists and trade unions below.

The Green Party manages to roughly address such linkages but is unable to promote power accumulation systems outside the state.  As a result, the party is left to be dependent upon larger or more conservative political parties.  In contrast, social and economic reconstruction places far more emphasis on meso level institutions like cooperatives, study circles, folk universities, networks of consumers, and citizens’ banks to leverage social change.  Another panel at the Socialist Forum did address this kind of thinking, but that approach was not well integrated into the discussion involving Pelling, Lövin and Malm.  In any case, the reconstructionist approach argues that both political parties and social movements are strengthened by their interaction with these meso level institutions which can also include alternative media networks.  Now, part of the far-right call for abolishing public media which only exposes the vulnerability of a Swedish left which vicariously lives off mainstream media institutions and social media networks controlled by elite interests.  Interestingly, the British Left is in a similar predicament having no equivalent to Pacifica Radio, Democracy Now and the Real News Network (three U.S. examples of radio and televised broadcasting mechanisms on the left and independent of state and corporate control).

The creation of such alternative media forms is an essential part of any social and economic reconstruction program, but having such media is no guarantee that the necessary media content will follow.  For example, in Sweden there is a slow return to Green New Deal discourse, but even less debate as to the question social scientist Jon Rynn addresses in “What a Green New Deal Should Look Like.” As John Bellamy Foster explains “unlike the Green Party’s New Deal, the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal Resolution…does not directly oppose financial capital or U.S. spending on the military and empire.”

In conclusion, the Swedish left should be more self-reflective of older ideas and ideas which don’t match its current portfolio of thoughts about what is relevant. Perhaps the new social movements will transform the left’s political, media and economic imagination, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.  A key problem is that the left often reproduces the elite society’s point-to-mass communication system in which deep interaction with the audience is discouraged.  The Socialist Forum embraced a 45-minutes talk and exit the room approach which sidestepped audience participation (apparently viewed as obsolete).  This format was the epitome of hierarchical communication flow, suggesting a key design flaw when it comes to pushing the frontiers of innovation and reflection outside the bubble.  The marketing efforts of left entrepreneurs here do capture the marketplace aspect of the original Greek forum, but not quite the engaged democracy and critical thinking which defined classical Greek democracy.