Culture

What happened to solidarity? | Eurozine

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The Swedish welfare system has become unrecognizable, writes Niklas Altermark in Fronesis. Once based on solidarity between the working and middle classes, recent decades of government have fragmented the once progressive system.

‘The result of this transformation is a welfare system designed to serve the interests of the economic elite,’ Altermark argues. 

The rot set in during the 1990s, when the Social Democratic government began prioritizing the reduction of national debt, in the name of ‘sanitizing’ this economy. In the 2000s, the political offensive against social security fraud paved the way for the liberal-conservative government’s punitive clampdown on unemployment, whilst cutting wealth tax. 

The forces that built the Swedish welfare state considered the population as an integrated body and aimed to make unemployment bearable for all. ‘Vulnerability is not just a fundamental condition in human life, but to a large extent denotes what separates us from each other,’ writes Altermark. 

With less public spending, the quality of healthcare has worsened. The solution has been to marketize healthcare to historic levels – one example of how inter-class solidarity is undermined. As the economic elite enforcing market solutions forges a new alliance with the middle class, the idea of shared responsibility for social vulnerability is gradually disappearing. 

Limits of democracy 

Jesper Vestermark Køber writes on the rise of liberal conservativism in Denmark at the end of the 20th century. At the centre of this development were three thinkers: Søren Krarup, Bertel Haarder and Henning Fonsmark. All shared the goal of limiting the scope of government and reducing social dependency, and all saw themselves as anti-elitist, rejecting social democratic governance as the ‘cultural upper class’ that owned the political narrative. Their portrayal of the left as authoritarian resulted in a conservative renaissance. 

But what characterized Krarup, Haarder and Fonsmark was not only their anti-establishment stance, but also their criticism of post-war democracy. In 1977, Haarder wrote: ‘In our spiritless age, democracy has become a substitute religion, a fetish, a mantra, an oppressive ideology that does not settle for democratic rules and votes but demands the submission of the soul.’ According to Vestermark Køber, ‘the liberal-conservative renaissance must be understood as a struggle against the left’s desire to change society, including a specific critique of the view of democracy that characterized the post-war social debate’. 

Revisiting the PMC

In 1977, the socialist thinkers Barbara and John Ehrenreich coined the concept of the ‘professional and managerial class’ (PMC), a group that worked with their heads rather than their bodies, and that exercised power over the work of others without themselves owning the means of production. Lovisa Broström revisits the concept, describing the emergence of the ‘professional and managerial group’ today, its social status and role in the political landscape. 

In her book Virtue Hoarders (2020), Catherine Liu has argued that the PMC, while at pains to present a politically correct façade, actually remains disinterested in society. Liu’s words reflect a leftist perception, argues Broström, according to which the PMC is synonymous with the educated middle class. Lacking class consciousness, it struggles to establish real solidarity with the working class. In turn, mutual resentments arise.

There have been several reasons why the PMC has ended up at the centre of a cultural war.  The first is the disappearance of the criticism of capitalism. The US is the clearest example of this, where the working class resistance has historically lacked solidarity with the middle class, and today has been mobilized by reactionary and racist sentiments. The war against capitalism is already lost, and now the only real war remaining is against the PMC. 

Another factor is de-industrialization. When industries moved away from the West, the only response to declining jobs was education. The expanding education system aimed to include women and other marginalized groups, which later came to be included in the PMC.  While women’s lives improved, working class men experienced deindustrialization as a loss, giving rise to a new power struggle. The declining desirability of public goods is a further factor in the growing antagonism between the middle and working class and the emergence of a culture war around the PMC, argues Broström. 

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