Economic Update: Swedish Socialism Undone

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In this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on SCOTUS decisions, on the chaos of a declining capitalism, French elections and a strongly resurging French left, and on the meaning of recent collapse of the cryptocurrency markets. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Eleanor Goldfield, Swedish-US media activist, on why and how Sweden is not socialist.


Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update. I'm your host Richard Wolff. Today I'll be discussing the chaos of global capitalism, the French and Colombian elections of recent weeks, the BRICS summit. And then in the second half I'll be talking with journalist and filmmaker Eleanor Goldfield about Swedish socialism.

Let me start today, though, with a related but different topic: the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe versus Wade. And I'm not going to repeat what's in the news and what's in the analysis, commentaries. I just want to make one point I find remarkable. That the most conservative portions of this country have decided to take away from the women of our society the right, the liberty to decide what happens inside their own bodies. These are the same people who deny every kind of government support for the people who - once they're born - are willing to put an unbelievable number of our people in jail for much of their lives, have a record of failure to take care of the neediest that is stunning. But they want us to believe that in one area so deep is their commitment to human life - the same life that is being destroyed with their support in Ukraine today, the same life that is being destroyed in the States that are executing people, the same lives that are being destroyed by opioid overdoses and on and on - no, no, they want us to respect this particular religious commitment they have.

And, by the way, a week after the overthrow of Roe versus Wade, the same court decided that a religious person praying in the middle of a public high school football field is not violating the separation of church and state prescribed in the documents that founded this country. Remarkable ability of people to justify a project - they won't even tell us what exactly it is, but it's become clear - that in this society here in the United States women are not protected by the system they live in. As white supremacy is allowed to grow and fester, neither are African-Americans. As guns proliferate, neither are, well, most of the rest of us.

But I want to turn now to an update of the sort that we had planned. And that is the chaos of capitalism today. I want you to focus with me on the list I'm about to go through. We as a nation were unable to organize a pretty good medical care system to defeat a virus. And, again, the single most important statistic: the United States, with roughly 325 million citizens, suffered over a million of them dying. The People's Republic of China, with 1.3 plus billion people, four times the population of the United States, has reported, and that's been confirmed by the World Health Organization, roughly twenty thousand. A million died here, twenty thousand died in a country with four times the population. Both sides had all kinds of trouble dealing with this virus. But one side showed a respect for human life without stressing it. Whereas the other one showed a disrespect, while claiming the opposite.

We also had an economic crash in the year 2020, and into 2021, the second worst in the history of capitalism, second only to The Great Depression of the 1930s. We failed to anticipate it, we failed to prepare for it, we failed to get the people through it. Savings were lost, jobs were lost, incomes were lost, lives were changed. And we got to go through that failure in economics at the same time that we went through a colossal failure in public health. And now this system is giving us a rollicking inflation. As if the other two years weren't enough, we are now watching food, clothing, gas, oil go out of reach of Americans, along with their rents. And what are we told? That the cure for all I've just told you is a raising of interest rates. Which makes our indebtedness more costly and a coming recession by the end of the year.

This is a level of failure and dysfunction that ought to make everyone stop and take a deep breath. And you add it to the failure to protect African-Americans and women and immigrants... I could go on. This is a system that is failing the overwhelming majority of people. Whether they can see it, or they need to pretend that they don't see it. And, you know, neither Republicans nor Democrats are showing any capacity to deal with any of this. Trump came and went, Biden came, he will go. What difference on most of these issues they could have? They said they would but neither of them did. This is a system, as I have tried to explain, that is out of control economically, public health-wise, now public policy-wise. It's beginning to be crucial to understand we are witnessing and we are living through the failure of a system to function.

I want to now give a contrast in my next update. I want to talk about the elections a few weeks ago in France. Because they didn't get the coverage in the United States that they deserve, that they should have gotten, and that raised serious questions again about what the media, the mainstream media in this country, are doing. For the first time in many decades the French people voting for their National Assembly, their governing legislature had a clear choice: three major parties and several smaller parties. Because, you know unlike the United States, they believe in freedom of choice among many parties, not just two. But they had three big ones and there's a number of small ones. And the three big ones lined up in a way you might like: a middle that's led by the President, the sitting president, Mr Macron who was re-elected President a few weeks before that, he's the middle. Then on the right you have - pretty far to the right - a kind of Trump-ian character, a woman Marine Le Pen, coming from a long list of Le Pens and political activists in France that represent the far right. But what was really new was the far left, which had gotten itself together. This is crucial. Lots of little left-wing organizations, trade unions, political parties, got together to offer a left alternative at the polls, led by an older gentleman well known in French political circles, Jean-Luc Mélenchon by name. Le Pen on the right, Mélenchon on the left, Macron in the middle.

And here were the results. Number one: Mr Macron, the sitting president, lost the majority that he had had in the French legislature. He didn't even come close. What percentage did his party get of the vote that day a few Sundays ago? 38.6 percent of the vote, that's what he got. Coming in a not very distant second was the left-winger Mélenchon. He got 31% - 31.6% to be precise - of the vote, literally seven percentage points less than the sitting President, of whom he has been and is a fierce critic. If you add the two or three percent of other left-wing parties that didn't join the union got, well then, the left controls one-third of the vote in France.

And where did the right-winger come in? The one who gets almost as much publicity in the United States as the leader Macron does? The one about whom every pundit in America and the mainstream media was saying 'in France it's between the center-right and the far right?' No it isn't. It wasn't in the past and it isn't now. Le Pen got - ready? - 17.3% of the vote. What's the far left get? 31.6%. What did the far right get? 17%. Get the picture? The left is twice the size of the right in France and it's not a moderate left, it is a very strong 'left left,' just as Marine Le Pen is a pretty strong 'right right.'

And here's something you may want to think about: a big extension in the French vote, young people who are sick and tired of the old political parties bickering and fighting. They came back to vote in some numbers, because of the exciting new thing: the left overcame its disunity. And, let's be clear, that left that got a third of the vote includes the French Communist Party, the French Socialist Party, the French Green Party, and so on. This is a victory of the left. And the young people who abstained, and there's a lot of them, when they answered polls about their preferences they would have voted for the left. You might very well have had a left-wing Prime Minister if they had voted. And that'll be the test of the next few years: who gets the French young people?

My next update is very brief but very important. Many of you have written to me about cryptocurrency. Many of you got caught up in the notion that cryptocurrency, by being a kind of private computer-driven currency not under the control directly of central banks in the banking system, or some kind of break away from, some kind of liberation from - my libertarian friends - capitalism, and that therefore it was the wave of the future. On November 10th of last year, 2021, the value of a Bitcoin was 68,000 dollars. The last week of June, the value of a Bitcoin was twenty thousand six hundred dollars. That's a drop of almost seventy percent. Worse than the stock market, worse than virtually every other market that we know of. Why am I telling you this? Cryptocurrency is not an escape from capitalism. When capitalism crashed, as it has this year, into an inflation over here, a stock market meltdown over there, Bitcoin wasn't immune. Bitcoin went down even harder. You don't escape from a system dominated by capitalism in that way. You got to change the system if you want to escape. Otherwise you're fooling yourself.

Last update that I have time for... I guess it'll have to wait. It's about the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. They are really becoming the powerful new center of capitalism. And next week I will begin by talking to you about that.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. And before we move on I want to remind everyone that Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work that is celebrating 10 years of producing content focused on presenting critical system analysis and visions of a more democratic and equitable world. For instance, the long-form lecture I present, aimed at developing one's understanding of and ability to explain current economic events and trends, something we call global capitalism. You can subscribe to our YouTube channel, where you can find that lecture along with other content we produce. And by subscribing you'll also be helping us reach more people at a time when we need to so desperately. Stay with us we'll be right back with today's special guest Eleanor Goldfield.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. I'm very pleased to bring back to our microphones and cameras a previous guest on this show, Eleanor Goldfield. We are now talking to Eleanor Goldfield, as she sits in Stockholm, Sweden. And I'll explain why that's the important dimension, or one of the important dimensions of today's show. Eleanor Goldfield is a creative radical journalist activist and filmmaker. She co-founded the independent media aggregate Rad Indie Media. She won a Women in Media award from the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, and is on the board of Media Freedom Foundation. Her first documentary Hard Road of Hope won awards from a dozen film festivals. She co-hosts the podcast Common Censored with Lee Camp, and also the Project Censored radio show with Mickey Huff.

RDW: So first of all Eleanor, thank you very much for joining with us.

EG: Thanks so much for having me again

RDW: And I want to remind everyone, Eleanor was born in Sweden, she comes to us right now from Stockholm, she's a Swedish citizen, she writes in both English and Swedish. And therefore what I want really from her, as I've told her, is I want insight into what a lot of Americans and people around the world believe to be quote-unquote Scandinavian socialism, with probably the most important example being Sweden, not the only one but kind of the major example pointed to. And because socialism comes in so many different varieties, forms, and shapes, exists in virtually every country of the world, it has come to mean very different things. And I can tell from the questions you're sending me, we need to do some work on clarifying what is and isn't socialism, and what the different meanings of that term are. Especially as socialism becomes here in the United States a much more accepted part of the political landscape, which was not the case for most of the previous 75 years. So let me begin. Socialism is diverse, as I said. It is what the Chinese call their system, it's what many in Scandinavia refer to as their system, Cuba is socialist by its own definition, Bernie Sanders is. One-third of the people of France, a couple of weeks ago, voted for a socialist alternative, and the Colombian government just into power a few days ago is clearly a socialist government. So could you start, Eleanor, by telling us what is Swedish socialism? How do you begin to explain to us what the word socialism means? What it could or should mean? How do you respond to what I've just sort of summarized?

EG: Yeah Rick, I mean they're great questions. And I think what's important is, as you pointed out, socialism means different things to different people. In Sweden, I could say that Sweden was on its way towards socialism, if you look at Sweden historically. You know in 1913 sweden became the first country in the world to institute pensions. But if you look at Sweden today, currently Sweden has roughly twice as many billionaires per capita as the U.S. Some have called Sweden 'cuddly capitalism.' Between 2004 and 2007 Sweden abolished both the inheritance tax and the wealth tax. Swedes are the world's most debt-ridden people after the Japanese. Schools in Sweden are now part of the stock market, which makes foreign investors millions, quite literally on the dumbing down of Swedish children. So, bluntly, it's not socialist. Both in the sense that most things we think should make it socialist, such as things owned by the state, like schools, public transportation, health care, are not. Public transportation has been privatized, they're working very hard on privatizing health care in this country, and schools, like I mentioned, are. And I feel like in particular health care is something that a lot of Americans point to. Because they're like 'oh, we should be more like Sweden, and they have state-run healthcare.' And that's true, but they're working again to privatize it. And it's making private companies millions, if not even billions of dollars. There was one example several years ago where one hospital cost as much as the entire Swedish military for private investors. And that's... I mean it's absurd. And that's, of course, not socialism any way you slice it, certainly not the way that you've talked about it, of course. Which is defined as an economy democratically owned and controlled by the workers. And but it's not even socialism when you look at things that should be state-owned that are used publicly and are for the public good. So really, Sweden was on its way towards what many might consider socialism but it is certainly not today. And, in fact, it continues to go towards the U.S in terms of privatization of these things that should be state-owned and publicly used.

RDW: Okay, now comes a really hard one. And I know that these are difficult questions, but it's your situation, your history, your writing in both languages, your familiarity that makes you kind of invaluable, so in your judgment what happened? In other words, when it was going in the direction you just told us, what changed the direction?

EG: Well there's actually been a lot of writing about this and you know we can... it's actually kind of clear with Sweden what happened. Like I said, in 1913 Sweden became the first country to administer pensions. In 1932 Prime Minister Per Albin won in the midst of an economic crisis on a platform of jobs for all, Alva Myrdal, these are famous names that really put a lot of effort into individual liberty and collective well-being, particularly for women in the 1930s and 40s. And by the 1960s you had well-organized, well-educated and engaged Swedes. There were lots of protests here, for instance against the Vietnam War. There were a lot of, you know, pushes to make cooperative housing, make more workplaces cooperative. And then in the 1980s, you know, this being kind of the moment of the death knell for a lot of places that were headed towards a more socialist and a more egalitarian future, the downturn in industry, the oil crisis... This pushed the Swedish Social Democrats to make a decision and, basically, they could have gone left or they could have gone the way of Thatcher. And they went the way of Thatcher. And they basically suggested that the welfare state and rising wages were a threat to the state and were a threat to capital, which became more of the primary goal, more of the primary importance than the people. Sweden shifted from goods and services to moving money around, like stocks. In 2007, before the crash, Sweden's stock market was valued at 181 percent of GDP, today it's around 120. But that's still more than either the U.S or the UK. And private equity really reigns supreme in Sweden. So I think really what happened is that there were a collection of decisions. That basically in a crisis these politicians decided that the best thing to do was to throw all of their energy into capital, as opposed to public well-being. And today, you know, 40 years after the, you know, the 80s we're really seeing and feeling those decisions.

RDW: Is that related to Sweden's desire to join NATO now?

EG: Yeah, I believe so. Because I think just like they were following Thatcher, they were, of course, following the U.S, and following the U.S, you know, Reaganomics and that whole thing. Which you, of course, speak to far better than I'm going to even attempt, but basically this concept of following the U.S and following this sort of imperial mindset... I think Sweden really, really pushed hard on that. And Sweden has been allowing NATO exercises in Northern Sweden for quite some time, well before they were officially asking to be part of NATO. They're also the third largest weapons exporter in the world. And that's something that people don't talk about either, the... this quote-unquote neutral nation, which you can't be if you're a weapons exporter... this quote-unquote neutral nation is exporting weapons to dictators to bomb, you know, children in other countries, to really throw its weight behind the U.S war machine. And joining NATO as a part of that. You know, this is, this was... Sweden saw this as a great opportunity to finalize its push to be part of NATO, which it's been kind of half in for quite some time. Which just feels typically Swedish, you know. Oh, we were still neutral, but we're kind of already in NATO because we've been allowing exercises here, but, you know, we're still neutral. And now they were sort of pushed over the edge. And of course they're blaming Russia. Sweden has been, you know, fighting with Russia since, like, 1200. So we're, I guess, OG when it comes to that. But yeah, I think that is absolutely tied to the push to join NATO. Because it really speaks to following in the footsteps of U.S empire, as opposed to standing up and saying that we do believe in human rights and we believe in justice and the tenets of socialism.

RDW: What are the forces inside Sweden, if any, that still want socialism, that are unhappy with the very history you've just summarized so well? And who are they? Where are they? And what are they doing? And what are the prospects?

EG: Yeah, I mean it's a great question. Sweden, of course, has a lot more political parties than the U.S. So there is, you know, there's a left party (so-called,) there's a communist party, there's a feminist party, there's a green party, and there are, you know, there are points that are being made in these parties that are things that I believe you and I and your listeners would agree with. But they're not really speaking to people's needs. And I think this is also a problem that we see in the U.S. And actually I'm sure people from other countries could relate as well. It's kind of like they spend a lot of time talking about, you know, this utopia. Or they talk about the need for people to go vegan, or they talk about, you know, niche issues that, which I'm not saying aren't important, but people need to know how they're going to pay for things. And they have to... they need to know how they're going to access the things that they need on a daily basis, which is becoming more and more of an issue here in Sweden. And so I think that the fact that you have - which is really a fascist party - the Sweden Democrats here (and I think it's funny that they're called the Democrats,) that they are speaking to these issues. You know, they're the ones who are talking about how terrible it is that older, that senior citizens in Sweden are are not given any money and are just left to die, particularly with the COVID crisis. They're the ones who are speaking to issues that affect people's every day and the people on the left aren't. And so, of course, more and more people are shifting towards the right. Because that's where they actually see people speaking to their issues. So I think, unfortunately, there are a lot of weak politicians in Sweden. And there needs to be an influx, both in terms of in electoral politics, but definitely on the streets. I think Swedes have gotten used to having it good. And they're not noticing that things are being chipped away at, that their pensions, that their health care, that their schools, are being chipped away at. And so people need to rise up in that sense as well.

RDW: All right, last question that we have time for, I wish we had more. Is there any interest in worker co-ops? Is that part of the socialist imaginary notion of how to make a better society? Does that have any traction in Sweden?

EG: Absolutely. I mean, I buy my groceries at a place that's literally called 'co-op.' It's a food store that's literally called 'co-op.' And so there are cooperatives, there's something that's gaining a lot of traction in Sweden is cooperative housing, particularly for people who have kids. And, you know, so that there's, you know, more of a communal feel around it. So there definitely is that kind of push. Which I think is really great, that people are working to create the kind of world that they want to see outside of the electoral politics space. And, but there is of course, there's a problem that you can put a socialist face on it, right? That, so there's, like there are logging companies that are cooperatives. Okay, well that's cool. But at the same time Sweden literally has a worse track record with deforestation in the past five years than Brazil does. So, okay, we're cooperating, we have cooperatives, but they're destroying the Swedish forest. So I think that cooperatives are something that Swedes are interested in. And there's something that do exist here, but it's not enough. And it's not a more collective perspective on leftist politics and socialism as a whole.

RDW: Well Eleanor, besides thanking you for your time and your insights, really this is very, very valuable. This is part of what we're going to be trying to do across the board to get a richer understanding of what socialism does and doesn't mean, where it's rising, where it's falling, where it's struggling to make it a serious but also a realistic part of our political thinking. So thank you very much. I know you need to get back some sleep with a new baby and all of that. So thank you again for participating and to my audience I hope you've learned as much as I have and, as always, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Brendan Tait

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About our guest: Eleanor Goldfield is a creative radical, journalist and filmmaker. She works with a variety of independent outlets in both written and photojournalism. She is the co-founder of the independent media aggregate RadIndieMedia.com, one of the 2020 recipients of the “Women and Media Award” presented by The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, and is currently a board member of the Media Freedom Foundation. Her first documentary, "Hard Road of Hope," has garnered international praise as well as laurels from a dozen film festivals.

Currently, Eleanor is the co-host of the podcast Common Censored along with Lee Camp as well as the co-host of the Project Censored radio show with Mickey Huff.

Her work as a community organizer is based on mutual aid principles and direct action.

As an artist, her work typically combines live music, spoken word and projected visuals. Besides touring, performing and media work, she also assists in frontline action organizing and activist trainings.

Links: ArtKillingApathy.com; HardRoadofHope.com

IG and Twitter: @RadicalEleanor


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