Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

Swedes Can’t Go Home Again

In the run-up to Sweden’s election, one word explains why the country used to feel like a family—and why it now feels adrift.

Susanne Engman illustration for Foreign Policy
Susanne Engman illustration for Foreign Policy

Few political ideals end up as objects of nostalgia. The ones that thrive live on the streets and in daily life; the ones that die do so obscurely. But the Nordiska Museet, the great anthropology museum in Stockholm, houses an exhibition devoted to a single word—one that until recently breathed life into Sweden and now, in its absence, haunts its national politics. The word is folkhemmet, and the ideal it represents—and the vacuum left by its disappearance—helps explain the surge of reactionary populism now shaking the country’s political order, as well as the continent’s.

Few political ideals end up as objects of nostalgia. The ones that thrive live on the streets and in daily life; the ones that die do so obscurely. But the Nordiska Museet, the great anthropology museum in Stockholm, houses an exhibition devoted to a single word—one that until recently breathed life into Sweden and now, in its absence, haunts its national politics. The word is folkhemmet, and the ideal it represents—and the vacuum left by its disappearance—helps explain the surge of reactionary populism now shaking the country’s political order, as well as the continent’s.

Folkhemmet also happens to have no English equivalent. The literal translation—the people’s home—is clunky, but it does capture the central concept: home. The exhibition in Nordiska Museet makes that clear. It displays an entire reconstructed apartment from the late 1940s, built by the government for a skilled worker and his family. To contemporary visitors, the apartment seems cramped, though hardly shabby. (The pastel-painted cupboards in the kitchen could even be considered retro chic.) At the time it was built, however, the home represented almost unimaginable prosperity for the family that lived there: It featured hot and cold running water, access to a communal laundry, storage space, and a foundation and exterior walls soundly built out of concrete. Most important, in terms of the folkhemmet ideal, the home wasn’t a reward, something the family had to earn through some extraordinary act. Rather, it was something the family was deemed to deserve for simply participating in the Swedish community.

This wasn’t how it started. The word came from a German term—Volksgemeinschaft, or “the people’s community”—that no one uses any longer because it became a Nazi slogan. The right-wing political scientist Rudolf Kjellen introduced it into Sweden in the early years of the 20th century, but the Social Democratic leader Per Albin Hansson seized and transformed it into a left-wing political slogan and program. In a speech in 1928, Hansson proclaimed: “In a good home, there are … no favorites and no stepchildren. No one is looked down on. No one tries to gain advantage at another’s expense; the strong do not oppress the weak. … Applied to society as a whole, this would require that we break down all the social and economic barriers that now divide citizens into the privileged and those left behind, the rulers and their dependents, the plunderers and those plundered.”

There was always something inadequate about the official English translation of folkhemmet that the Social Democratic movement went on to offer: The phrase “welfare state” captures neither the emotional nor the cultural meaning of the term. It sounds like a vast impersonal bureaucracy responsible for regulating one’s life when part of the vision was for a very personal bureaucracy—an extension into the world of politics of the enforced solidarity that was already a part of Swedish culture.

For most of its history, Sweden was a rather authoritarian society. A web of formality and obligation, codified only partly by law, kept everyone in their place and very conscious of their relative social position. Personal liberties were strictly curtailed. From 1919 to 1955, alcohol was rationed compulsorily, with the quantities doled out varying by age, class, and sex. (Men were allowed 3 liters a month. Married women had no ration at all, but unmarried women could, if they were lucky, get half a liter of spirits every three months, though only 1 in 10 women had ration books.) And until 1951, it was technically illegal to be an atheist (though one could choose from among 11 officially approved beliefs).

What the Social Democrats did when introducing folkhemmet in the early 20th century was keep Sweden’s strict sense of communal order—with the same sense that everyone, rather than a single Big Brother, was watching you all the time—while changing the underlying dogma, substituting the authority of science and the hope of progress for the authority of God and the hope of salvation. The result was a new national sense of solidarity—the terms and conditions of which Swedes were obliged to accept without question or protest. And most Swedes gladly did, voting to keep the Social Democrats in power, beginning in 1932, for 44 consecutive years.

During that time, the Swedish government built universal health care, free higher education, and socialized housing. But its clearest expression of the folkhemmet ideal was the creation of free universal state child care. The policy was designed not as an economic benefit but as a vehicle for transforming women’s role in society. The idea stemmed from the Social Democratic intellectuals Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who in the 1930s argued that properly egalitarian family policies would encourage women both to have multiple children and to go out to join the workforce. (The Myrdals’ ideal was that not just child care and education but births, too, would be evenly distributed across society; their hope was that families of all classes would have around three children.) The point wasn’t that the government’s childbearing and child care arrangements were good for women but that they were good for society as a whole.

Social Democratic governments duly translated these ideas into policy. By 1975, local authorities were obliged to provide preschooling for every 6-year-old. In practice, this applied to much younger children, too. Before the economic crash of the early 1990s, it had come to seem almost immoral for women to stay at home and look after their children. The trend stopped, though, after unemployment began to rise. The state turned its attention to making sure that men took their part in child care away from work, with a mixture of legal and social pressure ensuring that paid parental leave was more evenly shared. These policies, and the associated cultural norms, have few, if any, counterparts outside of Scandinavia.

Perhaps the best way to capture the meaning of folkhemmet would be through a very free translation—something like “national family.” The thing about families is not that they are happy or even that they love one another, as the films of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman make clear, but that the members are all stuck with each other. In the long run, they are going to have to get on or at least accommodate their mutual hatreds. That accommodation precedes any other. Families, in this sense, are held together by innate covenants—not voluntary contracts. They are profoundly illiberal institutions. No one asks to be born into a family, yet once you’re a member, the others have to take you in. What Sweden did was successfully nudge the feeling that its people belonged together toward a sense of mutual obligation.

That sense of belonging has by no means entirely disappeared. Swedish right-wing politicians have a sense of duty toward the poor and marginalized that is difficult to find in British and U.S. politics. But solidarity has dissipated in recent years—a fact that many blame on immigration, especially from Muslim countries. The historical picture, however, is more complicated.

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden began accepting labor migrants chiefly from Finland, though also from the Balkans. This didn’t produce any great social problems, perhaps because the process was agreed on with the country’s powerful unions, which did not feel that their members’ jobs were threatened by it. Political immigration first got underway in the 1970s, with Latin American refugees from the coup against Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and other left-wingers. They were followed by Kurds and Assyrian Christians fleeing the Iran-Iraq War. Then came refugees from the Balkan wars, from Lebanon, from Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and finally from Syria.

Many Swedes look at members of these latter groups and see people who are an awkward fit with the traditional national family—not least because they assume the immigrants have loyalties that transcend it. Whether that is true, of course, is impossible to know for certain. But the mere possibility of diluted national loyalty among some portion of the population may have weakened the unquestioned bond Swedes previously felt between patriotism and socialism that had been implicit in the concept of folkhemmet from the beginning.

But there were many other factors working in the same direction. Well before mass immigration to Sweden became a phenomenon, and then a problem, the old model had already broken up from within. First, there was the collapse, in the 1970s, of the culture of deference to authority—a collapse urged on by the Social Democrats themselves. While the first generation in power had largely liberated the country from the fear of poverty, the second generation, spearheaded by Prime Minister Olof Palme, seemed at times to want to liberate people from all the remaining chains of inequality at once. The Social Democrats didn’t foresee how this shift would undermine the authority of its own political institutions.

Then there was the economic crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Folkhemmet had been conceived in the austerity of the 1930s and 1940s, but it had grown to maturity in the great postwar boom, when it seemed there would be money for the state to do anything it wanted. In 1975, the government’s provision of security for the public began to seem unaffordable. The country shifted away from central planning toward a much more decentralized and less regulated form of capitalism.

That change helped produce a shift in culture. The introduction of commercial television exposed Swedes to glamorous new hierarchies of economic and social capital. These hierarchies were more enticing than the staid unity of folkhemmet precisely because they were less egalitarian. At the same time, there was huge migration to the cities. This tended to break down traditional ties and networks. More subtly, it diminished opportunities for people to feel, and to be, important in their own sphere or community. When there are many small ponds, each will have its own large fish; when there is one huge lake, far fewer fish will count as truly large. It was no longer enough to be an important person in a provincial town or a local factory—and those disappeared, too, in the great deindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s.

Almost all of these changes appeared to be liberalizations at the time, and most of them were entirely inevitable. But they all tended to diminish the sense of belonging and to replace covenants with contracts and confinement with an insecure freedom. Taxes were cut, sick pay and unemployment pay diminished; the state shrank in a wave of privatizations, including those of the post office and the railways—both of which are now the objects of national shame and fury for their chronic failure to deliver adequate service. When I was last in Stockholm, in May, a prominent journalist for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper—someone at the very heart of the liberal elite—harangued me about how much those two failures made him feel his country was lost and had fallen away from its values. These values had always included competence, trustworthiness, and social engineering that worked. Now not even the trains run on time. The sense of a country that is no longer itself extends far more widely than simple unease about immigration.

The loss among Swedes of a sense of home, of living in a place where you have to be taken in even when you don’t deserve it, haunts Swedish politics today—and, more broadly, all European politics. It is one of the great drivers of xenophobia because it stresses questions that never arose in the old days: Who deserves a place in the family and why? At root, the mourning for folkhemmet recognizes the loss of any sense of mutual obligation. It’s not easy to imagine the policies or the politicians who could restore such a sense today. In the meantime, many Swedes are choosing to heed their own lost leftist ideals by voting for the far-right at the ballot box. Unlike most of the Swedish establishment, the populists at least acknowledge that those ideals have been breached.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout

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