A Swedish Conspiracy

Kybernein Institute’s The Campaign at Index describes the neoliberal paradigm shift in Sweden as the result of a vast and carefully orchestrated plot.

Installation view of Nathalie Gabrielsson/Kybernein Institute’s exhibition The Campaign at Index in Stockholm.

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change,” economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1982. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

“When this is all over we’ll be in an entirely different world,” a friend of mine told me a few months ago. Since then, I’ve read and heard many others say similar things. Sometimes it’s in a spirit of optimism: perhaps this will lead to an ecological awakening, perhaps the financial emergency measures will be realised permanently to create a more just society! Often it strikes a more pessimistic note: the global economy collapses, the labour market is restructured in order to restore growth and profit margins, we’re all doomed to live out the future as Zooming gig workers in isolated hygienic bunkers.

There is no reason to believe that Friedman’s words – the first quote – should not still be valid today. After a while, I realised that this was, in a sense, the reason I felt uncomfortable with my friend’s words – the second quote – despite the fact that they were wise and well-meaning, and only sought to warn me that the pandemic might last long, that normality would be suspended, and that the consequences would be significant.

What made me uncomfortable was the idea that this “other world,” the one on the other side of the pandemic, would somehow be located out of our reach as thinking and acting beings. The only thing we could say about it was that it would not resemble what preceded it. Nothing we had learnt so far would apply; no ideas, plans, or projects would be available to influence the situation we faced. As concerns our political imaginary, the concept of the pandemic seemed to belong to the order of miracles or catastrophes.

But is there any reason to think that the forces that governed yesterday’s world would not want to govern tomorrow’s? No. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken will depend on the ideas that are lying around. And the ideas that were formulated by Friedman and his circle still have hegemonic status at the macro level of political and economic decisions. When the emergency phase ceases and the reconstruction phase begins, these are the ideas that will be lying around waiting to be applied as political action.

The crisis that Friedman is in all likelihood referring to in the quote I open with – which comes from the preface to the 1982 edition of his classic Capitalism and Freedom, originally published twenty years earlier – is the global economic crisis of the 1970s, which manifested in many different ways (the phenomenon of “stagflation” is normally mentioned) and had many different causes, among them the two international oil conflicts  (known as OPEC I and II, after the oil cartel) at the decade’s beginning and end.

This crisis is at the center of the exhibition currently on view at Index in Stockholm: The Campaign, arranged by Kybernein Institute, an organisation helmed by the artist Nathalie Gabrielsson. It’s a political exhibition, whose subject is the process by which the neoliberal paradigm achieved hegemonic status in Swedish political culture and many of the social and economic contracts on which the Swedish welfare model was based were rewritten or torn up. The exhibition has two main arguments.

First, that this process was the result of a campaign orchestrated by a comprehensive network of institutions, corporations, think tanks, media, and organisations, led by the Swedish Employers’ Confederation (SAF). The second is more surprising (and problematic): that this campaign was in essence a kind of conspiracy based on the falsification of economic statistics and on the ostracisation and blacklisting of oppositional voices.

The exhibition consists mainly of two works. On a light box along one of the gallery’s walls, a large diagram is shown, The Campaign 1970–1990 (2020). The diagram is dense with information, featuring a large number of text boxes describing the “campaign’s” different actors, from individuals to institutions. Headlines and arrows announce themes, relations, and causal chains. A number of smaller pie charts and bar graphs present statistics on Swedish and international wage levels, GDP numbers, and debt figures. This detailed and rather overwhelming map is designed in a conspicuously bland boardroom style. It looks clean and professional and has pastel colors.

Installation view of Nathalie Gabrielsson/Kybernein Institute’s exhibition The Campaign at Index in Stockholm.

Mounted vertically on a stand next to the light box, a large flatscreen is installed. It shows a fifty-minute monologue performed by a single man standing in a generic space. He is filmed in near full-length and speaks with conviction straight into the camera. As a film, it’s rather monotonous.

“What is your idea of the Swedish People’s Home?” the man in the film asks rhetorically. “That it was a kind of socialist utopia which was too good to be true,” he suggests. “It was all just an illusion, since it was all paid for with borrowed money. The people liked it, of course, since it gave everyone a high living standard, social security, and loads of rights. But the gigantic public sector grew bigger and more expensive, and, in the end, industry could not go on funding all of this welfare.” “If this corresponds to your view,” he proclaims, “I can inform you that you are the victim of a conspiracy.”

The monologue is adapted by Gabrielsson from texts written by the Swedish economist Sven Grassman (1940–1992). Central to the narrative that the exhibition presents is what in Swedish economic research is known as the “Grassman Affair.” As the co-director of the influential Institute for International Economic Studies (IIES) in the mid-1970s, Grassman discovered that there were significant errors in the official figures of national economic statistics, which all unanimously confirmed the image that Sweden, at the beginning of the decade, was in a deep economic crisis caused primarily by rampant costs for the public sector.

When Grassman pointed out these errors – the trade balance deficit was much smaller than the figures showed; the foreign debt was also smaller and could be unproblematically explained by the OPEC I oil crisis, which was not unique to the Swedish welfare state, but affected all countries that depended on imported oil, etc. – he was met with lack of interest, unwillingness, and even hostility. His career in the powerful economic circle around influential economist Assar Lindbeck – director of IIES, professor at Stockholm School of Economics, chairman of the Committee for the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, economic advisor to a number of Swedish governments, Social Democrat as well as Conservative, etc. – soon came to an unceremonious end. After applying considerable pressure, Grassman succeeded in making the National Bank correct its official figures, but public and media interest was limited. The story came to a silent end.

This is the story that The Campaign now presents. As a narrative, it has the advantage of being dramaturgically effective, with a clear hero and an equally apparent antagonist. The exhibition’s comprehensive representation of the network of organisations that, through a number of different channels, argued for, lobbied for, and enforced the neoliberal paradigm shift in Sweden, also gives a clear image of the scale of this gathering of forces and the vastness of the economic means that were invested. Someone must have felt threatened. In a publication produced for the exhibition, Kybernein Appendix, this image is complemented with a somewhat cluttered, but still overwhelming list of the different political reforms that were enacted in line with the “campaign’s” guidelines between 1976 and 1999.

As political art, however, The Campaign remains flawed for several reasons. First, because of its limited historical and political perspective. That the Grassman Affair was a scandal is an uncontroversial fact. It should put great strain on the already hard-stressed consciences of neoliberal interest organisations to a far greater extent than it actually does. When a public review of Swedish economy and democracy during the 1970s was published in the late 1990s (SOU 1999:150), the main author devoted a full chapter to the scandal, but Assar Lindbeck could not even condescend to do an interview.

But from that to arguing that this affair was a determining cause of the neoliberal paradigm shift in Sweden, there is still a certain distance. It’s possible that the errors Grassman discovered may have been necessary for raising opinion for the first wave of neoliberal reforms during the seventies, but they were evidently not a sufficient cause for the shift. Sweden was not isolated from the rest of the world, which is a banal, but essential fact (and not just a diverting argument that the “campaign’s” spin doctors use to dismiss criticism, as the exhibition seems to maintain).

Installation view of Nathalie Gabrielsson/Kybernein Institute’s exhibition The Campaign at Index in Stockholm.

A number of other factors also contributed, not least the strike wave of the early 1970s and the intensified demands for democratisation in different social fields. To center the narrative so clearly around one scandal and one individual (and his nemesis Assar), at the expense of those other factors, risks not only creating a skewed account of reality, but also undermines the exhibition’s rhetorical efficacy.

There is a stroke of conspiracy theory to the whole exhibition, which it only partly seeks to repress. Its strong focus on the calculation errors makes me more suspicious, not less. When I look closer at the large diagram’s map over organisations and institutions, the selection and the arrangement also appear arbitrary and vague. State institutions such as the National Bank and the National Debt Office figure there without details, and “Government” is listed without further qualifications next to an interest organisation such as the Enterprise Association. And to include the public agency Statistics Sweden in a circle chart whose center reads “Manipulated Facts and Statistics” is to venture out onto very thin ice. Here, Kybernein Institute could have had use for a critical editor or curator. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if this conspiratorial stroke might somehow be a conscious artistic decision, some sort of ironic commentary regarding the whistleblower’s status in the age of digital cartography. But I doubt it – and even if that were the case, what purpose would it serve?

The exhibition’s second and more serious problem is that, strange as it might seem, its image of a complex historical process abstracts that process from its social reality of contradiction and conflict. I say strange because The Campaign is also an exhibition with an unusually antagonistic approach. It dares to name names, which is as rare as it is laudable. But the antagonism it stages is empty, abstract. If you claim that the neoliberal shift in Sweden was the result of a deception, that implies that you only need to reveal that deception to restore order. The only notion that the exhibition proposes for describing that preceding order, that paradise before the fall, is the curiously apolitical “People’s Home” (Folkhemmet).

But the political-economic paradigm shift of the 1970s was not some great, uniquely Swedish plot where the nation’s citizens – “a population that loved its welfare state,” as the film’s Grassman puts it – were deceived into believing false statistics and therefore abandoned their harmonious People’s Home. Such an image underestimates the extent to which the “campaign’s” gathering of forces was a counteroffensive, a response to a number of radically democratic reform projects of which the most famous example is probably the wage earners’ funds which were at the center of a large and decisive political conflict during the 1970s and 1980s.

These projects did not aim to defend an idealised People’s Home, but made egalitarian claims that instead threatened to point beyond, to disturb the lucrative compromise between private enterprise and labour on which the People’s Home model was founded. The neoliberal counteroffensive in Sweden – and similar arguments could be made internationally – aimed to once and for all end the long history of such radically democratic experiments and instate a new paradigm that represented evidently limited class interests as the economic common sense. There is no alternative, as the saying went.

In other words, to establish those ideas as the ideas that are lying around, that actions can be based upon, for example, in the event of a crisis. But such hegemony is not achieved once and for all; it must be sustained, defended, and seized anew. This demands considerable ideological efforts, an ongoing work of describing political decisions as natural and inevitable, of framing fringe economic interests as general common sense. An essential task for critique today – in a wide sense – is precisely to restore to this history the status of an ongoing conflict, to show where the contradictions are so that they can once again become sites of political disagreement and action. There was no paradise of social accord that was betrayed by the “campaign’s” deceitful conspiracy, just as no pandemic miracle will now suddenly open a new and more just world, saving us from inequality and climate collapse. What must be regained is confidence in radical political action.

Installation view of Nathalie Gabrielsson/Kybernein Institute’s exhibition The Campaign at Index in Stockholm. All photos: Index.