Death Blow to Swedish Cultural Magazines

Independent critical debate is threatened when the extreme right gives the center-right Alliance the opportunity to slash state support for Swedish cultural magazines.

George Grosz, The Pillars of Society,  1926.
George Grosz, The Pillars of Society, 1926.

The Sweden Democrats are right now holding Swedish democracy hostage. They have a ransom demand: control over the immigration policy. Their message is clear: we will stop any government that does not help us stop immigration. They have succeeded with the sitting government. A re-election has been announced, for the first time in Sweden since over half a century. The current constitutional situation resembles a state of exception, and it has direct consequences for the conditions of production of this journal, as well as for Swedish cultural life in general. Due to the circumstances, the projected state budget of the defeated center-right Alliance is suddenly put into effect. The Alliance shamelessly profits on the constitutional vacuum in order to force through a radical cut in the cultural budget, slashing it by 365 million SEK. Cultural magazines are hit the hardest: their allocations are reduced by almost 80%, from 19 millions to 4. This amounts to the summary execution of a whole cultural field. No independent magazines will survive. OEI, Glänta, Paletten, Ord och bild, 10-tal, Karavan, Bang and about a hundred others will simply be forced to shut down. These are magazines that have been constructed through decades of unsalaried work, and that will never be able to assert themselves commercially in a language area the size of Sweden or even the Nordic countries. The Alliance’s decision was announced this Friday and will be definitely ratified in the parliament on Thursday. Whoever opposes the decision therefore has less than a week to mount public opinion and raise debate.

This decision must be revoked by any means necessary.

I don’t want to discuss whether or not the Sweden Democrats are a fascist party. I belong to the same generation as some of the party leadership. In the 1990s their future followers were doing Hitler salutes in the high school recreation rooms. Back then they called themselves BSS (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, Sweden for the Swedes) or VAM (Vitt Ariskt Motstånd, White Aryan Resistance), and they won their self-confidence and their sense of legitimacy from the advancements of New Democracy, an earlier, short-lived populist party to the far right. But the essential question now is not what label we can apply to the politics of the Sweden Democrats. As concerns the contents of their politics they have finally decided to leave all euphemisms and tactical circumlocutions behind. The question instead is who has something to win on not describing them as fascists: who it is that should be worried about alienating their electoral base, who it is that could hope to regain votes by playing on ambiguities and making concessions. We are at the brink of a catastrophe that can reasonably be compared to Germany in the 1930s: global economic crisis, widening class divides, social and political unrest, fearmongering about migration flows, massive surges for the extreme right. Today there is nothing to add regarding how to label the Sweden Democrats politically. When representatives and followers of the center-right Alliance want to «debate» the concept of «fascism» – and, we can note, suddenly wish to be associated with intellectual prestige – they are therefore not aiming to clarify a position, but on the contrary to maintain its ambiguity: that is the only way they can hedge their bets.

«We don’t prioritize what adult intellectuals read», scoffs Per Bill, chairman of the Alliance cultural committee, who prefers children’s books. It’s a variation on the accusation of elitism, routinely leveled against cultural work in order to stigmatize it and legitimize homogenization and infantilization. «’Elitism’ is the code word for a process of cultural lobotomization that offers the same prospect for the cultural life of the nation as lobotomies offer for the creative potential of the individual», as Charles Bernstein has so eloquently put it. But let us pose another, more fundamental question. What notion of society is incompatible with the idea of independent intellectual work? Which type of politics does a party represent whose spokesmen in matters of cultural policy allow themselves open anti-intellectual scorn, railing against «what adult intellectuals read» in front of journalists? It’s not a liberal politics, if we grant that liberalism used to have something to do with the idea of a free, open public sphere. It is something else, something more simple, more ancient than modern democracy itself, and its complicating demands for equality: the re-establishment of an old regime of privileges and exclusions. The return of plutocracy is the true elitism.

Peter Weiss, Den rike och den fattige, 1946.
Peter Weiss, The Rich and The Poor, 1946.

Don’t be so pessimistic, people say. But if our situation doesn’t motivate pessimism, what could ever do so? I’m in London. During the fall I’ve read James Meek’s Private Island, a book-length reportage about the privatization of Britain’s public assets. It goes through sector after sector: postal services, railroads, housing, water, healthcare. It should be an upsetting book, but in fact it’s like reading a Monthy Python-show. The failures are so complete, the opportunism is so unbridled, the ideas are so idiotic that they cannot be taken seriously. Let’s rationalize postal distribution by dumping sacks of mail at the homes of unemployed and early retirees, so they can sort letters on their kitchen tables and beds in the morning, when they have nothing better to do anyway! How could anyone ever believe in this? In Sweden we still do. We’re going to take it even further! That scandal dominated this year’s election campaigns, up until former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s historical, double-dealing reversal on August 16, when he, with his calibrated «open your hearts»-speech opposed immigration to welfare, and gave the Sweden Democrats the initiative in the debate in order to strengthen his own coalition’s position against the left.

This text should have been my contribution to Kunstkritikk’s annual year-end roundup, but this is not a time for top-ten lists. Which were the books of the year? I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. I now understand that the worldview which is at the basis of the political governance of our countries is radically incompatible with the experience of reading one single modern novel. I’ve read Peter Weiss: the early novels and the film texts, the plays and the reports, The Aesthetics of Resistance and the notebooks. We have a responsibility towards the history and towards the future and we are not taking it.