This post was written last week for The Multicultural Politic and can also be found there.
What follows are some initial thoughts on the differences between Sweden and the UK drawn from four days recently spent in Stockholm. Such insights are of course limited; by the brevity and scale of my trip (which covered a fair chunk of the city, but only that), my modest knowledge of the country and my rudimentary grasp of the language.
I have for some years now been an ardent Scandiphile with a particular affinity for all things Swedish. Spending some time in the country was foremost the fulfilment of a long-held desire. On arrival Stockholm immediately garnered favourable comparisons because, simply put, the city is breathtaking. Almost fantastically so, in the sense that it has a dreamlike quality, a beautiful bleakness that draws to mind the aesthetics conjured in Gothic literature. At the time I was there it was impossibly picturesque; cold sunlight on frozen waterways, the snow literally glittering like powdered glass.
What I was immediately struck by, after the glow of being in a new culture began to fade, was the lack of any sense of crisis. Travelling from a country where the conflicts of austerity dominate the discourse the contrast was stark. In terms of raw figures the outlook is only marginally better than in Britain. Unemployment in Sweden is expected to hit 7.7% this year, only 0.7% lower than current UK figures, whilst the Swedish economy is predicted to grow by 0.7%, slightly more than the 0.4% growth predicted by the Treasury. But having weathered an economic crisis in the 1990s the Swedes seem free of the panic and desperation daily felt in the UK.
Whilst I could wax lyrical on the apparent happiness of the people and the pleasantly relaxed pace of living it seems prudent to restrict myself to that which suggested a difference of approach in terms of political culture.
Foremost, the enforcing elements of political power are observably less blatant. Sweden has the common European distaste for public surveillance as embodied by the ever-present compound eye of London’s CCTV, (there are barely any security cameras in Stockholm’s streets,) and the lack of police presence is striking. Refreshingly, I saw police only twice in four days, a statistic surpassed in the first five minutes of every lunch break back home. But, though state authority may be less visible, the Swedish police are no strangers to brutality. In 2001 police in Gothenburg used live ammunition at anti-capitalists protesting a summit of EU leaders in an operation that saw them attack demonstrators with dogs and horse charges and make over a thousand arrests.
Similarly, there are public assertions of the national idea, but with less of the blunt, forced patriotism of the UK. Swedish flags can be seen adorning street furniture and official notices, but I still found relative relief in escaping the relentless and obnoxious invocations of nationalism splattered over Britain. Anecdotal incidents, such as spotting a notice in the Modernamuseet that announced free entry for those in ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ classes, suggest an enlightened position towards immigration that is unfortunately opposed by the Sweden Democrats, who gained 5.7% of the vote in the 2010 general election. The rise of a populist far-right is as much of problem in Sweden as it is in the UK, even if mainstream discourse is less antipathetic to genuine multiculturalism.
Attitudes towards other minorities had a similar appearance of acceptance. Numerous queer cafés, bookshops and the like are found throughout the city, from tourist hotspots to sleepy suburbs (rather than being concentrated mainly in a single neighbourhood, as in London). Such a cultural positive might suggest to some that the key battles for LGBT rights are in the past. Yet activists recently had to fight hard to win a campaign to remove the sterilisation requirement in the Swedish legal gender recognition act. The atmosphere, at least in Stockholm, appears more tolerant but the ardent struggles towards equality are ongoing.
There are familiar sights to be seen, as well as the differences. The main shopping district, Norrmalm, is the usual braying cacophony of calls to consume. Adverts, the fevered dreams of capital, are ubiquitous as ever, if more reserved than in London. But ultimately it was what was not seen that stood out the most. The usual trappings of poverty are conspicuously absent. Despite walking roughly sixty miles through a fair variety of the city’s districts only a fragment appeared anything that could be termed run-down. Homelessness and begging, key manifestations of destitution, made an appearance exactly once. An optimist might take this at face value as evidence that poverty is a minor problem in Sweden. Instead I found myself ruminating on how well it had been hidden, and curious as to whether other Swedish towns and cities were similarly idyllic. One even wonders if the absence of the deprived is an orchestration so as to not detract from the arresting beauty and charm conducive to tourism?
Sweden is oft held up as the progressive ideal of the centre-left, the flagship social democracy of capitalism properly restrained. The fairer and happier society worth fighting for. But this conception of Sweden as, minor improvements aside, ‘the best to hope’ for rests heavily on a dominant narrative of capitalist realism , the idea that we cannot imagine alternate forms of society outside of capitalism. Ultimately a system that is composed of structural exploitation and immiseration, even if relatively negated (Sweden is ranked by the CIA World Factbook as the least unequal society in the world, with the UK 45 places behind), is still unacceptable. In many ways Sweden appears to be a better place to live than the UK, though the extent to which problems may have been simply swept under the rug remains a concern. The extra ‘breathing room’ makes a concrete difference to people’s quality of life, and is not to be disregarded. But merely ‘better’ is not, nor should ever be, enough.
[1 - Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism Is there no alternative?, Zero Books. ISBN 978-1-84694-317-1]
Folk demography of the least scientific kind suggests two Venn circles with a curious amount of overlap: anarchism and kink.
The overrepresentation of kinky anarchists and anarcho-kinksters can perhaps be facetiously explained as hierarchy and power being the ultimate taboo to those who strive for its complete demise. It is not hard to imagine the hyper-masochistic types willingly turning their rear towards the hail of police batons, nor the sadist perfecting their flogging technique by hurling a brick through a bank window. After all, much of BDSM involves experimentation with the very kind of disparate power relations that anarchists seek to overturn in the political sphere: whilst TSG/activist roleplay is generally uncommon, if not unheard-of, both anarchist and kinky lifestyles share some analogous values.
The idea that the exercise of power should be something rooted in consensus and consent is common to both anarchist politics and the ethics of the BDSM community. In kinky circles, consent is key. Limits will be discussed, building an understanding of exactly what all parties involved are willing to participate in. Within a sexual context, power and hierarchy are explicitly set within a framework of mutual agreement and clear limits in order to de-tooth much of the harmful nature of such interactions, rendering the concepts safer and allowing for their experimentation as ‘play‘. Accountability, in the sense of zero-tolerance for those who abuse trust, and a mechanism for an instantaneous suspension and re-examination of a play scenario exist; those who fail to respect boundaries and consent are (in most cases) blacklisted from the kink scene. Communication is seen as a process: people can withdraw consent using a “safe word”.
Anarchists, meanwhile, accept that in some situations a leader, coordinator or facilitator will be needed. This can be found in 17th century proto-anarchist pirate communities, who had a captain who was directly selected by the group and recallable at any time and whose power only extended to making certain decisions ‘on mission’. Voluntary anarchist militias in the Ukraine at the time of the Russian Revolution and in Spain during the Civil War elected delegates to perform the functions of officers, but their authority came from the collective wishes of their fellow soldiers rather than the innate authority of the position. These were not without problems; efficient co-ordination against conventional military forces often conflicted with the attempts to respect ideals of autonomy. Similarly, anyone who has been in anarchist meetings will probably have experienced the trade-off between the speed of decision making and adherence to the ethics of consensus, but this is worthwhile in the pursuit of truly democratic practice. Often anarchist organisation delegates responsibility for certain tasks to voluntary working groups or meeting facilitators. Any social power given is strictly limited (e.g. to organising certain activities), and is subject to withdrawal at any time by the will of participants, a democratic version of screaming out the name of a fruit when the beating goes beyond one’s limits. Crucial to both anarchist and BDSM circles is the attempt to ensure that such hierarchies, established because they’re either practical or fun, are fluid, properly scrutinised, organised consensually and explicitly temporary.
Neither community is entirely free from problems. In existing within a patriarchal, capitalist society, murky aspects are able to seep in. Even in kinky circles, traditional gender roles gain traction, with a common assumption that men are naturally dominant, and women, naturally submissive. The ‘professionalisation’ of the BDSM lifestyle often sees folk who are unable to afford entrance fees to kink clubs or custom-made equipment locked out of many of the spaces where one can experiment in a safe and non-judgmental context. Though it should be said that a sizeable community of DIY kinksters exists, it can be hard to find offline if one does not have the fortune of meeting like-minded people. Similarly, anarchist circles can also have problems negating privileges of class, gender and so on. In neither community are such problems insurmountable and both contain many individuals striving to overcome them.
Whilst the BDSM community is not without criticism, there is a strand of critique from self-identified radicals which repeatedly misses the point, neatly embodied by this fine specimen from po-faced tosspots and/or master trolls The Activists, (other things deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ by this humourless project include television and comedy; one assumes they see sitcoms as oppressive slideshows of a thousand jackboots endlessly stamping on their miserable faces forever).
This type of judgmental attack on the kink scene is hinged on a construction of BDSM as sexual deviancy directly parallel to that of conservative ideologies. Those playing with power and pain in the bedroom are considered an aberration from good, honest revolutionary sex, presumably involving gritted teeth, the clutching of banners adorned with Che’s handsome face and neatly punctuated with a post-coital lecture on Mao’s little red book. This reactionary perspective posits a false dichotomy of ‘normal’ sex and ‘deviant’ sex, rather than the reality of a plethora of sexualities on innumerable intersecting spectra.
The radical strain of attack on BDSM further tends to imply that such sexual activity is a waste of time and energy that could better be spent serving the monolithic ‘Cause’. This is another manifestation of a prevalent dismissive attitude amongst certain revolutionary types; the belief that other struggles against oppression (feminism, queer and trans* issues, anti-racism, and accessibility for example) are secondary to the ‘true’ fight against capitalism. It goes beyond a necessary understanding of theory to an outright rejection of intersectionality and undermines the credibility of claims to be fighting for real egalitarianism.
What this view denotes is an utter joylessness, eloquently condemned by Emma Goldman in this account of an incident where a comrade told her that the frivolity of her dancing would hurt the Cause:
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. ~Living My Life, p. 56 (1931)
There are still those who would rather see a revolution of tedious types subsuming their will for the good of the party–sorry, revolution–but there will be many more who want joy in their new world. The idea of the Cause as this solemn mission requires the surrender of earthly pleasures for their ideals, the absurdity of the idea that we can win a worthy future of liberation through asceticism. If we are not to live the values of anarchism, then why fight for it? As Goldman didn’t quite say “if I can’t horizontally dance in it, it’s not my revolution”
Sometimes, the truth in a tired old aphorism is revealed to you with such vigour that you understand why the saying in question became a cliché in the first place. And so it was that the picture above (despite being a sodding Banksy) struck me as being infinitely more succinct that any score of words making the same point. In a culture where we are sold things, literally and figuratively, products and concepts, every fleeting minute, the feeling of having escaped the endless pitch of consumerism can be euphoric.
A never-ending conveyor belt of staid aspirations, goals, and hurdles are thrown at us to compete with our creativities. Pass those exams. Keep your head down and nine to five. Save for a new kitchen. Vote every five years. Pay bills. Wine, dine, marry, house, car, pension. Have children, buy them things. Be grey. Be automatic. Have respect for authority. Nurture an entrepreneurial spirit. These plastic pastiches are the options presented to us in place of the vast expanse of ideas and experiences they seek to co-opt and eclipse. Acquisition has become dogma. Markets deified. Expression straight-jacketed into brand identity or ‘legitimate’ channels of change or ‘common sense’. The police release regulations on accepted types of protest whilst the vulnerable, the marginalised and the dissenting are ridiculed, ostracised and brutalised. ‘Difficult decisions’ are made and we are sold down the river. People live, people die and the whole machine rumbles on regardless. The vaudeville villainy of those at the top serves only to draw attention from the systemic and systematic nature of it all. Our interactions and labours are perverted by capital and the many related spiderwebs of oppression and yet many sink their efforts into cosmetic and superficial change, some in the hope that that is all it will take, others in the belief that that is the best we can ever hope for .
But there are gaps, there will always be gaps and in them alternatives flourish and grow. Folk are capable of cruelty, condescension, violence in every sense of the word but people are also wonderful engines of boundless imagination. There are so many exquisite things in which to revel. Whole worlds hidden in books and films and art. Great theories and gentle fascinations. Music, food and fucking. Mistakes and experiments, the poisons of the day and sprawling conversation. The personal, so it goes, is political. So the fight must proceed on all fronts. Who we are are. What we want. Why we want it. Just as no part of life is untouched by the system and culture we find ourselves in, there is no part that cannot be. Living the new world we want to see is crucial to making something better.
Fuck being told who to love and how to love them. Fuck the Westminster pantomime we are given as a substitute for political power. Fuck the vipers that see every facet of existence in terms of profit margins. Is it naïve to be hopeful? Perhaps. A lot has been made of recent developments in technology, particularly the internet and social media, but technology is always neutral. We have new tools for our own liberation. We have new tools for our own oppression. But there’s strength untold in solidarity, passion and potential everywhere. Especially in the eruptions that draw the eye like flares in our histories old and new. Voices carry best from the top of barricades and echo best in stormed halls.
We give power to their delusions, life to their automatons. We can withdraw it. Watch the desiccated husks plummet. We are the rabble, and we have the power to change the world.