Economics and politics - comment and analysis
2. March 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General, General Politics

An interview with Johan Ehrenberg, the publisher of Sweden’s most leftist newspaper

Johan Ehrenberg is the managing director of ETC Utveckling. It produces a strongly left-oriented newspaper which is distributed nationally. Aside from this national publication, there are several regional ones. ETC’s profile is ‘red, green and pink.’ Ehrenberg has written several books on capitalism, globalization and financial deregulation. He is also a successful entrepreneur. One of his firms provides green electricity to customers in Stockholm. Some weeks ago, Ehrenberg and I sat down in the ETC offices in the South of Stockholm.

WD: Johan, left-wing newspapers are disappearing everywhere. Even major publications such as the Guardian are losing readers. The evolution has been one of increasing monopolisation. But ETC is growing. What did you do right or what is everyone else doing wrong?

JE: To give you a bit of history, ETC has been up since 1976, it was a magazine until 2005. We got some subsidies, it is called ‘media support’ in Sweden. It is meant to promote pluralism in the press. ETC became a daily newspaper in 2013. There is a national publication and there are several local ones. In fact, this week Friday, we are starting up a local newspaper in Linkoping (a city of ca. 200.000 inhabitants in the East, South of Stockholm – WD). All of our funding derives from the readers. We organise a crowd funding. Participants get their money back after nine months. By then, subscriptions pay for the cost. It is essential to know that ETC is not aligned to any party. We depend on movements, such as the workers movement and the women’s movement and on people within the ecological movement. ETC is a company, it is not a political organisation. It is, if you like, a one man’s project – mine. I own it. Being the owner, I promised the organs of the organisation 1) that I never would make a profit – everything that is earned is being invested, either in publications or in solar energy; 2) there is full transparency, financially and in all other respects and 3) there is an editorial board which decides what will be published and what not. This arrangement makes it impossible to betray our principles – it would create an enormous political storm. It would constitute the end of ETC.

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Picture 1: Johan Ehrenberg and his solar panels (Source: Google Images). 

All of this may now sound straightforward, but it has been a long learning process. We tried to work together with companies, but then the issue of profit inevitable props up. It is not our intention to make profit. It created problems which could not be overcome. We tried to work democratically, according to the rule of ‘one member, one vote.’ I did not like it, again because of profit. Whenever profit comes in, it transforms itself into the main goal. I learned that it is not possible to finance good things with bad things. It’s a bit like Bill Gates who finances “development” in poor countries. Forget it.

WD: But ideologically speaking you are close to the Left Party, the Greens, the Feminist Party and the LGBT movement?

JE: Yes, there are relations, of course, but the left is more than all of those. Do not misunderstand me, I have nothing against parties, it is just that only having parties is not enough. I often find that people talk too much and do too little. What we need to do is to stop fear – the fear of immigrants, the fear of precariousness, the fear of climate change – this is what we need to address in reality. If there is a lack of housing in Sweden – and this is absolutely the case – let’s stop talking about it and build some. You cannot wait for the neoliberals to construct housing. It will never happen and they will be too expensive anyway. You cannot wait for the Keynesians to come back to power. At the moment, we are organising a crowd funding – we are building 15 houses. It is a start. We tell people that it is better to invest in housing than to leave their money in a bank. It is for the full 100% political project. I am very political about it. Some people do not like it.

The Left, as I see it, is focused too much on parliament, representation, voting. It is okay, but it is also a trap. Even the feminist party is being sucked into the parliamentary system. The problem is that it is accommodation: it is not just about getting some seats. The price to get a voice is the acceptance, at least in part, of an agenda that is not yours. Before you know, you are discussing someone else’s agenda. You discuss the trees, losing the overview of the wood. Internationally, or within the EU, I support Varoufakis’ DiEM initiative. I am not saying that he has all the solutions, but he is right about one thing: it is a question of democracy. It is not only about entrance into the political sphere. It is about democratic decision-making. There is an essential difference.

WD: Please explain the relationship of Sweden with the EU. What is the political discussion and what is your position?

JE: I could say that it is a big debate, but that is not true. It should be, but it isn’t. There is basically no debate. There are only sides and people endlessly repeating their position. Intellectually speaking, it is extremely poor. The political constellation is probably different in Sweden than in any other EU country. In Sweden, the Left – I mean many of the Left and social democracy – were pro EU because Swedish austerity had been so extremely severe during the late 1980s and the 1990s. In Sweden, the Left was looking towards the EU to ease Swedish austerity, which had been implemented by both the neoliberals and the social democrats.

WD: By the social democrats in the 1990s when they returned to power?

JE: It goes further back, all the way to the early 1980s, when the social democrats fell – they literally capitulated – for neoliberalism – for the stock market, financial deregulation, cuts in social services, the liberalisation of the labour market, you name it – it was pure neoliberalism. Even Olaf Palme (the Swedish social democratic prime minister who was murdered in Stockholm in 1986 – WD) gave up. Palme was very radical in his views on international affairs, but economically and domestically, he threw in the towel and left economic and social policy to others. He completely washed his hands from it. This generated a big conflict between the social democratic party and the unions, but then, in the early 1990s, the banking crisis erupted. Then, as the cliché goes, there was no longer “any choice” – the political response was Thatcherism – cuts in social welfare and tax cuts for the rich. When the social democrats returned to power (they were in the opposition for three years – WD), they went even further. You see this now too. The new generation of social democrats has nothing to do any longer with the old social base of the party. They are, for example, very anti union. People such as Klas Eklund provided the ideological basis for the new orientation of the party, it was called the ‘middle way’ – not right, and not (traditionally) left, but in the middle, like Blair’s ‘third way,’ which came later.

WD: How do you explain this “re-orientation” of social democracy? Why did it happen?

JE: It happened because there were economic problems that social democracy could not solve without fighting an open political fight and they were not up to it. Besides, the social basis of the party had been changing. They gave in and became what they should not be. The 1990s were an era of economic insanity in Sweden. The SEK (the Swedish currency) was fixed to other currencies. When the decision was taken to let the SEK flow, it lost 25% of its value. These problems were not only economical. They got into the soul of the Swedish population. Persson, who was social democratic prime minister from 1996 to 2006, very successfully argued in favour of austerity: he appealed to fear. There was ‘no money’ for child care anymore, for example, because ‘we were poor now.’ Nothing could be done before we ‘paid back’ our debts. We had to clean up the budget deficit above everything else. Only then we could be ‘free again.’ These ridiculous and utterly destructive notions were extremely mainstream. Politicians spoke about nothing else and the population agreed – we should not have debts. If this meant cuts in social welfare and giving up full employment as a policy goal, so be it. The totem was the budget deficit. The mainstream parties were in perfect agreement on this.

WD: Everything seems fine now: Sweden’s unemployment rate is “only” 6.2% – some politicians call it “near full employment.” What is the reality?

JE: The reality – about which no one talks – is that the real rate of unemployment – that is my estimate – is close to 20%. I am serious. It would suffice to count all the people who actually want to work and need to work, but who do not find work and who are not in the system, for whatever reason. It really isn’t a big secret. It shows the complete failure of the system which exists, in theory, to protect people. It now accomplished the opposite of what it is supposed to do: instead of being inclusive, it pushes people out. Since 2006, the Swedes – everybody who lives here – paid 321 billion SEK more into the social welfare than we got out of it. So where is this money? It is obviously being used for completely different purposes, for things that have nothing to do with social welfare. Why then safe on social welfare? It is a complete disease. The same happens with pensions: since, so went to discourse, the ideology, the pension system was going to become unsustainable – because people live longer and the active population shrinks – there was “no choice” than to put all pension funds into the stock market. The stock market is supposed to generate sufficient funding to keep the system going. The truth is that the old system was not in jeopardy and that the new system messed up everything: pensions have become endangered, they are lower for many people now, today there is the phenomenon of old age poverty and precariousness, elderly care is not working – this is also an incredible gender issue – and for what? It’s all for the stock market.

The system is very easy to understand. It is extremely cynical. The Swedish welfare state exists. The economy is doing well. As long as you are in employment, as long as you are not getting ill, as long as nothing happens to you, as long as you are inside the system, things are really decent – just don’t lose your job. Not for too long anyway. Just don’t get sick. It is nothing else but the old class society. Aside from that, there are of course many figures about unemployed people, sick people, the elderly – but what about desperate people? There are not figures on despair. There are beggars in Stockholm, people who collect recyclable bottles for a couple of cents per piece; people who get into ash trays, looking for a stump of a cigarette – that never existed before. Who are these people? They are the people no one talks about. They are the invisible ones, the ones on the outside. That is the class society.

WD: And there are the immigrants …

JE: For a long time, we were doing well. The Swedish answer to migration and to the refugee “crisis” was great. People came and we organised. If there was insufficient accommodation, we let people sleep in churches. It was a great movement, all over Sweden, the first time since the anti-nuclear movement that there such big initiatives. Then it changed (deep sigh). Suddenly – and I am talking about a matter of a couple of months – all the good arguments disappeared. The support for the SD (the Swedish Democrats) started to grow. None of the politicians of any of the main parties want anything to do with the SD – so far anyway. But they all realised that there was electoral gain in pulling the refugee card. Enough is enough. 160.000 refugees in one year in a country that is bigger than Germany and suddenly the house is full. Suddenly, our norms and our identity are endangered. As for the Swedish Democrats, they are fascist.

WD: Do you really believe this?

JE: Many studies and books have been written about them the last couple of years and most professors and authors disagree with me, but this is my opinion. I do not think that their movement is fascist. Nothing much is happening. There are no storm troopers in the streets. But the top of the party is fascist, although they try to hide it. In my opinion, the Swedish Democrats are more radical than the Danish extreme right, who were content to lend support to the neoliberal government in exchange for stricter laws on immigration and naturalisation. The SD wants to go further. But then, it is not really that important. They will probably get 10% or so of the vote next time. We will see.

WD: One last question: is there a debate in Sweden about the problem of Germany wage moderation, the imbalances within the EU and EU economic governance?

JE: There is some discussion about it, mainly within the research centres of the unions such as Tiden or Arena. In the academia, no one talks about it … (laughs dryly). My guess is that the problem of German wage moderation and the imbalances within the EU are completely unknown to the great majority of the Swedish population. I do not know why, because, although Germany is our main trading partner, we are more looking towards the UK and especially towards the USA. There is no comprehension of what the German governments have done, who is responsible for the imbalances within the EU or German mercantilism. People do not know. There is awareness about the EU economic governance. People know that the EU is trying to pressure the Swedish government into accepting austerity, wage cuts and labour market activation. The unions are fighting it. But the bigger picture, an analysis of the macroeconomics of the EU economy is completely absent. Within the unions, some people know about it. There are some good macroeconomists there. But these people have no political impact. That is a big problem. And besides, what can we do about it?

WD: Thank you Johan. This was very interesting.

JE: You are welcome.