Discover more from Postliberal Order
The Rise of Working-Class Swedish Conservatism
Mattias Karlsson speaks to Postliberal Order about overcoming antifa attacks to build a working-class conservative political party
Today we publish an interview with Mattias Karlsson, an MP for the Sweden Democrats as well as a senior member of the party and an important figure in the development of Swedish conservatism. Sweden has been a battleground for policies around the state and immigration policy for years—it is also the home of a burgeoning right-wing party, and accompanying intellectual movement, in the Sweden Democrats. Gladden Pappin caught up with Karlsson at CPAC Hungary; you can find him on Twitter @sdkarlsson.
Mattias, tell us about yourself.
I’m a member of the Swedish Parliament as well as of the executive board of my party, the Sweden Democrats. I started the first conservative think tank in Sweden, called Oikos.
Tell us a bit about the recent history of the Sweden Democrats. They have increased their voter share significantly. How has that process happened, and what are the main drivers of increasing support for the Sweden Democrats?
It’s been a tough journey. We haven’t gotten anything for free. We have gradually built the party up—it’s a grassroots movement. When I started in politics, the options for changing people’s opinions or putting our opinions out were very limited. We were not allowed to make advertisements in newspapers. We couldn’t have public meetings because we’d be physically attacked by antifa. The post office refused to hand out our leaflets, and on and on. Quite early on, we realized that we had to have a grassroots movement and that ordinary people would just spread the message for us using traditional methods. Then the internet came along and helped out a lot. For the first time, we could compete on equal terms, and we put a lot of effort into trying to be good at that. Currently on social media we are larger by ourselves than all the other parties combined—so I’m happy with that.
But there’s been a very fierce resistance—even almost absurd at various points in time. A few years back, for example, all the other parties joined in a formal coalition called the “December Agreement.” The only goal of that was to keep us out of any kind of influence. The deal was that if the Left wins, the Right will be silent and allow them to do whatever they want; they will never take assistance from us, even if we agree on different issues; and the other way around. Basically they cut us out of the democratic system.
Mattias Karlsson is a member of the Swedish Parliament for the Sweden Democrats. He also founded Oikos, Sweden’s only conservative think tank.
Then we had the migrant crisis in 2015, when Sweden took a very extreme approach, allowing almost a million newly arrived immigrants to enter the country in a population of ten million. That boosted our numbers to such an extent that the other parties felt that excluding us was no longer sustainable for them. So instead now what they’re trying to do is to hug us to death, by so-called triangulation. They try to sound like us, look like us, adopt our policies. I’m happy with that, I kind of like it—but it makes it a little bit tricky for us to navigate parts of the time.
What is unfolding in the Swedish political scene currently?
We have an election coming up on September 11, and we are currently the third largest party. It seems like we are gaining ground right now because of the Koran Riots. There is this guy who’s very eccentric, not the most sympathetic man on earth, but he has made it his call to burn the Koran as a test of whether or not freedom of speech still exists. The reactions to that from the Muslim population in Sweden have been very violent, with severe riots all over Sweden. I think at least ten cities have been burning and so far four hundred police officers have been injured in these riots.
Although many people feel that burning the holy book of a major world religion is not the best way of making a statement, a lot of people are even more frustrated with the fact that there are a large number of people in our country who would take to violence against police officers and loot and riot and burn things just because they are unhappy with someone’s action.
Currently we are at about 22, 23 percent in the polls. We’ll see what issues will pop up in the next few months.
Who’s voting for the Sweden Democrats? Who are your constituents, and what motivates them—economics or immigration or both?
I would say it’s both economics and immigration. The voter base in my party has always been working class people; I myself am from a working class background, like many other leading persons in my party. In Sweden, working class means people who are not part of an urban academic elite, and who often live in smaller towns and cities, not so much in the larger cities.
Looking back, the Social Democratic party has been extremely dominant in Sweden. Up till the fifties and sixties, one of the reasons they were so dominant was that they adopted conservative positions and also some patriotic positions, and therefore were very much in line with what ordinary people in Sweden believed and thought was reasonable. They were not really completely socialist when it came to economic policies, and they emphasized virtues and duties things like that. Up till the late sixties, then, they had some conservative traits. They abandoned that completely in the late sixties, and went into cultural Marxism and globalism—thereby they started to lose their support from parts of the working class people who are more social conservative in a European sense of the word.
At the same time, the Moderate Party, which had been the main opposition party and was founded as a conservative party, abandoned conservatism in favor of neoliberalism, individualism and neoconservatism. They also lost a part of their voter base—people who were, for example, in favor of a strong Swedish defense against Russia.
For a long time, then, there was a pretty large group of voters who felt lost. When my party started we weren’t initially very successful, for many different reasons, but once we got a little bit better known and our policies were more known, these people started to turn to my party. That has just increased in recent years. Today we attract people from all over, from all different classes, but the core voter base is still working class people who feel abandoned by the urban elites, who are at heart conservative. They don’t read Edmund Burke and that sort of thing, but they have the conservative instinct. They love their families, their local community, their way of life—that has been an important thing for them, and they see us as their champions.
You describe the Sweden Democrats as a social conservative movement. What does this mean?
That means that on economic issues we are a center movement. We are not liberal in our economic views. It means that our main goal is not to have a minimalistic state. We feel that the state has a role to play in creating a good life for people. And, as patriots, we also see that the state could be a tool to take care of all our people, if it’s managed in a responsible way. So we are pretty favorable to a basic welfare system, giving all Swedish children the same opportunities to a good education, for example. We believe that it’s morally right that, if you are sick, you should have good health care, regardless of the size of your wallet. Also, you should receive some kind of assistance when you, without any fault of your own, lose your job. You should not immediately have to move to another country or another part of our country, leaving your civic society, your family structures and everything behind—at least you should have a decent amount time to try to find a new job before you have to sell your house or be forced away.
You started Oikos, the only conservative think tank in Sweden. Tell us what that’s about and what are the goals—what is the think tank contributing to the development of this social conservatism and of the Sweden Democrats party?
Our social conservatism makes us a little bit unique in the Swedish landscape. There has been no think tank with this combination of moral conservatism, national conservatism, social conservatism. Our movement is pretty significant right now, and the only think tanks on the right are basically neoliberals—they are stuck in the Cold War era and the conflicts of that time, and they are purely materialistic. So we felt that there was a need for a think tank and organization that would try to widen and deepen the ideology of the movement that has now presented itself in Sweden.
At the same time, we are seeing a merger of the parties on the right in Sweden—partly because of this triangulation that I mentioned to you before, and the fact that there is now a coalition between the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, and us for the very first time ever. But there is no real organization for young people, inspiring people in these parties to meet, to discuss ideas, to wrestle about where the core of this new movement should be, how liberal versus how conservative should it be, etc. That’s what we are trying to create—a forum, more or less, for intellectual discussions and thought, especially for young people who belong to any of these three parties, but perhaps especially the social conservative version.
Since February foreign policy has dominated the discussion in Europe and the United States. Sweden historically has its neutrality. What is happening from a conservative standpoint, and what is happening from the standpoint of the Sweden Democrats?
My party has always been in favor of Sweden’s neutrality, and that is because of historical reasons. It has served us well. We had peace for 250 years, and so we have been hesitant to join any power bloc, so to speak. But the conservative vision has always been of a united North—a united Scandinavia. I think most people, including myself, would have preferred to have a defense union consisting of the Nordic countries. But Denmark a long time ago joined NATO, Norway did the same, Iceland also, and for the last decade or so Sweden and Finland have developed a very strong defense union.
Sweden and Finland have very strong historical, cultural and linguistic ties. We were the same nation for seven hundred years. It became clear that for Finland, what happened in Ukraine was the last drop for them. They have a direct border with Russia; they started to deeply rethink their security policy, and decided to join NATO. That was pretty clear to us a few months back. Then we had to decide whether or not Sweden should be alone as the only Nordic country—and thus to stop all our security, military cooperation with our closest ally and neighbor, Finland—or if we should also join Finland in that choice. My party decided to change its position, as well, and to follow Finland and to advocate for a Swedish application to NATO.
What will the consequences be for the military stance of Nordic countries? Will there be a legacy of Sweden’s neutrality, will it be inclined toward less escalation, more negotiation—or has the invasion of Ukraine prompted in Sweden the same thing that it did in Finland?
Emotions are running pretty high. Most Swedes feel pretty close to Ukrainians. Coming from a country that’s been to war with Russia twenty-one times or so, we can sympathize and empathize with the Ukrainians right now.
But I still believe that our position would try to be de-escalation. We have Russia as a neighbor, we have the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad just two hundred miles or so from the Swedish border across the water. There is no real interest for us in trying to be hawkish when it comes to Russia, I believe. I think we will also take this opportunity to try to strengthen the Nordic defense cooperation. Now that we’re all part of NATO, the Swedish defense industry will benefit from it, because it’s been hard to sell, for example, some of our jet fighters and other military equipment even to our neighboring countries, because the U.S. usually prefers that everyone use the same materiel inside of NATO. So this is what I see in the short term. But, as events have shown us, it’s very hard to predict anything long-term these days.
Indeed. Just finally, we’re here in Budapest at CPAC Hungary. There’s a lot of curiosity among Americans about European conservatism and vice versa. What do you see as the prospects for conservatism in Europe as a whole? Why are you here, and how does that relate to what you see?
There is a very exciting time in Western conservatism and Western politics. There is definitely movement on the right side of politics. To me it’s not really clear where it’s going. The only thing that is certain is that the old conservative movement has crumbled or diminished or shrunk. The new conservative movement is much more national conservative, more morally conservative—focused more on nonmaterial issues. How that will turn out in the end—if there will be a total shift or a merger of the old, more Anglo-Saxon conservatism, and the new one, and where the weight will be of these new movements—is very unclear to me, but it’s interesting to be a part of it. My position, coming from Sweden and the context we have there, is that I advocate for some kind of a merger to try to create a more united conservative movement, because I think that’s the only way we can win against the woke radical Left and the cultural Marxists, and I see them as my main opponents.
In my perspective, failed economic systems can be fixed, but a failed civilization is much harder, so I put my emphasis on these issues. I’m here because I want to learn from how they built the conservative ecosystem in Hungary. We are in the process of just taking the first baby steps in Sweden to build think tanks, institutions, student organizations and that sort of thing. I believe that the political fight that’s going on outside of parliament is as important, if not even more important than what’s going on in parliament—and I’m saying that as a parliamentarian for the last twelve years. So that’s an interesting aspect, to see if there are areas where we can cooperate on concrete projects and so forth. And, of course, trying to listen and hopefully be inspired in some ways, or be able to deepen my way of thinking by listening to all these prominent speakers here.
Thank you, Mattias.