Sweden Wrestles with Its Own Future

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - The days are short here
in Stockholm, which is so far north that winter daylight is limited to
about four hours a day. But the city is buzzing with visitors, media
and activities, as the Nobel Prizes were given Wednesday. While the
Nobels recognize lifetime achievements in medicine, chemistry, physics,
literature, economics and peace, and Sweden is a paragon among
progressive, social democracies, there is another side to Sweden and
the Nobels that warrants a closer look.

Alfred Nobel made a fortune as an inventor, principally for his
discovery of dynamite. He died in 1896, leaving most of his fortune to
endow the Nobel Prizes. Nobel lived in a time when European rivalries
and wars were the norm. He believed the destructive power of his
inventions could promote peace. He wrote to his lifelong friend, peace
activist Bertha von Suttner, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize almost
a decade after his death, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war
even sooner than your Congresses; on the day when two army corps will
be able to annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations
will recoil with horror and disband their troops."

If only. Now countries can destroy each other many times over, but
instead of recoiling in horror, they just continue buying ever more
destructive weapons, ironically making Sweden one of the world leaders,
per capita, in weapons exports. Nobel turned Swedish munitions into a
stable, multinational enterprise. In 1894, he acquired the weapons
company Bofors, now a subsidiary of the weapons maker BAE Systems.
While the world's eyes are on the Nobel Prize winners, several Swedes
are facing prison time for taking direct action against Bofors.

Cattis Laska is a member of the anti-war groups Ofog and Avrusta,
Swedish for "mischief" and "disarm." She told me about their protests
against the Swedish weapons industry: "We went into two weapon
factories the same night. Two went into Saab Bofors Dynamics (while
General Motors bought Saab's auto division, Saab in Sweden makes
weapons) ... and they disarmed about 20 (grenade launchers) -- to
prevent them from being used in wars. They did it by using a hammer.
There's very much details in those launchers, so they have to be
perfect. So it's enough just to scrape inside to disable them. And
then, me and another person went into the BAE Systems Bofors factory,
where we disabled some parts for howitzers going to India. We also used
hammers." Like the Plowshares activists in the United States, they
follow the biblical prescription from Isaiah 2:4, turning "swords into

Annika Spalde also participated in the actions: "We sell weapons to
countries at war and to countries who seriously violate human rights,
and still these sales just grow bigger and bigger, so we feel that we,
as ordinary citizens, have a responsibility to act then and to
physically try to stop these weapons from being shipped off." Spalde is
awaiting trial. Laska has been sentenced to three months in prison.

Traditional Swedish politics also are in flux. Brian Palmer is an
American, a former Harvard lecturer, who has emigrated to Sweden and
has become a Swedish citizen. Palmer has penned a biography of Sweden's
43-year-old prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Palmer credits Reinfeldt
with leading the shift away from the progressive social policies for
which Sweden has become world famous. He said Reinfeldt, in 1993,
"wrote a book, 'The Sleeping People,' where he said that the welfare
state should only prevent starvation, nothing beyond that. After being
elected ... one of his first major visits abroad was to George Bush in
the White House."

Reinfeldt and his Moderate Party hired Karl Rove as a political
consultant to help with the election coming in 2010. Palmer went on:
"We have a real kind of silent war on the labor movement. We have a
rather dramatic change in the tax system, abolishing the inheritance
tax and most property taxes, cutbacks in social-welfare institutions."
This week, a new coalition of center-left political parties formed to
challenge this rightward drift.

The U.S. electorate has thoroughly rebuked the Bush administration,
handing Barack Obama and the Democrats a mandate for change on issues
of war and health care, among others. One of the world's leading
laboratories for innovative social policies, Sweden is now wrestling
with its own future. Those seeking change in the U.S. would be wise to
watch Sweden, beyond Nobel week.

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