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Organising autonomously – an interview with AO from Sweden

In February this year one of the Plan C members had a chance to sit down with a comrade from Autonom Organisering (AO) in Lund, southern Sweden. They talked about the Swedish political situation and AO’s wider network, the Autonomous Revolutionary Nordic Alliance (ARNA), who we first saw mobilising for the G20 in Hamburg.

Originally published by Plan C.

Note: Enough is Enough is not organizing any of these events, we are publishing this text for people across the US and Europe to be able to see what is going on and for documentation only.

Organising autonomously – an interview with AO from Sweden

In February this year one of the Plan C members had a chance to sit down with a comrade from Autonom Organisering (AO) in Lund, southern Sweden. They talked about the Swedish political situation and AO’s wider network, the Autonomous Revolutionary Nordic Alliance (ARNA), who we first saw mobilising for the G20 in Hamburg.

Could you briefly explain the political situation in Sweden right now?

Our analysis is that the welfare state is currently like a zombie, in that it is dead but still walking. There is a social democratic government and the economy is very strong. There was never a large-scale crisis here in Sweden, there was a small downturn between 2008 and 2009, but then the economy recovered. Sweden’s largest export partner is Germany, who also didn’t suffer a serious crisis, which also helps to explain why things are going well. So there is quite a stable economy with some reforms for example against tax fraud or banks being “Too Big to Fail”. There is also a housing bubble but that hasn’t quite burst yet. Experts are talking about this as a major threat to capital here.

At the same time, many other global dynamics are also at play here. We are seeing our own reactionary movements, we have the largest fascist movement in Swedish history organising right now, over 100 asylum centres have been targeted for arson attacks, there is quite an active neo-nazi presence on the streets (Nordic Resistance Movement) and a growing popularity for fascist parties in government. Compared to our Scandinavian neighbours we have been relatively free from these parties until about 10 years ago. Before that there was more or less nothing.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the role of “Social Democracy” as an ideology in Sweden?

In our analysis, the particular class compromise or class dictatorship which we call ” social democracy” is central across Scandinavia. The Nordic welfare state was created as a class compromise, it exists in varying degrees: In Sweden it is the strongest perhaps, whilst in Denmark it is now openly racist. This affects political possibilities and how political struggle takes place. There is an emphasis on “participation” in politics, but this is an illusion. People have very little actual power at neighbourhood meetings for example. Participation is superficial at best. This compromise is not just economic, but affects how people understand politics to be done. Unlike in Greece for example, people still trust the state and the police, there is high voter turnout and many people involve themselves with state institutions. This is a challenge for us as autonomous movements, especially as the social democratic party is good at co-opting social forces which arise.

The unions are very centralised, unlike in Denmark and Finland where rank-and-file power exists in a more developed way. There is very little life in many of the Swedish unions today. When we read reports from workplaces in the 70s you can tell that it was beginning to die even then, but people talked positively about going to union meetings and voting in their branch, they produced and handed out leaflets and pamphlets, involved themselves in solidarity movements, with Vietnam for example.

What has been the impact of recent migration flows to Sweden? Many countries have seen the rise of populist anti-migration parties as a result of increased immigration, particularly since the spike in migrant crises in 2015.

The refugee question is incredibly important. The self-organisation of migrants and connected solidarity networks is an important response. Sweden took a lot of migrants, maybe 250,000, and for the first few weeks this was seen in a positive light by the media. There were many pictures of hearts with Swedish flags on them and the argument was ‘Sweden is such a welcoming country’. We like to call this “falafel nationalism”, because a typical Swedish dish is meatballs, and these kind of people say “well, meatballs and falafel are just as good”. This is obviously quite a shitty way to convince someone that racism is bad. This is also a subtle racist argument.

The social democratic Prime Minister stood on a stage in Stockholm with 20,000 people at a rally and said “in my Europe we don’t build walls“. Three weeks later the Finance Minister stands up and says “we are facing a system collapse“. Sweden closes its borders and imposes heavy restrictions on the border between Denmark and Sweden. This more or less totally destroys the labour market because 20,000 or so people commute to work or study between Copenhagen and Malmö. New laws which affect the rights of migrants have been imposed, and they are being deported at a higher rate.

The racist right does a lot with this, for example, there were gang-related shootings and even a hand grenade attack in Malmö. A nine year old British boy was killed in the hand grenade attack, and this was used to further attack migrants. The right argued that there was “a Jihad going on”. A new radical right political formation has emerged, with one wing of it continuing to move towards open neo-nazi politics. Some of their social media pages have over 100,000 followers, for example.

Are there any struggles currently taking place in workplaces and economic sectors? In the UK, for example, we have recently seen the growth of combative base unions organising low paid and highly exploited workers in the cleaning sector, as well as food couriers (Deliveroo).

The most important labour struggle in Sweden right now is that of the dock workers in Gothenburg. It is a complicated issue but essentially part of the terminal was privatised by a Danish shipping company, Maersk, who have fought unions across the world. They are doing the same now, there was a massive lock-out around overtime issues which lasted for weeks. There were two small strikes by the dock workers in response which lead to attacks by the right wing press who claimed they were ” destroying the Swedish economy”. The lockouts caused such large problems that many companies changed ports because of them.

The Social Democrat Party proposed limiting the right to strike if you don’t have a collective bargaining agreement, which is how the class compromise in Sweden operates. The historical class compromise from 1938 was based on the Social Democrat-controlled unions making a deal with the employers, which gave workers collective bargaining agreements in exchange for any aspiration to have power over the workplace. The unions accepted a clause which allowed management to organise the work in any way they wanted, which included hiring and firing for example. This was a big point of contention in the Swedish labour movement for a long time. This class compromise is also a zombie, the right gave it up a long time ago but the unions and Social Democrats think it is alive. This situation limits the right to strike in general, for example you can’t strike during your collective bargaining agreement period (which lasts two years), only in between them.

There are some free unions, defined as those which do not create collective bargaining agreements. For example, the dock workers broke free in the 70s after 20 years of struggling against the other unions, and are now located at a very strategic economic location within the whole Swedish economy. They established a radical leftist union and did a lot of very good international solidarity work, leading to a large solidarity network across Europe. This new law from the Social Democrats would destroy the free unions, including an anarcho-syndicalist union which is very close to the radical left, and stop them legally being able to strike if another union with a collective bargaining agreement also exists in that workplace. The government are proposing an investigation, the leader of this investigation was overheard on a train saying this whole thing was fixed and would just be rubber stamped. 12 of the 13 major blue collar unions are against this – except the Metal Workers Union which is terrible here.

Could you briefly introduce us to your group?

Our group is called Autonom Organisering, which means ‘organising autonomously’, and is a wink to tendencies from Italy in the 1970s. We are inspired by post-operaismo and the Italian experience of the 1970s. We have been around for three years in Lund, in the south of Sweden, and we have been in ARNA since the start. Our work is varied: our theoretical work is focused on technology, logistics, and importing some of the discussions from Germany here to Sweden. We also try to reframe classical discussions from the left within the modern context. For example the political imaginary of the left was built, historically, on a Fordist ideal of raising red flags over our happily working factories with all the alienating work and ecological damage this entails. But, as one theoretical group close to us argues, “what proletarian dreams of ruling over McDonald’s?”

So, for example, can we build another vision based on big data? Can we democratically develop a post-scarcity planned economy, or is this just a pipe dream? This leads to the question of what revolutionary struggle looks like today, the revolution in Rojava, for example, is very pertinent here. Maybe the model we need to look at here in Europe is a mass insurrection, the Arab Spring x 100, these are some of the political debates we are engaging in. Underpinning this is lots and lots of base work. We help to run social centres in our city, we organise demonstrations and rallies, and also do international work. We are active in anti-fascist and anti-racist work, and have connections with the Kurdish structures here in Lund. Another theoretical project is rereading workplace reports from the 70s in a spirit of militant investigation. We hope to publish this soon, maybe as some kind of exhibition.

Could you talk briefly about the wider radical left in Sweden?

I would say there are three large scale groups right now. These are Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which works differently here than from Germany. It is an actual organisation here which started in 1993. They are labelled as the “evil autonomists” by the media. Then there is Allt at Alla, they look similar to the Interventionist Left in Germany which you might be familiar with. They have groups throughout Sweden, and organise people with diverse political perspectives. At the moment they are focused on the “Right to the City” as an idea, they argue that working long term in your neighbourhood will develop new relationships which can be very powerful. Then there is ARNA, our groups exist across Sweden and in Scandinavia. The character of our groups vary, there’s one tendency which is characterised by anti-fascist work, another is geared towards socialist politics, personally I am very happy when we don’t need to run around hunting Nazis down. Here in Lund, and in Gothenburg, we would consider ourselves as class struggle and communist organisations firstly. There’s also an anarcho-syndicalist youth structure called SUF, which operates as a youth structure for the wider left. They vary from city to city, but they are the most widespread geographically and have over 10 chapters including in cities without much left presence. Typically they don’t have their own political lines on issues though.

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Overall, the Swedish left has been in a downturn for quite a few years now. We have been discussing this and we believe this is because we are in a global period of reaction in general. I mentioned the rise of popular right wing movements earlier, and the left seems to be in a downturn everywhere where we have spoken to people. In our specific context this is partly because the Social Democrats crushed the social movements which were close to them when the party made a very rapid shift away from classical social democracy. There are also some social reforms, such as banking reforms, which satisfy certain sectors of Swedish Society and keep people off the street. Though there aren’t economic cutbacks taking place, we aren’t seeing what we saw in the 70s, when living conditions were improving but many people saw that life could improve even more, so there were over 200 wildcat strikes a year for example. These struggles pushed the Social Democrats to make the reforms which characterise Sweden today.

Tell me more about these texts from workplaces in the 70s. We are having a return to workplace enquiries in the UK, for example there’s a project called Notes from Below which is very interested in this topic.

We walked into an old left-wing anti-imperialist second hand store, picked up some random books and realised we had found a secret treasure trove of forgotten literature. Of course we weren’t the first people to realise this, but nobody has done a large-scale investigation. The books vary, some were autobiographical accounts, but we also found books written by left-wing intellectuals who were asked by workers to write their stories. These investigations were very popular historically.

We are discussing what to do with this but lots of interesting things are coming out. Some of this is existential, for example workers discussing how the main topic of conversation is “when is work over”. The day consists of people saying it’s “almost lunch and then the day is almost over” or “just four weeks until vacation”. Of course most of us can relate to this as well and this, in itself, is a critique of work. But in this society this is just how work is seen and understood. It’s a natural fact.

We often think of struggle in the factory as focused on material benefits such as wage increases. But looking through these texts we also realise workers are concerned with larger and more existential issues. They are concerned about the time spent at work, timer today understand as having been wasted. At times this translated itself to struggles around the length of the working day and so on but at other times this was a more private critique of work. This relates in some way to discussions around luxury as a communist demand. Here is a great quote:

“For most people it seems so evident that the work day is there to just be spent. That they don’t think it could even be different. They are always complaining at LM’s factory, but never that there is something wrong with work itself. It is almost as if a natural law is ruling. A job is a job and a factory is a factory, and that’s the way it is. Everyday at 16:06 every man rushes to punch their cards out, to rush out of the factory and get the dust of it off their feet. Nobody tries to shout “we only have this life, what kind of craziness is it to kill time instead of trying to fill it with something meaningful. We can’t waste one single day!”

We read other reports of workers dying from poor working conditions who said things like “I was murdered because I was a worker. I worked here for 20 years and gave my life for this job, I was murdered”. And this gets to the core of why I am a communist. I don’t just want a wage increase. I want a different life. And it’s not just radical leftists that want a completely different society: through our daily lives many of us develop this desire.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the ARNA network?

We officially formed in 2016 with groups from Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. The groundwork for this had been going on for a few years. Whilst we accept that we are quite diverse, with different words and terms which sometimes mean different things and sometimes are just different ways of saying the same thing, there had been a circulation of activist and struggles for several years before. We formed in anticipation of the G20 but we wanted to go beyond that. The G20 was a great opportunity for us to mobilise. For us in the South of Sweden, going to these large-scale German events has been very popular for many years. Now we also have a group in Norway and are also talking to some Icelandic comrades, so things are spreading.

Does your network have some kind of platform or shared political points to base itself on? What ties you together?

We have a short platform which essentially says we are revolutionaries, so we are against the state, that we want a socialist society, we are feminist, that we are anti-fascist and anti-racist. These are key words which we all thought it was important to agree on. We didn’t want groups to join, for example, who had a shady relationship to feminism for example. In a way our platform is a kind of ‘no’ list. We also all believe in militancy in a wider sense than just wearing black clothes at demonstrations. We also work in a horizontal and democratic way.

Was the G20 mobilisation the first thing you did as a network?

Yes, there was a big campaign to mobilise people to Hamburg. We organised a parade of 7 buses, and many other people travelled independently but linked up with us there. We moved around 400 people to Germany and participated in a variety of meetings and actions. Since then, the network organised a large anti-fascist mobilisation to Gothenburg. We feel both of these were massive successes for us. We worked well together and achieved everything we had wanted to.

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These actions have an educational function for us. If you read old texts, by Marx or Luxemburg for example, they talked about strikes as educational moments where people learn something through the struggle. They find out who is friend or foe, they learn about solidarity, the learn about class consciousness, and hopefully they go from this strike to other struggles. Today, in Sweden, large-scale strikes don’t really happen. I’ve been active for 12 years and have only been on strike for a few hours, and this was called by a self-organised refugee network. For us, large mass actions fulfil a similar educational role as strikes.

What are the key political debates in the network? Are you aiming for tighter shared politics, or at this stage are people just finding out about each other?

We will be releasing some common analysis texts soon. Through our work in the network we have realised that words can mean very different things. We use the word communism to show we have come out of a Marxist tradition and that we want it all! When we spoke to our comrades in Denmark they looked at us funny, and we had to discuss what we meant by the word communism.

We have also had these experiences organising within Beyond Europe. For example, Plan C members and our comrades in ums Ganze would call ourselves communist, whilst in Greece only the Stalinists in KKE would call themselves communist.

Yeah, these discussions are quite interesting right now – fun, even. We all have different influences, for example our group are interested in discussions around logistics and are big fans of ums Ganze, our comrades in Norway are inspired by the Movement of Landless Peasants (MST) in Brazil and have practical experience of organising there, whilst our Finnish comrades have strong connections to Russia.

It is very important to us that we do both theory and practice, we don’t want to be one of those groups which does just one or the other. We think that can be very dangerous. We are also discussing whether we should have a few action days a year for the network, or focus on our cities. ARNA allows us to mobilise many more people than just a regional or even national mobilisation. It gives us a greater capacity to act, and the state police here in Sweden have even said in a recent report that we are “one to watch”.

That is a nice compliment!


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