Hans L Zetterberg
on voluntary associations in Sweden


A review of the year in Sweden, with the emphasis on industry, business and commerce, as seen through the eyes of foreign — but in the main friendly — journalists. The International is published by the Swedish Employers’ Confederation. A German edition is also published annually, and the Swedish edition appears eleven times each year. Advertising representatives are listed on page four.

Pursuit of Power

The joiner traditionally has been a figure of fun, fair game for the contempt and invective of every practising pundit and would-be wit. In the Twenties, in the U.S. particularly, where the joiner seemed so much in his element as to be indigenous, Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken linked Babbittry and boobery, gadgetry and quackery in such a sweeping and effective indictment that the subject is still neglected by serious students of contemporary society. Voluntary associations, while they may produce such unpleasant by-products as cultural conformity, social boorishness and collectivized bigotry, remain a fundamental assumption of the democratic syllogism. The joiner can be laughed away, but only at a risk — since he represents a 20th-century phenomenon that, for good or bad, has radically and irreversibly altered the structure of society. Through his organizations, associations and pressure groups, he has importance. More, he has power. In Sweden, so great has been the trend to join, he and his colleagues may even wield more power than those whose official duty it is to govern. If for no other reason, he deserves the closest scrutiny.

Something new — Freedom of association has become such a self-evident civil right in Western democracies that it is easy to forget how recently the privilege was won. Only two or three countries can count in centuries the freedom of association enjoyed by their citizens; most can count it only in decades or years. Even in Sweden, which boasts a comparatively long record, it was not until 1846 and only after long dispute, that virtually all restrictions were lifted from trade and industry, and not until 1858 that a religious service could be conducted by laymen. Even as late as 1899 a "muzzle law" was adopted to forestall agitators from organizing workers into labor unions. Freely formed associations of all kinds were suspect.

But, in the decades since, Sweden has witnessed an organizational frenzy beyond compare. Today, the proportion of "joiners" outnumbers that of even the alleged prototype — the United States. In the U.S., often called "a nation of joiners," the number of adults who belong to at least one association, exclusive of unions and churches, range from 36 to 55 percent. Information collected by the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion in 1954-55, and also excluding churches, unions, and co-operatives, revealed that 51 percent of Swedes have joined at least one association. Without these exclusions, virtually every adult Swede belongs to an association, putting the Swedish figure ahead of any other European nation for which data are available.

First causes Sweden’s transition to an associational society coincided with the urbanization and industrialization of the country. Certain Swedish sociologists — notably Professor Torgny Segerstedt at Uppsala University — have speculated that the first generation to leave their farms and become industrial workers in the growing cities felt homeless and insecure. In their new competitive milieu, they turned to associations for support. This may once have been the case but at present those who migrate to towns and cities are actually less apt to join associations than those who remain in the country, according to recent surveys.

Contemporary society, however, has one group which, by a stretch of the sociological imagination, can be seen to resemble in crucial respects the first outlanders who left a familiar rural environment for the impersonal world of the city: the adolescents. For they, too, take the step from the secure, intimate life in their parents’ home to the more competitive and impersonal world of secondary schools or the labor force. They may then receive support from their "peer" groups in somewhat the same fashion as early urbanites and industrial workers once received it from voluntary associations. The statistics on this score are telling. Among young Swedes who live at home and attend the compulsory schools, there are 17 membership cards per 100 youngsters. Those who still live at home, but attend the more competitive secondary schools, or who are trying their luck in the job market, hold ten times as many memberships as their younger brothers and sisters. As, presumably, the need for the benefits of belonging increases with the stress of more competitive living, the number of organizations available to the individual also increases. Among those who have moved from their parents’ home, but not started a family of their own, there are 70 memberships per 100; the tendency of those in the same age group who have families of their own is to be slightly less susceptible to organizational togetherness.

It seems likely that the number of memberships varies not only with the needs of the various groups but also with the amount of leisure they enjoy. The increase of leisure — through a shorter work week and simplified, mechanized housekeeping — has been a pre-condition for augmenting the roles of voluntary associations. Undoubtedly, adolescents living at home, enjoying parental conveniences, have more time to devote to clubs and associations. Nor is it surprising that parents increase their memberships as their children leave home, as do wives when they are widowed.

In short, voluntary associations have grown out of the need for security in the impersonal and competitive modern world and have flourished in the expanding leisure which the same world has provided, giving people communal roots of a sort beyond family and job. That these roots often take firm hold is indicated by the statistic that a quarter more non-joiners than joiners between the ages of 20 and 55 have expressed a willingness to pack up and move elsewhere.

Athletic antecedents By plausible guess, the oldest voluntary groups in Sweden were formed during the Viking era around athletic games. Romantic interest in that historic age flared in the early part of the 19th century inspiring, among other things, a system of Swedish gymnastics organized by Henrik Ling. This revival of interest in physical fitness merged with patriotism and by mid-century rifle clubs had been formed in most Swedish towns. Interest in track and team sports was boosted by the 1912 Olympic games, held in Stockholm, and at present sport activities are formally organized to an amazing extent: there are over 13,000 sport associations and every tenth Swede over 12 belongs to an athletic club.1)


On the border line between athletic and military associations are some 2,300 rifle clubs with 235,000 mernbers. Although the last war fought by Sweden is now almost a century and a half in the past, with the consequence that there are no veterans’ organizations, roughly 64,000 Swedes in civilian pursuits belong to a voluntary military training program and are ready to assume command as officers in case of an emergency. Women’s auxiliaries to the armed forces can count on almost 100,000 volunteers, and the National Association for Civil Defense has 110,000 trained members. All these associations cooperate closely with the regular armed forces of Sweden and receive considerable government subsidies. But it is noteworthy that the power of the professional soldier seems really to be exercised through official channels rather than through voluntary meetings of officers outside their designated commands.

"The only thing unorganized in the life of the average Swede," a leading Social Democratic theorist said recently, "is his sleep." The statement, half boast, half lament, is not hyperbole. While there have been no recommendations for channelling somnambulistic activity into collective goals, the proliferation of organizations has been amazing in recent decades. Apart from the major economic, political and welfare groups described below, there are scores of voluntary associations devoted to every special interest under the sun (about 350 persons belong to a variety of nudist clubs).

Some others:
Two national associations with a total membership of over 20,000 are concerned with the use of Sweden’s national resources and the preservation of the country’s natural beauty. An association with over 30,000 members is devoted to preserving selected old houses and small estates to be used as museums of folk culture and as meeting places for local groups. The rural areas have their strongest champion in the 200,000-member RLF, devoted to promoting the welfare of the rural population. Swedish housewives have their own 45,000-members association.

Other voluntary associations with essentially economic goals, providing members with a business contract (usually a discount agreement) for services rendered, include automobile and flying clubs. Automobile clubs assist members in planning trips, getting through customs, receiving help if they have mechanical difficulties and so forth. Sweden has four automobile clubs, the most exclusive being the Royal Automobile Club (KAK) and the largest the National Association of Automobile Drivers. The National has organized 170,000 drivers. The figure is expected to rise in view of the extraordinary increase in car ownership, per capita the highest in Europe. Sweden, a country of great distances and considerable prosperity, also has close to 10,000 persons organized in the Royal Flying Club. Most towns have "lecture associations" competing for the many intellectuals in Sweden on the national lecture circuit. Annually 58,000 study groups for adults are arranged, attracting nearly 600,000 participants. Most study groups are conducted by key political, religious, economic, or welfare association figures, but are also open to "outsiders." Parent-school associations represent another form of involvement but flourish less than in, say, the United States.

The voluntary Swedish Red Cross has a remarkable national and international record and over half a million members. Charity drives to raise money for the care and cure of those stricken by crucial diseases, such as tuberculosis and cancer, enjoy popular support. Among other successful charity enterprises in recent years, the Save-the-Children-movement, which disperses the bulk of its funds in less fortunate countries, is meritorious.

Small but active associations concern themselves with artistic pursuits. The National Theatre Association has about 75 local divisions and at least as many stage facilities to receive their own professional road companies with a repertoire of about ten plays a season. Approximately 14,000 amateur actors are organized in little theatre groups, 12,000 singers in glee clubs and choirs (not counting regulars who sing in church choirs). Artists and sculptors, with interested members of the public, have a general art association of 20,000 members. Writers are associated in a national pen club for the constant exchange of ideas.

Old-time religion Probably the longest history of Swedish associations can be claimed by religious groups. The National Lutheran Church of Sweden is a "high" church with a rich ritual, stress on sacrament, and practically no opportunity for laymen to officiate at services — an exclusion usually surprising to the more informal American Lutherans. Since it is a state church, it is supported through taxes, collected at the same time as the levies imposed by national and local governments. A big step toward making the Church of Sweden a more voluntary association was taken in the Religious Freedom Act of 1951.2) Nevertheless, the clergy of the Lutheran church are still civil servants; most Swedes become church members at birth and are automatically kept on the church rolls unless they file a formal application to withdraw, an option rarely exercised even by non-churchgoers. On the fringe of this structure, however, is a series of church-related voluntary associations devoted to religious education, charity, or other concerns of the church. Surveys indicate that four per cent of the population over 12 are members of these church-related associations. Non-conformist or "free" churches have been permitted in Sweden for over a hundred years although, as a rule, their adherents have remained nominal members of the statechurch as well. These churches and their auxiliary youth groups comprise eight percent of the population over 12, the largest being a Congregationalist denomination, The Covenant Church (SMF), with 110,000 adult members.

A recent survey disclosed that 17 percent of adults had attended a state church and 9 percent a free church, at least once during the two months preceding the interview period. The figures confirm what previous studies have already revealed: compared to other Christian countries, Sweden has a very low rate of church attendance.

Economic enterprises The most important voluntary associations in Sweden have primarily economic goals, which makes them similar to partnerships or share-holders’ companies in actual operation. Yet they differ in ownership structure and hence in the eyes of the law. This is especially true of cooperatives, which the Swedish government in the past few decades has treated with marked favouritism in contrast to the cooler tolerance shown the more conventional forms of economic enterprise. Since the first recorded farmers’ cooperative was founded in 1880 the movement has grown to such an extent that in the 1950s there were some 180,000 cooperative farm enterprises in Sweden and over half a million participants in dairy, butchery and poultry cooperatives. A substantial share of apartment building and maintenance is done through a centralized, cooperative finance-and-purchasing enterprise, the HSB. The widespread organization of consumer cooperatives, the KF, was organized nationally 1899. Close to half the nation’s households belong to this organization which, seen from a comprehensive point of view, is in effect a powerful composite of banking institute, holding company (whose subsidiaries manufacture consumer goods), and a vast distributing system to chain stores, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s retail trade in foodstuffs. Private retail trade has countered this not only by rival retail chains, but through various activities of the Association of Swedish Merchants, which has 35,000 members.

Unions and employers’ associations, of course, also have economic goals.3) National associations of local unions developed remarkably early, beginning with the printers and mail carriers in 1886. Social Democrats captured the leadership of the unions, which they considered a natural setting for political action aimed at working-class solidarity and a socialized economy. In 1898, the various national unions formed a national federation, the LO. By 1942 it had a million members; now it has a million and a half and is the largest association in Sweden. Its scope has increased and agricultural labor unions — formed much later than industrial and craft unions — have been included in the organization. White-collar workers have also unionized and formed national federations: the largest is TCO; smaller are SACO for university graduates, and SR for civil servants. In a representative sample of men and women between 20 and 55 years of age, 26 percent belonged to LO and seven percent to the national white-collar unions. Among those who have salaried white-collar jobs, 22 percent belong to TCO. These figures demonstrate a union penetration of society probably unequalled in any other democratic country of the world.

As a counter-effort to organized labor, the employers set up their own national organization in 1902. While small business has long been unable to exhibit the strong solidarity of the labor movement, large and small manufacturers are now well organized in a confederation, the SAF, which maintains close contact with member firms. If a union strikes against one member and finances the strike through funds obtained from workers employed by another member, the SAF has the right to order the latter to close down and lock out its workers. The association of artisans and small industrialists, comprising a total of 35,000 members, has no such powers.

High and Dry — Several welfare movements were given impetus by the social unrest which accompanied the urbanization and industrialization of Sweden. Largest among them were the temperance associations. A Swedish movement in the early 19th century advocating moderation in drinking was superseded by groups imported from America with stricter ideas urging total abstinence from alcohol. The Order of Good Templars was introduced in 1879; in 1910 it reached its peak membership of 160,000. At present, the various temperance associations with their youth groups comprise seven percent of the population over 12. During this period, the temperance movement has inculcated a general awareness of social-psychological problems not restricted to alcoholism.

A mong voluntary associations with political goals the early feminists were principal. The first women’s suffrage organization was formed in 1873; in 1919 the feminists won significant victory with the introduction of universal suffrage. Today wornen's associations are less political and militant, with little more than 100,000 members.

Political parties are, themselves, voluntary associations: they have a long history in Sweden and played an especially dominant role in government affairs during much of the 18th century. However, these parties and those that emerged in the latter half of the next century were organizations of delegates to Parliament. They were voting blocks, not associations of constituents. It was not until the first decade of this century that national parties as such became prominent. At present, over 80 percent of the eligible voters participate in national elections. However, only 18 percent of the population over 12 claim actual membership in political parties and their youth organizations. Among the electorate proper (those over 21) the proportion of organized sympathizers varies markedly between the different parties. Of those who preferred the Conservative Party in 1954-56, 32 percent were organized as actual party members. The corresponding figure among the supporters of the Liberal Party was 14 percent, among the Center (Agrarian) Party 71 percent and among the Social Democrats 23 percent. (The liberals, however, can balance their weak party organization with a strong press.)

Election allies — Many associations in Sweden serve, sometimes unwittingly, in the crystallizing of political party support, and all democratic parties seem to base such "non-political" allies. It is particularly significant that "voting against one’s class" is often correlated with membership in voluntary associations other than political parties. The members of a voluntary association often have a similar political outlook. Therefore, certain associations may at election time serve as more or less inadvertent auxiliaries to the bourgeois parties, pulling a considerable share of their working-class membership into the bourgeois fold. Thus, 55 percent of the workers in state-church organizations and 59 percent of the free-church workers prefer bourgeois parties, a far cry from the overall average of 25 percent.

On the other hand, the socialist parties claim the allegiance of a majority of members in some other associations. Notably this is true of labor unions, wherein 85 percent prefer socialist parties. Likewise, 71 percent of the participants in consumer cooperatives prefer socialist parties. The Social Democrats, 52 percent of the electoral sample studied, account for 67 percent of the women whose households belong to KF. No less than 53 percent of the upper and middle class members of KF prefer the socialist parties, although in the entire electoral sample only 29 percent of the upper and middle class side with the socialists.

Clearly, within the political spectrum, voluntary associations help determine elections according to a simple rule: members whose class constitute the minority of an association tend to vote with the group’s majority class. In this way the voluntary associations tend to modify the class basis of the political parties.

Behind the scenes — One cannot adequately study the democratic process in Sweden by simply focussing on the political parties and Parliament in the fashion of the civics textbooks. Several prominent political scientists in Sweden, (for example, Gunnar Heckscher and Hilding Johansson), have shown how the big voluntary associations enjoy a political influence beyond their effect on election results.

This is noticeable even to casual observers of the public debate in Sweden. All voluntary associations, not only the parties, are apt to articulate some of the major causes and conflicts within society. Every week newspapers carry pronouncements by leaders and resolutions by members on a major issue of the times. During the past decade there have been frequent statements on such subjects as the cultural and economic handicaps of rural residents, the wage level of industrial labor, expansion of compulsory education, exploitation of atomic energy, the divorce rate, female clergy, religious education in public schools, government spending, restrictions on investments in industry, juvenile delinquency, prices of food, rent control, barriers to foreign trade, pornographic literature, unemployment, inflation, the right to leave the Church of Sweden, pensions for older citizens, the television network, nuclear armament of the military forces, and so on. Inevitably, any association taking a stand on public issues makes an effort to stir up its membership and generate support for its adopted position. By these means, association may be set up against association, citizen against fellow-citizen and intentionally or not, associations acquire influence in the body politic.

We have insufficient experience with thoroughly associational societies to predict how great a risk such a society runs of being torn apart by organizational strife. The fact that the leaders pay homage to a tradition of responsibility and fair play should not obscure the more important fact that heated conflicts do occur and that they are settled only on terms acceptable to the stronger party. Likewise, while it is true that serious conflicts between organized interests are often mediated by the government or by government agencies, one must not forget that the government is either a group divided by the same conflict or a group representing one of the conflicting parties. While the government is rarely able to dictate a solution, it usually makes contributions to the resolution of the conflicts by providing orderly arenas where the adversaries may fight their way to a modus vivendi. Thus, it may arrange for parliamentary debates of the issue, or let a parliamentary committee debate it, or call a private conference of the parties to negotiate in the presence of government officials, or set up a Royal Commission with representatives of the associations concerned and some outsiders from the civil service and university faculties.

Compromising conflict — The main deterrent to a fight between associations that might disturb society seems to lie in the organizations themselves. No association can start an all-out fight against another without alienating a substantial number of its own members, a consideration implicit in the intricately overlapping memberships of different associations. A simple example, in itself insignificant, will suffice to illustrate a significant principle. During the past decade, the chapel service in the public schools has been a recurrently debated issue. One position taken in this conflict is that a religious service at the mandatory morning assembly in the public schools is contrary to religious freedom and should be abandoned. However, 16 percent of all organized party members belong to religious associations, most of which prefer to retain the school chapel. In the electorate, 32 percent of the Conservative voters and 32 percent of the Liberals go to services regularly in the Church of Sweden or belong to a free church. These parties cannot possibly afford to take a firm stand on a measure that might alienate more than a quarter of their voters. By contrast, the Communists who have no voters in state or free church groups and have a church-going membership of scarcely 6 percent, can readily afford to fight — and have fought — the compulsory school chapel. The ruling Social Democrats can afford at best a quiet compromise; 16 percent of their voters go to the Church of Sweden or belong to non-conformist churches.

Just how far overlapping allegiances can prevent the society from being torn into opposite camps in open conflict is suggested by the circumstance that more than half of all members in temperance associations, political groups, athletic clubs and religious organizations belong to other associations as well. As a corallary, it is inevitable that the most serious conflicts between organizations occur where there are no overlapping memberships. This is one reason why labor-management disputes are sometimes so tense. Yet even the class-based economic associations are modified by the effects of dual allegiance. Twenty percent of the members in LO are counted in the middle-class because they have middle-class occupation during part of the year, or because they are married to someone with a bourgeois occupation. Fifteen percent of the white-collar union members are counted in the working class for parallel reasons. The articulation of class conflicts is further diminished by the social mobility which gives every fourth Swede a father or a child on the other side of the class line. In this way the forces of class conflict meet the countervailing forces of family solidarity. The remarkable orderliness of labor-management contests in Sweden — symbolized by the Labor Law of 1928 and the so-called General Agreement between LO and SAF in 1938 — may well reflect, primarily, the foresight and intelligence of leaders in both camps. But it is doubtful whether a genuine public acceptance of these provisions to reduce conflict could have developed in the absence of such multiple allegiances.

Overlapping memberships in associations, together with social mobility, appear to have interfused Swedish society in a complex fashion that prevents serious rifts and generates a climate of compromise and conciliation. These factors may be considered pre-conditions of the social structure referred to on solemn occasions as responsibility, moderation, public spirit, and fair play. An American might want to be thought of as "popular," an Englishman as "respectable," a Spaniard as "masculine." A modern Swede with his multiple allegiances and commitments, balanced one against the other, likes to be what he calls lagom — that is, reasonable.

Secret leaders? — Most voluntary organizations in Sweden have given up some local autonomy and joined with others to form national associations or federations with headquarters in the capital. The national scope of voluntary associations permits headquarters manned by professional staffs for programming, recruitment, fund-raising, publicity, public relations, education, etc. This centralization of control makes national associations effective as political pressure groups. They are formally recognized by all branches of government as consultative bodies ("remissinstanser") with right to give opinions and advice on legislative proposals affecting their interests. They are represented in the state broadcasting company and have a considerable voice in deciding the fare of programs. And they are informally recognized almost everywhere, not the least in legislation. The teetotaler associations, for instance, have wielded an enormous influence over Swedish liquor legislation; non-conformist religious groups have forced legislative changes, breaking the compulsive bond of the citizen to the Church of Sweden, while consumer cooperatives, labor unions and white-collar unions are among the truly influential makers of the government’s economic policy.

All this poses an interesting question: Are the leaders of the large voluntary associations in effect the leaders of the nation? Considering the number of competing claims to leadership, one cannot give an affirmative answer. The state itself consists of several independently powerful agencies with much initiative of their own and a large degree of self-government. Particularly, the armed forces and the educational institutions command large resources and have as many constituents as the large voluntary associations. Furthermore, the captains of industry and finance wield power over vast and rich enterprises. On the surface at least, Sweden is a pluralistic society housing several large and influential semi-autonomous groups, some of which are voluntary associations. And, unlike Great Britain, the leaders of these groups are not united into an "Establishment" through family bonds and old school ties. At best they know, or know of, each other because the country is small and the capital is a manageable place in which one can keep track of peers.

Power plays — In the depression of the 1930s the industrialists and bankers lost not only money but also much of the public’s confidence. When a bourgeois prime minister was exposed as having received a sum of money from financier Ivar Kreuger, public indignation forced him to resign. Socialist leader Per Albin Hansson slowly emerged as a father figure for large masses of Swedes, and his party has kept a majority or near-majority in Parliament ever since. As in several other countries, Swedish business leaders, somewhat intimidated by public criticism and pre-occupied with the economic recovery of their own enterprises, had to accept many new government regulations and heavier taxes to finance the enlarged welfare programs. With the arrival of World War II, military leadership was temporarily in a position to make almost unlimited demands, but after the war it naturally lost its advantage and in time the pre-war power blocs resumed control. The ruling Social Democrats, however, remain more or less dependent on support from a few large voluntary associations, primarily from the labor unions, the consumer cooperatives, and the farmers’ associations. Since these there forces are exceedingly well organized and centralized in their command, it is certain that many decisions passed by the Social Democratic cabinet are actually made outside the cabinet. On many issues, prior formal or informal consultations with the supporting associations are the rule.

The opposition parties are also dependent, to an extent, on several middle-class associations. The Liberal Party made initial gains with spectacular success beyond the hard core of academic liberals and fre-church members but, failing to build up a stable machinery for grass-roots organization, lost support in 1958 as sensationally as it had gained it in 1948. The Conservatives are right now in a process of expansion beyond their nucleus of adherents to the Church of Sweden, solid businessmen, and higher civil servants. At present, no party or association leads and dominates the rather dissonant chorus of bourgeois voices in Sweden.

Looking left and right, the picture is the same: No one is strong enough nor couraged enough to monopolize or dominate the scene; there is instead an unusually open market place of power, which means a heyday for the voluntary associations. All the influential ones have exercised their authority and enforced qualifications of the social structure.

Ruling coalition — The most successful coalition has been one led by Social Democrats and unionists, more often than not with the agrarians and the cooperative consumers as allied members. They have had the last word on economic matters in the postwar era. Perhaps no final verdict on their economic policy can at present be delivered. However, earnings of industrial workers and agricultural workers, who are represented in this combine, have increased more than the Swedish average, and much more than earnings of lower civil servants — a group not represented in the combine. Since the agrarians are included in the ruling economic combine (sometimes formally as cabinet members, but usually informally) it is no surprise that food prices have increased more than prices of other consumer goods. (The consumer cooperatives, unhappily, allowed this general rise in food costs, since their goal is not to sell food cheaply, but simply to sell it cheaper than their competitors in private enterprise and to obtain a larger share of the market.) Through various devices this coalition has also put a larger proportion of the society’s capital accumulation and investment under state control. On the whole, however, the coalition has been unsuccessful in protecting the value of the currency. By 1960, inflation had taken 41 per cent off the purchasing power of every crown saved in 1945.

That the coalition has not maintained complete solidarity should be emphaized. The KF has kept aloof on some matters of fiscal policy, and the agrarians broke decisively with the others in 1958 over the government’s retirement pension plan. The latter issue — the most important political event in the 1950s — calls for compulsory pension contributions from employers to form funds of which the investments are controlled by Public Authorities and from which every employee will receive a retirement pension amounting to two-thirds of his wages or salary in his middle age. While victory was narrow and took one referendum and two general elections, it is significant that the socialists and the unionists, with some help from the salaried middle class, were strong enough to enact the measure against opposition from bourgeois parties and many bourgeois groups outside the salaried middle class. It is likely, however, that such success could not be repeated for any issue with less popular appeal. On some issues virtually all voluntary associations have agreed, which has made the legislative outcome certain. Many welfare measures have been enacted with the support of nearly every major voluntary association; for example, the adoption of Sweden’s scheme of semi-socialized medicine and Sweden’s decision to stay neutral (i.e., out of NATO) enjoyed general support. In these cases the associations enunciated public consensus. In other instances, associations have agreed out of self-interest as voluntary organizations. Case in point: All large voluntary associations wanted television without paid advertisements and wanted it as a part of the state-owned broadcasting company over whose programs they had already much influence. A feeler from big business in favor of commercial television had no chance against this stand. Again, all voluntary associations with youth groups had a solution for juvenile drift and delinquency: since they wanted to expand their own activities, they persuaded the state to contribute to the construction of new assemblies and club rooms. Likewise all voluntary associations with educational activities had a solution to the need for adult education: the state now helps to pay for instructors and for textbooks. Other issues were resolved, as were the economic ones, through combines of associations: a coalition of free-church members, socialists, and liberal academicians was the driving force behind the new right of religious freedom. Elsewhere single associations seemed to have exercised a degree of veto power; in a revision of the armed forces, adopted last year, which includes such drastic changes as a 50 percent cut in naval forces, the civil defense provisions and home guard organization are left fairly intact. A change in the emotion-laden system of rationing alcohol can be traced to a change of opinion in the traditional veto-group of teetotalers and free-church members concerning the best ways of dealing with excessive alcohol consumption.

Associations can also block legislation or postpone decisions. Sweden has not decided on nuclear armament although it is well known that she has the economic and scientific resources to produce her own atomic weapons. The armed forces and the conservatives want them, but several religious groups and many intellectuals are against them.

There remain issues over which the associations have yielded little or no influence, including important legislation of the 1950s: a comprenensive revision of the system of local government, a law on the use of atomic energy, a new law on inheritance. These legislative items were the work of specialists inside and outside of government. Penal reforms, among others, have been promoted as much by the press as by any associations, and the press has been virtually the only forum for debate on foreign policy. In short, the voluntary associations influence some of the national decision making; they do not influence all decisions and their influence is always a matter of degree.

Gov’t by rubber stamp? — Whoever did the influencing, it is significant that in the 1950s almost every major issue was actually resolved before it reached the Swedish Parliament for a legislative decision. The parliamentary votes on the abovementioned issues were almost unanimous, which indicates that cabinet and Parliament are apt to rubber-stamp decisions already argued out and resolved elsewhere. The only important exception is, as previously mentioned, the old-age pension, taken to the electorate for decision in 1958. Here a coalition of wage earners and salaried workers in the end defeated a coalition of farmers and businessmen. Another loser was the Liberal Party, with a following in both camps. Its leadership took a compromise stand in the conflict and thus alienated many followers at both extremes.

How long this relatively open market for organized interests will prevail is impossible to predict. The one force that could possibly emerge to dominate the market place of power is big business. At present, Swedish business is frustrated because it has not been able to overcome the coalition of unions, cooperatives, and agrarians in making economic policy. Nevertheless, the big corporations seem to have great momentum. They may have lost money and prestige in the depression, but they did not lose their real asset and skills. They prospered in the up-turn of the late thirties, survived the war-time isolation from world markets, and gained unprecedented prosperity in the fifties. They have grown big: in 1956 no less than 74 percent of all reported industrial profit came from 5 percent of all companies that employed more than 1,000 workers. Industrial production has doubled in the last two decades. In addition, technical improvements have doubled the volume of production per man-hour since the war, thereby providing the necessary resources behind enlarged social benefits and rising wages. By international standards this might be called a notable achievement.4)

The Swedish expansion, moreover, has been achieved in a climate of regulations and taxations imposed by the ruling coalition, and in a period of nationalization threats by the Social Democrats. As late as the 1940s, government commissions worked on plans to nationalize large corporations in several fields, and a master plan with steps in this direction constitued the postwar platform of the victorious Social Democratic Party. However, these ideas lost their hold. By now, Swedish industry seems powerful enough to discourage large-scale nationalization attempts.

The new order — A new climate of opinion has arisen. In the process of organizing citizens into clubs and associations, and the associations into national bodies and pressure groups, the old concept of "freedom of association" has undergone a subtle change. While it still carries old meanings such as the right to call a public meeting and to collect tax-exempt dues, it nowadays also implies what American Sociologist Robert S. Lynd has defined as deference to large organizations. The associations have become centralized and their national headquarters are not only pressure groups but actual shareholders of power in the Kingdom of Sweden. At the same time these pressure groups have a large following in the country; this mass support in combination with the ameliorative goals stated by groups, effectively counteracts the negative stigma that usually goes with lobbying. As a result, they nevertheless command respect and deference while wielding power for special or selfish ends.5)

In effect, the deference to large organizations is becoming a rule of action for society’s dealings with any large business and not with voluntary associations alone. Barring extraordinary events, it now seems certain that deference to large organizations will also determine the ways in which the big corporations and the big semi-autonomous agencies of the state are treated.

The present social structure of Sweden is about as different as can be imagined from the royal and aristocratic rule (with advice and consent from farmers and burghers) which the framers of its 1809 constitution assumed. It is also different from the liberal order prior to World War I when the higher civil service (including the military), industry and commerce dominated the scene. The socialists bitterly fought all these forces, but failed to defeat them. Although they gained long-lasting control of the formal legislative process, it has become clear that their idea of a new autocracy in the shape of a nationalized economy could not be enacted. Instead, the present stalemate emerged, in which no single big organization is strong enough to shatter any other and in which, therefore, every big organization has a safe, and even respected, place at the top. The only way national issues can be resolved in this situation is through the efforts of the coalitions which shift from issue to issue. The pattern is likely to prevail, at least in broad outline, until some very serious crisis discredits it and provides both the call and the opportunity for a new focus of national leadership.



1) Track in the summer and ski-meets in the winter draw most participants but soccer football is the national game in the sense that it attracts the largest crowds.

2) The act enabled anyone to leave the Established Church without embracing another religion — and membership in the church was no longer a requirement for assumption of public office.

3) Which was not the case, evidently, among precursors of the labor unions. When the guild system was abolished in 1846 the craft associations lost their legal status, but many continued as social groups. For example, the Typographical Association in Stockholm developed as a forum for education and entertainment. Only later did it take a stand on wage and employment policies and become one of the first true labor unions in Sweden.

4) Several countries on the European continent show higher figures of economic expansion, but their economies have been aided by the huge reconstruction of facilities destroyed in the war.

5) A symbolic expression of the importance given to voluntary associations is enacted on National Flag Day, June 6, in the old Olympic Stadium, Stockholrn, where the Royal family reviews a parade of voluntary associations.

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This article is based on several surveys made by the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion during the 1950s, supplemented by more conventional sources of Swedish statistics. The surveys were analyzed specifically for the International by the author, Swedish-born sociologist, Hans L. Zetterberg, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Political Science at Columbia University and a Research Associate in the Bureau of Applied Social Research in N. Y.

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