Guest Blog: The Citizen Council on Climate - the beginning of a turning point?

Philip Bärring is involved in organizing Fairtrans Citizen Council on Climate, and shares his personal reflections on political culture and citizens' assemblies

The Citizen Council on Climate could be a starting point for the citizen council method in Sweden, but what does that mean? My enthusiasm and engagement in the method stem from a belief that our political culture creates challenges in Sweden's democracy, but at the same time, this culture creates the conditions for the citizen councils that could be the solution.

The Citizen Council on Climate has just had its first sessions, and curiosity about the method has received significant attention in national media - from Agenda, to TV4, to DN. That the citizen council method has gained such attention and enthusiasm is a sign of something, and judging by appearances, the method seems about to make its full-scale entrance in Sweden. I want to reflect on what this could lead to, and why I believe something big may be happening right now.

I will not repeat the advantages of citizen councils in modern politics - these are arguments often reiterated, and can briefly be summarized as a measure against technocratic top-down governance and consensus-building in a polarized era (if you want to read more, take a look here). Instead, I will share some general reflections on citizen councils in Sweden's specific political culture. Some thinkers view us as "The Swedish Exception" and "the world's most modern country," so there are good reasons to explore these culture-specific dynamics and what they might mean for citizen councils in Sweden.

So, what are these culture-specific dynamics I've reflected on? Making statements about the culture one is immersed in is like trying to see one's own back, so until Lars Trägårdh has identified Sweden's cultural canon, we must rely on insightful descriptions of our demeanor - and it's hardly a coincidence that it is Lars Trägårdh (together with Henrik Berggren) who made one of the most insightful interpretations in the book "Is the Swede Human?" (2009). In it, they argue that Swedish modern history has been a project to achieve individual freedom, understood as independence. Their analysis goes from Sweden's loss of Finland and European relevance to an idealization of individual independence and self-sufficiency, and finally, the realization of these ideals in the welfare state's social contract.

They call the concept state individualism, and it's the cultural logic that seems to explain most of why Swedes think and function as we do. Our welfare and broad public sector - expected to take care of us from "cradle to grave" - has made the Swedish experience one of growing up and living with a constant relationship to the welfare state. According to the logic of state individualism, it should not be our families or friends who have the ultimate responsibility to provide for our needs, and in Trägårdh and Berggren's interpretation, the welfare state's purpose is to liberate us from the social duties that limit us. An example is the troublesome feelings we have towards gratitude debt, where we experience a need (demand?) to reciprocate as soon as possible, and seems to be one of the terms that does not have an English equivalent that captures the nuances. I think it shows our need not to rely on or be forced into relationships, and a perception that freedom is to voluntarily choose our social environment.

The strength in their reasoning is how one can relate to it. They manage to find the connection between our individualism, our need for personal space, and the welfare state. At first glance, these would seem to be opposites to each other, where an expansive state is a threat to individual freedoms, but their insight is that these are entirely compatible with each other.

Why is all this worth mentioning in a blog post about citizen councils? Because state individualism implies that relationships are interpreted as potentially limiting and dangerous, and must be chosen voluntarily. Our society is built on making relationships a private matter, transforming our existential need for community from a public good to something private.

If this interpretation holds true, there's an unspoken structural crisis in Sweden. Democracy requires a public community and the ability to act together across social boundaries to solve challenges. Once upon a time, the public community was a given in association Sweden, with popular movements, free church associations, cooperatives, and wide & broad engagement in associations and party politics - but now? If our democratic society was built with the ideal of making the individual independent, democracy has always had an internal paradox and contradiction. Many have sensed this, Olof Palme himself expressed concern as early as 1979 but saw it as the problem of the industrial society:

”Of course, it's important that people should have as much personal elbow room as possible. It applies to private economy and housing. But it also applies to access to a clean and unspoiled nature, to cultural experiences. It applies to the opportunity to develop and, as it is said, to realize oneself. To live in freedom and equality with others. […] We have not succeeded in creating the community among people that is necessary for freedom. We have large and difficult-to-oversee, and as it sometimes seems, almost unchangeable companies, authorities, and organizations. In such a perspective, our society is not particularly pleasant.”

Palme's insight is that despite its material wealth, the individual cannot influence politics by itself. That the power of state apparatuses and corporate power can only be addressed through collective action is the crisis that state individualism has brought to Sweden: democracy requires the opposite of our idealization of independence as the highest good. 

This interpretation of Swedish political culture seems accurate, at least in describing the current situation. Several writers and public thinkers are either confused about the passivity or hopeful for a renewed popular movement and public engagement - most notably, Police Chief Carin Götblad's public appeal in DN to "Turn off the TV and get involved" to combat gang crime.

But as long as state individualism convinces us that independence is the highest good, all calls for greater engagement will be as effective as pleas for a healthier lifestyle: "I know I should - but".

This is what makes citizen councils potentially play a central role in our political culture. The reason I advocate for the councils so eagerly is that they may be precisely the piece that's missing. The political problem of state individualism cannot be addressed through more calls to what we all already think is important; but state individualism can be countered on its own terms. If the fundamental relationship in Sweden is between the individual and the state, then the individual has trust in the state and its authorities, and opinion polls show this. Media Academy's latest Trust Barometer saw that more than 50% have much or quite a lot of trust in the state, and the corresponding figure for political parties is 18%. So, if political communities are hard to organize through parties and various parts of civil society, could they be organized through the state and authorities' invitation to citizen councils?

What am I trying to say with this post? That Sweden's basic cultural structures are an unspoken democratic crisis, but that crisis can be countered through the citizen council method. After the attention given to the Citizen Council on Climate, there is a chance that this could be the starting point for Swedish citizen councils, and they could be the long-awaited turning point in our democracy's slow transition to technocracy and market governance. 

Something big may be happening in Sweden: the cultural dynamics that have slowly eroded our community and democracy can be transformed into a completely new democratic dynamic.



Henrik Berggren & Lars Trägårdh. (2009). Är svensken människa? gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige. Norstedt.

Lina Lund. (2023). Uppmaningen till svenskarna: ”Stäng av tv:n och ta tag i saker”. Dagens Nyheter. Finns tillgänglig här:

Medieakademin. (2024). Förtroendebarometern 2024. Finns tillgänglig här:

Olof Palme. (1979). Industrisamhällets Problem. Finns tillgänglig här:

Philip Bärring March 27, 2024
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