Seven years ago, Smålands Nation was the epicentre in a national occupation movement. Since then, the number of members has dropped, to a record low 261 this autumn. What happened?
By: Filip Rydén Translated by: Viktor Jönsson
It was a warm late-summer night in 2014. Most students in Lund took the opportunity to enjoy the weather and the peacefulness before the term starts. But at Smålands Nation there is fervent activity. At an extraordinary meeting sits about 90 people and cross-examine the board of Smålands Nation’s Housing (SNB).
The reason is a motion regarding mistrust for the housing board submitted by a group of disgruntled tenants. The board is clearly unprepared; board member Carl Emilsson found out about the meeting by coincidence, and has previously not received any complaints. The mood is regarded by many as hostile, and the next day, Carl Emilsson resigns from his position.
Two years later, the nation which was already the smallest in Lund, loses half of its 450 members. The residences were mismanaged and had to be fixed, which led to a dramatic increase of 20% in rent. At the same time, the club, traditionally a cash cow for the nation was only allowed to let in 150 attendants instead of around 400 due to a faulty fire door. With decreased revenue and high expenses, the question is – how much longer will Smålands survive?
For today’s students in Lund, it is perhaps natural that Smålands has it difficult. With its 261 members last autumn, it only amounts at most to half a percent of Lund’s students.
But Smålands more reclusive role in the student life is a pretty new phenomenon. In 2009, they still had about 1300 members. And going further back, at the seventies Smålands was one of Lund’s biggest nations. A report from 1979 regarding the nation’s future states that: “Today, about 14 percent of Lund’s students are members in the nation, a number that should be increased considerably.” 14 percent of the students in 1979 amounted to about 2500 students.
”THE TIME FOR PUNSCH IS OVER FOR SWEDEN’S STUDENTS!”
Letter to the editor, Dackekuriren, 1969
The tale of the socialist Smålands began in the sixties’ educational expansion. In only ten years, the number of students at Lund University increased dramatically, from just over 5000 in 1960 to almost thirty thousand in 1970.
The new students often came from middle- and working class homes with inexperience regarding studying, and were thusly not attracted by the nations’ traditions. However they were still forced to join a nation due to the law of obligatory membership.
At Smålands, the breaking point came at the nation’s three hundred year celebration in 1968 An overwhelming majority of the members felt excluded from the celebration, as it was thought to address an inner circle of established members. An intense debate started in the nation’s magazine Dackekuriren regarding the traditions, fuelled by the fire of the student revolt the same year. This led to the nation cancelling the ball in 1969.
In 1970 the educational policy changed and the flow of new students came to a halt. For Smålands, which had expanded strongly and just finished building a new nation house, this meant economic disaster. In order to solve the problem, the nation rented their locales to different organisations outside the campus.
There were foremost organisations from the left who were interested in renting, in the wake of the Protest of 1968. The more to the left the nation went, the more members they attracted, which lead to better business. This is how at the end of the 70ies, Smålands Nation was one of Lund’s biggest nations, and was thought to show the way that other nations should follow.
Even if Smålands already during the 80ies lost its role as a model nation, it still had an obvious role as an alternative to the student life that otherwise had their old traditions. When the obligatory nation membership was abolished in 2010, Smålands was larger than many nations. However, since then the number of members has dropped drastically. What happened?
“There are actually a lot of students today who are politically active – almost all I know are vegetarians!”
Anonymous student, 2017.
At the start of the seventies, few things were as popular as engaging in leftism. Today the party-political participation is ever shrinking. Smålands’ Nation Administrative Hannah Reustle views the change in community spirit as the main reason for the drop in members.
“We can see a clear correlation between the number of members at Smålands and social progress. The more who are to the left in society, the more are the members in Smålands.”
Nils Gustafsson is a researcher at The Department of Strategic Communication. He is participating in a project regarding young people’s political engagement, and according to him, there is some truth to this. He points out that young people do not care less about political questions than before, but instead it has found a different outlet.
The modern political commitment takes place through social media. You join a Facebook group or write an appeal online.
“When discussions take place on the internet, the political parties changes to purely administrative organisations, whose role is to collect as many votes as possible and then represent them in parliament”, he says.
Another part of the problem according to Nils Gustavsson, is that few are willing to stand behind a complete “political package” in the way they are expected to do as a party member. The commitment on social media is more focused in particular engaging questions – for example feminism, antiracism or deregulation. It is more of an individual commitment, which does not require compromises to the same extent.
Gustav Ekström, chairman for Lund’s social democratic student club (LSSK), agrees with this picture.
“It is so idiotic. I talked to a guy who had pulled together a group for citizen’s wage, about 200 people. They had a few meetings and agreed with each other, but since then nothing has happened. With 200 committing to a party you can set the local agenda, putting pressure on the national organization and influence the government’s policy”, he says.
Smålands is not the only political organization who is losing members. LSSK has had a tough time attracting new active members, and Sydsvenskan reported that during February 2016, Muf in Skåne lost a third of its members.
“IT DOESN’T SEEM COMPLETELY EASY TO KEEP AN ORGANISATION TOGETHER WHEN EVERYBODY IN IT IS A REBEL.”
Anonymous student, 2017.
On the night of 11 October 2008, about 20 activists gather. Among them is Kalle and his friend Johan, at Kävlingevägen in Lund. They have prepared for about a month, and they do not know it, but that night, they will start a nationwide movement that will characterize Sweden’s autonomous left for the following two years.
They approach the abandoned house at Kävlingevägen 51, break in, change the lock and place the prebuilt barricades. When the morning comes, the house is occupied, and the neighbours can read two simple messages which hangs on the front of the house: the new name of the house “Smultronstället” (Wild Strawberries) and the motto “Housing for everybody”. This is how Lund became the starting shot for a new national wave of occupation, the last time the Left’s epicenter was in this student city.The following years, independent leftist group would come to occupy about 20 houses in Lund, and many more across Sweden. The movement got a lot and initially positive publicity.“The idea was very simple. The municipality has a lot of empty houses. We said – we will take them, care for them and fix them, for free, and then we arrange accommodation and employment for young people”, Johan summarises.“They didn’t have any counterarguments, we took houses the municipality owned, that had been empty for six to ten years, and did something with them.
”Smålands was important was important in the occupation movement, scenes were built and the Nation Administrative was also the spokesperson for the occupation festival when it was held in May 2009, when the movement was at its strongest. But despite the commitment Johan and Kalle experienced, as the occupations happened about a third of Smålands’ members left.Kim was active at Smålands Nation during this time, and remembers a completely different course of events. There were violent independent members who had a short-sighted focus regarding spectacles, instead of creating a functional and tolerant organisation.“It was like a totally different package, the ideal left that you had to completely live up to, and if you didn’t, it could get tough.”Kim is convinced that the occupation movement contributed to creating a harsher atmosphere at the nation.
The occupations also raised practical concerns for Smålands. The police reacted very harshly towards the movement, which includes Smålands. Autumn 2009, their liquor license was threatened. The following year, when Smålands made the decision to not be a part of Studentlund, the police made the decision that they could no longer be in the “closed society” covered by the nations’ excise license. A membership at Smålands did no longer give the right to drink at another nation, a rule that is still upheld today. Jenny Larsson, nation administrative in 2010, connects the decision directly as revenge for the occupations.“Yes, when we were in contact with the police, I thought there was a kind of bitterness. I experienced it as if they were going after every organisation that perhaps had someone present at the occupation”, she says.But according to Jenny Larsson, it was only the passive members, they who foremost wanted the ticket to the nations, who left in 2010.“Despite losing so many members, Smålands was more active than it had been in years. We had a lot of active members, a lot of clubs, I don’t know the last time we had so many visitors“, she says.A picture supported by statistics regarding membership. After a large drop in 2010 and 2011, the membership number stabilised around 500 members, where it lay up until the dimidiation in 2016. That would explain the longer trend, but not the drastic decline in members.
“THERE IS INTERNAL CONFLICTS AND IDIOCY INSTEAD OF SOLIDARITY AND STRIVING. IT HAS DIED.”
Anonymous student, 2017.
We return to the autumn meeting in 2014. Smålands Nation’s Housing’s board has been subjected to a motion regarding mistrust and increase in rent has been stopped. What was it that happened then?
According to Kim, who had a position at the board, it was because an independent group who could not shape up. He describes that, years following the occupation festival, the nation got more power, and they created a harsh atmosphere. They had put up notes on Smålands’ bulletin-board with the threatening words “Increase the rent and we will take you down!”“There were often threats internally; I remember that people suddenly decided that a liberal living at Dackegården couldn’t live there anymore. Then she was threatened until she left”, says KimThe incident Kim describes is about a student in 2010 who was harassed out of her apartment. The student said that she had gotten a lot of support from the nation, but chose to move after her post-office box had been broken up. Other students report similar incident to Lundagård.
Every source, and even Kim, confirms that it is about a small but loud and influential group who took upon themselves to decide who belonged at Smålands.“Threats were normal. It also happened that somebody got a knife in the door or something”, says Kim.“We dealt with everything almost completely internally. It was not allowed to come to light that this happened at Smålands, and many also had mistrust towards the police. There were some who was forced to leave the nation or asked to quit”, says Kim.
The autumn 2014 was the breaking point. The independent members had been subjected to internal pressure from SNB, and responded with a coup during the meeting and deposed the board. Lundagård’s writer, who was present at the meeting, described a clear division between the independents and a group of reformative left. The reason was about evictions and letters of complaint that the independents thought had not been handled correctly. After the meeting, the board’s chairperson resigned. According to Kim, many of the reformative members of the board resigned shortly after.“It was no longer worth it. Perhaps I should have quit earlier, but you feel a responsibility and want to do something about it”, he says.However, the present Nation Administrative does not agree with the image regarding apparent conflict, but agrees that some important decisions have been stopped at the nation’s meetings.
“The problem is that we have had a democratic system where most residents have been sceptical to increased rent. So it became a very large increase now, but that is after many years without any increases”, says the Nation Administrative Veronica Halling.Her colleague Hannah Reustle thinks the problem is not that big.“Our economy is very good because we have never had any loans on our apartments. Now we have been forced to fix Dackegården and fix the fire door, but there are good margins”, says Hannah Reustle, one of Smålands’ Nation’s administratives.
“WHAT IS REQUIRED IS DRIVING SPIRIT, IF SOMEONE COMES WITH THAT SPIRIT AND DEALS WITH THINGS THEN I BELIVE SMÅLANDS CAN BECOME GOOD AGAIN.”
The social progress, the police and internal conflicts. Everything surely weighs in in Smålands’ fate. But at the same time, the hope is far from out for the nation. Today’s Nation Administrative provides an opposite picture, one of a nation with wind in the sails. According to them, many have chosen to engage in the left as a reaction to Trump’s victory in the USA, and they view the decreased capacity of the club as an asset, many hard to sell concepts can be tried because the demand to have a full house no longer are as high as before. According to the Nation Administrative, the number of members after this year’s novisch period rose for the first time, if but a modest 350 members.
In a lot of ways, the situation at Smålands is similar to the one in 1970. Both then and now the nation had a crisis because of its residential buildings, big internal conflicts and little to lose. Then the result became a reawakening and a big success. The question is what will happen this time?
Correction: In an earlier version of the article, Carl Emilsson was presented as the chairman of SNB’s board, while in fact he was a board member. The text has also been reworked in order to clarify that the motion regarding mistrust did not follow through; however several board members chose to resign from their commitments after the meeting in September 2014.