The Social Origins of Democracy and Authoritarianism Reconsidered: Prussia and Sweden in Comparison

Sångsalen Session 5: Land and the political economy organized by Klas Eriksson


Erik Bengtsson, Felix Kersting (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)


The implications of land inequality for politics and democratization is a classical debate in social sciences and political economy. A recurring argument is what the political scientist Carles Boix has formulated as that “The absence of landlordism constitutes a necessary precondition for the triumph of democracy”. We revisit this debate by studying two in various ways crucial cases: Prussia, the locus classicus of the pernicious effects of landlordism, and Sweden, often perceived to be Prussia’s opposite, as a farmer-dominated social structure led to stable democratization. Our comparison shows the flaws of these interpretations: on standard measures of land inequality, Sweden was more unequal than Prussia in the late 1800s, but nevertheless, obviously, the political outcomes were very different. We explore why land inequality had such different effects on politics in Sweden compared to Prussia, utilizing various measures of land inequality (share of land held by nobles; distribution of farm sizes; presence of large estates), looking at 241 election districts in Sweden from the imposition of universal male suffrage in 1909 to the 1940s, and 236 election districts in Prussia for all general election between 1871 and 1912. Land inequality, in its different measures, had no negative effect on vote participation in Sweden, no positive effect on the Conservative vote share, and no negative effect on the Socialist vote share. We explore why in a qualitative-historical section focusing on Scania, the most unequal region in Sweden but also the hotbed of democratic movements. For Prussia, land inequality is correlated with votes for the conservative party, however, not with turnout as measure of democratic participation. We relate the (in part) opposing findings to the different responses to growing import competition during the first wave of globalization.


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