• Sweden's news in English
 
almadalen_header

Tedious praise of 'perfect Swedish society'

Published: 30 Oct 2013 07:14 GMT+01:00

Most countries have national myths as a part of their cultural and historical DNA. These myths often serve to explain why the country – or nation – developed into its modern form and to put a certain spin on historical events. Examples include “unconditional resistance” to Hitler in the United Kingdom and the “frontier spirit” in the United States. As with ordinary cultural myths, they do contain some truths, but it is still dangerous to take them as full-blown historical fact. As these national myths are just that – myths – they are not entirely true, and if they are treated as such, they would make the citizens of the country in questions arrogant and, in the long run, historically illiterate.

In Sweden, one of the most potent myths might be called "how socialism made Sweden the most successful country in the world" and could be summarized thusly: after the Second World War, Sweden became the best and most successful country in the world because of the Social Democratic Party, the welfare state, and general feel-good socialism. Put simply, Sweden is the best place in the world and the country’s greatness is only jeopardized when the voters are stupid enough to elect non-Social Democratic governments. And when they do, as they have for the last two elections, it "feels like a coup d’état", to borrow a phrase from a current Social Democrat MEP Marita Ulvskog.

Unfortunately, this view of why Sweden has thrived in the last 60 years has not only gained credence in Swedish political debates, but also among many international observers. Even prior to the Second World War, the American journalist Marquis Childs defined Sweden as “the middle way” where market economy and socialism meet in order to create the perfect society. After the war, Swedish economist and future Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal was invited to the US in order to solve the problem of racial segregation. In his book An American Dilemma he predicted that the civil rights movement would start in the north and not the south, as it turned out to do.

However, both Childs and Myrdal wrote prior to the 1970s, when Sweden became severely affected by the oil crisis and had to tackle strong internal left-wing elements that wanted to nationalize all private enterprise. This caused Childs to write a sequel where he gravely described the middle way as being put “on trial” and Myrdal went from being a young, optimistic social democrat economist to an older, cynical one who coined the Swedish term for benefit cheat (bidragsfusk) and in 1974 was forced to share his Nobel Prize in economics with his academic opposite, Friedrich von Hayek. This was also the time when Sweden received some seldom seen but justified international criticism for being a democratic form of a big brother society. Most notably, by the British journalist Roland Huntsford who labelled the phenomenon “the new totalitarians”.

The myth of Sweden as the "perfect society" could have disappeared in the 1970s when it turned out to be a country with qualities and flaws just like any other. But it did not, and the myth continues until this day. Recently it was re-cycled when Canadian health care policy professor Dennis Raphael published an article where he warned against what he called “welfare state fatigue”. By this, he meant that support in Sweden for the welfare state seemed to be declining. But he forgot to mention that a vast majority still support it and that the support seems to correlate with the perception of how the economy is doing.

In other words, Raphael disapproves of the fact that people’s opinions change from time to time, blaming the phenomenon on the vague notion of “neo-liberal ideas”, by which he means a growing emphasis on personal responsibility and personal choice. It's rather interesting, therefore, that he calls these ideas "neo-liberal" because the emphasis on the citizen was also a hallmark of the traditional Swedish Social Democrat Party, which often used the slogan “gör din plikt, kräv din rätt" - do your duty, demand your rights. 

Naturally, Raphael's article, which claims to investigate health care in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, was embraced by the political opposition in Sweden who perceived it, as the Green Party (Miljöpartiet) did, as proof that the present government represents a danger to public health.

While the report shouldn't be treated as a scholarly study, it does touch on a wider theme worth noting: the confirmation of a national myth that people still try to use in Sweden's political debate today. So when foreign observers overpraise Sweden, one should take it with a large pinch of salt, particularly when these observers advocate a political stance in an ongoing public debate.

It's happened in the past when the Financial Times anointed Swedish Social Democrat Finance Minister Kjell Olof Feldt master of economics in the 1980s, and in 2010 when the same paper gave the honour to present Finance Minister Anders Borg. And it will certainly happen again in the future, if for no other reason than that some Anglo-Saxon observers tend to find their own version of paradise in Sweden, and Swedes, just like those from any other nation, love to have their own positive prejudices confirmed.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King's College London and is currently a political commentator for Borås Tidning (BT). Previously he was a visiting scholar at University of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter here.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Almedalen 2015
LIVE: Sweden's political power forum - Day Seven
Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt speaking at Almedalen 2015 on Saturday. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

LIVE: Sweden's political power forum - Day Seven

It's the seventh day of Almedalen, the most important week in Swedish politics, and the Left Party is running the show. The Local is live blogging the key moments. READ  

Swedes on cusp of snail control breakthrough
Snails are enjoying a bumper year at Swedish gardeners' expense. Photo: By macrophile on Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

Swedes on cusp of snail control breakthrough

Since the spring, frequent rain has ensured prime conditions for one of the gardener’s biggest enemies - the snail. Swedish scientists, however, may have found the ultimate deterrent. READ  

Russian bombers seen off Swedish coast
A Russian Tu-22M3 Tu-bomber. Photo: Pavel Golovkin

Russian bombers seen off Swedish coast

Swedish fighter jets were sent on Saturday morning to monitor the activity of two Russian bombers to the east of Gotland. READ  

Almedalen 2015 with the EU Commission in Sweden
'Today's refugees could be tomorrow's Zlatan'
Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

'Today's refugees could be tomorrow's Zlatan'

Sweden is grappling with how to handle a large influx of asylum seekers while some other EU nations brush off responsibility – but it's important to focus on the benefits of immigration as well, high-profile panelists agreed at an Almedalen event. READ  

Almedalen 2015
Opposition head pledges lower taxes on first jobs
Sweden's Moderate party leader Anna Kinberg Batra at Almedalen. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Opposition head pledges lower taxes on first jobs

Moderate Party leader Anna Kinberg Batra spoke about jobs in her first speech at Almedalen since becoming head of Sweden's biggest opposition party. READ  

Almedalen 2015
BLOG: Sweden's political power forum - Day Six
New Moderate Party leader Anna Kinberg Batra speaking at Almedalen. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

BLOG: Sweden's political power forum - Day Six

Anna Kinberg Batra - the new leader of Sweden's biggest opposition party, the Moderates - focused on job creation in her first speech at Almedalen, Sweden's huge week-long politics forum. READ  

Jump in solo children seeking Swedish asylum
A playground at Märsta immigration centre in Sweden. Maja Suslin/TT

Jump in solo children seeking Swedish asylum

A record 1447 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Sweden last month, figures from the Swedish Migration Board have revealed. READ  

Almedalen 2015
Cashless society faces backlash from losers
What are the downsides of a cashless society? Photo: Per Larsson/TT

Cashless society faces backlash from losers

Sweden is possibly the nearest thing the world has to a cashless society, but some Swedes are worried about the effects on rural areas, pensioners - and personal integrity. READ  

Almedalen 2015
Sweden's green leader in second Auschwitz gaffe
Åsa Romson at Sweden's Almedalen Week. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Sweden's green leader in second Auschwitz gaffe

UPDATED: Sweden's Deputy Prime Minister and Green Party leader Åsa Romson has stirred up a storm after she placed Auschwitz in southern Germany instead of Poland, her second gaffe about the holocaust. READ  

Oasis star calls Zlatan 'idiot' but 'likes Sweden'
Noel Gallagher performing earlier this year (L) and Sweden’s star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic (R): Photos: TT

Oasis star calls Zlatan 'idiot' but 'likes Sweden'

One of the UK’s most iconic Britpop era stars, Noel Gallagher, has caused a stir in Sweden after calling its star footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic a ‘moron’ and slamming a Nordic journalist. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Learning Swedish: different rules for expats and refugees?
Sport
IN PICTURES: Thousands welcome home Sweden’s heroes
Politics
Almedalen: The Local's guide to Sweden's power players week
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Swedes soak up sun on hottest day of year
Sport
Sweden celebrates greatest sporting victory in decades
Blog updates

2 July

Som eller att (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hejsan! It happens quite often, that my students are confused over when to use “som” and when..." READ »

 

26 June

Editor’s blog, June 26th (The Local Sweden) »

"Greetings from Stockholm, We’re about to transport our newsroom to the idyllic Swedish island of Gotland for..." READ »

 
 
 
Gallery
People-watching: July 1st
Sponsored Article
VIP Mingle at Almedalen's hottest event
National
Swede battles slug invasion
Sponsored Article
What can we learn from Swedish women's sex habits?
National
VIDEO: Is this herring tasting clip an 'insult to Sweden'?
Gallery
Property of the week: Visby, Gotland
National
Sweden set for sunniest week of year
Gallery
People-watching: June 26th-28th
Features
The Local's essential guide to who's who in Swedish politics
National
More Swedish military exercises as Russia aggression fears grow
National
What's on in Sweden this week
Travel
Why Swedish camp sites are set for a bumper summer
National
Swedish summer's really on its way (at least according to forecasters)
Gallery
People-watching: June 24th
National
Why are southern Swedes angry about becoming 'Danish' again?
Society
Lifestyle: When to catch your favourite features on The Local
National
Is Sweden one of the world's most peaceful nations?
Sponsored Article
Harstena: Travelling to Sweden's secret islands
National
One in ten Swedish cats homeless
Sponsored Article
'I constantly evolve my Swedishness'
Gallery
Property of the week: Värmdö, Stockholm
Society
Would you eat this Swedish pizza?
National
Swedish royals' dream honeymoon
National
Swedish hospital opens first centre for male rape victims
Gallery
People-watching: June 20th-21st
Photo: TT
Lifestyle
Midsummer: The Local's guide to Sweden's craziest festival
Sponsored Article
Murder, myth and magic: Travelling to the birthplace of Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: June 17th
Sponsored Article
Gallery: Life in Sweden's secret archipelago
Society
Seven alternative names for Sweden's Prince Nicolas Paul Gustaf
National
FBI returns stolen Swedish books
National
Want to smell like Zlatan?
National
Royal joy over birth of new prince
Gallery
Property of the week: Brantevik, Simrishamn
National
How racy graffiti inspired a teacher's high school sex class
Gallery
People-watching: June 12th-14th
National
As it happened: Prince Carl Philip marries Sofia Hellqvist
Technology
Is Stockholm the world's creative capital?
National
Timeline: Julian Assange case
Sponsored Article
KTH President: ‘Sweden’s success is because of its size’
Gallery
IN PICTURES: New royal couple Prince Carl Philip and Sofia Hellqvist
Features
Ten Swedish festivals to discover
Features
Ten reasons Stockholm is definitely way cooler than Copenhagen
National
VIDEO: Watch Swedish man rescue baby elk from cold creek
National
VIDEO: Have you seen this jet ski blunder at a Malmö hotel opening?
Sponsored Article
Why expat women are choosing Swedish natural birth control
Bupa
Sponsored Article
Healthcare: Nine questions every expat should ask
Sponsored Article
The millionaire teacher who leads by tough love
Sponsored Article
How to change the world: Malmö to Mogadishu
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

3,233
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se