• Sweden edition
 
Opinion
Tedious praise of 'perfect Swedish society'
Children outside Stockholm Palace on National Day. File photo: Lise Åserud/TT

Tedious praise of 'perfect Swedish society'

Published: 30 Oct 2013 07:14 GMT+01:00
Updated: 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
National
Chainsaw man destroys house in family feud
The man used a chainsaw to destroy most of the Lidköping home. Photo: Shutterstock

Chainsaw man destroys house in family feud

A man in central Sweden has gone on a rampage with a chainsaw after a family housing dispute took an unexpected turn. READ  

National
Man frames beggar with stolen tablet computer
The beggar was detained for almost 24 hours after the accusation. Photo: TT

Man frames beggar with stolen tablet computer

A man in southern Sweden has landed in hot water after he stole a tablet computer, gave it to a beggar, then reported her to the police. READ  

Stockholm 'sub hunt'
Sweden ready to use force to surface sub
The Swedish Armed Forces have sent out 200 troops. Photo: TT

Sweden ready to use force to surface sub

UPDATED: Sweden's military has announced that if it finds a suspect foreign vessel in the Stockholm archipelago, it is prepared to force it to the surface "with weapons if necessary". READ  

Stockholm 'sub hunt'
Sub hunt: 'There is something out there'
Former navy officer Bosse Linden in Vaxholm. Photo: Maddy Savage

Sub hunt: 'There is something out there'

Stockholm's archipelago is the focus of the biggest military operation in Sweden since the Cold War. The Local is in the region's capital, Vaxholm, to see what residents make of the drama. READ  

Presented by CurrencyFair
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
CurrencyFair co-founder Brett Meyers

CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers

Tired of losing money when you send cash back home? Join other expats in Sweden who avoid bank fees and hidden charges by sending money internationally with CurrencyFair, an online marketplace where secure transactions are faster and cheaper. READ  

European Union
Extremist saves Sweden Democrats' EU group
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: TT

Extremist saves Sweden Democrats' EU group

The EU group that bound several Eurosceptic parties including the Sweden Democrats has been saved by an MEP from a far-right Polish group, just a week after it appeared to have crumbled, according to a UK press report. READ  

Stockholm 'submarine' hunt
Timeline: Mystery 'submarine' in Stockholm
Sweden's Armed Forces are out in force after reports of a foreign vessel in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: TT

Timeline: Mystery 'submarine' in Stockholm

The world has had its periscope on Sweden since the Swedish military launched an extensive hunt for what is rumoured to be a damaged Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago. Here is the timeline of events so far. READ  

Business & Money
Profit leap for Swedbank
A branch of Swedbank in Malmö. Photo. TT

Profit leap for Swedbank

Swedbank has seen its profits rise higher than expected. READ  

New coalition
Sick pay U-turn from Sweden's new coalition
Stefan Löfven has changed his strategy on sick pay. Photo: TT

Sick pay U-turn from Sweden's new coalition

Small businesses won't face rising sick pay costs, following a policy reversal from Sweden's new coalition government. READ  

Stockholm 'submarine' hunt
Vessel hunt continues at 'full strength'
Minehunter HMS Koster takes part in the search in the Stockholm archipelago on Sunday. Photo: Marko Säävälä/TT

Vessel hunt continues at 'full strength'

The search for a suspected foreign vessel in the Stockholm archipelago continues with "full strength" on Tuesday morning, according to Sweden's armed forces. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
Property of the week: Malmö
Gallery
PHOTOS: 'Foreign activity' in Swedish waters
National
Sweden deploys troops over underwater threat
Gallery
People-watching: October 19th
TT
Society
QUIZ: How good is your Swedish?
Blog updates

19 October

Getting it (Blogweiser) »

"Follow Joel Sherwood on FB Few watch baseball in Sweden. This is excellent when your team loses..." READ »

 

17 October

Editor’s Blog, Oct 17th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, Here’s the whole week of news in just 60 seconds. The most-read story was about a..." READ »

 
 
 
Business & Money
Get your own office in Gothenburg or Stockholm - free for a day
National
A Touch of Scandinavia: Reindeer in the kitchen
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden: October 17th - 24th
Society
The nudity... and nine other things expat men notice in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 15th
Gallery
Your views: Should outdoor smoking be banned in Sweden?
Business & Money
Sweden has 'large hole' in finances
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Finding a job in Stockholm
Society
Monster salmon caught in northern Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week: Lorensberg
National
Scandinavia's child bride
National
Ebola crisis: How is Sweden preparing?
Lifestyle
Sweden's The Bridge to become 'more Danish'
Business & Money
How Sweden is becoming a cashless society
Gallery
Stockholm Burlesque Festival 2014
National
How a little red horse became a symbol for Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 12th
Business & Money
The hottest start-ups from southern Sweden
National
What's on in Sweden: October 10th - 17th
National
Stockholm is 'best' region for well-being
Gallery
People-watching: October 8th
National
Five facts to know about Patrick Modiano
Society
My Swedish Career: A French fashionista in Sweden
Society
Swede's anti-bully Facebook tale goes viral
Society
Have you seen Sweden's viral subway cancer campaign?
National
Isis: Swedes linked to Turkish prisoner swap
National
Should Swedes be banned from buying sex abroad?
Gallery
Fredrik Reinfeldt's leaving presents
National
Five Swedish TV shows you shouldn't miss
Gallery
A tool belt, a casserole, and a book. Fredrik Reinfeldt's parliament gifts
TT
Lifestyle
Top five winter festivals in Sweden
TT
National
Sami reindeer herders win mine reprieve
Gallery
Property of the Week: Gamla Enskede
Sponsored Article
How to catch the first lobster of the year
Politics
Ten new minister faces you should know
Tech
First womb transplant baby in world born in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 5th
National
What's on in Sweden
National
Sweden rethinks Afghan translators' protection
Society
Interview with Geena Davis: 'I want to be in a Swedish movie'
Team SCA
Sponsored Article
All-female SCA team takes off on Volvo Ocean Race
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

Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
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:
http://psdmedia.se
If you want to drink, that’s your business.
If you want to stop, we can help.

Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
AA-EUROPE.ORG/SWEDEN