• Sweden's news in English
 

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
Mamma Mia! Abba reunite as silicon dolls
The four members of Abba as silicon dolls. Photo: Nora Lorek/TT

Mamma Mia! Abba reunite as silicon dolls

The dream of many an Abba fan (almost) came true on Tuesday afternoon as the four members reunited at a Swedish museum – as life size silicon dolls. READ  

800 staff sent home after Norwegian strike action
A Norwegian flight grounded in Oslo on Sunday. Photo: TT

800 staff sent home after Norwegian strike action

UPDATED: Hundreds of workers could be sent home without pay as Scandinavian airline Norwegian threatens a lockout of workers if a strike affecting Swedish and Norwegian staff is not resolved by Wednesday morning. READ  

Sweden moves to scrap debated budget goal
Sweden's Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson at a press conference on Tuesday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Sweden moves to scrap debated budget goal

The Swedish government announced on Tuesday that it wants to scrap the country's budget-surplus target, aiming to axe a policy that critics consider outdated. READ  

Sweden leads the way in EU's 5G tech race
Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg at the Mobile World Congress. Photo: Björn Ewenfeldt/TT

Sweden leads the way in EU's 5G tech race

The mobile technology race is on with Swedish telecom giant Ericsson set to team up with academics and industry partners to have 5G broadband solutions ready for Sweden by 2020 as the EU pushes for greater connectivity across the continent. READ  

Presented by Greenback
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Sweden

Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Sweden

If you dread filing your US expat taxes each year, you aren’t alone. But Greenback Expat Tax Services can prepare your taxes efficiently, accurately and at a fair, honest price. READ  

Opinion
Why can't refugees travel to Sweden legally?
Migrants rescued in the Pozzallo harbour, Sicily last month. Photo: TT

Why can't refugees travel to Sweden legally?

Refugees should not be forced to make dangerous journeys to Europe in order to seek asylum, argues Liberal Party MEP Cecilia Wikström, who also wants to see other EU states joining Sweden and Germany in taking in more people from war-torn nations. READ  

'Sweden is not any closer to joining Danes in Nato'
Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

'Sweden is not any closer to joining Danes in Nato'

Sweden’s new military co-operation agreement with Denmark should not be seen as a step closer to Nato membership, Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist has told The Local. READ  

159 miners rescued from fire in central Sweden
Emergency services outside the mine on Tuesday morning. Photo: TT

159 miners rescued from fire in central Sweden

A fire broke out at a mine in Garpenberg in central Sweden at around 9am on Tuesday morning, with 159 people rescued by 10.30am. READ  

Just four protestors at Sweden anti-Islam rally
Four anti-Islam protestors turned up at the rally. Photo: TT

Just four protestors at Sweden anti-Islam rally

UPDATED: Counter-demonstrators dramatically outnumbered anti-Islam protesters at a Pegida rally in Linköping in southern Sweden, with reports that just four people turned up to support the right wing group, while up to 400 others rallied in support of diversity. READ  

Sweden eyes fingerprint scanning to stop fraud
Some passengers are already checked at Stockholm's Arlanda airport. Photo: TT

Sweden eyes fingerprint scanning to stop fraud

Sweden needs to beef up its border security with fingerprint scanning to stop passport fraud, a government inquiry has argued as the country grapples with unprecedented levels of immigration. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Accelerated for Ice Music
Dylan guitarist makes music history in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week: Eknäs, Nacka
Lifestyle
Madonna set for first Stockholm gig
Sponsored Article
Ten tips for succeeding as a start-up in Sweden
Blog updates

27 February

Editor’s blog, February 27th (The Local Sweden) »

"Our most read story this week got picked up by global media from Al Jazeera to..." READ »

 

18 February

The mysterious -s, part 2 (The Swedish Teacher) »

"-s expressing “each other” (reciprocal verbs) You have most likely used this form of the verbs..." READ »

 
 
 
Technology
How you could soon be charging your phone from Ikea furniture
Sponsored Article
Tourist or lifer: what sort of expat are you?
Gallery
People-watching: February 27th - March 1st
Business & Money
Ten Swedish start-ups you haven't heard of (yet)
National
How could Swedes' passion for 'fika' help cut nerve disease?
National
IN PICTURES: Swedes in 'ring of peace' protest
National
Why Copenhagen attacks led a Swedish uni to cancel artist's lecture
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Super cute sloth twins charm visitors to Swedish zoo
Lifestyle
Meet Sweden's first woman chef to win a Michelin star
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden: February 26th - March 5th
Accelerated for Ice Music
What is Bob Dylan's guitarist doing in northern Sweden?
Features
How well do you know Sweden's top celebrity couples?
Business & Money
Are company boards 'too white' in Sweden?
Gallery
People-watching: February 25th
Technology
Sweden is dubbed second most 'digital' nation in European Union
National
Why more Swedes want a sex change
National
The return of Sweden's Ace of Base
National
Why has Julian Assange's case been going on for so long?
National
'21' or 'IS'? Swedish police confuse birthday with Islamist extremism
National
Spring has sprung in Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week: Ängelholm
National
How to never miss your favourite weekly features on The Local
National
Is Sweden home to the world's oldest living cat?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: The life and career of Fredrik Reinfeldt
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Princess Estelle through the years
National
Why are Swedish Jews worried?
Gallery
People-watching: February 19th-22nd
National
'Racist' bird names banned in Sweden
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden this week
National
Nobel prize to go under hammer
National
Swede named 'Fanny' banned from getting UK loyalty card
National
Spotlight on the Swedes that could be funding Islamists
Sponsored Article
Are you an American expat? How to face FATCA
Gallery
People-watching: February 18th
National
Is a chocolate crime wave sweeping across Sweden?
National
What we know about the Copenhagen shootings suspect
National
Danish Ambassador: 'We'll live our lives the way we always have'
National
What does this '90s pop act have to do with a former minister?
Lifestyle
How to embrace Sweden's creamy semla bun tradition
National
Did this Swedish hotel really refuse a gay couple?
National
Why are so many escalators down on Stockholm's Metro?
Gallery
Property of the week: Kungsbacka
Sponsored Article
'Immigration is critical' for Stockholm’s future
Sponsored Article
Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs
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

957
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