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Tedious praise of ‘perfect Swedish society’

Politicians and pundits love to praise Sweden, but sometimes they go a bit too far in relishing and embellishing the country's national myth, argues historian and liberal commentator David Lindén.

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

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.

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: I’ve got election pork coming out my ears this week

The Local's editor Emma Löfgren rounds up this week's key talking points of the Swedish election campaign.

Sweden Elects: I've got election pork coming out my ears this week

There’s an old Swedish Word of the Day in The Local’s archives: valfläsk (literally “election pork”, or pork barrel politics).

This week, there’s been enough of it to feed a Swedish town large enough for both a Biltema and a Dressmann store and still have half the pig left!

You could say it started the week before last, when the Social Democrats’ Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman floated a test balloon loaded with a 50-percent cap on non-Nordic residents in troubled neighbourhoods (it went down among the other parties like it was made out of lead).

Then last week, the Liberals threw their hat in the ring by proposing mandatory language assessments for two-year-olds who don’t attend preschool, and then make preschool mandatory for the toddlers whose Swedish isn’t deemed good enough. This, they said, was meant to help integration in areas where bilingual children don’t speak Swedish at home.

“Studies show that early preschool benefits children whose mothers are low-educated and whose parents are born abroad,” their manifesto read.

Liberal leader Johan Pehrson’s statement that in the most extreme cases – where parents clearly refuse to let their children learn Swedish – led to a social media storm that conjured up images of crying toddlers being taken into care for failing to distinguish between en and ett when quizzed.

For any parents of multilingual children (who know better than most how language works in early childhood – I’m raising a multilingual baby myself, but I’ve only just started so if you have any tips, do let me know!), I should stress that the proposal is less extreme than how it was first presented.

This is typical for valfläsk, by the way. Take something that’s perfectly obvious and hard to argue against (of course mixed neighbourhoods and children being encouraged to learn languages are generally good things) but dial it up a notch, insert something immigration-related, promise to get tough on whatever it is you want to get tough on, and propose either something that already exists or would be near-impossible to implement.

Then the Stockholm branch of the conservative Moderates proposed that entire school classes in vulnerable areas should be screened for ADHD through optional rapid tests, in order to increase the comparably lower rate of medication among foreign-born children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime.

“Detached from reality,” said their Social Democrat rival and pointed out that the partly Moderate-run region was planning to cut the number of psychiatric care clinics for young people.

The Christian Democrats, never ones to be outdone, wanted to chemically castrate sex offenders, give police access to healthcare biobanks, and let police take DNA samples from people stopped in internal border checks.

But while many of the election pledges that get tossed around this close to the election (less than a month to go, now!) tend to range from the radical to the ridiculous and are unlikely to ever be implemented, they’re still worth paying attention to. They give us an indication of the direction the parties want to take, and could well reappear in a more watered-down format later on during the governmental cycle.

They may also become part of post-election negotiations, where even small parties hold key cards as the larger parties fight to cobble together viable government coalitions.

They also say something about Sweden and the direction of the political sphere as a whole, where the parties are currently racing to outdo each other on who can be toughest on immigration and law and order.

The Local’s reporter Becky Waterton has gone through all the parties’ election pledges to see how they specifically would affect foreign residents in Sweden – in case you’ve missed her article, click here to read it.

Also in the world of Swedish politics, a new poll by SVT and Novus has the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats neck and neck, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson promised lower taxes in his summer speech and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson tougher sentences on gang criminals in hers, and Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson suggested changing the name of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) to the Penal Office (Straffverket).

Sweden Elects is a new weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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