The elementary forms of Swedish life may be okay

You are born into the Swedish large society’s cradle and leave in its coffin. And for the most part, and for the majority living in 21th century Sweden, they are satisfied. Maybe I am too, just maybe.

I have quarreled with the Scandinavian Nanny State I have grown up with for the most part of my life. In the 1970s and onwards from a libertarian leftist prespective (all the way into the Italian rebel Toni Negri’s autonomist marxism) and from the millennium shift from the right, albeit a libertarian one. I guess Christopher Hitchens and myself have gone much in the same direction in our lives.

But now I wonder if all my bashing from left to right of the welfare state paternalistic ideology, its huge bureuacracy and its socialdemocratic/progressive liberal practice has been a waste. Most Swedes seem to like to pay very high taxes, more than 60 percent of their disposable incomes (weighing in VAT, mandatory government social insurance fees etc.). Who am I to question my fellow countrymen decade after decade?

This article is written in spite of my conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with an overencompassing state that tries to fulfill every need for its citizens.

I question my beliefs in individual liberty and integrity, resolute minimal government and I may reach a postmodern Stoicism that has much in common with Richard Rorty, a philosopher who tried to have it both ways.

His Contingency, Irony and Solidarity in 1990 was such a project, but failed. He argued for an ironic stance for the few, and a welfare state for the many. A position that got him much anger but he was onto something. Maybe I have finally come to his stance now, in 2019, after seeing him for the first time i Paris in that year and interview him later.

More than 80 percent of Swedes leave their children under 3 years to goverment run or financed child care They leave their parents to old people’s homes and work now more than ever in our history.

We still top the indexes of innovation, reputation, sustainability, environment, global respontibility and so forth . A kind, benevolent nation far in the far north that once was at a shared no 4 GDP/capita position (with Switzerland) in 1970, but has fallen 10 points since then. But not too much.

Swedes are reputed for their tolerance, efficiency and pragmatic solutions. And very politically correct, a small Canada, that behaves like an American New England state on the East Coast. No wonder Bernie Saunders and Michael Moore love us.

Swedes have been ridiculed for behaving like naive millenials for decades. The British newpaper Observer’s correspondent to Stockholm, Roland Huntford, wrote a vitriolic diatribe in 1971, The New Totalitarians. We were basically still medieval serfs he argued, then under a feudal master, now under the tax officer and socialist bureaucrat

I love to read his Sweden bashing comments but my country has since then not done much to change direction. The right of center parties have rather become more socialdemocratic. All eight parties in parliament, including the right-wing populists, the Sweden Democrats, hail the socialdemocratic welfare state.

We have green socialdemocrats, red, blue, liberal, populist – all variations of the same theme: high taxes, government regulation and welfare services, which yields a strong support. Including for ban on selling alcohol beverages in supermarkets (and closed state run alcohol shops on Sundays) and a ban on smoking at outdoor resturants and cafées.

In 2013 I wrote a historical and contemporary study of the Swedish national malaise, which lay great emphasis on our extreme position in the World Values Index, the world’s most individualist and non-traditional country.

© World Values Survey

In spite of my dislike of our extremism, the researchers behind the map, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, has tracked a progression towards our coordinate, a process of ”Swedenization”, replacing the former ”Americazation” that Western welfare states used to prefer. More countries want to become like us even if it is a strange and extreme position where freedom may be to obey.

The political scientist Gina Gustavsson noted:

”However, Swedes are often portrayed as the epitome of freedom-oriented people (Berggren and Trägårdh, 2006; Schwartz, 2006). Inglehart and his associates even speak of a ‘Swedenization’, as opposed to an Americanization, of the world (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005: 65, 87). The Swedish data may thus also tell us something of a more general interest.

They suggest that valuing freedom need not, as previous research often assumes, be incompatible with strongly condemning certain choices, or even favouring their restriction by law. In fact, it is not entirely unlikely that the positive Swedish attitudes towards prohibitions are to some extent an effect of valuing freedom; not in the sense of doing what one pleases unhindered by others, but in the sense of realising one’s authentic self (Berggren and Trägårdh, 2006: cf. 213; Gustavsson, 2010).”

The two scholars who uphold this Swedish ”state individualism”, historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh, agree with her that the Swedish conception of freedom may be reconciled with prohibitions and obedience to a strong welfare state.

I used to differ from them in that the state individualism Berggren and Trädgårdh prefer is too totaltarian, albeit in a soft version where the state provides welfare in return for high taxes at the expense of civil society, individual responsibility and human dignity. The new mild and progressive totalitarianism that Huntford detected four decades earlier, a version closer to Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s Nineteen-Eightyfour.

The failure of the socialist Soviet Union was in part due to its failure to meet the demands of its citizens. The production of goods and services were too low.

But Sweden his a high technology semi-socialist state that has billions to spend on new government initiatives, on welfare services and social benefits for the disadvantaged. Where Soviet did not deliver the cash, we do and people are happy, among the top 10 in World Happiness index.

So my conclusion to this rant, inspired by Stephanie Georgopulos’ thoughts in about the joy of being wrong about yourself, is that my country may have the money to pay welfare benefits to everyone that may need them. And that freethinkers like me and Richard Rorty, and his ironic readers of Nietzsche and Heidegger, may look down on the masses’ dependency on government and its propaganda and their profane materialism.

We intellectual aristocrats may be right, or wrong in our disdain. But the country still runs. I am bewildered.

Jan Sjunnesson, writer and teacher, born 1958.


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