Stockholm, Sweden (Photo by Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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The soul of Swedes

On the contested state of Swedish cultural identity

The Swedish Theory of Love: Individualism and Social Trust in Modern Sweden, Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh (University of Washington Press, £25.99)

In the late 1950s, French philosopher Michel Foucault spent three years as a researcher in the Swedish university town of Uppsala. The encounter between Foucault and Sweden seems to have been an unhappy one, perhaps inspiring him to begin work on his first study of institutional control, Madness and Civilization (1961), as he in fact did during this period. A decade later, Foucault reflected in an interview on “the mutism of the Swedes, their silence and their habit of talking with elliptical sobriety”, describing a society in which “a human is but a moving dot obeying laws, patterns and forms”. He went on, “In its calmness, Sweden reveals a brave new world where we discover that the human is no longer necessary.”

Foucault’s critical words about his Swedish hosts crystallise the widespread view, also espoused by British author Roland Huntford in his book The New Totalitarians (1971), that Sweden is a country where the individual and his social relationships are suffocated by an excessively interventionist state, producing loneliness and alienation. A much more nuanced analysis of life in the Swedish welfare state is offered by historian Henrik Berggren and sociologist Lars Trägårdh in a book that instantly became a classic when it was published in Sweden more than fifteen years ago and appeared, in slightly reworked form, in English last year.

The original title was Is the Swede Human?, which — particularly given the inclusion of the Foucault quotations in the updated version of the book — might well have been reused. For a reader unfamiliar with the theoretical context, the new English title risks evoking internationally notorious Swedish softcore movies such as I Am Curious — Yellow (1967) or Language of Love (1969) rather than a serious intellectual tome. This is, however, a minor problem. The translation of the text from Swedish by Stephen Donovan does a superb job of conveying the authors’ thought-provoking, although not indisputable, argument.

The individual would be dependent on the impersonal state

According to Berggren and Trägårdh, welfare states fall into three models distinguished by the relationship between the individual, the family (and civil society in general) and the state. They suggest that in the U.S., individuals and families have united against the state, resulting in welfare services being delivered to citizens mainly through free-market solutions. This “sociopolitical triangle dynamic” takes a different shape in, for example, Germany, where the individual is dependent for his or her welfare on the family, which is a “collaborator” of the state.

Sweden diverges radically from both those models. Indeed, Berggren and Trägårdh argue, the whole point of the expansion of welfare policies and welfare state institutions for women, children and the elderly, as well as various changes to family law in the post-war era until the mid-1970s, was to dissolve involuntary social bonds and reciprocal obligations within families and civil society. The individual would be dependent on the impersonal state instead.

In Berggren and Trägårdh’s account, this “statist-individualist” welfare state model was, and remains, a project of emancipating the individual from a reliance on “the whims and charity” of other people. Crucially, they argue this project was not imposed from above “by fanatical social engineers”. Rather, they believe it emerged from a widespread belief in Sweden in the importance of being autonomous from the given social community and instead forming “authentic”, freely chosen contractual relationships of love and support.

A ruthless effort to rationalise Swedish agriculture broke up cooperative farms

Berggren and Trägårdh thus “jettison the idea that the welfare state has shaped the Swedish mentality” and concentrate on tracing the roots of the “Swedish theory of love” in Swedish culture. Those parts of the book are interesting and often insightful but do not consider arguments that go against the authors’ conclusions. For instance, several authors central to the Swedish canon, such as Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, are cited as examples of the tendency of “romanticising solitude and freedom” in classic Swedish literature. However, there are other authors equally important to the understanding of “Swedishness”, such as Ivar Lo-Johansson, who have warned against too much freedom and individualism.

The development of Sweden’s welfare state model is, ultimately, not as neat as the book’s historical narrative suggests. We must consider top-down political factors as well as cultural ones. If there indeed existed a “preparedness at the sociopsychological level” for statist individualism in the Swedish populace, then we can, for example, also ask what role was played by the ruthless effort in the early 1800s to rationalise Swedish agriculture by breaking up close-knit villages and cooperative farms, which shaped a new austere and lonely landscape.

The fact that the Swedes, as Berggren and Trägårdh point out, has not rejected the statist-individualist model is not sufficient evidence that it is solely a product of cultural preferences. For a long time during the post-war period, no mainstream party to the left or to the right offered voters a vision of Sweden as something other than a mere “contract” drawn between the individual and the state. It is only very recently that a political party, the newly emerged conservative Sweden Democrats, has talked about Sweden in terms of a national community in which citizens have obligations toward each other. Interestingly, and perhaps revealingly, the party has risen to become the second largest in parliament.

What this book in any case convincingly shows is that the critique of Sweden as an anti-individualistic society represented by Foucault and Huntford misses the mark. Instead, Sweden is a place characterised by the primacy of the choosing individual, which in some ways is even more disturbing.

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