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Alan AtKisson, 13 Jan 05

Swden-UK.jpgThe Guardian's uncompromising firebrand-columnist George Monbiot has done it again: revealed the Emperor's lack of clothing. He seems to do this week in and week out, with astonishing consistency. And yet the Emperor keeps walking around, naked as a jaybird.

This time, he's written about my new home-country, Sweden. He compares the results of development, neo-liberal (UK) versus "distributionist" (Sweden), using the numbers published by The Economist. The UK comes up looking like an also-ran, while Sweden is a development champ. More literate, more innovative, more competitive, healthier, happier ... just plain statistically better.

What's so special about Sweden?

I have lived here since the end of 2000. I now speak the language fluently, and my consulting work has required me to learn quite a lot about how the country works, often to an excruciating level of detail. (Just yesterday, for example, I found myself reading Sweden's Law on Government Procurement. All seven chapters of it.)

But why the country is the way it is remains, in many ways, difficult to fathom. Many of my "Why is it like this here?" questions, posed to colleagues and relatives, are met with shrugs, modest mumbling, or answers that are anything but clear. No one really knows why both the Christmas and Midsummer celebrations invariably include dancing to a song about small frogs, for example.

One observation that stands out, though, and strikes an American or English sensibility as "very different": there are few "big leaders" in recent Swedish history. There is not a single individual who routinely gets named has having led the contemporary charge, not since the glory days of kings and empire. Even the recent political martyrs here, Olof Palme or Anna Lindh, had nothing like the charismatic "movement leader" role of a John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. They are remembered for being good, principled people who were a bit naive about where they could walk around town, unaccompanied by a security entourage.

Instead, the best summary explanation for why Sweden is as Monbiot describes it is a rather rambling, century-long history of political organizing, slow-building movements, policy reforms, cultural reforms (getting rid of the formal you-pronoun, for example, or turning the nobility into private citizens) ... and of course the ethically dubious business of being neutral during the Second World War. The latter, which added to Sweden's 200 years of absence from the war game, left the country in an excellent position to get rich, and it is easier to distribute wealth when there is lots of wealth to go around.

But beyond that one short paragraph above, I am reluctant to go further with generalizations, except to say that one should not go very far with generalizations. Monbiot makes excellent points: Sweden proves that the neo-liberal model is not the only way, or even the most effective way, even to reach the economistic ends. Other ways work well, at least in other contexts. A high concentration of wealth and its attendant poverty is not inevitable, nor is it the only way to structure a successful industrial society, and other commentators have noted that societies with flatter income distribution (Japan is another oft-mentioned example) tend to have better numbers for their society overall.

However, to credit these differences primarily to differences in political economy simply makes too many logical hurdles. It leaves out history, culture, geography. Yes, it is possible to take the Swedish route. But it may be very difficult to do, if you are not Sweden. You might have to move your country north, live through a hundred pre-industrial years of crushing poverty and outmigration, then get rich supplying industrial resources to wartime and post-war-rebuilding economic booms, and all the while build a social-democratic, labor-union driven, social solidarity movement on the back of your alcohol temperance movement . (There are not a lot of countries whose historico-geo-political profile looks similar to that. Wait, Canada has some similarities ... oh, right, Canada is a lot like Sweden.)

Monbiot is right about another thing: the Swedish system works really well. Many Swedes apparently don't appreciate this -- complaining about the government is a national pastime -- but I really appreciate it. Excellent public transport. The health system is wonderful. Stockholm is a beautiful, and culturally rich and diverse, city. The parental leave, social safety net, child-care provision etc. are amazing. Perfect, no, but amazing, from an American perspective.

All this is changing, with the pressures of globalization and EU federalism, and it may change more rapidly in the future ... thanks to the tsunamis of '04. The current government is perceived has failing miserably in its response to the catastrophe in Asia -- not in terms of aid and relief, but in terms of how they took care (or didn't adequately take care) of the thousands of Swedes who were vacationing there, about a thousand of whom will never come home. If an election were held tomorrow, the government would shift to the right-wing bloc, further accelerating the growing wave of privatization etc.

But for now, Sweden is continuing to enjoy the fruits of its very specific history: relatively high quality of life, good social services, a forward-thinking environmental policy, better integration dynamics than in surrounding countries, a thriving market economy, and a very-close-but-not-too-close relationship with the EU ("We'll keep our own money thank you").

Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like the UK.

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I'm also from a "distributionist" North-Eastern European country. Over here, we simply call it "purple socialism" (socialism mixed with green liberalism).
I couldn't tell you exactly why our countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland) always rank at the top of nearly every statistic (education, health, economic prosperity etc...), but I think it must have something to do with a magical balance between population size (all these countries have around 10 million inhabitants) and economic flexibility.
Maybe there's still also some truth in Max Weber's old hypothesis about Protestantism and the entrepreneurial spirit. But the exceptions to this rule (Belgium as a Catholic country) nullify the idea.
Anyway, it's a mystery really.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 13 Jan 05

After rereading the Letter, I wanted to add, indeed, the lack of a big ideological tradition or profile.

None of these countries have been caught up in Big Narratives, none have had a strong Republican (France), Conservative (UK, US) or (National-)Socialist (Germany, Italy) traditions.

Their people have no tradition of being patriotic or nationalist; they don't look up to leaders; and they've been neutral during the war. In short, their political history has been one of cool, low-profile pragmatism.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 13 Jan 05



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