Michael Booth on Sweden

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Are the Swedes different from the Danes or the Norwegians? In his book «The Almost Nearly Perfect People» British author and journalist Michael Booth wonders what the Scandinavians really are like. Here are excerpts from his book, published by kind permission of the author. Michael Booth on Sweden.

Writing about what the three Scandinavian tribes really think of each other is a bit like discussing someone else’s marriage – you never really know how one feels about the other, deep down, how they talk to each other when they are taking their make-up off and brushing their teeth at the end of the evening. I only know how Danes, Swedes and Norwegians talk to an Englishman about each other, and it has to be said that the main topic of conversation on that front is how annoying the Swedes are. None of their neighbors seem to like Swedes very much. Historic enmities still simmer, resentments linger, the Swedes still have a habit of getting up people’s noses. The Swedes meanwhile, tend to remain aloof to the regional resentment.

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“We really like the Danes, they are lovely people,” Åke Daun told me. “There are Danish characterizations of the Swedes, saying we are more efficient and hard-working, more serious and so on, while we think the Danes are charming, warm. Lovely, a little chaotic. We envy their lack of alcohol restrictions.”

“Tha Danes have always been seen as the more easygoing, cosmopolitan, less working, more drinking, more frivolous people; less, shall we say, industrious than Swedes,” Jonsson, the multiculturalism expert from Stockholm University told me. “We go to Copenhagen to breath Europe, to have a beer. It’s looser, freer, more European, and you also have this more open attitude to drugs and alcohol, but more recently people are shaking their heads that Denmark has become a fascist country, at war with Islam, extremely eager to send aircraft to bomb Libya.”

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Leaving aside the notion of Danes really ‘knowing how to have a good time’ (clearly he has never spent an afternoon on a sports hall in Slagelse watching a women’s handball matrch – neither have I, actually, but the though…), Jonsson, Daun and many of the Swedes I spoke to seemed oddly obvious to how disliked the Swedes are. I suspect they might be taken aback by the extent to which the Danes bad-.mouth them to anyone who’ll listen.

“They are so stiff and boring,” is the common Danish description of the Swedes, ‘and they don’t know how to handle their beer.’  They didn’t win back Skåne,’ one Danish friend told me, referring to the stroll traumatic (to the Danes, at least) year of 1658 when the Swedes wrestled the Danes’ southern province from them. ‘We granted them their freedom.’ (I once heard a Danish radio talk show in which the host only half-jokingly suggested that Sweden’s traditional August crayfish party season would be a good time to reinvade the south and take back their former territory.)

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I asked Henrik Berggren about Swedish-Danisk relations, pointing out that Swedes could afford to remain aloof from the Nordic trash-talk as they have, but just about every measurement, ended up richer, and more successful than their neighbours.

“Yes, we were the winners,” he agreed. “The big brother, definitely. But there is more animosity in it than we understand at first. When I was growing up we had a very positive view of the Danes and Denmark. They were like us – welfare state, modern – but by God they were a lot more fun than us. Danish women! Christiania! Smoking hash! I think a lot of Swedes felt like the Danes had it all, plus a bit more joie de vivre. But with this whole Danish anti-immigrant thing the perception of Denmark has changed drastically into “God, we don’t understand this. Where did this come from?” And it’s kind of funny because I think it’s kindled a kind of Swedish nationalism in a sense that before we felt a bit inferior to the Danes, but suddenly now we can get on a moral high horse.”
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And boy don’t the Danes know it: they are mightily tired of the Swede’s sanctimony towards their immigration policy and their condescension regarding the rise of the anti-Islamist Danish People’s Party. Tee Swedes haven’t just got on their high horse over what they perceive as Danish racism and xenophobia, they are standing on its back, riding round the circus ring juggling fire and playing kazoos. Oh, how long they have waited to repay all the slights about their Nazi past and ‘cowardly’ neutrality, the jokes about the hairnets and the armament sales. And they have seized their chance.

In truth though, if we can set aside the typical younger brother resentment of a patronizing older sibling, the Danes don’t have very much reason to resent the Swedes, and neither do the Norwegians, who certainly those days have enough money to rise above ancient bitterness. They probably do have grounds for anger, but guys, I think it’s time to move on. For all the moaning about the Swedes, I remain convinced that there is greater fellow feeling up here in the North than between any of the other countries in Europe. I am not aware of much grudging affection emanating from the Belgians towards the French, for instance, or from the Swiss towards the Italians, do you? For all the bickering, the Nordic region is hardly likely to go the way of the Balkans. As Stefan Jonsson pointed out to me when I got a little carried away on the subject of inter-Scandinavian rivalry, “This isn’t Israel-Palestine, you know.”

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The fact that the Swedes have appeared fallible in recent years ought to have helped temper neighborly jealousies a little. They are facing similar problems to the Danes in terms of having to curb their welfare state and keep their provinces from dying a slow death, and have even greater challenges in the areas of integration and globalization.  The truth is that the great Swedish social democratic adventure hit the buffers a couple of decades ago when the country’s economy tanked and the then government introduced quite radical privatization programs, reduced taxes and began to tackle the welfare state. Yet the rest of the world has still not really cottoned on how much Sweden has changes – in the US, right-learning politicians still cite Swedish society as an example of socialist extremism when really it is no such thing. The Sweden we came to know and politely admire while secretly being glad we didn’t live there, is, these days, an uncertain place in a state of political flux.

According to Stefan Jonsson, his country has reached a crucial crossroads. “There is huge confusion in Sweden. I think it is a society on the edge of cracking up. Mentally it is disintegrating, questioning what it is. Questioning social democracy. Many are now wondering what to salvage, whether this is sustainable, and what will come if it is not sustainable.”

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This sounds dramatic – we are still talking about Sweden here, after all – but to pluck out one sobering statistic, as I write Sweden’s ratio if tax revenue to GDP is 47.9 percent – the fourth highest in the world (with Denmark third). To give you an idea of what kind of an indicator this is of the economic well-being of a country, Zimbabwe is second and Kiribati first.

“I am not optimistic for Sweden,” agrees Ulf Nilson. “We have to open up this rigid system; the welfare state is too bureaucratic. Too many people are invested in the system. Tax strategy is the obvious key to it all. I live in France and there, if I earned 100,000 kroner a month, they take maybe 30,000 of it. Here they take 50,000, but there is no doubt that French healthcare is better. So are we being taken for a ride? Yeah, we are being taken for a ride. The fact that we have thousands of people who could work living on the dole is of course not good. That dependence system is no good. I have left Sweden and become a millionaire by work. You could never do that here. I feel I have escaped, I was lucky.”

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As always, Henrik Berggren remains a lone voice of optimism: “The system is doing rather well. I’ve lived through all these prognoses that it isn’t going to work because people aren’t motivated to work, and so on. Do you see a society decaying around you? Be honest. We might be a bit rude, but….”

One deeper issue did trouble me about Sweden’s long-term prospects: in rejecting their Lutheran principles to embrace consumerism and the various temptations of the modern world, had the Swedes perhaps thrown the puritanical baby out with the globalization bath water? Put differently, consider all those old agrarian principles of self-sufficiency, caution, modesty, equality and parsimony, the instinctive urge to compromise, to cooperate and share – the very characteristics that laid the foundations for the Social Democratic experiment. Are these characteristics not inevitably, fatally eroded by increased wealth, consumerism, globalization and urbanization? Is the country’s great modern, urban experiment not destabilizing the very foundation on which that modernity was constructed?

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Åke Daun answered this with the breezy “Oh yes, I think so, yes” of an elderly man who has seen it all before and has resigned himself to the world going to the dogs.

Andrew Brown appeared to agree to: “Whether prosperity can survive without the memories and disciplines of poverty is a question I don’t know the answer to.” In his book Fishing in Utopia Brown points to the marked rise in crime in Sweden since the 1970s, in particular rape (in recent years Sweden has seen the highest number of reported rapes per capita in Europe); to the McDonald’s fever sweeping the country with the result that he begins to notice obese people in the streets of Stockholm for the first time; to the changing media landscape (“A generation of flamboyant gangsters and businessmen, not always easy to tell apart, moved through the newspapers”);  to a new openness about alcohol, symbolized by the slick rebranding of Absolut Vodka, once a resolutely unglamorous state-owned alcohol producer (‘Drunkenness came back into fashion”), not to mention the loss of two-fifths of industrial jobs since the mid-seventies. All, he says, are signifiers of a country which is, essentially, making one final circumnavigation of the plughole.

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I don’t believe this is the case, but Sweden does appear to be sitting on a demographic time bomb. It is the only country in the world in which people over eighty years old make up over 5 per cent of the population (the global average is 1 per cent). Almost 20 per cent of Swedes are over sixty-five, making Sweden the oldest country in Scandinavia, and the eighth oldest in the world. The World Bank predicts that by 2040 a third of Swedes will be over retirement age. But Sweden, as you would expect, is well prepared (unlike, say, Italy, which is truly screwed in this regard). It has a highly developed state pension system which is expected to be able to cope with future demographic challenges; the IMF ranked Sweden seventh globally for its current elderly care and its future preparedness in terms of looking after an aging population.

In the final analysis, perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried about Sweden. As Henrik Berggren pointed out, people have been writing off his homeland since the seventies, and even after the early nineties, when the Swedish model did appear to have been fatally undermined by its economic imbalance, it recovered quickly and strongly. Sweden still has one of the highest-achieving economies in the world chiefly because it overhauled the old Democratic structures and transformed itself into a rather unique type of mixed economy, and introduced both some marked liberal economic tendencies and strict fiscal and banking controls.

100-year-old Swedish twins Gunhild Gaellstedt (L) and Siri Ivarsson (R) with a cake from the "Twinregistry" as they holds their long lifes first pressconference in their home in Stockholm 28 January 2005. The birthday is on Sunday 30 January. The two are the oldest twins in Sweden that according to the Twinregistry, counts to 86 000 couples. The two manage their daily life without a permanent assistance. They will celebrate their 100th birthday on 30 January 2005.

So Sweden is probably safe economically for the time being. Politically it has endured the assassination of its prime minister and its foreign minister (the latter, Anne Lindh, was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store in 2003; as it happened the day after I had visited). But how resilient is it culturally? One thing that often surprised me during my travels in Sweden was the dismissive attitude of many Swedes I spoke to about their country’s cultural output. I’ve always thought of Sweden as being home to heavy hitters like Strindberg and Bergman, as well as all those massively popular authors like Astrid Lindgren, Henning Mankell and of course Stieg Larsson. From Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale on whom Hans Christian Andersen doted, to ABBA and Robyn, Sweden has also sent forth great popular singers and songwriters into a grateful world.

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Nevertheless, comments such as this from Åke Daun were not untypical: “Culture is not a big thing in Sweden. We are technically creative, not artistically.” He suggested that Sweden’s self-image was more invested in being a successful manufacturer of ball bearings, zippers and safety matches.

“It’s true, you run out after Bergman and Strindberg,” agreed Stefan Jonsson. “Culturally and intellectually the international contribution of Sweden is quite limited, but the typical Swedish intellectual believes the country is big enough for him to have a career, and not so small that he feels he needs to go outside and bring things in. It’s the tragedy of being a mid-sized country.”

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When I tentatively mentioned the country’s paucity of cultural titans to Henrik Berggren, he reacted with his customary patriotic vigor.

From what objective standpoint are you saying this? That sounds rather typically British, to be honest, a rather snotty British attitude to the world: ‘I can sit on my island and I can judge all cultures…’”

Oh dear. Honestly, Henrik, that’s not what I meant.

Though, you are right, I probably am a snotty Brit.

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