Something Rotten in
The State of Sweden

Part II: Right Wing's Public Sector

. . . There are also powerful forces within Sweden who do not like what they see and have been forced to live with, lo these many years. By far the most well-financed and effective is the Swedish Employers' Confederation ("SAF"), which represents Sweden's corporate elite and has intimate ties with the Conservative Party.

For the past quarter-century, SAF has been conducting a systematic propaganda campaign whose ultimate aim is to dismantle the Swedish model, which is said to have robbed the people of all initiative and made it nearly impossible to do business. The evidence for such assertions is somewhat weak, however: The people of Sweden have never before achieved so much in so many different areas as today, thanks in large part to the human potential released by the relatively equal distribution of economic resources; and business is booming in a nation of less than nine million souls which has nevertheless produced some of the world's most successful corporations.

Booming voices

But no matter: SAF and the interests it represents have decided that the Nordic model must go, to be replaced by something that bears a very strong resemblance to the American way of life. According to political scientist Victor Pestoff: "Swedish employers appear to be inspired by their American counterparts. They are actively striving for an 'organization- free environmnent' and a 'trade union-free environment' by the turn of the century."

Mere facts, logic and human considerations must not be allowed to stand in the way of that overriding objective. In any event, it appears that the SAF-ites have been hammering away at the Nordic model for so long that they have begun to believe their own propaganda. For example: Despite the fact that business is booming in Sweden, many of its loudest voices can not or will not stop complaining about the poor business climate. To the right is a typical outburst of 102 corporate leaders associated with SAF, publicised by Sweden's leading newspaper under the heading of: "Our trust and confidence is now destroyed." This is the kind of thing that forms the basis of "international opinion" on which the bad news about Sweden in turn is based.

SAF represents less than fifteen percent of the business community, and there are indications that its propaganda campaign is not always endorsed by operators of small and medium-sized enterprises. Nor does the SAF crusade have any counterpart elsewhere in Norden; leading business spokesmen in Norway and Denmark, for example, continue to express strong support for the Nordic model, as well as bewilderment over the "Thatcherite" antics of their Swedish colleagues.

"I do not think that many business leaders in Norway believe that radical change is worth the associated social risks. SAF appears to be on a completely different course than ours today, as well as Sweden's in the past. To me, it appears to be a more 'Thatcherite' policy than any other country in Europe."

Karl Glad, head of Norway's counterpart to SAF, 1997

However, most of Sweden's larger corporations endow SAF with a tax-free portion of the sizeable profits they somehow manage to earn, despite the loudly proclaimed impossibility of doing so. SAF has used these impossible riches to establish and maintain what has been called "the right wing's public sector"-- a complex of think-tanks, so-called universities, publishing houses and related institutions whose resident experts churn out a steady supply of the neo-liberal right stuff.

A lot of that stuff finds its way into the press, and it is often difficult to determine where the right-wing's public sector ends and the "news" begins. This confusion is particularly evident in the case of Svenska Dagbladet, the traditional voice of Sweden's economic elite. It is a daily newspaper which preaches the virtues of competition and private enterprise, but would have folded long ago if it were not for heavy subsidies from corporations and the state.

Dramatic inventions

Sweden's most influential newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, bills itself as independent, but its editorial potion nowadays is undiluted neo-liberalism. Even the news programmes of state television, which is supposed to be politically neutral, tend to trivialise or ignore points of view which deviate from the conventional wisdom of the day.

To some extent, this merely reflects a familiar journalistic syndrome. Rape, murder and mayhem have always been the bread-and-butter of the news, and there is not always an adequate supply of such alluring "stories" in peaceful Sweden. But as a wise old Frenchman named Durkheim once observed: In a community of saints, an unkind thought would be regarded as a major sin.

While Sweden is no community of saints, the news that it tends to generate is usually much less dramatic than that extracted from the abundant human tragedies of more exciting places like the United States. Visiting journalists have been known to express sympathy for their Swedish colleagues, who must devote so much time and effort to such boring subjects as taxes, women's rights and the latest round of labour negotiations. Swedish journalists in turn seem to labour under the delusion that their foreign counterparts spend all of their time uncovering a Watergate scandal or, even better, covering the accidental death of a former British princess.

But even though Sweden suffers from a crying lack of juicy tragedies and scandals, it is sometimes possible to invent them. There have been a couple of classic examples during the past year, including much ado about Sweden's cowardly neglect to be occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, as were neighbouring Denmark and Norway, and a brief but intense episode of international hysteria over the issue of forced sterilisation. The latter is a social and medical procedure that appears to have originated in the United States and has been widely employed throughout the western world. But through the efforts of Dagens Nyheter (and co-operating interests?), it was widely depicted in the world press as a uniquely Swedish offence against nature and defenceless women.

"Racial hygiene in the people's home" was the hysterical headline on the front page of Sweden's leading newspaper on fhs 20th of August 1997. That message was then spread throughout the world press with a speed and thoroughness that suggest a high level of preparation and organization. The CIA could not have done a better job of it. Among other things, the series of articles on the history of forced sterilisation compared Sweden unfavourably with Nazi Germany, and suggested that the general welfare state and its perpetrators were responsible for the entire dreadful business. The reality is something quite different, of course. For example, Olof Palme was one of the few political leaders who strongly opposed forced sterilisation during its heydayBut as the saying goes: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

A columnist named Mona Charen certainly did not. In the 7 Septmber 1997 edition of the the Baltimore Sun, she added this embellishment: "Those who thought the matter of whether eugenics was a decent field didn't reckon with Sweden.... Memories of Swedish moral preening, particularly at the expense of the U.S. during the Vietnam War, are particularly galling.... The Swedes have equality-- but don't look there for freedom, dignity or honor."

Climate of self-criticism

This journalistic syndrome is reinforced by a curious aspect of the Swedish national character-- an apparent compulsion to criticise one's own country. The Swedes may well be the most consistent anti-patriots on earth, and are always on the lookout for some reassuring evidence that they are just as wicked as anyone else, preferably worse. One of their favourite self-accusatory epigrams-- presuming a national habit of stifling all individual pride and initiative-- originated with a writer who spent most of his life in Norway and coined the epigram with specific reference to his home town in Denmark.

In combination with the news media's desperate quest for excitingly bad news to report, the national habit of self-criticism provides a perfect climate for SAF's ideological campaign, whose constant theme is that just about everything is rotten in the state of Sweden. It is fairly easy for journalists and other interested parties to find a Swede who is willing to state that the sky is falling; but it is generally considered very bad form to praise one's own country.

This may help to explain why most of the major news media have so often supplied various kinds of direct and indirect support for SAF's campaign. There are, of course, many exceptions to this general rule, even in the pages of Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter. But that is a minimum requirement in any society with democratic pretensions: A certain measure of non-conventional thinking must be displayed. In some cases, such as those relating to forced sterilisation and World War II survivors' guilt, it is also apparent that at least some reporters and editors are driven by a strong moral pathos-- the same tendency for which Sweden has often been criticised by right-wing critics.
"We must become more American" is the opinion of this Swedish 'celebrity journalist'.

For the most part, however, Swedish journalists appear to behave in the same general fashion as do human beings in all walks of life, i.e. by adapting their thoughts and fundamental premises to those of the powers that be. At this moment in history, that means first and foremost the last remaining superpower and its allies in Sweden and elsewhere.