Something Rotten in
The State of Sweden

Part III: Symbiotic Relationships

. . . Among the most faithful Swedish allies of the United States are Carl Bildt and his Conservative Party, whose share of the vote has steadily increased during the past two decades. That trend is largely the result of defections from the less doctrinaire parties in the centre of the political spectrum, a process greatly facilitated by the polarising effects of SAF's incessant ideological campaign.

Just as the fortunes of the Social Democratic Party are closely linked to those of the labour movement, the Conservative Party may be regarded as the political instrument of SAF and related interests. Again, links to major news media are very strong. Svenska Dagbladet has been used as the main platform for the launching of Carl Bildt's political career; its current and oft-cited editor-in-chief is an old party comrade. Bildt's press secretary during his brief term as prime minister was Svenska Dagbladet's
Washington correspondent, a curmudgeonly character with extensive contacts within the U.S. military establishment and a bitter contempt for the Nordic model.

Dagens Nyheter
has hailed Bildt as a "thoroughbred", comparing him favourably with The Scarlet Pimpernel. The news media in general have cultivated themyth that the Conservative leader is blessed with extraordinary intellectual powers. Evidence of those powers is, however, very difficult to detect in the formulation and results of his policies: Among other things, Bildt is the principal author of Sweden's worst-ever economic disaster, as well as its most embarrassing fiasco in foreign policy.

The supportive and respectful treatment of Bildt by the Swedish establishment stands in sharp contrast to the often intense abuse to which Olof Palme was subjected during most of his political career. Even today, twelve years after Palme's assassination, there is a reluctance to acknowledge the depth of his insight or the extent of his achievements.

Solid minority

Despite all their costly efforts and the complicity of the mainstream press, SAF and the Conservative Party have not yet succeeded in convincing a majority of the Swedish public to abandon the model of society on which its general welfare is based. Opinion surveys indicate that something like three-fourths of the population continue to support the Sweden's version of the Nordic model, and that appreciation of its advantages has steadily increased since the brief but disastrous reign of the Bildt government during 1991-94.

In fact, internal enemies of the Swedish model have never approached a majority of the voting public. Presumably for that reason, they have often turned to kindred spirits in the outside world for comfort and support. Having failed to win approval of their programme through the democratic process at home, SAF & Co. has sought to mobilise the international press, business associations, political contacts and other external forces against the recalcitrant majority.

An endlessly repeated theme of the resulting joint effort is that too much social security is debilitating. Real men and women donot weaken their moral fibre with "collectivist" abominations like transfer payments and social insurance. They shape their own individual destinies, alone and unafraid. In contrast, the majority of Swedes have become sadly dependent on "cradle-to-grave security", so the story often goes. This does not apply, of course, to the rich and powerful; their cradle-to-grave security is entirely justified, by something or other.

Destructive symbiosis

As noted previously, it is not especially difficult to find enemies of Sweden beyond its borders. They are to be found in roughly the same complex of interests, but at the global level-- i.e. political conservatives, multi-national corporations and mainstream news media, in particular the business and financial press.

Influential examples of the latter include the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist and similar chronicles of neo-liberalism. In reporting on events in Sw
Carl Bildt's supporters control much of the mainstream press in the U.S. and Europe, and have made it available so that he can promote his view of Sweden and the world-- in this case, the Financial Times of England.

eden, they rely almost entirely on like-minded "reliable sources" who are anxious to alert the world to the evils of the Swedish model. Carl Bildt, for example, is often cited by such publications, and has become a frequent contributor of essays that further elaborate the dogma with which he ruined the Swedish economy.

It has become something of a ritual for Bildt and leading spokesmen of the Swedish business community to regale international audiences, such as the annual World Business Forum in Switzerland, with distorted accounts of the general welfare system and the terrors of doing business in the "last outpost of communism".

It is all part of a destructive symbiosis between enemies of the Swedish model at home and abroad. International corporateinterests and its news media gladly amplify the disinformation provided by SAF and its cohorts, who in turn use that globally-distributed bad news to promote their cause at home. There are continual references to all the unflattering things said and written about Sweden around the world, including the costs imposed by financial markets on Sweden for stubbornly persisting with its deviant model of society, the hypocrisy of its pathetic attempts to pose as a "moral superpower", etc., etc.

These persistent efforts have produced some results: It is doubtful that anyone has done more harm to the Swedish economy than the neo-liberal forces which claim that they are merely trying to save the misguided nation from itself. In this they are aided and abetted by Swedish news media, which often cite the dire warnings of such-and-such "respected international publication". Dagens Nyheter has even reproduced entire articles from The Economist

Additional bad news is provided by the routine chidings of the OECD, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and similar "respected international agencies", which tend not to approve of Sweden's tax structure, public sector, workers' rights, etc. These predictably negative evaluations are often reinforced by various "American experts", imported b

"Sinister Nanny"
"The idea that 'caring' Sweden carried out mass forced sterilisations on a scale equalled only in Nazi Germany has forced the nation to examine the darker side of its own soul. The Sweden which once assumed it had the right to lecture other nations on human rights and racial tolerance has lost its halo, just as few now regard it as an economic model.... The only politician with the authority and backing to modernise the country is Carl Bildt...."
-- The European
, 1997

"Sweden is a diaper society which holds its citizens by the hand from cradle-to- grave. It is a society of care and custody on which Swedes have become dependent, as a blind man on a seeing-eye dog."
-- Der Spiegel
, 1994

y SAF affiliates for a day or two in order to discover that things are not at all as they should be. Needless to say, their often glib and uninformed parting shots at the general welfare state receive wide coverage in the mainstream press.

Subtle pressures

It is difficult to say how much of all this destructive activity is consciously motivated, although some of it clearly is. The Economist, for example, has openly declared its "malicious pleasure" at the 1990s' economic crisis (caused by the Bildt government's application of the policy which that journal recommends). A similar malicious intent is easy to discern in other prominent neo-liberal organs. Likewise, right-wing ideologues in the U.S. seldom miss an opportunity to get even for Palme's denunciation of the Vietnam War, and are more than willing to stretch a point for that purpose.

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that most of the bad news about Sweden floating about in the mainstream news gets there in the usual fashion-- that is, through the uncritical acceptance and mindless repetition of a conventional wisdom that originates somewhere else. As John Pilger, an acknowledged master of the trade, has observed: "Many journalists will claim that they are free and independent and that, 'No one can tell me what to write!' But they have not analysed the subtle pressures to which they are subjected."

No doubt, the most subtle pressures of all are those exerted by one's culture of origin. It appears to be very difficult for observers from most parts of the world to grasp the underlying logic of the Nordic model, which is based on principles of sharing and co-operation. Viewing Sweden or Norway through the distorting lens of theories best-suited to justifying class societies like those of England and the United States, with their emphasis on self-interested competition, makes about as much sense as criticising those countries from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Yet, this is done routinely.

One consequence is that the values and priorities of Sweden's democratic majority are seldom represented in the international press. This is reflected, for example, in the New York Times' long-established habit of referring to Sweden's "suffocating welfare state". The fact is that the vast majority of Swedes freely and willingly breath the air of the general welfare system which the Times
, from its superior vantage point across the Atlantic, routinely declares to be asphyxiating.

Very like a disinformation campaign

In many ways, what has happened to Sweden since the end of the Cold War resembles the kind of disinformation campaign employed by the United States and its allies against Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua and other targeted countries.

For the reasons noted above, however, there is probably no need to co-ordinate the ongoing campaign against Sweden. To a large extent, it may well have arisen spontaneously from a combination of (a) powerful interests which share a common antagonism toward the Nordic model, and (b) the mainstream press doing its business as usual.

But inasmuch as the net result is something very like a classic disinformation campaign, it is perhaps a useful metaphor, nonetheless. To adapt Emmett Murray's sage advice (see Part I): Read and listen to the mainstream news about Sweden and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, assume that the truth is just the opposite-- or, at the very least, considerably more complex.

-- Al Burke, November 1998 


Update: July 2000 

A distinct shift in the general view of Sweden in the international mainstream press became evident during 1999, and has continued into the new millennium. As the economy recovered from the neo-liberal depression of the preceding decade, and as Swedes continued to impress in a variety of fields-- information technology and popular music, for example-- it became increasingly popular to write and talk about the "Swedish wonder" instead of the "Swedish disease".

This recent trend has not, however, had any noticeable effect on the willingness and/or ability of journalists and other observers to appreciate the value of the Nordic model of society. Instead, the Swedish accomplishments suddenly discovered and commented upon are often attributed to neo-liberal reforms of the past few years, prompting calls for more of the same. This is especially true of the business press, of course.

The fact of the matter is that the companies and individuals which are currently the subject of so much favourable attention developed and grew up in Sweden when its version of the Nordic model was most fully developed. Nevertheless, it remains under constant attack, which means that the conditions which nurtured today's clever Swedes may not be available to their children and grandchildren. For more on that issue and related developments, see The Price of Everything.