Unconventional Wisdom
Applying the weather-rock test
to the mainstream press


In any attempt to convey information and ideas, it is generally regarded as unwise to begin by offending one's intended audience. But that may be unavoidable when discussing the enormous disparity between observable reality and the conventional wisdom of the mainstream press regarding Sweden and the Nordic model. The custodians of that wisdom may not be amused by the analysis presented in the following pages; but they will find it difficult to refute.

The conventional wisdom about Sweden is that it is a "suffocating welfare state" which has enfolded its citizens in a "cocoon of security" on which they have become hopelessly dependent. This "diaper society which holds its citizens by the hand from cradle-to-grave" has led to moral decay and economic ruin-- an alarming syndrome known as "the Swedish disease". It all provides a warning example to any government that might be tempted to destroy the moral fibre of its people with "the divisive effects of excessive generosity".

The foregoing citations have been extracted from the United States' Newsweek, England's The Economist and Germany's Der Spiegel. It is also the kind of wisdom that permeates the most recent version of "The Article About Sweden" in the New York Times.. Such denigrations comprise an essential component of the curious symbiosis that has evolved between reactionary forces in Sweden and like-minded interests abroad.

Disgruntled elite

During this century, Sweden and the other Nordic countries have developed a model of society which has greatly improved the lives of the vast majority of their citizens. But an influential minority, including a large portion of the economic elite, has always opposed the Nordic model-- largely on the grounds that it imposes too heavy a tax burden and transfers too much power from them to the state, i.e. to the democratic majority. They tend to prefer societies like those of England and the United States, choosing to ignore the widespread misery that such alternatives seem to require.

Not surprisingly, this disgruntled Swedish minority has failed to gain widespread support for its complaints through the democratic process at home. It has therefore turned to the outside world for support, and has found it among the global economic elite and its propaganda apparatus. That is where the N.Y. Times and similar institutions come in.

In this context, the function of the mainstream press has been to maintain constant ideological and, whenever possible, economic pressure on the Nordic model. The benefits to the reactionary minority are several, including a vital injection of outside confirmation that its cause is just. It is no doubt easier to believe in the legitimacy of one's complaints if a "respected international news source" endlessly repeats them.

To a large extent, that is precisely what respectable news sources do-- repeat the complaints of the disgruntled elite. It is an oddly circular process that works like this: Executive X and pundit Y perform their lamentations for the New York Times, The Economist, etc. Their tales of woe are then converted into news and redirected to Sweden, to be cited as independent proof that things are just as screwed up as the reactionaries have been complaining all along.

Clockwork judgements

Voices of the majority are occasionally allowed to be heard, of course-- just often enough to provide a seductive veil of that mythical substance, "objectivity". But for the most part, the democratic majority of Sweden is seldom visible or audible international news media, except in derogatory terms. This is a very reliable pattern, as noted prior to the 1994 national election by the newsletter, The Swedish Example: "It may be assumed that mainstream reporting. . . will find the Swedish people guilty of unwisdom, cowardice in the face of The Market, or perhaps even worse".

Sure enough. Apparently vexed by the crushing defeat of a centre-right coalition which in three short years had managed to arrange the worst economic disaster in Swedish history-- largely by applying the kind of neo-liberal policies advocated by The Economist-- that highly respected news source clucked: "It is not at all clear that Swedes realise how big a problem their country has. The election of a Social Democratic government suggests that voters still imagine that the old answers can be made to work again."

"Sweden Turns Back the Clock" was the clockwork judgement of the Wall Street Journal. For the Financial Times, the word was, "Poll result the worst possible: Markets fall amid fears over deficit." The Independent dismissed the democratic result as a stroll down "Sweden's dead-end memory lane", etc., etc.

It is as easy to demonstrate the inaccuracy of such dire warnings as to predict that the 1998 election will be greeted by similar displays of conventional wisdom. On the evidence, it appears that the will of the democratic majority and the actual facts of the case are of little or no importance to the mainstream press. The name of the game is to maintain as much pressure as possible on the Nordic model of society.

Economic pressure

That includes a large measure of economic pressure, which has become much easier to apply as a result of neo-liberal policies adopted by Swedish governments during the past two decades. They include submission to the European Union's economic policy, and the removal of credit and currency regulations. The net result has been to make Sweden and its citizens increasingly dependent on the good will of international money markets.

Since those markets operate to a large extent on the basis of rumour, reputation, ideology and other psychological factors, it is possible to injure a country or limit its political options by spreading the word that it is a financial risk. This is what usually happens when a majority of Swedes elect a Social Democratic government, or when any government attempts to preserve the Nordic model by means of taxation, the public sector and other demonstrably effective instruments for improving the living conditions of the majority.

In this way, higher interest rates and other economic sanctions have become powerful weapons against any perceived threat to the dominance of the global economic elite. Those weapons are administered primarily through the mainstream press, especially its business sector.

Just doing its job

Of course, there are other reasons to attack Sweden, including the kind of foreign policy for which Olof Palme was famous or infamous, depending on one's point of view. U.S. right-wingers have never forgiven Sweden for leading the international opposition to the Vietnam War, among other transgressions. That nagging resentment is reflected in the New York Times headline, " Sweden, Once the World's Conscience, Now Drifts." But as in that article, the main focus nowadays is on the alleged socio-economic deficiencies of Swedish society.

Seen in this light, what appears to be the staggering incompetence of the mainstream press becomes quite understandable. It is merely doing its job. Again, this suits the reactionary Swedish minority, which is so eager for the Nordic model to fail that it is willing to inflict heavy damage on the nation's economy toward that end.

There are many examples of this syndrome, but probably the most notable of recent years was the successful attempt by Björn Wolrath, head of Skandia insurance company, to destroy international confidence in the nation's financial stability during the 1994 election campaign. His widely-publicised pronouncement that government policies threatened to bankrupt the nation is credited with a rise in interest costs that far exceeded, for example, the damage done by Nick Leeson in the Barings Bank case. Leeson is doing time in prison.

In these and similar ways, the international press has become an integral part of the Swedish political process. In cases such as the New York Times and The Economist, there is a fairly obvious ideological agenda lurking behind the news. But it is likely that many journalists, market analysts and other observers have simply been seduced by the power of the reigning conventional wisdom. "They have not analysed the subtle pressures to which they are subjected," as independent journalist John Pilger has pointed out. Yet, given the enormous gap between observable reality and the mainstream news, it should not be so very difficult to counteract those pressures.

The weather-rock test

Some years ago, a local television station in Canada received a length of rope fastened to a rock, along with these instructions: "This is a weather rock. Ten minutes prior to broadcast, hang the rock outside a window. Just before the weather report, draw in the rock and observe its condition. If it is wet, this indicates some form of precipitation. If it is dry, there is probably no rain falling at the moment."

Anyone who has acquired an impression of Sweden from the mainstream news is strongly advised to apply a suitable form of the weather rock test. One might imitate the example of the foreign experts who earlier this year were invited to suggest solutions to the problems of a "distressed housing area" near Stockholm. After studying the area and its residents' living conditions for several days, the visitors from Holland, France, England and Denmark inquired, "Where are the problems?" Eventually, they detected a few potential difficulties; but it was not easy.

Those who have read or heard of Swedish industrial leaders complaining bitterly about the dreadful conditions under which they are forced to operate should study the actual performance of Swedish industry. Peter Malmqvist, a widely respected market analyst and business journalist, has done that for years and reports that, "Sweden has an excellent business climate."

Anyone who has been persuaded that the Swedes have been debilitated by a diaper society that stifles their initiative from cradle to grave might want to check out their achievements in a wide variety of fields, including music, sports and the arts. And before reporting that Swedish voters are so stupid that they do not know what is good for them, it might be wise to exchange a few words with a representative sample and compare the results with the level of political discourse one hears back home.

For the reasons noted above, it would be to Sweden's advantage if international news media were to write and broadcast less nonsense about the country and its people. But in addition, the Nordic model of society would almost certainly be of interest to the democratic majorities of other countries, if they were ever provided with accurate information about its comparative advantages.

Evidently, it is the function of the mainstream press to prevent that sort of knowledge from becoming too widely known. As John Pilger observes, the journalists who carry out that function may not always be consciously aware of that process and its broader implications. But anyone who has read this far has presumably been divested of that excuse. For an intellectually honest journalist, the question thus becomes whether or not to continue serving the narrow interests of Sweden's disgruntled elite and its allies abroad.

-- Al Burke, September 1998