PREFACE

”What is a cynic? A man who knows the price
of everything, and the value of nothing.”

                                                  -- Oscar Wilde
     
Until quite recently, a little land beneath the northern lights was well on the way to solving many of the fundamental problems that have plagued human societies through the ages. Poverty had been nearly eliminated, the needs of children and the handicapped were accorded high priority, quality medical care was available to everyone at little or no cost, the resources available to women and the elderly were steadily expanding, nearly all aspects of life reflected a spirit of equality and a sense of entitlement.

It was a country which, despite a long history of bloody war among its neighbours, had managed to remain at peace for nearly two centuries. By applying to foreign policy the same values and principles that underlay its progress at home, it had become a respected international peacemaker and a persistent advocate of just relations among the nations of the world.

But all that began to change for the worse toward the close of the 20th century, as the Cold War ended and the primitive form of economics known as laissez-faire recaptured the limited imaginations of opinion- and decision-makers at home and abroad. Within the space of a few years, the little country that had been a source of inspiration to some, and of irritation to others, was drawn into a crisis that severely damaged the health of its economy and the self-confidence of its citizens.

The nation in distress is Sweden, and this is an attempt to describe how a destructive combination of national and international forces threatens to undo much or all of the good that its people managed to achieve during the better part of the 20th century.

The following account is based to a large extent on the questions and observations of so-called “average citizens”, Swedes who tend not to regard themselves as intellectuals (whatever importance that may have), and often express a sense of uneasy bewilderment over a recent series of unwelcome developments. The objective is to provide a clear and comparatively simple frame of reference for understanding how Swedish society functions-- particularly in relation to the laissez-faire alternative-- and why it has lately been moving in a direction which is strongly opposed by a sizeable majority of its citizens, and lamented by its numerous admirers around the world.

That same frame of reference may also have some relevance for other countries facing similar challenges. Inasmuch as it has a small and still fairly homogenous population, as well as a relatively uncomplicated social structure and economy, the effects of major trends and processes are often easier to discern in Sweden than in larger, more complex societies. They include, for example:
  • the increasing lack of fit between the global economy and the human communities it is presumably supposed to serve

  • the threat to national democracies posed by international economic factors, including the behaviour of transnational corporations and the free flow of capital

  • the frequently destructive impact of technology and globalization on human communities

  • the social consequences of applied economic theories, in particular the dominant ideology based on primitive laissez-faire notions

  • the tendency of financial markets and institutions to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged

  • the central role of the global propaganda apparatus, dominated by U.S. and British media, in promulgating and maintaining the reigning ideology.

As the 21st century begins, there are few places on earth that remain unaffected by these issues. In one way or another, they all have to do with the distribution of wealth and the viability of democracy. In both regards, it has already become apparent that the current version of laissez-faire ideology is no less harmful in its consequences than its predecessors.

Despite recent difficulties, Sweden and the other Nordic countries still offer the most promising alternative approach to the solution of basic human problems. It is very unlikely, for example, that the planet's environment will ever be safe from human beings unless they learn to conduct their affairs according to the principles of co-operation and solidarity on which the Nordic model of society is based. In attempting to decipher the human shape of the future, therefore, the fate of Sweden may well provide some valuable clues.
   

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