Midsummer in Sweden     

The case of Sweden and the Nordic model provides an illuminating perspective on the question: Given human nature, what kinds of societies are possible and sustainable? The precise nature of human nature is, of course, the subject of endless speculation and debate. But for present purposes, such fields of knowledge as anthropology, ethology, social psychology and comparative biology offer useful clues.

The evolutionary history of hominids is usually estimated at about four million years. For over 99 percent of that time, they lived in small wandering groups of no more than 100-150 individuals. It was not until some 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture, that they began to form aggregations so large that it became impossible for each individual member to be personally acquainted with all others-- an organizational problem which at least to some extent has been overcome through the use of unifying symbols, political institutions, and communication technology.

Conditional freedom

Humans are nothing if not social animals, with the longest dependency period of any species. The behaviour and destinies of the individual and the group are inseparable-- no matter how many systems of economic and philosophical thought may choose to ignore that fundamental fact of human existence. This means, among other things, that individual freedom is always conditional, tending to vary with circumstances of the group such as the level of economic scarcity and external threat. It also means that the individual cannot flourish without the support of others, although the range of individual variation is quite large in this regard.

As with all social animals, the problem of concerted action-- so essential to group defence and attack, large-scale production, etc.-- has been resolved with the institution of hierarchy. Since the rise of what is referred to as civilization, hierarchical rankings have come to be determined increasingly by intellectual factors, which now predominate in technological societies. But for over 99 percent of human history, power in society has been largely determined by the exercise of brute force, in an interminable competition of males over economic and sexual resources.

It would be very odd if this lengthy history were to have no bearing on the behaviour of the species' current representatives. And, indeed, its traces can be seen everywhere-- in the persistent dominance of males in power structures, in patterns of rape and other forms of aggression, in racism, in the well-documented gender differences that are so painful for certain schools of feminist thought to accept, in the explosive undertones of group dynamics as evidenced in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and much more.

The tendency of humans to sort themselves into hierarchical structures, for example, is so deeply ingrained that the question arises as to how they ever got such apparently deviant notions as democracy and the brotherhood of humankind into their heads. The answer may have something to do with the nature of human communication, which can induce at least the illusion of a shared reality and perspective.

Whatever their origins, such egalitarian notions do exist, and have played an increasingly prominent role in human affairs. The result is a fundamental human conflict that is reflected in competing political philosophies. Neo-liberalism, social Darwinism and other forms of laissez-faire thought draw their strength from the primitive emotions and behaviour patterns that are the products of four million years' evolution; in that sense, they express the natural order of things. Egalitarianism has a much shorter history-- a few thousand years, at best-- and a much more tenuous relationship to the human animal. Biologically, it is restricted largely to the language centres of the human brain.

Resources to the disadvantaged

Nevertheless, Sweden and the other Nordic countries have demonstrated that it is possible for humans to organize their affairs in such a way as to constrain the power of elites while steadily increasing the access of historically disadvantaged groups to the resources of society. Nor is there any evidence that the Nordic model is incapable of sustaining itself, if allowed to function according to its own basic values and precepts. But in recent years, it has not been allowed to function properly, due to the factors noted in the preceding pages.

The mounting pressure to dismantle the Nordic model is all the more peculiar, given its extraordinary success at improving opportunities and living conditions for the vast majority of the citizens affected. It has proven itself to be especially capable of liberating human resources which, in places like the United States and England, are often suffocated as the result of poverty and the associated ills of poor health, inadequate education, etc.

The primary reason for the Nordic model's precarious situation is that it embraces a fundamental conflict of interests: Those who possess the greatest economic power have the least evident self-interest in the system's proper function and survival. This suggests that, no matter how successful the Nordic model may be in producing and expanding human welfare, it will always be subject to attack as long as human nature remains at its current stage of evolution.

Disagreeable elites

The problem is what to do with disagreeable elites. It may well be that a stable two-thirds of the population strongly support the Nordic model, and are willing to pay even higher taxes in order to preserve it. It may also be the case that many, perhaps even most, members of elites are capable of understanding and appreciating the benefits-- even to themselves-- of a society based on egalitarian principles.

But the recent experience of Sweden indicates that a relatively narrow segment of the population can undermine a society supported by the vast majority, if it happens to possess large economic resources and a will to destroy. To achieve that purpose in societies which derive their legitimacy from democratic principles, it is especially important to dominate the flow of information and, thereby, the general outline of public opinion.

In the game of democracy, it is not necessary to win the hearts and minds of the majority; that is seldom possible. It is enough to generate sufficient confusion and disarray so as to prevent the formation of a political force capable of challenging the power of the elite. That accomplished, it is a fairly routine matter to influence the behaviour of elected officials with various pressures and enticements.

Logic and reason have very little to do with it, as prominent spokesmen for the Swedish business community have abundantly demonstrated. For decades, the more belligerent among them have loudly denounced the Nordic model for the ”poor business climate” it is said to impose-- while at the same time raking in fat profits, thanks largely to the human resources nurtured and developed by the society that they condemn. Also of great importance to the welfare of Sweden's most successful companies have been various kinds of support provided by the country's well-developed public sector, which is routinely castigated as wasteful and inefficient-

Irrational tendencies

These irrational tendencies are so intense that those who suffer from them have even demonstrated a readiness to jeopardize the Swedish economy, and thereby their own business prospects, with various attempts to weaken the Nordic model. Evidently, they would be willing to accept a poorer business climate, with lower profits and slower economic growth, if only they could feel that all power rested in their hands.

In that ambition they have been inspired by the example of other countries, in particular the United States. That is the model which arouses their most fervent longings, and they are doing everything in their considerable power to reshape Sweden in that image. That the consequences for the majority of their countrymen would almost certainly be negative is regarded, if at all, as neither here nor there.

Clearly, those who wish to preserve the Nordic model of society have their work cut out for them as the 21st century gets underway. The foregoing catalogue of difficulties suggests the basic requirements, including:
  • a strong and healthy labour movement, with a reliable political instrument to express and defend its members' interests
  • a well-developed and well-financed public sector
  • the consent and, preferably, the support of the economic elite, including restraints on its more destructive members; this implies a need to encourage and mobilize the positive forces of the business community
  • constraints on the power of transnational corporations, including democratic control of the economic institutions from which that power is derived
  • a strong sense of cohesion and mutual self-interest among the vast majority of the population.

Effective framework

The only viable structure currently available for securing these and related ends is the nation-state. With all its faults and limitations, it provides the most effective framework yet devised for the development of democracy, economic progress and general welfare. Furthermore, the extraordinary success of the comparatively small and cohesive Nordic countries suggests that there may be limitations on the size and complexity of a nation-state, if it is to serve the human needs of an entire population.

It follows that the most immediate requirement for preservation of the Nordic model is to strengthen the nation-states in which it has emerged and blossomed. For the reasons noted above, it is not likely to survive the forced adaptation to global neo-liberalism on the U.S. model which is currently taking place.

Given that nationalism has so often been used for destructive purposes, a renewed emphasis on national sovereignty may reasonably be regarded with suspicion. But the nationalism of the Nordic model has consistently manifested its peaceful inclinations, and its solidarity with the peoples of less-favoured nations.

The contributions of the Nordic model to world peace and harmonious human relations have far exceeded those of the superpower that currently dominates the planet. (The U.S. style of peace-making often involves massive quantities of bombs, large numbers of which seem to fall on civilian targets.) Moreover, the Nordic model supports a style of national identity which fulfils important psychological and social functions that strengthen the better side of human nature. People may continue to buy and sell things all over the planet, but most of them will always want some recognizable little corner of it to call home.

Something to offer

Those little corners will be much easier to recognize if they are readily distinguishable from each other, raising the question as to what will become of cultural diversity in the brave new world of global neo-liberalism with its pervasive apparatus of McDonald's hamburgers, Coca-Cola, etc. Oddly enough, those who most loudly proclaim the blessings of individualism often seem to be most eager to turn every soul on earth into a little American.

In any event, there is no indication that the largest and most powerful nations of the world have any intention of surrendering their sovereignty in the foreseeable future. Thus, nationalism continues to thrive where it has often been most destructive and inhumane, while being phased out where it has done the most good. In Sweden's case, this has meant the abandonment of a distinct and widely respected national profile, in exchange for membership in the European Union-- a vague and ill-considered fabrication whose eventual shape and characteristics are shrouded in a dense fog of uncertainty.

Apart from the interests of those who live in the Nordic region, the model of society developed there has obvious significance for the rest of the world as a viable alternative to neo-liberalism. It may also have some relevance for the global environmental crisis that is steadily gathering force. With its emphasis on sharing and co-operation, the Nordic model is far more capable of sustaining harmonic relations with the natural environment than the greed and exploitation dictated by the U.S. model.

Unfortunately, progress in that direction has lately been hindered by the emotional problems and demands of disgruntled elites. But if those obstacles can somehow be overcome, the Nordic model of society will have much to offer the world.

* * * *   

NOTE: "The Price of Everything" is intended to provide a general introduction to the information presented on NNN's website. For that reason, no references are included here; documentation is provided in the main body of materials.

Title page   •   NNN Home