The first part of a study of the Swedish Model by Perry Anderson
since the war, Sweden has become an almost mythological country. Suitably remote and out of the way, it has come to be an entity rather like the Americas in the 18th century, or China in the Middle Ages—not so much a normal object of real knowledge as a didactic political fable. A contemporary equivalent of the myth of the Happy Savage has flowered: that of the Suicidal Swede. In Sweden, so the legend goes, unprecedented thousands jump out of the window to escape too much social insurance, while in the background, abortion, divorce and alcoholism ravage national morality and transform the remainder of Swedish society into a macabre, demented saturnalia. President Eisenhower himself recently retold the story to an audience of Republican politicians in Chicago. The intended moral of the tale is plain: the more welfare people have, the worse they in fact end up by faring. Too much cosseting leads to boredom, immorality and unhappiness. Suicide becomes the dramatic index of these discontents.
The only thing missing from this picturesque image is any basis in fact. The figures speak for themselves. Sweden came 6th among European nations for frequency of suicide in the last year for which there are full comparative statistics, and the rate has declined since then; 6th again among these countries for alcoholism, and 4th for divorce.
But there is an argument “from the Swedish experience” of quite another and entirely serious kind. This comes from Right-wing intellectuals in the Labour Party, who see Sweden as an exemplary model of an existing socialist society, and one from which we have much to learn Readers of Crosland’s Future of Socialism will remember how ubiquitously he quotes Swedish experience. Only America gets an equal number of mentions, but of the two he gives the palm to Sweden as coming nearest “the socialist’s ideal of the ‘good’ society”. The full Right-wing argument goes roughly like this: Sweden is the living example of a society which combines a very high degree of social welfare and equality with a very limited degree of common ownership. The Swedish Social-Democratic Party has been phenomenally successful electorally. The connection isn’t hard to see: it is the Party’s coolness to nationalisation and concentration on welfare and equality measures instead which have been responsible for its success. The lesson for us is clear. The Swedish Party shows us the only kind of programme that will get us back into power—while Sweden as a country shows us the preeminently desirable kind of society we would create once we were in power and could implement that programme. In other words, Sweden represents the only possible type of socialism for us, but at the same time this is—fortunately—the best of all types. There is only one alternative—the optimum. Electoral realism and social idealism sublimely coincide.
If Sweden is not a caution, is it a mandate? Is it this Valhalla of revisionism? Crosland is right in saying that the British Left has usually tended to be insular, and we should welcome the challenge to broaden the field of discussion beyond a purely national framework. We certainly do have much to learn from Sweden and
Telephones are beige and shaped like drooping tulips—all in one feather-weight plastic piece. Newspapers are 30 pages thick. Private airfields are constructed for their distribution; their journalists confide that the only limit to their size is aircraft freight capacity. Surburban automats blaze with geometric groceries, from chicken to cucumbers. Railway cafeterias have slot-machine radios at each table. The fact is surprisingly little known, but it is the first one that needs to be grasped: drawing its wealth from massive resources of timber and water-power, copious high-grade iron ore and a superlative engineering industry (rock drills, office machinery, ball-bearings, tankers, steam-turbines), Sweden is now the richest country in Europe. It is considerably richer than Great Britain. In 1957, Swedish net national income per capita was about £460. In the same year British net national income per capita was about £350. Sweden has more of the sovereign consumer durable, the motor car, per head of population than any other country in Europe (13 per 100). It has more telephones per capita than any other country in the world but the U.S.A.; its electrified railroad network is the most extensive in the world absolutely. Sweden is thus not just one out of many more or less well-off societies, it marks the high zenith of European affluence. The first question, then, that suggests itself is Galbraith’s. With all its wealth, does Sweden match a public generosity to its private abundance, or is there a gaping discrepancy between the two?
In our present political context, the answer to this question may be of critical theoretical importance. The New Left has recently been massing its fire-power more and more on this one main front of the “social imbalance”. Charles Taylor has even gone so far as to write: “Before us stand the inhuman priorities of capitalism: the only political question is how to understand and change them . .”. Of course, the more alert younger men of the Right and Centre have also criticised these priorities in our society. The pivotal point at dispute is the New Left’s insistence that only a significant extension of common ownership can reverse the present order of priorities, and put social needs squarely before private gains.