Andrew Brown

Fishing In Utopia – Sweden and the Future That Disappeared.

Granta Books. $26.99

During the 1970s in Sweden, writes Andrew Brown, the alcoholics who gathered behind the bus shelter in his adopted hometown of Nordinge preferred a cheap brand of vodka called Absolut Renat – ‘absolutely pure’, a plain spirit with no apparent flavour of its own. It seemed to him a symbol of the country in some ways – a place still motivated by the notion of building a genuine social democracy, defining itself against both the capitalist West and the Communist East. Brown, who’d met and married a Swedish girl – a process of sirenic entrapment by backpacking blondes that is responsible for about half the country’s male immigration – had spent the 70s in Sweden working in factories, before eventually becoming a freelance journalist and ultimately a correspondent for The Independent.

In that latter role, long divorced, he returned to Sweden decades later to see what had happened to the country whose ‘future had disappeared’ – the distinctive pathway ahead transformed into a more run-of-the-mill part of global capitalism, with social democratic bits attached. Brown can’t make up his mind as to whether this is an improvement, a disaster or both – more to the point neither can the Swedes. In exploring that conundrum he brings to life better than many have exactly what made social democracy distinct – as a genuine basis for a culture – and ably disentangles the political system from the deeper cultural traditions that it is often blamed for (Swedish taciturnity, for example).

Looked at from the outside, Swedish social democracy – which ran from the 30s into the 80s, before finally stumbling in the early 90s – can often seem dour. The Social Democratic party dominated with such self-assuredness and arrogance as to make Rudd Labor look like a low self-esteem self-help group. Building new cities in often stylish but austere modernist styles, with no private broadcasting, strict alcohol control, a total system of labor management, and tax-based pricing that made an evening out a once-a-week affair, Sweden acquired a reputation for conformity and dullness.  Yet it is worth remembering that this was about the most successful industrial transition in history. Until the first world war, the country had been agrarian and often desperately poor – Brown’s aged in-laws remembered ‘peasant winters’ whole months spent indoors virtually hibernating because there was little food and no clothes warm enough to go outside. Within two generations the entire country had been raised up, with a high-end industrial base, poverty at around 4% (in the US it’s around 20%), universal health, education, literacy, etc.

Within that tremendous rise, a more intimate folk culture survived – one reason why Sweden looks so dour in that period is because leisure, sociality aren’t yet fully commodified. Brown remembers working at a small auto plant in which the morning and lunch breaks were held in the owner’s kitchen, his wife serving the meal, or the days of Midsummer, when the whole country goes to lakeside houses and shacks for a fortnight.

Brown’s memory of this is tangled up with trying and failing to be a Swede, unable to finally exile himself from the bright lights of London, unsure if he can ever integrate into such an entrenched monoculture (when he fails the task of peeling a boiled potato held on a fork, his father-in-law looks at him as if he’s a moron). But it’s also about trying to work out, from the bright lights of global culture, whether it was necessary for Swedish social democracy to be resistant to market pleasures, or whether this was a paternalistic hangover that helped to finish it off.

Finished off it was, at least in Swedish eyes. In the early 90s, the Right took power for the second time in sixty years, and dismantled much of the comprehensive economic-social system that had guaranteed prosperity and equality. By global standards Sweden remains a comfortable place – poverty is still low, 400+ days parental leave, sickness benefits at 75% of salary, free education etc – and crime etc is still half what it is elsewhere, but Brown cannot decide if something has been extinguished in the coming of the wider world.

Neither can any of us anywhere. Brown’s account of the most successful social democracy serves as a prism for the political questions we face. There is after all, something robust about much of Rudd’s social democracy (though it doesn’t compare for example to Sweden’s 1970s ‘million’ programme – adding a million dwellings to a country of eight million people over 10 years), but its creeping coercive nature, the kitch of plaques, and national curricula and welfare quarantining and much more, is the sort of thing that makes one yearn for Montana or similar.

Whatever the case, we are in a very different place than a quarter century ago – measured if by nothing else than that ‘Absolut Renat’ alkies choice has become, after a slick ad campaign ‘Absolut’ vodka, the clear liquid that promises everything while still tasting of nothing at all.

Peter Fray

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