Utdrag ur Jan Sjunnessons bok ”The Swedish Story”

Chapter 1: Land of extremes

The title The Swedish Story: From extreme experiment to normal nation needs some explanation. There is an abundance of stories and details and many heroes and villains in the follwing pages. Scandals, sex and bodily fluids will occur as well as Soviet submarines, phallic trumpets, film, fiction and welfare art tricksters. Everything has happened as written. No exaggeration is needed in the land of extremes.

The first part of the subtitle, extreme experiment, comes from economist Assar Lindbeck’s 1997 article “The Swedish Experiment” where he wrote:

“Why should foreign observers be interested in economic and social conditions in Sweden? The best answer is probably that institutions and policies in Sweden have been rather experimental, and that some of these experiments may also be relevant for other developed countries. Sweden may therefore be seen not only as a small country on the periphery of Europe, but also as a large (‘full-scale’) economic and social laboratory.”

Note here that professor Lindbeck states in a scientific article that Sweden is an existing social laboratory where planners may try out new utopian and extreme policies with real human beings. The results revealed in this book are as bewildering as the staggering costs.

The second part of the subtitle is from German writer Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s 1992 collection of essays In defence of the normal . He states that the normal has gotten a bad reputation and surpassed by the abnormal. But by the time, being abnormal becomes the new normal, épater le bourgeois the everyday routine. The Swedish kind of welfare art tricksters will appear with their tiresome provocations that are routine rather than exception in Swedish art and politics. All attitude, no content. Ideology not art. All left.

The two sources of terms in the subtitle, an article on welfare economics and an essay on European decency, cover the areas of intellectual curiosity that make up the arguments in chapters that follow. On the one hand, politics, business, economy and law, on the other ethnology, stories, culture and morals. Together with the strange stories that will surprise most people, the story of Sweden will be told from the outsider, the normal person trying to inhabit an extreme nation. Sweden is not a normal country but may be. Only by reading this book will this fact be understood, appreciated and possibly lead to action. You as non-Swedish reader have an important role to play.

Every country needs to have its self-image criticized now and then. What was normal in apartheid South Africa seemed extreme to the rest of the world after 1960. Today North Koreans live what they believe are normal lives which for all thinking and feeling people seem maddening. During the Balkan crisis, what had been normal divisions between ethnic groups erupted into extremes. Sweden is far from any of these regions but there is a Swedish normality which is extreme by all standards. Some good, some bad. Taken together, Sweden is an extreme country which makes questioning Swedes like me and most visitors question whether it is us that are extreme in trying to uphold sanity and normality or the country? For me there is no question. We are not extreme but Sweden is. We are normal and Sweden is not. The Swedish story will give some clues, but it is not a scholarly work. It is written with a fervor that comes from living and thinking a double life. One life of extremes which is normal in Sweden and another life trying to stay normal by global standards which is extreme in Sweden. Lives that are extreme by any global and sane standards are normal in Sweden and vice versa. National schizophrenia is rampant but not diagnosed until now.

The aim of this book is threefold with two lesser goals and one gigantic:

1. To expose the shortcomings of a large welfare state and high taxation.
2. To show the Swedish conformist and silent national character.
3. To make Sweden into a normal nation, not extreme

The first has been the topic of debate of welfare economics and clientelism since many decades. In some OECD countries, Sweden has been used as a sorry example of those wanting to tax and spend a sclerotic dull welfare state with totalitarian tendencies. Others, including leading economists and newspapers in USA and UK, praise Sweden for what is considered its clever and stable economic policy. Critique of large welfare states from the center-right field of politics will surface in the forthcoming pages, but these conservative or libertarian critical comments will not solely be in focus here. Instead will the steady Swedish support for the welfare state from all political areas including the political parties to the right be discussed. The historical roots for this broad support are much deeper than usually noted when blaming socialist and ambitions welfare state policies. National traits run much deeper than politics and the Swedes like their state to take care of them. They willingly pay high taxes and get something in return, even if they never completely understand how much they pay and what they get back. Still Sweden functions well, even if lower taxes and a smaller government will be needed in coming decades. The current changes of welfare economics go in the right direction, so there is less to worry about, in contrast to the second aim for this book.

The second topic, the dull, conformist and totalitarian streaks in the smooth welfare state, has also been the topic of studies and stories over the years. However, this book gives an updated version of the Swedish conformism and correctness in media, education and policy, among citizens and undemocratic repression of free thought. The last decades of identity politics and dominance from the cultural left play a large role building on earlier traits of rural awkwardness and welfare state social engineering, resulting in self-censorship, learned helplessness and a pathological need for security. While the first aim to change Swedish welfare state foundations are both unwanted and not yet immediate, the aim to stop repression of free thought and open debate is something this book supports strongly. Paying high taxes might do, but silence not. Combination of the two is maddening, to pay and shut up, which is what most Swedes do. The dominance of political conformism and citizens’ fear to speak their mind are becoming worse and going in the wrong direction, especially after the racially and right-wing politically motivated Norwegian massacre of 2011.

The last megalomaniac ambition of writing this book is my conviction that Swedes are unable to change their extreme country into a normal Western democracy. Help must come from immigrants and foreign readers who do not take Swedish extremes for granted. Last chapter will explain how that change may come about.

This chapter is divided into three parts. First, the most common picture of the Swedish, or sometimes called the Scandinavian (or sometimes named Nordic) welfare state Model is presented. Then the strange concept of state individualism is presented, which is an idea of the extreme Swedish identity. Lastly a story from a perceptive Polish writer living in Sweden on his first encounter with the welfare services in the land of extremes.


To the world, Sweden wants to be known for its naturalness, innovation, compassion and openness which can be reduced to being progressive . A slick modern market economy yet caring and equal, the Swedish Model has been described in many ways as coming from strict economy, political ideology or pure nationalism. A common way to analyze the model is to view the successful economic story over a century. Then it is obvious that Sweden has had a successful economic growth from 1870 -1970 based on:

Mixed economy – capitalism and planned economy with strong national control over capital flows, credit and interest rates
Corporativism – good independent relations between employers’ federations and labour unions, organized interest groups and popular movements supported by government
General welfare state policy – universal welfare programs that also benefit the middle class
Rehn – Meidner model – unions support structural change and fair wage policy (wages paid according to agreements, not business ability to pay)

The role of institutions in the economy is crucial to explain the success of poor and isolated 19th century Sweden becoming rich in the 20th century. Due to a homogenous equal population, political mobilization, free trade and emerging un-corrupt government administration after 1850, trust evolved in the emerging popular institutions that became foundations of the welfare state from 1900.

Sweden is split along two sectors, government and private, in ways that are more accentuated than elsewhere. The two make up the capitalist welfare state. Without technologically advanced exporting industries, the welfare state would not obtain enough taxes. But the welfare state also contributes to provide good conditions for innovation, social services and infrastructure. The two sectors work in tandem and understand each other well. Below are the two sectors presented


The modern Swedish welfare state that some view critically, and some with admiration, has some extreme economic and social features:

1. Government spending in 55 % of GDP (EU/OECD average 45 %).
2. Taxes in total more than 50% ( EU/OECD average 45 %).
3. 65 years of last 80 years social democratic labour party has been in power.
4. Almost 20 % of citizens age 20 – 64 wholly supported by welfare benefits
5. More than 20 % of all single mothers need welfare benefits in full or partly
6. 25% public sector employees in work force (OECD average 15%)
7. 9/169 position in UN Human development index

Conclusions from these figures may be that an expansive welfare state is burdensome but gets good UN ratings. But this is not the case when we look at the global market rankings of same country where Sweden is a well-functioning capitalist high-tech country :


1. Position 4/167 Global Democracy Index, The Economist
2. 4/178 Corruption Perception, Transparency International
3. 2/50 Country reputation, Reputation Institute
4. 3/ 142 Global competitiveness, World Economic Forum
5. 2/125 Innovation index, INSEAD
6. 2/134 Knowledge economy, World Bank
7. 1/131 Innovation capacity, European Business School

Sweden is viewed as an ideal for capitalism and innovation, even if indexes of economic freedom are less impressive. Economic freedom of the world 2012 index (Fraser Institute) ranks Sweden at 30 of the 141 countries measured . The Economist looked up to the ‘North star of Sweden’ with ‘The New Model’ as the best student in the tough EU financial class and Stockholm as world number 6 best city to live in. Financial Times followed and selected moderate (former conservative) Anders Borg as best finance minister in EU 2011.

A growing proportion of Swedes have become more faithful to welfare state since neoliberalism appeared in early 1990s. 75 % of polled Swedes by 2010 imagined themselves even willing to pay more taxes if they went to government health services. By 1997, 67 % held that view . Since 2006 when center-right coalition took power, support has risen for government-run welfare services, especially among middle class voters. A paradox since this non-socialist coalition traditionally had stood for smaller government, but won by changing the election campaign to promise better government, not smaller.

Critics of large welfare stateism could argue that the reformed and slimmed welfare state after 1990s has gotten its renewed support because of these changes and liberalizations (school vouchers, health choices, deregulation of government corporations, topping up with private alternatives etc.). Paradoxes emerge. A reformed socialist initiated welfare state works if run by center-right or market oriented socialist governments dedicated to piecemeal social engineering with no red or blue utopias getting in the way. Historical signposts are a kind of low key politics of the European 18th century rational enlightenment, 19th century romantic ideals of equality and 20th century democratic reformism. Capitalism and welfare seem to join hands in beliefs of technology, individualism and secular rationality, resulting in a specifically Swedish modernity. But there is a price to pay even if few Swedes know it.

Regular Swedes contribute to the large welfare state with their daily expenses and monthly wages. Welfare state technocrats are clever in their ways to design new invisible taxes. Of total 46 % taxes of GDP, 25 percentage points come from invisible taxes. The smaller part of 21 percentage points is seen on pay cheques and is often lamented yet tolerated. Few even know about the major invisible part. Suppose an employee costs in total $10/hour by an employer, which means that with the $10, all expenses for this particular employee are included. The table below show disposable income, visible and invisible:

$10 Net salary paid from employer but not seen by employee
-$2,5 Deducted as payroll tax by employer to various governmental social insurance schemes incl. 18 % for pensions but also 9 % to government with no specifications (löneavgift)
$7, 5 Salary seen by employee and agreed to in contract
-$2.5 Municipal income tax for low and medium salaries, but higher for higher
$5.00 Money to spend on services and goods
-$1.00 Value added tax (VAT, 25 %, second highest in EU)
$4.00 Amount to spend out of a total of $10

The $2.5 in payroll tax is absolute minimum. Usually the employer and union have agreed on higher levels, $3 – 3, 5, in voluntary agreements but done under pressure from unions. These agreements are collective and for all, whether union members or not. The payroll taxes for social benefits and agreed minimum salaries are protected by unions who may interfere in industrial disputes outside their union domain. On top of that, 20 % of all citizens pay an extra national tax if the salaries are higher than average. This national tax is progressive so the more you earn the higher tax. With these additions, the sum of disposable income is more often $3 and even less if you use tobacco, petrol, alcohol and other highly taxed goods. Thus Swedes are drawn into collective agreements on salaries and benefits without their knowledge. To volunteer to work for a lower salary or with lesser social benefits than agreed collectively is not possible, not even in theory.

The secret way to tax Swedes to use governmentally administered and mandatory social benefits for pension, sick leave support and other benefits as shown above leaves no option to use that part of salaries for private pension schemes or save or spend at one may wish. With progressively higher taxes on higher wages, incentives for careers and higher education are small. Professionals who chose Sweden for work may come for the welfare services and maybe because their work was relocated, but they seldom come to start a career, work hard and get some money. They might voice their thoughts about how high taxes or how the political system represses any dissent but will be excused. Dissenting Swedes on the contrary face all kinds of repression of thought and silence themselves. Only with more non- Swedes will anything happen as the Swedes themselves are afraid to act, I will argue in the last chapters.


Sweden has been compared to all other nations as being the most self-expressive, rational and secular country in the world according to the cultural map of the world done by World Values Survey in 2008 . Sweden is the absolutely most modern and most lonely country in the world, as there is no country quite like it in its extreme position. Befitting image as it pictures both the extreme and solitary position of the nation and its citizens.


©Inglehart & Welzel. http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org

The diagram should be read as follows : Traditional on the vertical axis values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook. Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. Self-expression values on the horizontal axis show the ability and tolerance to stand out from the survival values of the collective, usually family and society. Swedes are then the most self-expressive people in the world. The particular Swedish interpretation of expression is rather independence from family and society, not necessarily expression any certain individual values .

In the upper right corner, Sweden reigns in splendid isolation, way apart from Norway and Denmark. Post-materialist values are more important than careers and material wealth. Organized religion plays little role but government the larger. Developing countries and other industrialized nations in the world go in the direction of Sweden, but there are drawbacks to this position . If other countries could get richer but not develop these disadvantages, the world would see more semi- Swedish, but with better functioning, leaner and more tolerant welfare states. This book is a tale of caution for those countries.

There are correlations between being more rational and self- expressive and economic growth but not all rich countries are as extreme as Sweden, for instance Japan, Australia, USA, Germany and Belgium. Some of these have smaller governments, lower taxes but same or better living standards. The usual defense of a rich welfare state by Swedes does not hold that well as the country has lost its wealth rapidly in the last four decades. Not richest anymore, not getting same welfare, alone and extreme is rather the current Swedish predicament.

Another view of Swedish extremes is the political arena. Policies that are common across developed nations within the OECD and considered normal, mainstream, are usually framed as reactionary, anti-women and ethnic minorities and right-wing by Swedish political standards. If current Prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, or any Swedish minister from any party, goes to Washington or London to give a description of some basic and shared policies of his center-right leaning cabinet, he would be depicted as a pinko-liberal or old labour. Why that is so can be seen in this table of political parties from USA and UK:


Letters in italics describe the Swedish Social democrats, Center party and Moderates (formerly the conservative Right party), capitalized the British Labour party and Conservative Tories, and underscored the two American Democratic and Republican parties. This figure is not scientific at all and has no reference, but gives a reasonable view of the global political spectrum that is widely shared by news agencies and newspapers. To read International Herald Tribune or watch BBC news will hopefully be from a political center, mainstream or even slightly left of center standpoint but still sane and normal. The bold and capital headlines on top are supposed to state an imagined political scale with the two established Western news media almost at center.

If these news bureaus and papers would cover some topic which is normal in Sweden, that story would come out extreme, as anything from the political center, mainstream or at best neutral by Swedish standards, is quite on the left in the world. To be politically center in Sweden is left in the world, and to be right or even liberal in Sweden is center in the world. To be right of center in the world, as a Tory or Republican, is considered mad, reactionary and extreme. To state views that are normal in other parts of the world becomes impossible, both in content but also in form as the Swedish establishment and media know what is best for everyone everywhere. The American interpretation of being liberal which means left leaning Democrat in favour of big government is the normal Swedish center-right position. But being liberal in the Swedish interpretation is mostly considered politically right. In this book the Swedish center-right interpretation of liberalism will be used even if it confuses Americans. And of course it is confusing if liberals talk of mandatory preschool for all children from 3 years, which some do and outlaw home schooling which happened. The extreme in the world is normal in Sweden, the normal in the world is extreme in Sweden. Spend an hour or two on the website The Local for news of Sweden in English and read what foreigners think of Swedish news and politics is enough to understand the differences between the land of extremes and normal countries .

If all features mentioned about Sweden are summarized, a new concept is used which sums up all extremes:

1. High taxation and large welfare state
2. Silent conformism and thought repression
3. Extreme secular rationalism and self-expression
4. Left politics = state individualism

The strange concept of state individualism is used in the book Is the Swede a human being? (Är svensken människa?) from 2006, co-authored by historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh. The concept is not well known to regular Swedes, but they recognize it when explained, mostly nodding in affirmative but shyly. State individualism sounds partly egotistic, partly repressive and nothing to be proud of. To be human is to belong to some human community they state, but the modern Swede does not need to nor wants to belong. The welfare state takes care of all needs from the cradle to the grave so the citizens can concentrate of working and pay high taxes. Individualism does not imply voicing individual opinions, but is the same self-expression that the World Values Survey found was common in Sweden. Individuals make decisions on their own and with little regard to community, civil society or public sphere. An example is the proportion of single-households. Sweden has the highest number of men and women preferring to live alone, Stockholm the highest in Sweden and Kungholmen island the highest in Stockholm areas. Yet Stockholm is ranked among the six best cities to live in. How can the extreme also be the best? This book will not answer this question but gives a perspective on how the best and the extreme go together in Sweden with its national features.

Berggren and Trägårdh are quite fond of their vague concept of state individualism that gives room for interpretation and defend this extreme position. With roots in Swedish history before the welfare state of early 20th century, they show that Sweden has fostered independent citizens that lack ability and interest for common purposes outside their small world of friends. The concept of Swedish (and Nordic, where Sweden is the most extreme) state individualism was presented in 2012 by Swedish think tank Global Utmaning at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This positive message of state individualism is what the authors Berggren and Trägårdh stated to the world of international business and governments :

“While much has been written about the institutionalized aspects of the Nordic welfare state, few have paid much attention to its underlying moral logic. Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly / . . . /

The Nordic countries [are] the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible. / . . . /

Less tied down by legal and moral obligations within the family, yet still protected from extreme risk by a universal safety net, they become more flexible on the labour market, while as individual consumers they have developed far-reaching needs of products and services that previously were satisfied within the traditional family /. . .

Economic policies that cater both to our desire for individual autonomy and our need of community and security can be remarkably successful”.

Love for instance should not be based on practical needs or family obligations but romance born out of feelings of two independent individuals. Children should not be born out of accident, needs or for parental desires, but be planned and welcomed for who they are as individuals. The utopian dream of a perfect society seems to have been realized in Sweden, these authors maintain but they do not tell the whole story as this book tries to do.

The two authors asked ‘are Swedes really humans’ in their 2006 book title Is the Swede a human being? Do Swedes understand the value of human dignity? What happens when the welfare state is responsible and not the human beings in it? The next story will tell.


In 1969 Maciej Zaremba had to leave communist Catholic Poland and a good Jewish family for secular, safe Sweden and work at Beckomberga hospital in Stockholm . He started working as a hospital orderly with elderly people in need of daily care. He had three duties; clean the rooms, feed the patients, help with toilet visits. Nothing else. Patients were fed 5 minutes each. If there was not enough time, too bad. Many newcomers lost both weight and appetite, but then a nutritious gruel was pressed fast down their throats.

Morning visits to the toilet were done with movable toilet seats where old women sat naked as they were rolled openly through the ward corridor down to the collective bathroom. There they were all splashed with water from a hose, sometimes lukewarm, sometimes not, by a young man. The women sat all in a row like pigeons. Some cried but were quickly silenced with a slap from a towel. Zaremba protested saying that people cannot be treated like this. No one reacted or seemed to understand his reasoning. None of his colleagues, nor did the head nurse or doctors understand what the strange Pole talked about. Human dignity? This is welfare services administered correctly.

Zaremba understood that what happened each morning to the naked women being run through the corridor was not extraordinary but common procedure, sometimes even in the presence of relatives. He had left a totalitarian state where he witnessed protesting pregnant women being kicked in their bellies by the military police. To be in a democracy and witness old people being treated as barn animals was bewildering, as was the lack of dignity, empathy and self-respect. The inability of the old to keep their bodily functions private was made worse by the inhuman treatment and what only primitive oafs and unkind louts do (cham in Polish). Zaremba was led by his family upbringing and sense of duty. For him there was no question of why all hospital staff should spend more time and energy to make the lives better, respectful and easier for the old. It was pure duty to human dignity and to older people. Period. Impractical yes, even undemocratic (which he was called by people when the embarrassing topic was mentioned), but necessary to remain human oneself he thought. The Swedish idea of rationality led the staff to demand rational justifications for Zaremba’s insistence of respect, duty and dignity and he had none.

Later when he became a celebrated writer in Sweden, he held a speech in 2003 called When will Sweden be European ? The ambition of this book is similar in its search for when will Sweden be normal. In early medieval ages, Sweden was probably most normal and European, as will be told in next chapter the history of Sweden from around AD 1000 to 1930.



2 thoughts on “Utdrag ur Jan Sjunnessons bok ”The Swedish Story”

  1. Jan Sjunnesson juni 1, 2013 kl. 09:15 Reply

    Köp boken direkt på http://www.sjunne.com/bocker


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