Friday, 18 July 2008

Meet the Myrdals

With temporary unemployment and very disappointing summer weather I suddenly have time on my hands and not much to do with it so I’ve started educating myself a bit more on Swedish history. Now I’d like to share some of this knowledge and introduce you to Gunnar and Alva Myrdal: arguably the mother and father of the modern Swedish welfare state. Their published work and ideas have been hugely influential in Swedish policy making from the 1930s onwards. As well as being distinguished academics in their own fields both have also served as Government ministers for the Social Democrats. The repercussions of their ideas can be seen everywhere in Sweden today.

Gunnar Myrdal was an economist and a prominent member of the Stockholm school. This body of economists and academics anticipated many of the ideas later developed by John Maynard Keyes. He served as a Minister from 1933 until 1947. Alva was also a writer, academic and later a diplomat and peace activist. Both are also Nobel Prize winners. Gunnar won his in economics in 1974 (although he later argued that the prize should be abolished after it was also awarded to right-wing reactionary economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman) while Alva won the Nobel Peace prize in 1982 for her work in campaigning for disarmament.

Gunnar Myrdal is best known outside of Sweden for his study into race relations in America, ‘An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy’. Published in 1944 Myrdal basically argued that while America held noble ideals about equality and liberty they had failed to enact such ideals in practice particularly in regards to its African-American population. The study was cited in the Brown vs. the Board of Education court case and is generally considered quite influential in subsequent race relations policies made thereafter. Gunnar Myrdal also wanted to undertake a similar study into gender inequality but could never get the funding.

In Sweden the Myrdals are better known for ‘Kris I befolkningsfrågan’ (Crisis in the Population Question) which they co-wrote in 1934. The premise of the book was to find ways of promoting universal living standards in Sweden while at the same time also preserving individual freedoms. This became the basis for Sweden’s third way: a compromise between socialism and capitalism that achieved the security and equality of the former while preserving the freedom of the latter. The goal was to create a society where everyone had equal access to health care, education, housing, employment and overall a comfortable lifestyle.

The Myrdals cannot be credited with creating the Swedish welfare state as the concept of Folkhem (Swedish for Peoples’ Home) had been advocated by the Social Democrats since the 1920s. However their ideas were important in the implementation of Folkhem in practice. They advocated a number of sweeping social reforms that transformed Sweden for the better and whose legacy can still be seen in Swedish society today.

However less commonly known about the Myrdals’ work was their promotion of eugenics and forced sterilisation. A key part of ‘Kris I befolkningsfrågan’ was addressing declining birth rates and encouraging child bearing. But the Myrdals also stressed that it was vital to the security of the Folkhem that children grew up in stable and relatively wealthy environments otherwise they were at risk of becoming a future burden on the state. Some inherent characteristics needed to be breed out of the population for the good of Folkhem and ‘unviable’ individuals needed to be prevented from reproducing and spreading such traits. Rather then seeing such characteristics as products of the environment of that individual, they were seen as inherent in that individual and therefore likely to be passed onto their offspring. If someone is an alcoholic or a criminal it is because they are inherently an alcoholic or criminal and so will their children. Basically the Myrdals argued that such individuals should be denied the right to raise children as they would inevitably be unproductive for society and just feed off the welfare state. Alva Myrdal herself argued that around 10% of the population are unfit to breed and should be forcibly sterilised.
Like the concept of Folkhem, forced sterilisation in Sweden predates the Myrdals. Compulsory sterilisation of the disabled and handicapped was first enacted in 1922. As one prominent politician said “The Folkhem…would be built up and populated by healthy and happy people, and in the same way you removed weeds from your own garden, you could remove weeds in the Folkhem before they grew up.”
However once again it was the Myrdals who expanded on these ideas and pushed them further. In 1941 forced sterilisation was expanded from the disabled to anyone deemed to have an asocial style of living. The guidelines were so broad and vague that in theory anyone could be forcibly sterilised if the appropriate authority deemed them abnormal. Forced sterilisation remained in Sweden until 1975.

As I said this aspect of the Myrdals work is rarely mentioned, probably because it grates badly against everything else that they advocated. But it certainly sheds some light on my perceived conformity of Swedish citizens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the average Swede is too scared to break the mould of what is considered normal on the off chance that they might get their genitals snipped off like some sort of domesticated pet. Its more that government policy post-WW2 was obviously implemented with very distinct ideas of how one should live and behave. The ‘cradle-to-grave’ (or erection-to-resurrection) welfare state and the large degree of influence the government inevitably has on people’s lives, has possibly moulded individuals to act a certain way. Government housing for example, looks like it’s all come straight off a convey belt. Forced sterilisation is the most extreme example. Anyway, just a thought.

On another interesting (although possibly irrelevant) note is that Gunnar and Alva’s son Jan Myrdal grew up to become the Noam Chomsky of Sweden. These days he is a prominent far left writer and activist whose hatred of western liberal democracy has lead him to become an apologist for some dodgy people. In his younger days he stuck up for the regimes of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, and even defended the Chinese government over the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like many old lefties who still cannot accept the communist lost the Cold War he has found solace in making a living from defending racist misogynist homophobic Islamic fundamentalists who happen to share his hatred of the west. Interestingly enough like his parents Jan also seems to have some glaringly obvious contradictions in his politics as he is also fervently opposed same sex marriages. You can read an interview with him here. Just like Chomsky he seems incapable of delivering a clear short answer to a question.

Note: I’m afraid my Swedish still isn’t good enough to read adult non-fiction so much of my information comes from the limited amount of material available in English. If I’ve made any mistakes, misunderstood something, missed anything important, or you have any criticism or feedback then I encourage you to get in touch. I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Denmark: Bizarro Sweden.

I’ve just spent the past week in the north of Denmark. Some friends of mine rented a house right on the coast near a town called Løkken.

I didn’t really expect Denmark to be much different from Sweden at all. It is only a two-hour ferry trip from Gothenburg. At its closest point Denmark is only a 15-minute ferry trip from Helsingborg and Copenhagen is only a 20-minute drive from Malmö. In theory Danish and Swedish are similar enough to one another that Danes and Swedes can still understand each other. Not surprisingly few Swedes consider a trip to Denmark as going abroad.

For me being in Denmark was a little like being in Sweden in some sort of parallel universe. Everything was similar but subtly different, hence a bizarro Sweden. (Bizarro world is a term from Superman comics that was later made popular by Seinfeld. It basically describes a world where everything is reversed and/or inverted from the norm. For example in Seinfeld Elaine enters a bizarro world when she meets a new group of friends each of which resemble her original friends in some way but have completely opposite characteristics.)
The money is still called kronor and it is issued in the same dominions as Swedish kronor but the notes are different colours and the coins different sizes. The flag is also basically the same but with a different colour scheme. Written Danish looks very similar and even with my limited knowledge of Swedish I was able to understand many words. Most the words are basically the same with the odd letter or two changed. They also have a slightly different alphabet. Instead of letters like Ä and Ö the Danes have letters like Ø and Æ. Words are also pronounced differently so that they sound familiar yet still noticeably different.

In some aspects Denmark was very different. The landscape in the north of the country where we were staying was completely different. The whole west coast of Sweden is basically large mounds of solid rock leading to still lifeless sea, with plenty of forests inland. Denmark by contrast was completely flat and relatively barren. The west coast consisted of a long sand beach with white sand and decent surf. It was the first actually beach I’ve seen since leaving Australia. In all it reminded me of the Shetland Islands and the less spectacular parts of the Great Ocean Road (the part between Anglesea and Apollo Bay).

Architecture was also noticeably different. Rural Swedish homes are typically large wooden houses painted in bright colours. In Denmark most buildings were small and made of brick. We spent a day in Aalborg and it reminded me more of Germany than Scandinavia.

Denmark also seems to be one of the few European countries that allows smoking in pubs and restaurants. Having spent the past year in a country where smokers are forced out into the cold and onto the street, it was a little disconcerting to be in a restaurant where everyone was lighting up straight after their meals.
But the biggest cultural shock was being able to buy beer, wine and aspirin from a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, as opposed to buying them from a state owned shop during business hours.