A welfare state of mind

Andrew Brown’s Orwell Prize-winning book about fishing in Sweden casts slivers of light on how Sweden has changed and why its welfare state model is not something to emulate.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Books

It’s 1997. The Englishman Andrew Brown – author of the 2009 Orwell prize-winning Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, belief editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, and fishing enthusiast – has returned to Sweden where he had once lived as a child of diplomat parents and later as a young man in the late 1970s and 1980s.

But this is not the Sweden that Brown left behind a decade earlier. In Helsingborg, a town at the southern tip of the country, Brown finds McDonald’s restaurants, fat people, brown people, shopping malls and Ikea flats. On television, in addition to the state-run stations, there are channels showing advertisements, and in the banks credit cards are being issued. Absolut renat, the once cheap and hard drink favoured by bus-stop alcoholics, has dropped the second part of its name (meaning ‘purified’) and is now bottled in stylish flasks.

To Brown, these surface symbols of capitalism, globalisation and modernisation clashed with the utopia that Sweden once held out as a promise to him, to itself and to the rest of the world. The ‘Swedish model’ was a clean and well-mannered society in which everyone was rich and rational.

Following the murder of Olof Palme, the then Social Democratic party leader of 17 years who had been prime minister twice, 1990s Sweden experienced economic turmoil, anti-immigrant protests and a rise in unemployment. The ruling conservative government cut welfare benefits and encouraged private schools and competitive entrepreneurship.

As Brown recounts, under Palme, Sweden had not only abolished selective schooling but also selective pronounces, replacing the formal and informal forms of ‘you’ – with their separate connotations of social position and personal familiarity – with a single, informal and undiscriminating ‘you’. In the heyday of Social Democracy, equality had not been a question of choice; ‘failure to want equality’, writes Brown, ‘was a handicap to be pitied’.

Brown describes how, by the end of the 1990s, the Swedish idea of progress – a move towards a safe, prosperous and tolerant society – was no longer invoked as a historical fact but as ‘a pious affirmation’. Yet, at times, the spectacles through which some look back at the future promised by Palme appear to be as rose-tinted as the Social Democrat party symbol. Palme, writes Brown, devoted his political career to ‘ensuring that no Swede would ever need to experience the American combination of material poverty and boundless optimism’. But when he died, ‘he left a country where no one was poor and no one had room for optimism’. It seems the welfare state can’t buy you happiness.

The ‘million programme’, which Brown describes as the high-water mark of Social Democracy in Sweden, is the epitome of this contradiction. In the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Social Democrats built a million new, modern homes in response to a lack of housing – and because they could. As it turned out, one million new dwellings was more than enough for a country of eight million. The many empty flats in the new estates were gradually filled with various social outcasts: drug addicts, alcoholics and immigrants. While the project was a bold programme of change, the new satellite concrete suburbs – with their airy flats fitted with mod-cons and polished floors – became, in time, a source of alienation rather than integration.

For Brown, the 1980s was a time when not just Sweden, but also his marriage, fell apart. It was love that had first led him back to the country he had briefly lived in as a child; following expulsion from a private school (for undisclosed reasons), he met a Swedish girl called Anita during a stint as a volunteer nursing auxiliary in North Wales. They later married and settled in the Gothenburg suburb of Nödinge, in an estate that had been built as part of the million programme. In two years, they spoke twice to one neighbour; ‘the idea of speaking to strangers for pleasure did not figure largely in Swedish provincial life’, writes Brown. Perhaps receiving a diagnosis of depression after a year of hard work in a factory making wooden pallets was a clearer sign that Brown was becoming integrated into Swedish society than the fact that he started dreaming in Swedish.

When he first moved to Sweden, Brown pursued his hobby of fishing not as a sport, but as a means of survival – to put food on the table and to stay sane. Sweden, regarded as a socialist paradise, was also a place of crushing conformity and intense loneliness. The solitude Brown found in the woods and lakes of the Swedish countryside was a repose from the isolation he experienced in society itself – at least in the woods you don’t expect to socialise.

For those uninterested in fishing, the long passages on the subject in Fishing in Utopia will feel somewhat tedious, and will likely distract the reader from Brown’s more interesting explorations of the Swedish psyche, politics and history. Brown graduates from fishing for pike and perch with cheap spinners to fly-fishing – he even runs a fly-tying evening class. He becomes an expert not just in distinguishing between looks and behaviours of different fish but also in identifying which insects they eat at different times of the year.

Intertwined with his fishing adventures are the more engaging, loving, metaphor-rich portrayals of the Swedish countryside and wildlife. Revisiting the lake that had been his favourite escape while living in Nödinge, Brown found it ‘glittered like pollen’. In the ski resort of Sälen, ‘the clouds were purplish-blue and grey, like the mother of pearl inside a mussel shell’, and a downpour and squall at Porjus in the very north of Sweden left ‘tendrils of cloud trailing down the mountains like the paws of a Chinese dragon’.

If wildlife writing is not your thing, Brown’s flights to nature will often be distracting – they come at the expense of exploring and resolving the many contradictions of Swedish society that Fishing in Utopia brings out but does not provide satisfactory explanations for.

For instance, why has the Swedes’ high regard for equality and fairness not been extended to its immigrants? Why has the ideal of egalitarianism been paved over by divisive multiculturalism? How come, in a country where, when Brown first moved there, ‘individuals didn’t, in some important sense, exist at all’, community spirit was so sorely missing outside the pockets of workplaces and families? Why, when civility is so highly valued, do Swedes find it hard even to greet neighbours in the hallway or invite them to their homes? How can a genuine conviction that ‘Sweden is fantastic’ – and that the whole world should want to emulate it – exist side by side with jantelagen, ‘the Scandinavian code of egalitarian conformity which absolutely forbids anyone to feel superior to their neighbours’?

Brown illustrates well how the Social Democratic vision is no more, but does not quite come to grips with why. He does, however, give some thoughtprovoking hints at the various forces that have been tearing at the Swedish social fabric over the past few decades. ‘Whether prosperity can survive without the memories and disciplines of poverty is a question I don’t know the answer to’, he writes early on in the book, after observing that the welfare state was built by people with habits preserved from a recent time of poverty and clearly markated social hierarchies. As late as the 1970s hardly anyone in Sweden was more than a generation away from subsistence farming.

When he returns to travel the length of Sweden, Brown repeats a very fashionable concern with the supposedly destructive force of consumerism. He also brings up the challenges that a diverse society poses to a nation that in earlier times could unite easily around its shared history and particular ideals because it did not have to convince newcomers of its worth.

Though the Swedish welfare state is often held up as an admirable model, the idea that outside forces in the shape of ‘stuff’ and ‘foreigners’ can so easily burst the bubble of a utopian, egalitarian future shows the limits of the Social Democratic take on prosperity and internationalism. And yet the notion that the Swedish welfare state is some kind of utopia is one that many a liberal leftist still swallows hook, line and sinker.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She grew up in Stockholm satellite towns where neighbours rarely spoke to each other.

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared by Andrew Brown is published by Granta Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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