A Swedish riposte to the politics of paternalism

From the 1940s moral panic around dancehalls to today’s attempts to ‘nudge’ us into good behaviour, Mattias Svensson’s new book shows the shifting faces of killjoys in Sweden and beyond.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Books

An early memory of mine from growing up in Sweden is when the ‘fluorine lady’ came to my school. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, ‘fluorine lady’ visits were compulsory and involved pupils being instructed in how to take care of their teeth, being told that sweets are bad for you, and so on – before lining up to gargle a shot of fluorine. I recall the fluorine lady picking out my toothbrush for special attention – it had seen better days – to demonstrate to the other kids how you know when it’s time to invest in a new one. She ended her visit with an admonition to my parents whom I should tell, she said, to get me a new toothbrush ASAP.

A few years ago, after the publication of research showing that there are ‘signs of deteriorating dental health’ among Swedish teenagers, the Swedish National Dental Health Service announced a return of fluorine ladies, who are now referred to as ‘dental hygienists’. Special attention would be given to early intervention in ‘at-risk areas’ – that is, immigrant-dense suburbs.

In many ways, the demise and re-emergence of the fluorine lady sums up the paternalistic streak that has characterised the cradle-to-grave welfare state and that has survived the demise of social democracy. Backed up by statistics, executed by public officials, targeted especially at non-affluent sections of society, and justified as being in our own interest, officialdom’s intrusions into the private sphere may be well-meaning. But behind these interventions, with the state standing in loco parentis for both children and adults, it is clear that the government believes the nation’s citizens are not adequately discerning and that the authorities must secure society’s well-being through correcting individual behaviour.

Critiques of such paternalism are few and far between, but with his new book Glädjedödarna (The Killjoys), Swedish writer Mattias Svensson offers a rebuke to the contemporary impulse among politicians, policymakers, various experts and moralisers to intervene in the personal sphere, to moralise, legislate and politely ‘nudge’ us into acting in particular ways. Svensson’s book is a plea for valuing not just the big freedoms – freedom of expression, freedom of association and so on – but also small ones that may appear trivial but are in fact also essential for upholding autonomy.

‘Paternalism’, Svensson writes, ‘is when the state and politicians, in our presumed self-interest but without respect for how we act and what we believe, steer and regulate our everyday lives, our private lives and our pleasures. The personal sphere where we, as John Stuart Mill said, ought to rule unhindered.’

The Killjoys (not yet available in English) starts off in 1940s Sweden when a moral panic around dancing swept the country. An unholy alliance of priests, politicians, doctors and teachers formed to condemn dancehalls where young people were swinging and jitterbugging the evenings away. Other forms of new youth entertainment, like cinema and weekly magazines, were also seen as major social problems and the killjoys of the time did everything in their powers to steer young people away from them.

Today, that may all seem very naive and overly puritanical, but since the 1940s Sweden, and the Western world more generally, has been swept by a string of moral panics around everything from comic books and heavy-metal music to video games and pornography. And in Sweden, dancing has actually retained its reputation as a dark, corrupting force. In the 1990s, the Stockholm police formed a ‘rave commission’ which raided clubs that did not have a special ‘dance permit’. In effect, this amounted to techno music being outlawed in public places. And the war on dancing has continued into the Noughties. Police inspecting a Stockholm nightclub in 2006 remarked that there was a ‘loud atmosphere’ there and that ‘dancing occurred outside the designated dance floor’. The club was threatened with having various licences withdrawn.

Regulating pleasures does not just hit children and young people. Instead, the wars on drugs, alcohol, tobacco, ‘junk food’, conspicuous consumption, non-green habits and so on are carried out with prohibitions, admonitions and stigmatisations that affect us all. In other words, adults are treated as children by the powers that be.

Today, clampdowns on the freedom to choose our own lifestyles and pastimes are generally not carried out in a heavy-handed and overtly authoritarian way but through what the American academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have termed ‘libertarian paternalism’. As Svensson explains, the idea is that ‘since people are irrational and seldom have strong, consistent and clear preferences, there is the potential to take decisions on their behalf that will increase their well-being’. Sunstein and Thaler’s idea that people ought to be ‘nudged’ in the right direction (in other words, to be encouraged, through friendly pointers and psychological tricks, to make particular choices) has gained a hearing across the political spectrum.

In effect, our options become limited as politicians and moralists of various creeds use ‘nudges’ to decrease our potential to take decisions that go against their view of what’s right. Moreover, the expanding ‘politics of the brain’ that Sunstein and Thaler have become the poster boys for – the idea that our minds are malleable, that we are irrational beings whose desires and passions must be contained and re-focused – is highly manipulative and authoritarian.

Today, when old certainties have crumbled, when religion does not wield a strong influence and when political leaders appear more like managers who are estranged from the masses, moralism is still a strong feature in the West. Now, however, it tends to be backed up by scientific research, which is time and again wheeled in to lend an air of authority and objectivity to what are in fact intrusive measures to ‘correct’ the behaviour of the masses.

Svensson’s book is a welcome intervention because it goes against the grain of what has come to be seen as commonsensical by various authorities, interest groups, do-gooders and rulers: that we need to be helped by them to make the right choices, for our own good. Let’s hope that The Killjoys will inspire more people to tell today’s paternalists, who want to have a say in everything from our gums to our dance moves, to back off and mind their own business.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

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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