From the library: The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth

From the library: The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth November 21, 2015

This is a very meaty book, and I’ve been meaning to write about it for quite a while.  Quick bottom line:  a British author and Danish transplant writes about the five Nordic countries/cultures:  Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden.

Of Denmark:  a cultural prefernce for hygge, or, loosely translated, coziness.  Jante Law – a cultural pressure not to believe you’re better than anyone else, or to act in ways that lead others to think that you think so.  It’s more than a sense of modesty, but a squelching of ambition.

Of Norway:  they have a self-image of being environmentally-aware, frugal, hard workers, but oil wealth had changed the country:  they fail to notice the irony of preaching environmentalism while enjoying their wealth, to begin with, but also

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Norway’s social structure is the fact that about a third of all Norwegians of working age do nothing at all.  More than a million of them live on money from the state, the majority of them pensioners, but also a sizable number (340,000) on disability, unemployment, or sickness benefits — proportionally the largest number in Europe.  The picture is equally worrying for Norwegian children, who rank below the European average in terms of literacy, mathematics, and sciences, with the trend worsening over the last then years.

Of Finland:  an image, and self-image of heavy drinkers, though in fact the actual per capita alcohol consumption is middle-of-the-road compared to Europe generally — though the drinking occurs more often in binges than elsewhere.  Their homogenity makes them a “high-context” society, characterized by bluntness, a preference for solitude, and, when in the company of others, not all too much conversation.

And of Sweden:

well, you know Sweden.  Bernie Sanders’ paradise.  Free childcare, free tuition, though the cradle-to-grave-ness has been pared back since the 80s.  Of note is that the entire transformation to the prototypical Welfare State occured under single-party rule, from 1920 to 2010 (with a brief exception), and with the unions and the employer federations working hand-in-hand.  The driving force behind secularization and the control the state exerted was a belief in modernism as the primary objective of government and society.  (Booth also addresses the issue of integration of immigrants, but cites “experts” who assure him that they all will be integrated in another generation, so, eh, no worries.)

Sanders and others point longingly to the very low cost of childcare in Sweden — and, in fact, 82% of Swedish toddlers are in daycare, the highest ratio the world.  What impact does this have on children?  Booth points to concerns about the impact on children of institutionalized care from such a young age, and a cultural norm that pushes children to independence, and separation from family very early on — but then turns to studies citing Swedish children as doing particularly well in terms of overall well-being (e.g., a UNICEF study) so figures maybe this isn’t a problem.

But here’s the most interesting bit in the book:  Booth floats the idea that Sweden is, in its own way, totalitarian, with the state exerting control over its people, even if by social control rather than force.  Not a new idea — and he mentions an old book, The New Totalitarians, with exactly that thesis, and which I am pretty sure I read many, many years ago, though not when it was published in 1971.  He discusses it in an interview with Henrik Berggren, a Swedish historian, who has this to say:

We are talking about autonomy in terms of not being dependent on other people. . . .

The Swedish system’s logic is that it is dangerous to be dependent on other people, to be beholden to other people.  Even to your family. . .

Berggren uses the example that university students are dependent on their families to pay for their college tuition, where Swedish students are not.  Booth continues:

Sweden’s “statist individualism,” as he terms it, enables the very purest form of wholly independent love to blossom between two people.  Wives don’t stick around because their husband keeps the joint bank account PIN code in a locked drawer in his desk, and husbands don’t hold their tongues because their wife’s father owns the mill.  Authentic love and friendship is possible only between individuals who are independent and equal,” he and Tragardh write. (p. 341-342)

Fundamentally, to the Swedes, dependence on the State is about being independent of other people — and, that includes spouses, to the degree that the divorce rate is especially high in the country (and the marriage rate low), though I can’t find the page reference any longer.

So: talk among yourselves.  Quite apart from the question of whether this manner of organizing society is healthy for the long-term economic and social vitality and stability of the country, what do you think of this as a value, to strive for independence even of children from their parents, and between spouses, rather than interdependence?

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