Why did Sweden succumb to neoliberalism?

Noam kindly answered my mail, asking if I could provide him with references to written material, preferably in English, about the dire developments in Sweden the past years. (The only authors I could think of are themselves neoliberal believers who don’t even see the problems.) If any reader of these lines have information of that sort, please post a message!

A few words to Noam in reply:

Although I’m following media and the debate as close as I can, it’s my impression that there is no substantial scholarly work on controversial issues in the social and political fields in this country. Here we are lagging miles behind the US, as I conclude from your lectures. We are a compromising consensus people always trying to avoid controversies in well-washed circles. Thus I have no references to any reliable work on the current and serious problems in Sweden. The debate goes on in the ordinary media, thus mainly in Swedish.

One episode two years ago illustrates this provincial condition quite well. A research institute called SNS published a study in which they concluded the absence of proof that privatization of welfare services had made them better or less costly. The main reason was simply that no substantial research to evaluate the privatizations had been performed by anyone. This seemingly uncontroversial conclusion nevertheless caused uproar in business circles, and thus also in media. The CEO of SNS got cold feet and muzzled the main author of the report, which was a little too much even for right wing papers, and the reverse pressure eventually forced the CEO to resign.

SNS’ history is interesting in itself. It was created as a joint venture between labor and capital shortly after the last war, when business leaders still were somewhat defensive after the Russian (and labor) victory. Serious discussions in Sweden even opened for the possibility of a command economy. As one way of approaching the unions some more progressive business leaders suggested the creation of SNS, through which the two parties could share findings reached by impartial research. (But who’s the real boss was revealed by the scandal.)

One other important obstacle to productive scholarship in these areas is the dominant postmodern deconstruction of reason the last decades, from which the formerly rational Sweden hasn’t been spared. An illustrative example highlighted the issue some years ago. The government was about to appoint a new principal of a medium-sized university and presented a postmodernist professor, Moira von Wright, for the job. A number of science professors reacted publicly in protest, calling von Wright “an enemy of science”, based on statements of hers such as: “Gender-aware and gender sensitive physics requires a relational approach to physics and that a lot of the traditional scientific knowledge content of physics be removed”. She was of course appointed and remains at the job.

Sweden is a small country, still showing a lot of characteristics from the backward farmers’ society which is just a couple of generations away. In moments of self-awareness we call our country a duck-pond, referring to the restricted and sometimes claustrophobic debate environment we have to endure.

That’s why it is so liberating to listen to you on the Internet. It may be that information is filtered in the US, but it’s there anyway, and you bring it to us. Here everything is stirred down in media porridge and no one bothers. It’s in fact no great wonder that a neoliberal (and postmodern) breakdown of the magnitude we have experienced the past decade can take place without much ado.

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