By Jed Weightman
What follows are some initial thoughts on the differences between Sweden and the UK drawn from four days recently spent in Stockholm. Such insights are of course limited by the brevity and scale of my trip (which covered a fair chunk of the city, but only that), my modest knowledge of the country and my rudimentary grasp of the language.
I have for some years now been an ardent Scandiphile with a particular affinity for all things Swedish. Spending some time in the country was foremost the fulfilment of a long-held desire. On arrival Stockholm immediately garnered favourable comparisons because, simply put, the city is breathtaking. Almost fantastically so, in the sense that it has a dreamlike quality, a beautiful bleakness that draws to mind the aesthetics conjured in Gothic literature. At the time I was there it was impossibly picturesque; cold sunlight on frozen waterways, the snow literally glittering like powdered glass.
What I was immediately struck by, after the glow of being in a new culture began to fade, was the lack of any sense of crisis. Travelling from a country where the conflicts of austerity dominate the discourse the contrast was stark. In terms of raw figures the outlook is only marginally better than in Britain. Unemployment in Sweden is expected to hit 7.7% this year, only 0.7% lower than current UK figures, whilst the Swedish economy is predicted to grow by 0.7%, slightly more than 0.4% growth predicted by the Treasury. But having weathered an economic crisis in the 1990s the Swedes seem free of the panic and desperation daily felt in the UK.
Whilst I could wax lyrical on the apparent happiness of the people and the pleasantly relaxed pace of living its seems prudent to restrict myself to that which suggested a difference of approach in terms of political culture.
Foremost, the enforcing elements of political power are observably less blatant. Sweden has the common European distaste for public surveillance as embodied by the ever-present compound eye of London’s CCTV, (there are barely any security cameras in Stockholm’s streets,) and the lack of police presence is striking. Refreshingly, I saw police only twice in four days, a statistic surpassed in the first five minutes of every lunch break back home. State authority may be less visible yes, but the Swedish police are no strangers to brutality. In 2001 police in Gothenburg used live ammunition at anti-capitalists protesting a summit of EU leaders in an operation that saw them attack on demonstrators with dogs and horse charges and make over a thousand arrests.
Similarly, there are public assertions of the national idea, but with less of the blunt, forced patriotism of the UK. Swedish flags can be seen adorning street furniture and official notices, but I still found relative relief in escaping the relentless and obnoxious invocations of nationalism splattered over Britain. Anecdotal incidents, such as spotting a notice in the Modernamuseet that announced free entry for those in ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ classes, suggest an enlightened position towards immigration that is unfortunately opposed by the Sweden Democrats, who gained 5.7% of the vote in the 2010 general election. The rise of a populist far-right is as much of problem in Sweden as it is in the UK, even if mainstream discourse is less antipathetic to genuine multiculturalism.
Attitudes towards other minorities had a similar appearance of acceptance. Numerous queer cafés, bookshops and the like are found throughout the city, from tourist hotspots to sleepy suburbs (rather than being concentrated mainly in a single neighbourhood, as in London). Such a cultural positive might suggest to some that there are no battles to be fought. Yet LGBT rights activists recently had to fight hard to win a campaign to remove the sterilisation requirement in the Swedish legal gender recognition act. The atmosphere, at least in Stockholm, appears more tolerant but the ardent struggles towards equality are ongoing.
There are familiar sights to be seen, as well as the differences. The main shopping district, Norrmalm, is the usual braying cacophony of calls to consume. Adverts, the fevered dreams of capital, are ubiquitous as ever, if more reserved than in London. But ultimately it was what was not seen that stood out the most. The usual trappings of poverty are conspicuously absent. Despite walking roughly sixty miles through a fair variety of the city’s districts only a fragment appeared anything that could be termed run-down. Homelessness and begging, key manifestations of destitution, made an appearance exactly once. An optimistic might take this at face value as evidence that poverty is a minor problem in Sweden. Instead I found myself ruminating on how well it had been hidden, and curious as to whether other Swedish towns and cities were similarly idyllic. One even wonders if the absence of the deprived is an orchestration so as to not detract from the arresting beauty and charm conducive to tourism?
Sweden is oft held up as the progressive ideal of the centre-left, the flagship social democracy of capitalism properly restrained. The fairer and happier society worth fighting for. But this conception of Sweden as, minor improvements aside, ‘the best to hope’ for rests heavily on a dominant narrative of capitalist realism, the idea that we cannot imagine alternate forms of society outside of capitalism. Ultimately a system that is composed of structural exploitation and immiseration, even if relatively negated (Sweden is ranked by the CIA World Factbook as the least unequal society in the world, with the UK 45 places behind), is still unacceptable. In many ways Sweden appears to be a better place to live than the UK, though the extent to which problems may have been simply swept under the rug remains a concern. The extra ‘breathing room’ makes a concrete difference to people’s quality of life, and is not to be disregarded. But merely ‘better’ is not, nor should ever be, enough.
[1 – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism Is there no alternative?, Zero Books. ISBN 978-1-84694-317-1]
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