My Stockholm syndrome

I went to Sweden in 1977 to live the modern socialist dream. But things did not turn out quite the way I—or the Social Democrats—would have wanted
July 25, 2008
Sweden in the 1970s was like living the life of a battery salmon
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the world looked to Sweden as a socialist country that worked. Affluent, egalitarian, moderate, it seemed the blueprint for a kinder, more rational future. In 1977, I moved there with my Swedish wife, Anita. I lived an apparently utopian life—raising a child, working in a small factory, living in an efficient modern home, becoming a fisherman. I found it intensely frustrating. By the 1980s, the country and my marriage were falling apart. The prime minister was shot dead on a street in Stockholm. Swedish industry was crumbling. Through the cracks in the social dream, a very different vision of Sweden emerged: a disillusioned, nervous, greedy country, suddenly unsure of its identity and place in the world. Now, 20 years later, I have returned to travel the length of Sweden—and to reflect on my experiences of a country I have loved, hated, and come to love again.

Communists and detectives

Once my Swedish was up to the task, I learned a lot about my new country from the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, about the policeman Martin Beck. Between 1963 and 1975, this man-and-wife duo produced ten police procedurals set in Stockholm, which sold all around the world. They are excitingly written, realistic about police work and full of period detail. But most of all they illuminate the orthodoxy of the Social Democratic years. The strangest thing about Sweden, to an English eye, was always its conformity. It did not matter what the orthodoxy might be: the point is that everyone knew what was acceptable and proper to believe. The Beck stories taught me most when they were most absurd, because they exaggerated what everybody then believed about progress and society. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were communists, and in the 1970s there was an assumption that communism, while imperfect, was at least a form of socialism; and socialism then seemed as completely inevitable as global capitalism does now.

Not all their villains are millionaires. But there isn't a character in their books who is conspicuously rich who is not a murderer, and usually of a particularly blameworthy kind. The successful multinational businessman shot in a Malmö hotel turns out to be a crook whose widow is cheating on him with his trusted assistant. The mysteriously murdered businessman from the pleasant suburbs north of Stockholm makes his money from the sale of pornographic films featuring drugged young women.

And it is not just the millionaires who are corrupted by their wealth, but everyone in Sweden whose lives have been made worse by the country's success. In part, I think, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were driven to this by ideological desperation, in common with many on the left at that time. Where would the revolution come from now that the workers all had their own well-furnished flats? One answer was to insist that things were really terrible; and in the later, more operatic books, anyone, policeman or villain, is likely to break into little arias of despair: "Private citizens… were being clubbed down every hour on the streets, or in their shops, or on the tube… The existing system was obviously useless… The so-called welfare state is overflowing with ill, destitute and lonely people who live on dog food if they are lucky and are left unattended to die in their rat holes of houses."

That was written about a country that was one of the richest in the world, emerging from 150 years of uninterrupted peace and in the middle of unprecedented economic growth, which had just built 1m new houses more or less to prove that it could. The tradition of dystopic hysteria has been continued by more recent Swedish fictional detectives, but none has surpassed Sjöwall and Wahlöö, nor matched their furious refusal to admit that things were, for the most part, perfectly tolerable.

But there was another sense in which this ambivalence about progress was more widely shared. The capitalist prosperity of social democratic Sweden seemed to have come at the expense of all sorts of human kindnesses. Everything old and wooden and ramshackle had been remade in concrete as the country grew richer. It was all more practical, more sensible and more hygienic, but at the same time dreadfully dispiriting.

The process culminated with the whole country changing to driving on the right in 1967. In the years before the night when everything changed, all new roads, and even cars, had been built for the future, when people would drive on the other side of the road, so in the years immediately preceding the changeover, you had the unnerving feeling of being at fault simply for not living in the future.

The transport minister who oversaw this change was Olof Palme, who became the presiding figure of social democratic 1970s Sweden. Palme was prime minister twice, and leader of the Social Democratic party for 17 years. But dates and facts don't convey his authority. Once he became leader of the Social Democrats in 1969, asking whether Palme was in office or not was like asking whether God existed. For a believer, this is a question that scarcely matters: God is God, whether or not he has the relatively trivial quality of existence, and whether or not he seems to be influencing the world.

Swedes who hated him—and some really did—had something of the unbalanced daring of teenagers who have discovered atheism. They challenge God to strike them dead, as if this would settle an important point about the universe. What Palme did, and what he didn't do, seemed to be significant for the whole of humanity if you lived in Sweden.

To the outside world, in so far as it noticed Palme, he stood for the country's pious leftist internationalism. Within the country, he symbolised the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the Social Democratic establishment. The Social Democrats had set out to remake Swedish society. They had inherited a poor, patriarchal and formal society and turned it into a rich, feminist and fiercely egalitarian one. They seemed to have abolished poverty and war; they had certainly abolished selective schooling and even selective pronouns: when they first took office, Swedish, like French, had formal and informal words for "you," which expressed social position as well as degrees of intimacy; in fact the language was extraordinarily rich in hierarchical and impersonal constructions. By the time the Social Democrats left, everyone was quite simply "you."

As minister of education, in 1968, Palme marched against the Vietnam war. It was in some ways an odd position for him. He had no illusions about communism, which he opposed from an early age, and was idealistic about the US. As a young man he had studied there, and then hitchhiked from New England to Mexico on $300. His experience of life as a poor man in the US made a socialist out of him, but he remained a lover of America. You might say that he devoted his career in Swedish politics to ensuring that no Swede would ever need to experience the American combination of material poverty and boundless optimism, and that he succeeded so completely that when he was murdered, in February 1986, he left a country where no one was poor and no one had room for optimism.

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Bourgeois and working-class shops

In Lilla Edet, an old-fashioned place near the west coast of Sweden where I lived with Anita for three years, the class divide ran down the middle of the main street. On the side away from the river there was ICA, the "bourgeois" shop; on the west side, facing it, stood Konsum, the Co-op, where the socialists shopped. Both of them were small supermarkets, though the aisles in Konsum were narrower, and the plastic baskets red instead of blue. Both sold almost exactly the same range of groceries and small bits of hardware, but I don't remember them having a single brand in common. If you bought your split-pea soup from Konsum, it came in a blue and white package. If it came from ICA, it had an excitingly capitalist coloured paper label on the tin. They tasted identical, but I may have been the only man in Lilla Edet to make the experiment and I very seldom went to Konsum. Anita's family used to tell a story about a local politician who, in a hurry, had gone into the wrong supermarket. He spent ten years apologising for this act. Where you shopped determined where you lived, what you believed—even the evening classes you attended, as almost everybody did. There was little else to do on winter evenings.

The Social Democratic party was only a part of the power structure. The party and the unions together made up the Arbetarerörelsen, the workers' movement, but it extended far beyond working and voting, and you could remain within the movement every minute of your life. You woke in a flat that the workers' movement had built, and owned, and where your rent was decided by a tenants' movement. At work, of course, you belonged to a union. After work, you shopped in a Co-op, paying with cheques from the Co-op bank. In the evenings, classes from foreign languages to handicrafts were organised by the movement. You read the socialist newspapers and went on workers' holidays. Nothing on state-run television suggested the world might be different and there was no commercial television. It was the life of a battery salmon: packed into a crowd in the middle of a boundless stretch of water by a cage of netting that you could not see at all. It just appeared to be part of the sea. Perhaps it was.

Some distance to the right were the net cages of the "non-socialists," which almost exactly replicated the structure of the workers' movement, and also enjoyed considerable subsidies from the state. There were unions for white-collar workers, organised into a central congress, the TCO. Though no one now cares much what the Swedish workers' movement says, the TCO lives on in every office in the western world, for they are the company that first set ergonomic standards for computer monitors, and the acronym TCO99, found on any monitor you can buy, is their stamp of approval. There were housing condominiums, co-operative networks of small shops and businesses like the ICA and even parallel evening classes. All that non-socialists didn't have, for 44 years, was a turn in government without the Social Democrats. Instead, they had three small parties who dreamed that they could administer the social democratic state a little more efficiently and a little less arrogantly.

The Social Democrats lost the election in 1976, the year before I arrived in Sweden, and the three small "bourgeois" parties took over the government. Of the three, the Centre party had the deepest roots. It was the party for hardworking men who did not want to mix with socialists. The firmest Centre party supporter I knew—and it was years before I discovered his affiliation—was Rolf, the foreman at the factory where I worked. (The factory was a converted barn, owned by a man called Leif Krüger, in which four or five of us made the pallets on which Volvo marine diesel motors were shipped around the world.) Rolf had been a shipyard worker in Gothenburg before moving to the country to have a place of his own.

Rolf's wife was a teacher and may well have been a union member, but he certainly wasn't. Rolf hated the unions because they tried to erase the distinction between good and bad workers. He worked harder than almost anyone I have ever known, and he didn't want slackers to be paid at the rate that he was.

I suppose that at Leif's factory I made about twice or three times what an unskilled factory worker might have made in England. But at the same time, I worked a very great deal harder than my English counterparts. When I was about 18, I had worked for a month or so in a small engineering factory in Surrey. The work, such as it was, involved lifting camshafts from one box and dropping them into another. It was neither hard nor demanding, but as soon as the first box was full the shop steward would walk up and start talking about the war. His stories were long and boring. But it was forbidden to work while he was talking, and he was prepared to talk for as long as it took to knock our productivity down. We were not particularly eager, nor motivated workers, but he made certain that we did no more than half of what we might have achieved without him. Screwing the bosses like that was what he lived for, and what they were forced to pay him to do.

That could not be imagined in Sweden, no matter how Leif might grumble about socialism. This was partly because it was a much more disciplined society, and partly because it appeared a much less class-ridden one. There really was a sense of common purpose, and a belief that everyone might get richer co-operatively than they could by pure selfishness. I don't mean that people weren't greedy, or personally ambitious. But greed and ambition were mostly understood collectively. One of the things that made loneliness so easy, and so crushing, was the sense that individuals didn't, in some important sense, exist at all.

Paradise regained

When I returned to Sweden in 2006, I visited Nödinge, a distant suburb of Gothenburg, where Anita and I had lived for two years when we were first married. I parked my battered, English-registered Saab on the same seamed concrete car park where I had parked the first car I had ever owned in 1978. To one side stood the block of flats where I came back one winter evening to see a couple waltzing naked in front of a window with the curtains drawn back. Dancing rather well, actually.

Once the rain that had sodden me at breakfast time had passed, the day was cool and dry, the light distinct. I walked diagonally through the squares in the middle of the blocks towards the road. A few children were playing in the playgrounds and I passed two young women, one in a hybrid Swedish/Islamic costume, with a white headscarf and tights under an exuberant knee-length skirt, the other in a tracksuit: she was about four stone overweight, with her hair dragged back from her face in blonde cornrows and a silver dumb-bell piercing her lower lip.

Nobody spoke. That hadn't changed.

I emerged from the estate and stopped dead. In front of me was a prefabricated mall, bright with advertising, which ran the whole length of the estate. There were two large supermarkets (neither of them a Co-op), a pet shop, a stationer's, a flower shop and even a state off-licence. There were two banks and a pleasant coffee shop, where I sat in stunned calm and ate a pastry. The only thing that seemed to connect this vulgar, extrovert affluence with the old grey Nödinge were the customers: three men by the window with the doglike melancholy of retired manual workers, dressed in miscellaneous scruff: grey T-shirts, layers of indeterminate shirts or jackets, jeans, battered trainers.

The whole place was, by Swedish standards, a slum. People lived here who couldn't afford to live anywhere else. Yet it was airy, prosperous and clearly cared for, and when I asked in the café if there was anywhere with an internet connection, they directed me to the new school. This was not just new, it was pleasing to look at; perhaps the only building in the whole place that had curves and interesting dimensions. Inside the doors was a high-ceilinged library. At the counter, a friendly middle-aged woman urged me to take out a library card. I found myself babbling in Swedish to her like a child of four or five, as if I were recapturing the way I had first learned the language, when no one I knew but Anita spoke English at all, and I had to push myself through the rigid mesh of grammar and intonation to touch the country behind it. I told the librarian I was looking for the history of Nödinge, as it had changed so much since I lived there. She perked up. Had I really lived here myself? She too had lived here in the late 1970s, though she had moved away from the estate in the 1980s, and was unclear about what had happened since. I thought I had once read an account of a riot on the estate involving immigrants fighting native gangs. But she couldn't remember any of this. What she knew was that at some time in the mid-1990s, the decision was made to develop Nödinge as a place where people might want to live, and since then everything had got very much better. "There had been a lot of drinking and people living on social security in the 1980s," she told me. "You don't see that now. Of course, these days they're all on hash and pills, which aren't so obvious."

Across the square there had been a few benches where once I had stood and listened to Stig Malm, the metalworkers' union leader, speak to a May day meeting. When I recognised the place, I felt, for a moment, as if I were walking amid the ruins of a culture as dead and strange to us as the Bronze Age.

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The policeman and the north

Travelling northwards with no destination in mind, I needed a place with an internet connection to file a column. I found it in a pizzeria run by Kurdish refugees in the ski resort of Sälen. It was early June. In the blazing heat of lunchtime, the car's thermometer registered 36 degrees.

Further along the Ljöra valley from Sälen there was a large, modern purpose-built youth hostel. The hostel was bright and warm in that empty landscape; the nearest house might have been a kilometre away; the nearest shop half an hour's drive. On my second night there was only one other guest, a large man in late middle age with a determined young man's face besieged by jowls and wrinkles. We ate in silence, at separate tables, but when we were finished he introduced himself, invited me to share his wine and started to tell his story.

He had come here to plant flowers on his mother's grave. He did this every year, as soon as the danger of frosts had passed. Rolf talked of himself as a geologist, and that was how he had trained, but for much of his life he had been trying to find water for poor people rather than metals for rich ones. With his wife, he had started one of the earliest aerial survey businesses in Sweden, and flown for hours up and down the country in small planes looking for minerals. It was hard, profitable, high-tech work, the sort of thing that Sweden was meant to be good at. He had gone out to Africa, and at first it was minerals he was searching for there too. But soon he had turned to searching for water, since that was what poor people needed. In his quiet practical way, he was, I realised, a considerable philanthropist.

In the evening, I sat out on the veranda that ran the length of the front of the hostel, and talked with Kjell Röngård, who had built it in the mid-1990s. Kjell was a retired policeman. He could easily have been one of the constables pounding the beat under Martin Beck—he had joined the force in 1963 when he was 19. He had ended up as the police chief in Sälen, before taking early retirement on a generous pension in 2004. He had worked on murder investigations, of course, he said. But most of his time had been spent on the two types of crime that undermined society rather more. From 1970 until 1982 he had worked on the county drug squad and seen the problem steadily increase. Then he moved into what is in Sweden known as economic crime, which is mostly tax evasion. Here, too, the rate of crime had grown since the 1970s as the economy grew more open and people became more individualistic.

He had sympathy for some of the criminals he'd had to deal with. A self-employed carpenter, he said, might earn £25,000 or £30,000 a year, but since more than half of that would go in taxes, he would obviously do a few jobs for cash. The trouble is this behaviour undermined the interdependence which was the foundation of society. In small communities everyone depended on everyone else: the teacher depended on the lumberjack, the fisherman, the hunter. Solidarity was instinctive. "But as society has developed, and people have become more mobile, they move to Stockholm, and then they don't know each other. The social bonds disappear in a large city."

But the social bonds he was talking about could also be real bonds—I could still remember feeling that the sky above Lilla Edet was made of iron, riveted down to hold us all in place. But something like this was at the root of social democracy, and the old policeman, talking about it, sounded a lot kinder than policemen usually do. "I think the social control is important in society—that we care about each other as children, and as adults. Take such a little place as this: it is important that we work together."

His wife had been a social worker almost all the time that he had been a policeman, and in retirement, the two of them had helped out with their church's social work in Russia. They had visited a home in the provinces there, where 35 abandoned old people shared one outside lavatory and a cracked bathtub in the house next door, and to him it was clear that such a hell arose from a society where all relationships were voluntary and none could be compelled or regulated by society. Under the written law he had enforced all his life was the unwritten foundation of the Jäntelagen, the Scandinavian code of egalitarian conformity, which absolutely forbids anyone to feel superior to their neighbours. Only then can true neighbourliness flourish.

"I believe in integration. I have been a civil policeman for the UN. I worked in Cyprus, and there you see how the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots do not really regard each other as human."

There was a silence. Swallows hunted around our heads as we sat; over the mountains to the northwest, the clouds were purplish-blue and grey, like the mother-of-pearl inside a mussel shell.

"What a privilege it is to live here," he said, "after so many years in towns."