Crossing North 21: The Swedish Theory of Love

Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh in Sweden.


Historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh are perhaps best known as the co-authors of the 2006 Swedish bestseller Är svensken människa?, which describes the Swedish model of statist individualism wherein the state supports individual autonomy. Now, thanks to the University of Washington Press, their book appears for the first time in English translation as The Swedish Theory of Love. In this episode, Henrik and Lars walk us through the philosophy behind the Swedish welfare model and its social consequences.

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Henrik Berggren: And what's going on now is that, you know, we have a kind of globalization of ideas going on. We're getting ideas from different kinds of cultures and ideas about how to organize society. And I think this is something that should be on the table at least, when you're discussing, you know, how to—I don't think you can have Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism as the sort of only way of describing a free society. You know, there’s proven alternatives, say, that you don't have to have that kind of idea where you which is actually very communitarian, because you're actually putting the individual at the mercy very much of the family, or, you know, a church or a charity, or something like that, so I just think it's sort of interesting to have it there as an alternative kind of model.

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Colin Gioia Connors:  Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

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Henrik Berggren is a prominent Swedish historian, biographer, and journalist, who focuses on 20th century Swedish politics. His longtime co-author and collaborator Lars Trägårdh is a professor of history at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College in Sweden. The duo are perhaps best known as the co-authors of the 2006 Swedish bestseller Är svensken människa? The book describes a Swedish model of individualism, in which the state supports the autonomy of the individual and thereby enables the individual to pursue authentic relationships. The book was widely read, discussed, and debated in Nordic newspapers and academic journals, and it continues to enliven debates today. Now, thanks to the University of Washington Press, their book appears for the first time in English translation as The Swedish Theory of Love. Praised as “the long-awaited translation of a classic Swedish text,” Henrik and Lars’ book offers much food for thought to American audiences interested in understanding the philosophy behind the Swedish welfare model, as well as those interested in imagining alternative political futures here in the United States or abroad. Our own Professor Andy Nestingen joins me and the two authors in a discussion of their book, its legacy, and its new English translation.

Lars Trägårdh: I'm Lars Trägårdh, I'm one of the co-authors of the book The Swedish Theory of Love.

Henrik: I’m Henrik Berggren and I am the other co-author of the book.

Andrew Nestingen: I'm Andy Nestingen, and I'm a professor here at the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies, and an interested reader and engaged thinker about the book The Swedish Theory of Love.

Colin: So it's the title of the book, The Swedish Theory of Love. What is it?

Lars: Well, you know the Swedish title originally was different. It was called, roughly translated, Are Swedes Human? and that resonates well, in Swedish, as a sort of provocation, but we felt it didn't come off quite as well in English. And the Swedish theory of love is one of the two key concepts in the book. The other one is “statist individualism,” but we felt “the Swedish theory of love” would resonate better as a title. [*laughs*] So we chose that. And we can elaborate on what we mean by that as well, and it's about this notion that we have, that in Sweden there's a particular kind of, a peculiar way of thinking about love and friendship which tends to emphasize the idea of autonomy and free choice in your relationships, even these intimate relationships. So autonomy and independence are key values, and that runs counter, I think, to the way most people around the world would think about love, more as something that has to do with interdependence. So there is something provocative about this theory in this more sort of global context. And that's one theme of the book.

Henrik: Yeah, and this theme, I think, you know, it sort of exists on different levels, because I think anybody who goes to Sweden is aware of the fact that, you know, you don't buy rounds, for instance, you'd don’t pay for each other at a restaurant, you know, you really want to not be indebted to another person, because it sort of damages the authenticity of the relationship. But then, of course, that's on the, you know, everyday level. But then if we move upwards, you’ll also find that the whole Swedish, sort of, political system is geared towards the individual as the basic unit of society. So you don't have very much law, you know, that actually defines or restricts the family, it's much more of a voluntary relationship. And, you know, done away with a lot of the kind of marriage laws that you have in other countries.

Andy: Lars, you said that the resonance of the Swedish title was a little bit different, that it was a bit of a provocation to the Swedish reader. Could you explain that a little bit more in helping us understand the title, The Swedish Theory of Love?

Lars: Yeah, there was a book released in Sweden, I think 1946 by a very bitter, disgruntled Swedish journalist who was in love with Italy. And he was comparing Sweden to Italy, and he felt Italians there had a much better sense of love and friendship and they are such a passionate and amorous people, and in comparison to Swedes, you know, were cold and totally focused on themselves and too preoccupied with individual freedom, and he really really didn't like it, so he wrote this book, you know, called Are Swedes Human?, and he had chapters like “The Divorce People,” “Do Swedes Hate Children?,” titles like that, and we just thought this was really really funny, but it was also something about it, which pointed in an interesting direction. And it was part of a longer tradition of literature on what we called back then “national character.” And a lot of that literature tended to emphasize that Swedes were particularly inept when it came to social relations, and they much preferred to be alone in nature, that's when they were at their most happiest. So that particular tradition of thinking, which was highly exaggerated and in many ways very, very funny still contained some sort of kernel of truth that we thought was a good point of inspiration for our own analysis. 

Henrik: I mean one basis of this analysis is actually the immigration to the US during the nineteenth century. I mean, as you probably know, it was, what, a million Swedes who, you know, left their home country. And from the perspective of the elite, you know, this, it couldn't be that there's anything wrong with Sweden, so obviously there was something wrong with these people, you know. They were too freedom seeking, they were too individualistic. They were moving away from the cozy, sort of collective, you know, Swedish society. And you know this idea was, it sort of, it kept on going. Because I think, as Lars said, there is a kernel of truth in it, and it, you know, comes back the whole time through the whole twentieth century. But by the late twentieth century, it’s actually, being, you know, carried on by foreign observers, you know, who are looking at Sweden, and then they're looking at this tradition, and they find an explanation for why Swedes are like they are. So you know it becomes rather sort of self enforcing, this whole idea.

Colin: I guess if I could go back, we're dealing with stereotypes that are often told of: Swedes are cold people, hard to get to know, not that amorous in their relationships, and what you're saying is that there is an element of autonomy, you said, that is important, maybe counter to most people's thoughts of what is a good foundation for a relationship. Could you maybe tell—?

Lars: Yeah I mean, this is a good way of posing the question, because I mean, I think if we think about it from an American perspective, right? You know the standard cliche, right, has been that Americans are the great individualists, right? And the Swedes are, you know, socialists, you know, preoccupied, right, with solidarity, and, you know, the various kinds of values that tend to actually submit the individual, right, to the interest of society, let's put it that way. And so one aim that we had was to turn, in a way, these ideas, these sort of cliches, right, a little bit upside down, and instead emphasize the complexity of this type of emphasis on what we call this Swedish theory of love. And also what we are trying to show in the book, that it isn't so simple that the Swedes are just simply, like, sort of autistic [ie. individualistic] when it comes to social relations, but it’s that this choice about voluntary relations doesn't mean that you don't have any relations, it means that they are based on a different type of logic. And one example we often bring up is that the elderly in Sweden, that if you ask them a sort of fairly straightforward question, which is done in service, “What do you prefer in your old age? To be dependent on your own sort of wonderful children, or on the institutions of the welfare state?” They then answer that they prefer to be dependent on the institutions of the welfare state, and you know, so—

Colin: Why would that be?

Lars: Yeah. Well, this is, we're getting to it! So, you know, one possibility is simply that they know their children very well. [*laughter*] But that's very, that's too, that's not very nice, because if you have another question, which is, “Do you want your children to visit you?” They'll almost all say, “Yes,” right? So the point is the following, and that's the heart of the Swedish theory of love, that it's not a question of being asocial in some sort of drastic way, but it’s wanting to have your social relations based on free choice and voluntariness rather than, you know, a duty. And that's really the heart. So it doesn't mean that there are no social relations, it means that they tend to be defined by these sort of ideas of voluntariness, equality and autonomy. And we see this in other contexts, for example, association of life, you know, organizations. Sweden and the US are very similar in that we have strong civil societies, but in Sweden the predominant model, right, is the membership model, which is again the same logic, right, you know, you are the individual members who are freely entering into association with others, you choose your own representatives, and so forth, right? It's not an hierarchical or patriarchal type of organization.

Andy: I'll ask this question to Henrik: in that culture of individualism, that has been shaped to a great degree by state institutions, the question I had was, where does trust fit in there? I know that's a keyword in the book, and when one thinks of individualism, you know, one of the things, like, “I'll trust my own lights,” right? That there's this idea of, “Because I’m strong in my own view of myself and my positions, and I want to make sure that I make the decisions as an individual and I don't want to depend on others, therefore I trust myself but I may not trust others.” I wonder how—that may be one direction it would go sort of in an American context—

Henrik: Definitely.

Andy: I'd love to hear you talk about that, definition of trust.

Henrik: Well, definitely. I mean that's when you talk about that sort of “rugged individualism,” right. I mean, this idea of the frontier with the, you know, you break new ground, and you're totally self-sufficient, and you're very suspicious, or not suspicious, but you don't really trust other people, you have to be self-providing. The thing about, you know, this idea of the Swedish theory of love is that you're admitting the fact that the individual is dependent, and the thing is that we are not autonomous beings. I mean that's the one thing we're not! We can't live by ourselves. I mean, this is the starting point. So the thing is, you have to be dependent on somebody else. “You gotta serve somebody,” as the poet said, right?

Andy: Mhm. 

Henrik: And, you know, you have a choice. I mean, you can be dependent on your family or your community, or your church, or something like that. Which of course puts you, you know, in some kind of dependent relationship with these people, and of course makes you independent, perhaps, of the state. But you can also think the other way around. I prefer, actually, dependence on the state as sort of impersonal, you know, bureaucratic, sort of “fair” institutions—if you think it is. And that's where trust comes in, because you have to trust the state. Now trusting the state can be a, you know, it's a big step, especially in a lot of places where the state really is a pretty awful mechanism of oppression. But when you have a country like Sweden, where you have, sort of, the state has evolved rather peacefully by rule of law for a couple of hundred years, and you have this trust, you know, that can actually work. And you know the upside of this, I think this is the—you have to understand why is this attractive? Why would it be attractive, the Swedish Theory of Love? I'm not saying it's attractive for everybody, definitely, but, you know, if you're making a choice, you can at least see some advantages to it. And I think it's—the idea is that, you know, if I'm not dependent on my spouse or my parents, or other people, then I can really know they love me. You know it’s an authentic relationship, whereas, you know, if I'm married to somebody and I'm really dependent on their wealth and income, you know—or either way, if they're dependent on me, rather—I would say, you know, can I really be sure that this person loves me, or it's just my money or my position and things like that? Now, obviously, you know, a society of just totally autonomous people who wouldn't be dependent on each other, it's a pretty horrible society, right? So something—there are extremes here. Another extreme is basically your, you know, clan or your, you know, totally sect-oppressed, you know, where everybody's you know, totally dependent on each other. But you know, within the normal range of things, I mean, you know, these are the choices you can make, you know. Who do you want to be dependent on? Who do you want to trust?

Andy: I just want to ask a quick follow up question. In the book you trace the, sort of, a long genealogy about those ideas of trust and individualism. And as I recall in some of the discussions of Alva Myrdal in the 1930s, she says that, “Well, as they're forming these new institutions and providing childcare and so forth, that the conditions were right for this to develop.” And in that arc that you trace in arguments, like, “that the conditions are right,” it's very specific to Sweden. So what I wonder is, first of all, oftentimes your argument has been taken to mean “Nordic.” So, Swedish and Nordic are sort of synonyms, in a lot of people's reading of the earlier book and other other articles you’ve read. So I wonder, like, are Sweden and Nordic the same? And then second, like, what is—is this an export product? Or is this something that's just unique to Sweden, and really, it helps us understand that particular nation state but perhaps has limitations beyond that framework.

Lars: Well, you know, I think—there's two questions here, right? So let's unpack it. Take the first one, sort of, Nordic-Swedish, and then we can talk about the model and universalism aspect, right? And I think that with respect to the Nordic versus Swedish, I think that we are simply quite sensitive to the fact that we feel like we can say certain things about Sweden because we've studied it and we know a bit about it. And you know how the Nordics tend to be quite preoccupied with local differences, right? So that even though I would probably argue that there's a lot of commonalities, right—so a lot of our arguments probably apply fairly well to Finland or Norway or Denmark—but there is also a case to be made for the “Sweden’s a little bit extreme,” right, you know, in this particular alliance with the state and individual. So that's just sort of the short answer to that. With respect to the model, there it gets really quite interesting, you know, because I think what we argue is, we start our book really with kind of a conversation with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, you know, who has this, I think, very important insight which he refers to as “man's asocial sociability,” and what he says, really, that everywhere in the world, right, we have a situation where human beings on the one hand strive for maximum individual sovereignty, right, to make decisions for themselves. On the other hand, they are absolutely also forced by necessity to form society, because they cannot survive on their own, right? So it's a task for all societies, right, to handle that fundamental tension, right? And what our argument is, that in a sense whatever is done in Sweden, right, you know, is certainly relevant, but is also a particular solution, right, to a universal challenge, if you will. And where we as historians are very hesitant, as opposed to, let's say, an economist or political scientist or sociologist to speak in terms of a model, that goes back to the fact that we as historians are very aware of the peculiarities and particularities that makes it very difficult to say, “We can export this as a model someplace else,” I mean, regardless of whether people want it to be explored to them.

But I think, you know, to be a little bit more—if you get more concrete, you can talk about certain types of policies that that one might, you know, learn something about. I mean we have our particular system for taxation, for example, or for childcare and so forth and so on, and you can go down to that level, right? And then you can have that discussion. But the model as such in total I will not claim that you can export that.

Henrik: Can I add on something here? You know, in Denmark they thought the title, the original Swedish title Is the Swede Human? - Är svensken människa?, very, very funny. They really really liked it because they, Danes consider Swedes to be, you know, asocial, bureaucratic, stiff, you know, and all that, and they also but when they read the book—but somebody did at least—I mean, they reacted and sort of felt that, “What? Individuals? Swedes are not individuals, you know. They are like the herd people, you know, they really follow the common trend.” But you have to understand one thing that you know we're not arguing for an individualism that means that you're, you know, eccentric or super original or anything like that. I mean, what we are saying is that the idea is that the individual is the basic unit of society, and you have a society that sees to it that that individual citizen has as much freedom of choice as possible. That's the whole point of that kind of individualism.

Andy: I have to ask one quick follow up question, Henrik, you put your finger on a point that I think may visitors to the Nordic countries or more people who live there have noticed that there is this notion of individualism and and strong autonomy, and yet great conformity and fashion in interior decoration in architectural styles in which it seems that it's not the most individual, but the most conformist type of society. How do you square those two?

Henrik: Well, I mean I think you can square them in the sense that, you know, it's not necessarily that if people have a free choice they're going to become very original or eccentric. I mean, I would say actually that societies that are, you know, more communitarian than where you have sort of many pluralities, that's a much better condition for creating very original people, in a sense because they can—you can have the bubbles in society where you can develop certain, you know, ideas and traits and behaviors and whatever, and sort of really go forward with this. You know, this is sort of a model for the whole society, which creates a kind of idea of, you know, it’s the nation state, it's the commons. So I don't see those as opposing each other. Hopefully, of course, I mean you will still have original people within this system, but it doesn't, sort of, there's no sort of necessity of this kind of individualism.

Lars: I think it's important just to, you know, again, stress the fundamentals here with respect to what we call the Swedish theory of love. It's about autonomy, right? It's about, you know, not feeling that you're stuck in unequal power relationships. That's the heart of it, right? It's not about, you know, difference, or anything of that sort. I usually say “Swedes are individuals who all buy the same furniture at Ikea,” right? [*laughter*] And Swedes tend not to be very impressed, right, you know, with people who think that their individuality is expressed through consumption because there's not much depth to that, right? So, you know, and I think that this kind of individualism in America and or Britain, you know, it does tend, like Henrick was saying, is tied to sort of, kind of, the glorification of eccentricity, as the old expression, right? And I agree. I think that can be wonderful, right, but they are two different species of individualism.

Colin: I really like what you just said there about individualism not being measured through consumption—the things that you buy—but more through the things that you do, and the values that you hold. Yeah, it is kind of a false dichotomy to have individualism and community on two ends, because communities are made through relationships. And what you're talking about is a way to have and build authentic relationships—a different way of thinking about how to get from one point to another.

Lars: I think this is, and you know we are always stressing, and we do it in the book, that the type of individualism that we're talking about is connected to power, right. And that means that it's also related to issues like children's rights, you know, gender equality, rights of the elderly, the different types of let's say, sexual minorities, right? So you know it's all about, you know, this kind of providing that space of autonomy and freedom, right, for different types of individuals who in the traditional society were distinctly unfree within the framework of these collectivities. And then this is where my quarrel oftentimes with American libertarians, let's say, right, is that they are so preoccupied with the state as the only collectivity that they really, you know, want to kind of control, right, in terms of individual freedom, that they sort of disregard all of the intermediary, you know, collectivities, right? And this is what Henrik was saying. That's because in the US, both the left and the right tend towards a very communitarian understanding of “the good life:” family values, belonging to an ethnic community or a religious group, and so forth, is a very natural way, right, of thinking about, you know, “the good life,” and that's very different from what we see, you know, in the Swedish context where we’re preoccupied with a different set of challenges, essentially.

Henrik: Yeah, you know I have since Covid started, I have a digital drink every other Sunday with American friends, and we discuss a lot of politics, and we, you know, we agree in a lot of things, but when we get into these discussions about, for instance, schooling, you notice there is a real real difference when I sort of propose the idea that, you know, schools are for children and making them into adult citizens, and therefore the state has certain rights in prescribing what should be taught and, you know, the parents are not necessarily the ones that should, you know, arbitrate that— that's a very hard idea for them because they feel like, you know, parental rights are really important, and this is sort of infringing upon the communities that the parents belong to. I don't know—if you have a religious idea that you have the right to bring up your children in this idea, in this tradition, and that's I think, you know, where it collides. Now, that said, of course, we have gotten in Sweden much more pluralism in schools, too. I mean, homeschooling is not allowed in Sweden, where we do have religious schools and things like that. So it's not like we're, sort of, having some kind of Stalinist school system here, but still I mean it's really a difference in thinking about how much you can intervene in the family, basically.

Colin: I really like the way that you have given us extra examples that the theory of love is not just about romantic love, but how parents, elderly parents, and their children relate to each other when the elderly parents need care, or—you brought up children's rights as well, and you've connected that to education. I think that may be an example that a lot of our students here at the university would be able to relate to, because so much of college education is paid for by the parents.

Henrik: Exactly

Colin: And parents have opinions about what their children should study, and so the choice of what do I major in isn't necessarily a free choice.

Lars: That's it! That's how in some way [*laughter*] how we started the book. [*laughter*] I arrived here, you know, as a 17 year old man, and then I went on a tour—this is the last year of high school—and then I went to California where I wanted to go, right, and I went to all of the colleges, and I asked two questions. I said, you know, “If I get accepted on academic grounds, you know, like you know, then what happens economically, right?” Because even back then right, it was still pretty expensive, especially for a Swede, right, and the most of them said, “Look, you know we have financial aid, but only for residents,” right, except for Pomona College, one of the Claremont colleges, you know, in Southern California. And they have, you know, sort of a more colorblind approach, right, to financial aid. So I love that, and so, but then I ask the question, I said, “But then, how do I get that?” right. “Oh, it’s no problem. We have some application forms here,” and they were to hand out two sets of forms: one was about my own income and fortune, so that was easy, right, a bunch of zeros and a signature. [*laughter*] And then they gave me another set which is about my parents. So I said, and this is a typical Swede here, right, “But they don't have anything to do with me financially, you know? I'm an adult, so why should they fill this out?” And they are sort of speaking to me more slowly, [*laughter*] explaining carefully that in America, right, you know, parents are expected, and are very happy, right, to pay for ever and ever, you know, for your children. So I said, “Well, these are admirable people, clearly, [*laughter*] but,” I said, “there's a problem here,” and this is the problem you brought up. I said, “What if they want me to do something useful in my life? Right? Study, study like economics or you know pre-med or pre-law, or something like that where I actually have a chance to make a living later on? Let's say that instead, I’d like to do something like study history—[*sarcastically*] clearly useless—you know, no hope of getting a job, right? Isn't that an undo exercise of power over me as an autonomous individual? Right. They looked at me like I was from Mars right, you know. [*laughter*] But the problem is a real one I mean. That's what you are pointing to, right? What we've tried to achieve in Sweden here is a system that will maximize, right, the ability for all. And there is an emphasis on young people even if it includes issues around gender and the elderly. But the start of this alliance between the state and the individual was really an alliance between the state and the child— the idea that all children, right, regardless of their circumstances, should be able to, you know, realize themselves according to their own will, and not to be limited, either by poverty nor by exercise of parental power, right, you know. [*laughs*] So I think you're really putting your finger on the heart of the matter here.

Henrik: Yeah, and it might be interesting to add, I mean, you know, in the early sixties, when they introduced student loans, there's a whole big discussion of how they were going to be set up. And what they arrived at was that they should be, you know, not means tested in any way. I mean, it shouldn't have anything to do with your parents’ income. Nor your spouse’s! Because of course, they could be, you know, women, mostly, would want to study, and, you know, their men would be financing them. So they should also get student loans, regardless whether their men were millionaires or not. So the idea behind it was exactly what you're talking about, that, you know, you should be free to make that kind of choice, and you know, possibly ruin your life by studying art or whatever, you know. And it's also, I mean, it's—this really goes all through the system. I mean, there are instances of means testing in the Swedish welfare state, but it's not very prevalent. And one interesting debate was, when you were actually giving, you know, dole, I mean cash benefit, you know, cash support to people who are very poor, the question was, “Should you count it—if they had children and the children were working—should you count their incomes into the family income?” And they arrived at, “No, of course not!” You know, even if the family is poor and they have a minor who is, you know, making extra money, that's his money and not the family's money. So it’s sort of this, it really goes through the whole system, this kind of idea of, you know, you go with the individual, not with the collective or the family.

Colin: And I of course have to just follow up, because  I know you're joking about the useless majors—

Henrik & Lars: **laugh**

Colin: —because of course we teach one of those quote-unquote “useless majors” in Scandinavian Studies, but I think what's important to highlight there is the kind of thinking that students, and in America that their parents influence on that of, “Well, what is the purpose of education?” I think you said this before, just with public education: “Well, for the individual, I need to take care of my income, so I need to choose something that's going to get me a good income, and that's going to be the primary motivation” versus thinking of, “Well, I'm going to study something that is going to have a benefit not directly to myself necessarily, but a benefit to society, and of course can earn a stable that's going to contribute both to the individual and society.” And so your choices become controlled, based on who is going to be taking care of me when I am old. 

Henrik: Yeah, very much so. But I mean as you say, I mean, the individual choice there doesn't have to be, I mean, going your own way doesn't necessarily mean you're moving away from solidarity with other people. I mean it could also be actually in direction of, you know, joining other people in some kind of enterprise, so, you know.

Lars: Yeah, I mean, there's a paradox here which I think is interesting, you know, that there sometimes kind of an idea, right, in America, you know, you sort of, it's a free society of people, free to take risks, and, you know, have some—-maybe people make it and they become entrepreneurs, start businesses, and, you know, it's a sort of a high-risk society but with good outcomes economically. And that Sweden conversely would be like a quasi-socialist country, where, you know, it's all, everybody lives in this kind of cradle-to-grave security and so forth and so-on, and that hinders, right, then, innovation and creativity in a capitalist market society. But the fact is the opposite, right? Because you have this kind of a universal social investment scheme, right? You have individuals, right, you know, who are more willing to take risks, right? Because they're not afraid, let's say, of losing healthcare.

Colin: Right, right.

Lars: They aren't worried about their children not being able to get an education, right? I mean, stuff that's really important to you if you're an adult, right? So, and that's one way of understanding the fact that the Nordic countries, Sweden included, right, are among the world's most successful market societies, you know. If you look, you know, at the data comparatively, right, Nordic capitalism is right at the top, right, and there we have a very new view now of the Nordic countries, you know. It used to be that they were associated with social democracy and so forth and so on. But now we see that it's much more complicated, right? You have a strong presence of a state making these social investments, but those are in the forms of human capital— they're then extremely productive within the framework of private industry in a global market. And risk-taking, right, connected to innovation is actually a very salient feature, you know, of a modern economy, and not just in Sweden, but in the Nordic countries in general. So that's, I think it's not an unimportant aspect of the social contract, that it sort of enables, right, in a way, you know, a really effective risk taking in a creative, you know, market economy. 

Henrik: And, you know, if you want take-home lessons on the global level, I mean I sometimes wonder if the people who were very much involved in the transition in Russia in the nineties had been, you know, less concerned with this idea of creating older—I mean, their idea was to create very rich people, you know, they realized that they had to privatize the state, and their idea was to, “Well, let's move the money over to very rich people, it’s a bit unsavory, you know, it'd be like the robber barons in the nineteenth century in the US, nut the outcome will be good, because, you know, eventually you'll deal with all the kind of, you know, inequalities and, you know, criminal behavior that these rich capitalists do.” And nobody was really thinking about the state, the state's role here. And I think like, if you'd used in Nordic countries, you’d actually see that, you know, how essential the state is to the market society, you know, if you want it to function well. I mean, if you want gangster capitalism, fine, I mean, then you can go to Russia, where if you want authoritarian capitalism then go to China, but, you know, if you actually want some kind of, you know, high-powered market economy which also is sort of decent, I mean then look to the Nordic countries.

Andy: It's an interesting emphasis you placed in those comments. I think a lot of people outside the Nordic region might think of the growth of the welfare state as a theological moral discourse. You've talked to Lutheranism a couple of times, and some of the ideas about equality, independence have a very strong kind of moral dimension to them. But I think that the argument that you've just made is that it's an economic machine. right? That it's the sort of the social engineering version of the discourse of the welfare state, that it's about empowering people to work and earn a living while having supports that ensure they can fulfill their life projects, and that that's a maximization of the population's labor power for economic outcomes, as much as for “it's the right thing to do” for moral theological reasons.

Lars: But there is a moral dimension here, I think, that it's important to stress in this context, right? That is to say, I would say, and it actually does go back to, you know, Protestantism, right, you know? That it is a stern moral order or—sometimes I joke, say that Sweden, right, in many ways is more sort of, like, a Republican ideal here than a Democratic one, right, because it is so much based, right, on the idea of individual responsibility, right. You know it is unforgiving, actually, for those who do not contribute to society. And that's something that's often missed in the US, right, where you kind of get confused because you have had a tradition, right, within the Democratic party, right, of being concerned with various forms of charity, right, because you are so steeped in a tradition of, you have to deal with inequality, the legacy of racism that you talked about before, whereas in Sweden that's pretty absent. There it’s much harsher from a moral standpoint, right? It's very demanding, like, you know, this idea of the wholesome worker, right, that gets up in the morning, you know, takes a shower, you know, brushes the hair and goes to work. And then on top of that gets involved in associational life to improve society for the next generation. This was the popular movement traditionally in Sweden which came from this liberal religious background, right, with very tough moral demands of the individuals. Now I could see that today maybe that's a bit weaker, but it still is very fundamental to the moral order of the modern Nordic countries, and I would say it's very similar if you go to Norway, or Finland.

Henrik: And it's, as you know, the best—the absolutely best—free religious movements in Sweden, they have incredibly strong demands from themselves. But they're not very moralizing towards other people. I'm really impressed by that. I mean that is true, sort of a Christian morality: we actually have a high demand on how yourself should act, but you don't engage in this kind of moralizing activity towards everybody else who is, you know, a sinner, and you know not worthy, and all that. And I, you know, maybe it has a bit to do with the Lutheran tradition, I don't know. But also in terms of I mean, I think it's important to to stress the aspect of self improvement also in these popular movements, because, you know, if you go back to the 1930s, that famous book, Marquis Childs’ book, Sweden: The Middle Way, one thing that people miss about that book which used to be, just, you think it's about, sort of, the state being between socialism and capitalism, sort of. But the book is very, very much about the cooperative movement, which is very strong then. And the idea about the cooperative movement is actually dealing with capitalism, not from the supply side, but from the demand side. You actually accept the fact that there is, you know, a free market economy, but what you want to do is actually educate the consumers so they become responsible consumers who will buy good things, and therefore you will not, you know, create a lot of garbage, basically. Now I wouldn't say it worked, but I'm just saying that, you know, this was sort of an informed idea behind this sort of acceptance of the market economy, but then a great faith in, you know, the producers and the consumers that they would actually, you know, use the market economy in a moral fashion.

Colin: I think that maybe a lot of our listeners might not be completely familiar with, what are these benefits of the Swedish welfare state? I was with a group of students this summer in Sweden and we went to the Karolinska Institute. We're getting a tour from one of the doctors in the leukemia wards, and we asked them, “What does it cost for the patients who come in here to have this treatment?” And the doctor said, “Nothing,” and the students were just flabbergasted. They had no idea. So could you tell some of the ways that the state supports individuals?

Lars: Well, I mean, you know, we usually—we have this sort of slogan in Sweden, you know, which is always, you know, repeated, like, vård skola omsorg, you know, which means, like, you know, “health care, schools, elderly care,” essentially, right? And that's fairly well summarized, you know, the fundamentals. The core, the core project, if you will, right? Which really is this idea of free universal access to schooling and, down the road education, free access to health care—and it's not entirely free because there are certain payments you make where you discourage, right, overuse, right, you know, so it's not entirely free—but by American standards [*laughs*] it looks pretty free, right? 

Henrik: Well the thing is, it costs something if you, you know, if you have a blister on your foot and you have to go to the doctor, you know, the local public clinic, you have to pay. But if you have leukemia you don't have to pay. You see my point.

Lars: I think you have to pay, probably the first visit.

Henrik: The first visit, yeah, but that’s sort of relative to the whole thing.

Lars: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah so you know, but it's precisely—there's certain little barriers, but they are not barriers that will kill you, sort of thing, right? Now, and then there’s, of course, elderly care, right, which is, you know, is actually a huge cost on that, you know, is becoming— I mean both health care and elderly care in Sweden is becoming more and more, increasingly as people live longer, and the capacity for very expensive care, right, you know is accelerating, you know. Sweden is also, like all countries in the West, right, are facing enormous economic challenges. Because if you look at when it was started, the welfare state, in the 1950s, right, there was so little care really available with advanced level in health care that everybody can get everything. Today, you know, questions about prioritizing, you know, it's becoming more salient, and that has introduced also a new market for private insurance and private care. And that does have sort of a potentially segregating effect where the rich, right, can start to pay extra. And it's not just the super rich, right? You also see people, the unions, for example, now, right, in order to survive and keep their memberships, right, they are starting to introduce that their members get access to a private complementary health insurance, for example, right? So that's a growing market. 

Henrik: But I know we're getting really really technical, but I just think it's so interesting, because it's a debate about it in Sweden. And I mean some people want to close down these private insurances, but the argument against that is that these private issues? They're connected. What you're actually getting is the public health care, but they're just helping you get a bit more of it, and if you opt out of that, you're going to get totally private insurance with private hospitals and private clinics. And then a lot of the rich people will have no incentive to, you know, participate in the tax system and all that. So it's, you know, you see how the debate goes. How do we keep everybody within the fold and at the same time, you know, cater to people's needs? It, you know, it gets really tricky, you know, when you get to these levels.

Lars: So it is an absolutely moving target. But I mean, that's just to kind of give you the short answer right, and then, you know, we can talk a lot more about the kind of complications that are occurring as we speak, right? That’s the fundamental—

Henrik: Well we can bring up other aspects. I think we have a certain scaling down now of the ambitions of welfare but if you look at it during the, yeah, the height of it, I mean, it wasn’t just about welfare, it was culture. I mean, you know, you had the—there’s a great deal of talk about the kommunala musikskolan whatever the word is in English [municipal music schools], the, you know, these free music schools they would have in every municipality. And, you know, that, then, is sort of, some say, the explanation because Sweden is so successful, you know, in the popular music market. You know, where we are, after US and Britain, the greatest exporter of pop music, basically. So actually giving kids access to culture and music has actually turned into a very lucrative industry. So I mean the welfare state has really had ambitions, not just in terms of taking care of basic needs, but actually of this kind of self-realization we're talking about.

Colin: I think it comes back to what we're saying, how what you major in could be good for yourself and good for others. 

Henrik: Exactly.

Lars: Well I mean, and that's why now, I think, you know, we see how increasingly Swedish social scientists, right, are starting to talk less about the welfare state which, especially in English, right, is a very loaded term, right, you know, in a sort of negative way, instead talk about a “social investment” state, right? So that, you know, again, we’re back to this kind of concept of the market economy as opposed to the state, right? And so the idea here is that the example Henry just gave, right, you know, with music schools, you know, you can view those as forms of investment, right? They will have a payoff both at the individual level and at the societal level, and I think that is a useful way of thinking about it, you know, all the way through right? Because if you are starting to think about that we all live in that type of market society, then making investments, right, you know creating cultural capital, right, becomes really important. And it probably should be fairly broad, because you can't predict it, right? You know you can just enable in many different ways, right, young people to develop skills, right, that can become very productive. So that's one way of sort of moving away from the old welfare state kind of way of thinking about [it] as handouts, you know, “Money for nothing” [*laughs*].

Andy: I think you wrote—the original book appeared in 2006, now the translation’s out. That's a lot of time, and if we look—let's just take that, what is that? Sixteen years. Sixteen years from now will the book have the same relevance to contemporary Sweden? It seems like it really captures some key facets of the society, but those facets—your comment a second ago, the “social investment state”—they're changing; the discourses around the state are changing, you know, there's a new right wing government in power; there…. What's gonna, what's your prognosis?

Henrik: Well, look, I think that, you know, obviously, you know, you—as a historian, and I mean, you know, you sort of strive to write for the ages, but obviously you're writing in your time, and we are products of our time, and the questions and the way we posed this is, I mean, not just… if you go back, I mean, to the way we're thinking about these things in the nineties when we started, I mean, that was much more effective what was going on then, I mean, that was the fall of communism, it was sort of, you know, a lot of critique of the state and all that, and we sort of wanted to not, you know, save the state, but actually, you know, show that the state could have a positive function also. So of course, you know, we are products of our time and, you know, things have changed since we wrote the book, but at the same time, and, you know, Lars can contradict me if you wants to, but I sort of feel that, you know, oddly enough, it turns out that these national trajectories seem to be much stronger than I ever thought. I mean if you look around the world today, but, you know, everybody's retreating back, you know, from globalization, from international cooperation into these states—what are they turning back to? They're turning back to their own self-created identity, you know, the Brits are going for the British Empire, Putin wants to recreate the nineteenth-century empire. And I think that's the, you know, the question for Sweden is, obviously we have to, sort of, draw back a bit from our ambitious sort of globalization and participation in this, you know, system, but hopefully we won't go back to, you know, the 1930s and seal ourselves off, but we actually will sort of retain a little bit of, you know, the large ambitions, but we have to scale them down. I mean that's the best case scenario I would see. And I don't know, maybe I'm just, you know, naive, but I mean I, you know, I think there are really sort of long-term structures that can help us, you know, even if it looks very bleak at the moment. I mean, for the US, I mean it definitely looks very, you know, critical, but I think there have been critical moments before in American history, and they also have been resolved so, you know, there's case to be a little bit optimistic and you can sort of rely on your own traditions.

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Colin: Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s

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Release Date: December 19, 2022

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors.

Purchase The Swedish Theory of Love  through the University of Washington Press.

Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.