Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism

We Americans like to talk about freedom and liberty.

We idealize the self-made man and the lone cowboy, the inventor who works in isolation and the hero who stands alone, the artist who creates from his own imagination and the rebel who through sheer determination fights the system, the independent thinker and the daring innovator. We praise the individual to such an extent it becomes not just a fantastical story but an abstract ideal.

But in reality, American society doesn’t create independent individuals and autonomous agents, much less self-responsible citizens. Instead, it creates dependence and even codependence based on fear and uncertainty, based on threat and punishment, and based on manipulation by those who hold power and control the fate of others.

This creates a mindset of clinging desperation and subservient obedience or else disconnected isolation. What it doesn’t lead to are healthy individuals, relationships, families, and communities—the foundation of a well-functioning culture of trust and social democracy.

Nordic countries have a different way of doing things.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 861-895

A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.

In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.

Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”

In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.

What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

2 thoughts on “Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism

    • Exactly! Americans are very group-minded. It’s not how we think of ourselves. But it is how we organize our society and live our lives. It’s so much a part of the fabric of our society that we normally can’t see it.

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