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.

Parasitism vs Public Good

Here is a theory of mine. The US is an immigrant country founded on the populations and territories of multiple empires. The US doesn’t have it’s own stable traditional culture, although a few small sub-populations do.

Because of this, the US has developed a society and economy that is dependent on a constant influx of immigrants and hence a constant infusion of social capital that these immigrants bring. The American Dream is most strongly believed in by immigrants because that is what it is designed for, as advertising to sell a product.

There is a dysfunction at the heart of it all. The US depends on and devours the social capital that other stable societies produce, but doesn’t seem able to produce enough of its own. The US is in many ways a parasitic society.

If the US suddenly stopped immigration or immigrants stopped coming, there would be no more replacement social capital. Could the US survive that for long? Would Americans find a way to transform their society into something more stable and self-sustainable? Or would the whole thing collapse?

The US is a young country. It’s dynamic culture is its strength and weakness. It’s normal for a young country, like a young person, to be unstable and dependent on others. But for long-term survival, a young country has to eventually grow up and gain maturity, if only for the reason other countries will lose tolerance and patience with the immaturity.

Ready or not, the US has to enter adulthood. What kind of society will we grow up to be? Assuming we don’t kill ourselves first, as the young sometimes do.

* * *

As a comparison, what comes to mind are the other countries based on former colonies of the British Empire. Such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. All of them seem more mature and stable, compared to the US.

Maybe this relates to several factors. The main one is these other countries didn’t have as much good farmland to attract, employ, and feed such massive waves of immigrants. They also didn’t have such vast amounts of other natural resources that allowed the economic boom in the US.

Without such things, they were able avoid the misfortune of having their ruling elite tempted by imperialist aspirations. Instead, they were forced to develop more internal stability and national self-reliance.

Canada particularly stands out, as it is quite a bit younger than the US and yet shares the same continent along with much of the same history. When Canada was founded as a country, it had a population about the same as when the US was founded. A similar starting point that went in a different direction.

For whatever reason, Canada never had large waves of immigrants and I’m not sure they were ever interested in following the immigration example at their southern border. Canadians seem to have had more of an immigrant policy of quality, rather than quantity. As far as I know, they don’t have a gigantic statue with resounding words about inviting huddled masses to their shores.

Is a country like Canada somehow more stable and mature than the US? If so, what might be the reason for this? Is it just because of what I mentioned? Or is there more going on? What makes possible, within a country, the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of social capital and culture of trust?

* * *

Anu Partanen, in The Nordic Theory of Everything, has got me thinking about what countries both create within their own society and how they impact other societies.

One example is education. The US has low ratings for primary education, while the Nordic countries rate more highly. On the other hand, the US has a higher education system that ranks high on some measures, although this is quite misleading.

The major rankings of national higher education only look at the best schools from each country which creates an inherent bias against smaller countries with fewer college students and fewer schools. If including all students in all higher education within the US and Nordic countries, the latter actually ranks higher. So, per capita, the Nordic countries are better educating their populations at the primary and higher levels.

Still, it remains true that the US ivy league schools are among the best in the world. There is an important factor to be considered. A large part of ivy league professors, graduate teaching assistants, and students were born, raised, and received primary education in other countries. The US benefits from the brain drain of other countries, but the US doesn’t have to pay for creating this benefit. The most brilliant people in the world will usually want to work in the best schools in the world and this constantly stacks the deck in favor of particular countries.

As such, the US doesn’t have to improve its own primary education. It can simply rely upon other countries with awesome primary education to keep producing high quality students to attend the US ivy league schools. Even wealthy Americans who go to ivy leagues typically got their primary education from high quality schools in other countries or else private schools in the US that avoid the problems of the US education system, as they certainly weren’t going to be sent to crappy public schools in the US.

The US benefits in many other ways as well. Partanen offered some great examples in how well functioning social democracies help to create an atmosphere of public good that isn’t limited to a single country. A welfare state, what the author calls a well-being state, allows for experimentation and innovation without fear of the consequences of failure. It can be easier to try new things, when there is social capital and a culture of trust to support your endeavors.

Below is the relevant passage from The Nordic Theory of Everything (Kindle Locations 4278-4301):

“We’ve seen how successful Nordic businesses are, and to be sure, in the Nordic private sector, the desire to make money is a powerful motivator. But Nordic societies are also leading innovators in the public and nonprofit arena, which has contributed to their dynamic competitiveness and prosperity as well. The creativity and ambition of Nordic government and nonprofit sectors are living proof that people in a capitalist democracy can be motivated by much more than simple greed.

“Consider Denmark again, a country that is pursuing the world’s most ambitious engineering solution to address climate change. Copenhagen has set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by as early as 2025, and has been installing an ultra-high-tech wireless network of smart streetlamps and traffic lights that themselves save energy and also help traffic move more efficiently, reducing fuel consumption. All this is good for the environment, the nonprofit public sector, and the private sector. By aiming to wean itself as a nation off fossil fuels before 2050, for example, Denmark has become a world leader in the wind-power industry.

“Sweden, meanwhile, has set itself the ambitious goal of completely eliminating deaths from traffic accidents, and in the process is reinventing city planning, road building, traffic rules, and the use of technology to make transport safer. The country established the goal in 1997, and since then has reduced road deaths by half. Today only three out of every one hundred thousand Swedes die on the roads each year, compared to almost eleven in the United States. Consequently transportation officials from around the world have started to seek Sweden’s advice on traffic safety, and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has based his street safety plan on Sweden’s approach.

“Of course one could also argue that the biggest Nordic innovation of all is the whole concept and execution of the well-being state.

“Americans might be surprised, too, by the ways that some of the key building blocks of the global technology sector have been the result of nonprofit innovation. The core programming code of Linux, for example— the leading computer operating system running on the world’s servers, mainframe computers, and supercomputers— was developed in Finland by a student at Helsinki University, Linus Torvalds, who released it free of charge as an open-source application. When Torvalds later received some valuable stock options, they were a gift of gratitude from some software developers. In addition Finns have made other significant contributions to the global open-source software movement, a community of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create free software for anyone to use. One of the world’s most popular open-source databases, MySQL, was created by a Finn named Monty Widenius and his Swedish partners. Today just about all American corporate giants— including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Walmart— rely on MySQL. Widenius and his team have, in the years since, nevertheless made good money, but they did so by providing support and other services, while the software itself remains free to the world.”

 

Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.

 

Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.