An expert's point of view on a current event.

Sweden and the World-Historical Power of Conformity

From socialism to the coronavirus, a unified theory for why everyone thinks Swedes have all the answers.

Brothers Fred and Hugo Svenleen of Sweden enjoy an ice cream during the 31st annual Twins Day Festival 05 August, 2006, in Twinsburg, Ohio.
Brothers Fred and Hugo Svenleen of Sweden enjoy an ice cream during the 31st annual Twins Day Festival 05 August, 2006, in Twinsburg, Ohio. RON KUNTZ/AFP via Getty Images

The Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter recently reported that a senior officer in the Swedish Armed Forces worked there for years on the strength of a completely false résumé. The man, who has not been named, claimed to have been a British helicopter pilot who’d survived being shot down in the Gulf War and to have been a commodore in the Royal Navy, but in fact he’d never been anything more than a civilian engineer working on electrical systems.

“It’s a serious matter,” the human-resources chief for the Swedish Armed Forces told the paper. “It is dreadful. It’s difficult for the defense forces to protect themselves against liars.” But what makes the story really extraordinary is that it is the second such case to emerge this year. Last winter Dagens Nyheter revealed that a rather more senior staff officer had simply faked his résumé, claiming qualifications he did not have and which were never checked.

“It’s difficult for the defense forces to protect themselves against liars.” That seems a quite extraordinary response from a soldier whose task is to prepare his country to defend itself against enemies who use weapons even deadlier than lies. But it reveals something profound about the strengths and weaknesses of Swedish society—and about the tremendous fascination that it exerts on foreigners.

The country may not be quite as fascinating as Swedes themselves believe, but it’s still difficult to think of any other small- or medium-sized country which is so often held up to the outside world as a model or as a dreadful warning. When it was the model of a welfare state, both left and right assumed that there could be nowhere else in the West that was so close to working socialism. When it was the most welcoming country in Western Europe to immigrants and refugees, this gave it a corresponding importance among both supporters and opponents of mass immigration. Even its policies on prostitution—where the working girls are legal, but their pimps and customers are criminalized—have been held up on both sides of that debate.

In the coronavirus pandemic, it has been cited both as the country that got everything right, by refusing to impose a lockdown, and as the place that got everything wrong, by allowing the virus to rage freely in old people’s homes, leading to an early death toll far higher than in neighboring nations.

This prominence in the world’s imagination depends on one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the country: Sweden is a very high-trust society. Swedes know how they should behave, and they expect everyone else to behave in the same way. They say what they believe to be true and they expect everyone else to share that belief. That’s why large parts of the country work so well; it’s also why it is defenseless against shameless fantasists like the analyst in the military.

High-trust societies are always vulnerable to such betrayals. What keeps them safe in normal times is their conformism. People feel an obligation to stick to the rules. Swedes, like other Nordic peoples, have a very strong sense of what is and is not “done.” Ironically, it is this conformism and deference toward the unwritten rules of society that led Sweden by a tortuous route to becoming an idol for libertarians in the global pandemic.

The first steps on this path were taken almost by accident. In the 1930s Sweden was the most industrially advanced of the Nordic countries, and though it was intellectually and culturally part of the German sphere of interest, neutrality in World War I had spared it the devastating social consequences of defeat. Swedish social democracy was therefore able to develop without being crushed between Nazism and communism, as the German Social Democrats were. For Anglo-Saxon thinkers on the left, Sweden then seemed to offer a golden path into the future, a “middle way” between communism and unfettered capitalism.

Swedish politicians were happy to play along with this. They trusted their own propaganda. In the decades of social democracy, it was axiomatic all across the West—not least in Sweden itself—that Sweden was the summit of human progress, the brightest beacon of enlightened Europe: rich, peaceful, democratic, and generous to outsiders. At the same time, Sweden became a dreadful warning to conservatives everywhere—including, quietly, among conservatives in Sweden itself. It was a right-wing lawyer in Stockholm who first use the phrase “cultural Marxism” to me in the early 1980s, to describe his own government. But ideas such as his were entirely marginalized in those days. They weren’t even denounced. They simply leaped through the Overton window to their deaths.

But as the example of my lawyer friend showed, what looked like consensus was actually conformity. What really mattered was that everyone should agree on an ideology and feel they must believe in it. Which ideology this was, or what it said, was very much less important. When social democracy appeared to stop working in the 1980s, everyone, even the social democrats, switched to believing in market solutions.

It took decades for the outside world to notice this. The foreigners who see in Sweden a chart to a better future have never been much interested in the reality of the country that the map supposedly describes. But the pandemic has greatly accelerated the process.

This was signalized by the news that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had consulted a Swedish epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, on the correct response to the coronavirus. It’s a transformation of the country’s image. Now Sweden enthuses libertarians with its refusal to require its citizens to wear masks or to lock down the country out of fear.

You would not know from much of the foreign coverage that these decisions have been fiercely criticized within Sweden itself. As early as April 26 this year, 200 scientists of various sorts, some of them both prestigious and working in the relevant fields, signed an open letter that was scathingly critical of the strategy. Of course, this libertarian enthusiasm, at home and abroad, overlooks the country’s remarkably high death toll in the early stages of the pandemic, along with the huge damage done to its export-dependent economy. And if you actually read Tegnell’s long and surprisingly open discussions of his strategy, he is much less worried about freedom in the abstract than by the long-term health effects of a prolonged economic downturn.

This uniformed enthusiasm is not entirely the fault of the admiring foreigners or slapdash media reports. Swedish politicians encourage the idea that Sweden works just the way the plans say it should. They too trust the maps far more than the country. This was very clear during the decades when Sweden had an extremely liberal immigration policy, supported by all the respectable parties, and opposed only by the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing nationalist party that took a very long time to shake off the stigma of its fascist roots in the 1980s.

By 2010 it was obvious that provincial Sweden, outside the delightful and rich city centers, was not a welcoming place for immigrants. When I talked to voters in the unfashionable parts of the country it was obvious that for many of them, there was something wrong with immigrants—something that the prevailing political consensus wouldn’t acknowledge. The immigrants, they felt, weren’t attuned to the Swedish consensus about a proper way of life—and thus you couldn’t trust them to understand how a Swede ought to behave.

But when I asked the then minister of integration, Nyamko Sabuni, herself originally from Burundi, what the plan was when the Sweden Democrats broke into parliament at the 2010 elections, as the polls suggested they must, she replied simply that it was unthinkable that they should do so. There was no plan for that contingency, so it couldn’t possibly happen.

That year, SD got 5.7 percent of the vote, nearly 50 percent more than they had needed to get into the parliament for the first time. Four years later, their share of the vote had more than doubled, to 12.9 percent, after all the other parties agreed to ignore them entirely and to vote as if they had no influence in parliament. After that election, at another embassy lunch, I asked Fredrik Reinfeldt, who had been Moderate Party prime minister during those years and resigned after his defeat, whether he regretted the loss of votes to his right. He replied that as a liberal, he had always believed in freedom of movement and he was not going to abandon that belief now.

The map projected by Swedish social conformity, after all, suggested that Swedes were enlightened anti-racists who welcomed the benefits of globalization. If the country was different, so much the worse for the country. Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats, with equal untruth, were talking down the country as a hellhole full of no-go zones where sharia law was maintained by force. They, too, believe their own propaganda, and found plenty of foreigners on the right to share their beliefs.

Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, and in 10 years’ time the left will once more talk up Sweden as a place where everything is simple and works as it should. One thing is certain not to happen: The country won’t quietly be remembered as the quirky, frequently delightful, and dreadfully self-important backwater that I love. It’s too well established as a map—rather than a real living place—for that. The only question is who will plot which voyages to their future there.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout