The distinctive paradox of Swedish individualism | Aeon Essays

Solna Centrum subway station, Stockholm. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

All countries must balance the freedom of individuals with the demands of the community. Sweden’s solution is unique

It was confusing. When the novel coronavirus hit the world in early 2020, Sweden of all countries chose to ignore the global consensus that favoured lockdowns and severe restrictions. Better known for its interventionist welfare policies, Sweden suddenly seemed to have become a European version of Texas by putting individual liberty before the collective good. The liberal New York Times dubbed it a ‘pariah state’ and accused Swedish politicians and health officials of keeping Sweden open for economic reasons. At the other end of the political spectrum, Right-wing American radicals who demonstrated against government restrictions carried signs calling for their leaders to follow Sweden’s example. Perplexing to all, the spectacle – or spectre – of a ‘libertarian welfare state’ loomed.

This story is not new but a reversal of an old one. Traditionally, the Left has held up Sweden as a beacon of social solidarity, while the Right has lamented the lack of individual freedom. Now Dr Jekyll had turned into Mr Hyde – or maybe the other way around, depending on one’s political inclinations.

But was it really such a dramatic turnabout? There was always something simplistic about the presentations of Sweden in the United States and elsewhere as a model for egalitarianism and social engineering. Though a readymade for progressive politics, it has seldom been based on any deeper understanding of Swedish history and culture. Sweden has, it turns out, never been the socialist paradise some outsiders have imagined – nor is it the libertarian haven it has been made out to be today.

In reality, Sweden is sui generis. To understand Sweden, it is necessary to begin with the tug-of-war between two powerful human impulses: the desire for individual sovereignty and the unavoidable necessity of being part of society. To describe this condition, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant coined a phrase that has since become a classic concept in social thought: der ungesellige Geselligkeit, ‘asocial sociability’. We humans, he claimed, have an innate impulse to associate with our own kind. We must be part of a community, not merely to survive but in order to develop our innate abilities. But this requirement, both ethical and necessary, also elicits from the individual a kind of resistance that threatens to dissolve the community.

All human beings, Kant argued, have a predisposition to isolate themselves, rooted in a desire to arrange everything according to their own fancy. And yet this contradiction is not merely some tragic circumstance that condemns humanity to unending unhappiness. In fact, as the 19th-century Swedish philosopher Erik Gustaf Geijer saw, movement between community and autonomy serves to strengthen each element:

The more individuals seek to detach themselves, the more acutely they feel the baleful nature of this necessity, which, even under conditions of reciprocal hatred, forces them to forge ever-closer bonds of mutual dependence.

Confronted by this existential paradox, all societies have sought to find a balance between the imperative of social virtues and the individual’s desire for freedom. However, the solutions to this universal dilemma have differed around the world. Some societies have erred on the side of social and political control, minimising individual freedom. Others have sought to diminish state interference in the private domain, and instead trust in the market, families and voluntary solidarity in civil society. Sweden is of interest because it has created a social contract embracing a strong state but in the service of an extreme form of individual autonomy. It has not compromised in either direction but has embraced the Kantian paradox head-on – and with gusto.

We may study this social contract from two directions. From above we can trace the institution-building, which shows that the hallmark of modern Sweden – which is not so much a model as a historical product – is that it claims to offer its citizens freedom from the traditional bonds of community without jeopardising the moral order of society. In a seeming paradox, Sweden has managed to combine high levels of social trust and a faith in collective institutions with an affirmation of individual autonomy. As comparative studies of social trust – as well as trust in institutions – show, Sweden stands out as a high-trust society along with other countries (Germany and Austria). At the same time, as the World Values Survey (2017-22) data show (see Figure 2 below), Sweden is also extreme when it comes to the stress on values that emphasise self-realisation as well as those that view the individual, rather than family, clan, religious community or ethnic group, as the fundamental units of society. This stress on individual autonomy is in turn linked to related values such as attention to gender equality, children’s rights, and the rights of sexual minorities. The name I have given to this alliance between state and individual is statist individualism.

But to fully understand this social contract we must also ask the crucial question of what has made this arrangement popular among the citizens of Sweden at the individual, existential level. After all, the institution-building that since the 1930s has transformed the country coincided with the democratisation of Sweden, itself a gradual process that unfolded over the course of the 20th century. At first, it included just men – and only later women, children, the elderly, and individuals long discriminated against and excluded from full political life in Sweden.

Social scientists linked to the dominant Swedish Social Democratic party played a role. At times they fashioned themselves as social engineers, eager to arrange the lives of the citizens, but they were not free to act as they pleased since they were subject to frequent electoral judgment. Thus, popular support for the nation’s peculiar social contract was from the start premised on the political leaders’ ability to grasp popular preferences. These included, prominently, a widespread belief in the importance of being independent of other people, of being autonomous and not subordinate or made indebted – whether that debt be economic, emotional or social. At the heart of this conviction is the idea that true love and friendship, indeed any authentic relationship, is built not on mutual dependence, but on equality, freedom of choice and autonomy. I have named this moral logic the Swedish theory of love.

The gap between the rhetoric of family values and the reality of poverty and solitude was clearly wide

To ordinary citizens, this social contract, as it over time evolved from vision to concrete reality, has proven very attractive.[,,,]

Continue reading: The distinctive paradox of Swedish individualism | Aeon Essays

Lars Trägårdh

is professor of history at Uppsala University, Sweden. His most recent book, co-authored with Henrik Berggren, is The Swedish Theory of Love: Individualism and Social Trust in Modern Sweden (2022).

About agogo22

Director of Manchester School of Samba at
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5 Responses to The distinctive paradox of Swedish individualism | Aeon Essays

  1. A country where people favour individual autonomy, without infringing on the autonomy of other citizens, will be stronger, because its citizens want and bear responsibility for themselves and for their actions.
    I do recognize the situation as described in Sweden from when I lived there. But there is one other thing that keeps Swedish society together, and that is the “jantelag”, the equality law, an unwritten law that has the effect that nobody wants to stand out in a crowd, at least not negatively (in contradiction to the craving of autonomy), and the firm belief that everybody is of the same value. They have it also in Denmark (jantelov).

    I found it hard to get close to Swedish people. Even if one had talked to them the day before, they would hardly greet you the next day. But, when I addressed them, they would react friendly. I found then out that they are reserved, not because they don’t like others, but because they don’t want to infringe on other people’s privacy. Autonomy paired with considerateness. I find very much the same behaviour here in the north of Jutland.

    What happens in the US right now is completely different. There isn’t any considerateness or believe in everybody’s equal value as far as I can see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • agogo22 says:

      That chimes with what I saw in the brief time I spent there in the 80s.

      I think Americans I’ve met, though generous of spirit, spend a lot of energy trying to work out if others are friend or foe?

      Liked by 1 person

      • You might be right there … a friend being someone who thinks like themselves. They seem to have a deeply emotional approach to everything, which makes it almost impossible to have a normal (cool, calm and collected 🙂 ) discussion with them.


      • agogo22 says:

        In family discussions I find though we share blood and language, they are not quite the same – not so much emotional as balkanised – as though we are living in adjacent parallel universes. Then either one or the other side of the Atlantic will say something that reminds us of our commonality!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Family is very important to them. I guess family is automatically non-foe? Even if opinions differ? I wish we all could focus more on our commonalities.

        Liked by 1 person

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