Nordic Magic and the Paradox of Asocial Sociability

By Lars Trägårdh September 10, 2014 One Comment

Commentary on “Blueprint for a Global Village”

The Nordic Model was largely declared dead in the water around 1990, when Sweden and the other Nordic countries experienced serious economic crises. Critics, who had long predicted the collapse of the welfare state, celebrated the victory of a more hard-headed capitalism along neo-liberal lines. Today, some 25 years later, the Nordic Model is back with a vengeance, and this time its fans include not only the friends of the Socialist International but also World Economic Forum, Financial Times, and the Economist; the latter published a 14-page special report on “The Next Super-Model: Why the world should look at the Nordic countries.”

The very fact that the Nordic Model today is no longer exclusively the darling of left-liberals should give pause to those who identify, too strongly perhaps, the Nordic Model with cooperation, community and solidarity. In these comments, I will attempt to balance this narrative on the Nordics as especially altruistic by highlighting the other side, namely that the Nordics are not simply masters of solidarity and cooperation but also, as Nina Witoszek notes in her comments on Wilson and Hessen’s essay, winners in the global, competitive game of capitalism.

Let me start with a long quote from one of the greatest of our philosophers, Immanuel Kant, as he seeks to grasp the nature of antagonism in human affairs in Ideas for a universal history with cosmopolitan intent:

I mean by antagonism the asocial sociability of man, i.e., the propensity of men to enter into a society, which propensity is, however, linked to a constant mutual resistance that threatens to dissolve this society. This propensity apparently is innate in man. Man has an inclination to associate himself, because in such a state he feels himself more like a man capable of developing his natural faculties. Man has also a marked propensity to isolate himself, because he finds in himself the asocial quality to want to arrange everything according to his own ideas. He therefore expects resistance everywhere, just as he knows of himself that he is inclined to resist others. This resistance awakens all the latent forces in man that drive him to overcome his propensity to be lazy, and so, impelled by vainglory, ambition and avarice, he seeks to achieve a standing among his fellows, whom he does not suffer gladly, but whom he cannot leave. Thus the first steps from barbarism to culture are achieved; for culture actually consists in the social value of man. All man’s talents are gradually unfolded, taste is developed. Through continuous enlightenment the basis is laid for a frame of mind that, in the course of time, transforms the raw natural faculty of moral discrimination into definite practical principles. Thus a pathologically enforced coordination of society finally transforms it into a moral whole. Without these essentially unlovely qualities of asociability, from which springs the resistance that everyone must encounter in his egoistic pretensions, all talents would have remained hidden germs. If man lived an Arcadian shepherd’s existence of harmony, modesty and mutuality, man, good-natured like the sheep he is herding, would not invest his existence with greater value than that his animals have. Man would not fill the vacuum of creation as regards his end, rational nature. Thanks are due to nature for his quarrelsomeness, his enviously competitive vanity, and for his insatiable desire to possess or to rule, for without them all the excellent natural faculties of mankind would forever remain undeveloped. Man wants concord but nature knows better what is good for his kind; nature wants discord. Man wants to live comfortably and pleasurably but nature intends that he should raise himself out of lethargy and inactive contentment into work and trouble and then he should find means of extricating himself adroitly from these latter. The natural impulses, the sources of asociability and continuous resistance from which so many evils spring, but which at the same time drive man to a new exertion of his powers and thus to a development of his natural faculties, suggest the arrangement of a wise creator and not the hand of an evil spirit who might have ruined this excellent enterprise or spoiled it out of envy.

Here, Kant echoes Adam Smith and his observation that the many acts of selfish individuals seeking to maximize their own gain and glory add up, at the aggregate level of society, to enrich the “wealth of the nation.” Along these lines and according to a similar logic, we must not, in our admiration for the official, almost propagandistic representation of the Nordic Model, be altogether deluded by the wholesome talk of social democracy, cooperation, and dugnad. Instead, we should venture further into if not its “heart of darkness,” then at least into a more complex dynamic and logic that far from being antithetical to selfishness and greed stands in a rather harmonic relationship to the principles if (neo)liberalism. In my view, it is necessary to have two balls in the air while pondering the magic of the Nordic Model: the Nordic social contracts are at the same time projects for individual freedom, autonomy, and sovereignty. All of these projects embrace the individual’s desire to “arrange everything according to his own ideas” and are an expression of the other side of the Kantian paradox, namely a particularly successful attempt to take those “first steps from barbarism to culture” and to thus realize the “social value of man.”

In this perspective, let me make a few observations.

  1. Historically, this coincidence of individual freedom and a good society is linked to the singular freedom of the Nordic peasants, who elsewhere were enserfed or otherwise subjected to feudal oppression. In Sweden and Norway in particular, they retained civil rights and property rights. In Sweden, they even retained their political standing as a fourth estate in the parliament alongside the nobility, the clergy, and the priests. By the end of the 17th century, they owned more than half of Swedish real estate. This meant several things. On the one hand, collective and cooperative practices such as dugnad, the commons, and allemansrätten (every man’s right to access to nature, no matter who formally owns it) endured. This is in contrast to the enclosure movements that elsewhere lead to the privatization of commons – and anticipated the neo-liberal cult of exclusive private property and the related abhorrence of the common (the tragedy of the common). But on the other hand, it also left a lasting legacy with regard to the centrality of property rights and land ownership. I have argued that it is this paradoxical co-existence of social values, expressed in high level of social trust and respect for the law and the common institutions, and a legacy of individual freedom linked to the peasants’ ability to retain their civil, political and property rights ultimately explains the strange fact that the Nordic countries (Nordic Model/Nordic Culture) score so high when it comes to both individualistic and social values. They are socialists who like to own stuff, individualists who see the state as an ally, and egalitarians who value personal freedom and autonomy.[1]
  2. An often-noted threat to social cohesion in the Nordic countries is linked to what some argue is a legacy of cultural, social and religious homogeneity that is currently facing rapidly building pressures in the age of migration and diversity. Can high levels of social trust, social cohesion, a politics of solidarity institutionalized in the welfare state survive as society becomes pluralized and diversified – as well as less equal? One can find empirical evidence that supports both a yes and no answer to this question. On the one hand, Sweden is one of the most “generous” with respect to both refugee and labor immigration. And surveys also show that it is comparatively one of the least xenophobic countries. Other data indicate that Swedes today are more tolerant of diversity and immigration than ever before. Yet at the same time, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party is growing. There is a debate in Sweden about the extent to which a preference of those who are like yourself – in terms on race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc – is natural and rooted in our evolution or whether it is “merely” a “socially constructed” phenomenon. Linked to this is the debate on increasing inequality – in the age of Piketty.[2]
  3.  Universalism vs particularity. Another paradox of the Nordic social contract is that it tends to simultaneously speak in terms of Nordic exceptionalism and in universal terms (values such as equality, freedom, solidarity, autonomy, etc).  Given that one may want to ground a project such as that presented by Wilson and Hessen in universal terms, allowing the Nordic model to be a point of inspiration for others, it becomes crucial to grasp and analyze this tension between claims of particularity, such as the greatness of the Nordic countries, and claims of universality, including the claim that these social contracts are simply particularly successful instantiations of universal dilemmas – not least how of all, how to reconcile the lust for individual freedom and sovereignty with the necessity to live in society. This conflict is human nature as Kant describes it: a fundamental “asocial sociability.” Furthermore, if the aim is to join cultural and evolutionary perspectives on the Nordic Model, this fusing of the universal (evolution) to the particular (culture) again becomes central.

The key here might be that the Nordic societies are characterized by an internalization of social norms and formal laws that support a both a smoothly functioning social order (with low transaction costs linked to high levels of trust) and a great deal of individual autonomy and freedom along with a high degree of social equality.

  1. Kant and Hegel. I have already invoked Kant – let me also take note of Hegel. If the Nordic countries can be said to be examples of a productive resolution of the Kantian paradox – that man appears to strive for maximum individual freedom while having to live in society with others – it is also true that they appear to be Hegelian. What I mean here is that the modern expression of the ancient commons, the State, is viewed positively in the Nordic countries to an extent that is unusual in a comparative perspective. We see this paradox clearly if we consider the dynamic that has ruled relations between state and civil society (civil society in Hegel’s terms, i.e., including the market). Hegel viewed civil society as the arena where we strive to satisfy needs and wants, individually and in groups. The market is the modern and most efficient mechanism for this. Hegel, following Smith, saw this as good for creating personal and national wealth. But it remained limited by its restriction to the particular or private interest; it could never solve the problems that a free civil society itself created (inequality, chaos, etc). A second principle addressed these issues – the universal interest – embodied by the State and its neutral agents. The Nordic political system is built around what we can think of as a neo-Hegelian principle, embracing a vibrating market and a vocal civil society but balancing this with a State that creates the institutions where particular needs and interests are mediated under the overarching idea of the primacy of the universal or national interest – including ideals such as equality, solidarity and individual autonomy.[3]

[1] Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh, “Social Trust and Radical Individualism: The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism” in The Nordic Way. Global Utmaning: Stockholm, 2011.

[2] Lars Trägårdh, “the Historical Incubators of Trust in Sweden: From the Rule of Blood to the Rule of Law” in M. Reuter, F. Wijkström and B. Kristensson Uggla, Trust and Organizations, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[3] Lars Trägårdh, “Rethinking the Nordic welfare state through a neo-Hegelian theory of state and civil society,” in Journal of Political Ideologies, 15: 3, 227—239. 2010.

Published On: September 10, 2014

Lars Trägårdh

Lars Trägårdh

Lars Trägårdh is a historian who has lived in the US since 1970 while maintaining his personal and professional ties to Sweden. After many years as entrepreneur and businessman, he returned to academic studies in 1986. He received his Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley in 1993 after living and carrying out research for several years in both Germany and Sweden. Later he taught European history at Barnard College, Columbia University for ten years, and was affiliated with the Institute for the Study of Europe at Columbia University. In Sweden he has served as a guest professor at the University of Linköping, and also conducted a research project at Södertörn University College, which resulted in the book Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige (Is Sweden human? Community and independence in modern Sweden, 2006, pocket 2009) – co-written with Henrik Berggren.

Currently he divides his time between the US and Europe. In the US he is working on several long-term projects, including one on “litigation as politics by other means” that is focused on the intersection on law, power and politics in the US and Europe. In Sweden he is affiliated with the Ersta Sköndal University College where he works both on individual projects – one concerning on children’s rights regimes in Sweden, France, and the United States, and another on state and civil society relations – and on a major collective research project on social trust for which he serves as co-director.

He has also appeared on Swedish radio and TV and published frequently in Swedish print media, establishing a role as a public commentator on Swedish and American politics and society. Currently he writes an occasional column for the Swedish daily newspaper Sydsvenskan on the intellectual debate in the US, and also contributes to the journal Axess.

One Comment

  • Radek says:

    Just a nit-Pickin’ note – it’s “Piketty”. (And off topic, but inequality has been falling everywhere in Latin America and Africa, so this Age of Piketty is very specific to the richest countries)