TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Debating the Nordic Consensus Culture

The similarities between the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have recently been manifested in their new Berlin embassies—five separate buildings and one common house, distributed around an open courtyard.

In English, the geographically more restricted term “Scandinavian” is often taken to be synonymous with “Nordic,” although the former geographical term actually excludes Finland and Iceland. I shall here use the term “Nordic,” even while focusing on a section in Telos 148 (Fall 2009) called “From Scandinavia.”

Although “Nordic” is not quite a nationality, the concept could favorably be compared to the idea of being “German” before the Prussian-Austrian war of 1859—a time when “German” was also a disputed concept. However, the Nordic debate about what we actually have in common was hardly ever so heated. The last war between our countries occurred as long ago as in 1814. Swedish troops then entered Norway, which Denmark had been forced to give up, after the Danish government had sided for too long with Napoleonic France. Sweden, having lost Finland to Russia in 1809, sacked the old king, adopted a new one from among Napoleon’s Marshalls, and marched together with the rest of Europe against France.

Even today, from a Swedish perspective, it would not really be good sport to allow three Danish scholars to define undisputed the current cultural and political situation in the Nordic countries. The Danes here referred to do not present a unified argument, and maybe some of them would disagree by my grouping them together as “Danes.” Kasper Støvring writes about cultural policy and focuses Denmark. Frederik Stjernfelt has a more general perspective concerning the debate on religious fundamentalism, yet most of his examples are Danish. Klaus Solberg Søilen’s topic is politics and is concerned precisely with “Scandinavia,” and to some extent also Finland. Yet, a common point for all three is the recurrent critique of the left. Whereas Støvring is clearly conservative, Stjernfelt poses as a liberal and Solberg Søilen can probably be termed a populist, of the right-wing kind, it would seem: he complains about the salaries of skilled craftsmen (p. 85): “it is very difficult to get hold of a qualified carpenter or electrician.”

Solberg Søilen thinks that the Swedish “romanticized” version of the Social Democratic Welfare state has dominated also the other countries. But, according to Solberg Søilen, this vision now merely hides the more brutal facts (p. 73): “party distinctions in Scandinavian politics no longer involve coherent ideas related to political ideologies, but . . . parties instead have become machines to maintain power and keep supporters employed.” Solberg Søilen himself appears to have something of an ideological agenda: “the Scandinavian welfare state model has shifted from providing support to the poor to guaranteeing the middle class a certain lifestyle” (ibid). This and similar arguments could have been presented neutrally as merely a series facts, with reference to statistics and source critique. Solberg Søilen instead chooses to support his argument by tendentious language, as revealed not just in the previous quotations. The idea that ideology has disappeared would seem to be falsified by the apparent ease whereby the three Danes adopt separate ideological positions, while simultaneously forming a front toward the left.

The three Danes appearing side by side in Telos seem to want to demonstrate that at least in Danish culture and politics, consensus is lacking, due to an apparently unwelcome influence from three sources: Swedish social democracy, cultural radicalism, and fundamentalist religion. From various perspectives, they all believe that everything will be fine, as soon as Denmark is relieved of these threats, presented as eminently external factors.

Stjernfelt wants to explain that “secularism” is not a fundamentalism, as “the religious person argues.” He does not really try to bridge the positions that he from the start defines as ideological opposites. Little room is left for lukewarm common sense, as if we really had to make a choice today: between superstitious fundamentalism and Stjernfelt’s version of secularism. Here, while accepting that secularism is hardly a fundamentalism, I am surprised by Stjernfelt’s strong conviction that secularism nevertheless must be portrayed as an ideology.

Why does Stjernfelt feel compelled to colonize all aspects of the secular age? Is not secularism more than a recently discovered rational system of arguments? To many, it instead appears to be a long-term cultural shift, involving new ways of belief and rarely being easy to disentangle from previous religious epochs. To some extent, the latter were not merely carried by superstition, but also by efforts to make the world more rational. Støvring’s reference (p. 64) to Gadamer and the dynamic effects of past knowledge here seems more pertinent than Stjernfelt’s suspicions.

I don’t mind that Stjernfelt denies that cultural beliefs could have the same status as individual human rights. But I do not see why the secular welfare state’s protection of rights needs to be reinforced by an ideology of secularism, as opposed to just plain secularism. If Stjernfelt insist on supporting such an ideology, perhaps he should call it either “atheism” or “republicanism”? This is what the French believe in, it seems. On the other hand, is it really true that there exists a unified ideology called “culturalism” which, according to Stjernfelt, “constitutes a major political step backward, which threatens to erode 250 years of enlightenment and to open the door to never-ending religious wars” (p. 53)? Scary if it was true, but it seems a bit exaggerated.

Støvring, apparently unaware of Stjernfelt worries, seems more confident in the substance of a specifically Danish culture. Although he admits that the nation still need to be defined and supported by a cultural policy—to counter the negative effects of previous “liberal” and “radical” policies: “How do we define the nation? And what about the practical policies? These questions are not at all easy to answer. But that is not a reason to refrain from giving a try” (p 72).

Among the three Danes, Støvring’s confidence fits better with the standard narrative about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries as truly successful countries, in terms of politics, culture, and economy. As recently revealed firstly by Iceland’s experience of the financial crisis, economic success is least self-evident. Norway became rich only in the 1970s, when it became profitable to produce North Sea oil. Finland turned wealthy in the 1990s, thanks to Nokia mobile phones. Denmark got rich on agriculture and trade at the end of the nineteenth century, Sweden in the 1930s due to raw materials and heavy industry. According to 2008 OECD statistics, all the Nordic countries are to be found among the top thirteen in terms of GDP per capita, Norway as number two, the other countries ranking 10 to 13 (not entirely reliable as far as Iceland is concerned, but the others have climbed the scale due to financial stability). At least as important, the Nordic countries have top ranks in terms of rule of law, democracy, health, and gender equality.

The potential for calling this experience an international success story was exploited already in 1936, by the American writer Marquis Childs, reportedly a close follower of president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the seminal book Sweden: The Middle Way, he held up both Sweden and Denmark as models of prosperous cooperation between labor and capital: “Protected from the imperialist rivalries by a wide strip of sea, the political and economic life of the Scandinavian countries achieved a slow, careful growth that was impossible on the mainland. Out of this evolutionary growth came a way of life that is characterized by certain fundamental distinctions—of stability, of order, of sanity—which set it quite apart” (Childs 1936, p. 21).

There are many reasons why this story about a slow cooperative life seemed so attractive also after the tumultuous 1930s. The importance of the story was supported even by its critics, notably by the Danish-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose, who in the 1933 novel “A fugitive crosses his tracks” (Eng. trans. 1936) described or rather invented a series of prohibitive commands called “the law of Jante.” This was a mentality that according to Sandemose ruled all small municipalities in Scandinavia, stating that nobody should be different.

That criticism can be supported by studies of communal practices in Danish farming cooperatives receiving their ideology from the famous priest Grundtvig; or by studies of small Swedish industrial communities, ruled paternalistically first by the factory owner but soon also by the strong unions. Of course we can also note tendencies to mind control in Protestantism, where it was deemed important that every subject really believed. The Scripture had to be brought zu Hause, Martin Luther argued. But the effects of the populations in the Nordic countries having to learn to read their own bibles were more far reaching.

Perhaps, by revealing my skepticism vis-à-vis the Danes, I risk appearing to merely support the idea that we live in the best possible of worlds. The homogenizing aspect of culture, politics, and economy in the Nordic countries—the back side of consensus—is clearly worth debating. Yet, I truly believe that if such a debate is presented as an inclusive rather than exclusive move, it will be more fruitful in setting up common goals and a competition among the means. The general situation in the Nordic countries appears to be precisely such a stable position, which allow for debate. Unfortunately, these Danish authors instead demonstrate a serious of tendentious and sometimes cynical efforts to question the integrity of their opponents or rather caricatures of these: the left, social democracy, cultural radicals, and for some strange reason, probably having to do with aspects of the academic debate in Denmark unknown to me, Jacques Derrida.

Acknowledging that Støvring seems to feel more comfort with the strength mobilized through tradition, his effort to build on Danish nationalism does not fit his refusal to recognize the contributions of Danish cultural radicalism in the nineteenth century (e.g., Søren Kierkegaard was a radical, wasn’t he?).

It is hardly by chance that three Danes take on these essentially defensive positions. The Danish state and Danish nationality was established longer ago than the other Nordic countries, just after the Viking era. Also modern rule of law, democracy, and welfare was developed early on in Denmark, during the nineteenth century. But Denmark has also been haunted by defeats. Today we should probably not overestimate the impact of losing Norway in 1814 or Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, but more importantly the Second World War in Denmark was an experience that remains difficult to integrate in a progressive national mythology.

If Norway was also occupied in April 1940, the Norwegians put up a fight. Furthermore, they had already mobilized intellectually to get rid of Swedish rule in 1905, a divorce that involved peaceful if somewhat agitated negotiations. Finland suffered two defeats against the Soviet Union, but could look back upon a more successful war of liberation in 1917—or a bloody civil war, if we listen more closely to some of the defeated parties. The Finns remain proud of their ability to defeat the Russians in several battles, even if the war was lost twice, in 1940 and in 1944.

Finally, the Swedes could soften the impression of having betrayed democracy by trading with Hitler’s Germany. Successive governments have proudly recalled a series of gestures of international solidarity toward the Finns (Sweden was not neutral but nonbelligerent during the 1939–40 winter war), the Norwegians, the Danes, and the Jews. Later, this ideal of international solidarity has been repeatedly reinforced by Swedish support for the United Nations. A recent overview of war experiences in the Nordic countries can be found in the volume edited by Kerstin von Lingen, Kriegserfahrung und nationale Identität in Europa nach 1945 (Schöning, 2009).

Here, it might sound a bit superficial to claim that Danish scholars remain affected by the lack of war in Denmark during the Second World War, notably because of the ensuing difficulty to mythologize this historical experience for national purposes: efforts based upon heroes of the resistance remain rather bleak. Just like in Germany, Italy, or France, rigid attitudes will presumably soften over time.

Of course a full explanation of what we might call Danish exceptionalism must be based on a comparison of much more than memory politics. How important are the differences in municipal life that we easily discern, even if we only compare the Nordic countries from the hotel rooms of international conferences: the rather flat Danish landscape where even a huge city like Copenhagen seem to blend easily with surrounding small villages; the dramatic mountains of Norway where small communities cling closely to the fjords; the great lakes and forests of Finland and Sweden and their apparent fascination with big industry.

It is tempting to call Denmark more continental, more bourgeois. How strange that such ancient nineteenth-century notions carry any weight at all in our age of globalization.

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