The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

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Intellectual Humiliation

Confront your own ignorance.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

Behind the myth of the Scandinavia utopia

Perhaps the vague familiarity, the superficial sameness, is one of the reasons that the rest of the world has not cared to learn anything beyond fictional representations of the Scandinavians. And it was the main reason why the author decide to write this book. 



Midsummer’s Eve is one of the highlights of the Scandinavian calendar; pagan in origin but adapted by the Church and renamed in honor of “Sankt Hans” (St. John). In Sweden they will dance around maypoles garlanded with flowers; in Finland and Norway, they will have gathered around bonfires. In Denmark, they gather around a fire to sing “Vi Elster Vort Land” (We Love Our Country). 

The Danes take their partying very seriously, are enthusiastic drinkers, committed communal singers, and highly sociable when among friends. 

The Danes have a refreshingly laid-back approach to their work-life balance, which had major consequences – both positive (the happiness) and potentially negative (sometimes they need to buckle down and do some work), but most will inform their boss, straight up, about having to leave work early in during the summer break so they can attend barbecues and parties at their friend’s house. There are few “live to work” types in this country; particularly those who work in the public sector – and they are frank and unapologetic about their ongoing efforts to put in the barest of minimum houses required to support lives to acceptable comfort. 

The Danes work almost half the number of hours per week they did a century ago and significantly fewer than the rest of Europe: 1,559 hours a year compared to the EU average of 1,749 hours and the US average of 2,087. According to a 2011 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study encompassing thirsty countries, the Danes were second only to the Belgians in the laziness stakes – that’s global. More than 754,000 Danes aged between 15 and 64 – over 20% of the working population – do not work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits. If you get laid off, unemployment benefits of up to 90% of previous wages for up to two years (until recent reforms,t it was up to 11 years). The Danes call their system flexicurity, a neologism bleeding the flexibility Danish companies enjoy to fire people with short notice and little compensation (compared with Sweden, where jobs can still be for life) with the security the labor market enjoys knowing that there will be ample support in times of unemployment.  

Denmark has a much more laissez-faire attitude to booze than the rest of the region; there is no state-owned alcohol monopoly here, as there is in the other four Nordic countries. 

And in the summers, they flock to the northern islands where they will spend their time in a cabin on the shore and campsite with friends and family. 

But the author points out that things have not always been so rosy. To reach this point of heightened bliss, the Danes have had to endure terrible trauma, humiliation, and loss. Until that is, bacon came along and saved theirs. 


Once upon a time, the Danes ruled all of Scandinavia. The Kalmar Union of 1397 was a historic height point for the Danes, with the then queen, Margaret I, ruling a loosely unified Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The Union held for over a century until, in 1520, the then Danish king, Christian II, rashly beheaded around eighty Swedish nobles in the so-called Stockholm Bloodbath. Though Denmark did manage to hold on to Norway for a few hundred years more, Sweden would eventually come to not only rule Norway and Finland but as the author points out: hold Dane’s head in the toilet while allowing Britain and Germany to pull the handle. 

Under the reign of their great Renaissance king, Christian IV – Denmark’s Henry VIII – who oversaw some of Denmark’s most ambitious military and architectural projects, funded chiefly via the toll he extracted at Helsingor (Elsinore) from ships entering and leaving the Baltic through the narrow bottleneck there (the Panama Canal of the north), the Danes saw false dawn of sorts. Christian IV, lost a few too many battles, mostly with the Swedes, finally bringing his country to bankruptcy. One historian noted: “Financially Denmark had no sunk so lot that, when the most spending of her kings was finally laid to rest, his crown was in pawn and even the silken cloth which covered his coffins had to be bought on credit.” 

It would be Gustav Vasa, a Swedish king who died battling the Germans, who would transform Sweden into the key power in the region and beyond. 

Christina IV was fortunate not to have lived to witness one of the darkest days of Danish loss. By the terms of the Treaty of Roskilde, signed a decade later in 1658, the Danes were forced by the Swedes to relinquish what are today the southern Swedish regions of Skane, Blekinge, and Halland, as well as the Baltic island of Bornholm.

In 1801 a British fleet, with Nelson as second in command, attacked the Danish navy anchored outside Copenhagen to prevent it from falling into French hands. The British returned in 1807, this time to bombard Copenhagen for three days, resulting in the deaths of as many as two thousand locals and the desaturation of a good part of the city. This is supposedly the first ever bombardment of a civil target; even the British media were chiral at the time – and in fact, the attack had the opposite effect of that intended, forcing the Danes into the arms of the French.

After the Napoleonic wars, Denmark discovered that it had lost Norway and Sweden in another treaty, signed in Kiel in 1814. In 1864, Denmark was forced to abandon their thousand-year-old defenses, the Danevirke, Schleswig, and Holstein to the Prussians. 

With Schleswig and Holstein going south, Denmark had lost roughly a third of its remaining land area and population, and by some estimates as much as half of its potential income. Over time, it would also lose its small colonies in India and the West Indies and even the Faroes would vote for autonomy. All that was left was Iceland, but that shared monarchy linking those two nations would be severed by Adolf Hitler when his army invaded Denmark in April 1940. 

Denmark and Germany had signed a pact of mutual nonaggression a year earlier, but the Danes were weak when it came to self-defense by leaving many of their military post unmanned for seven months of the year. Although there was little resistance to Germany’s occupation for the first three years or so; both the Danish king and prime minister at the time criticized the nascent Danish underground when they occasionally carried out minor acts of sabotage. Unlike the Norwegians, who resisted with great courage and ingenuity, doing guerrilla-like tactics of sabotage, aided by their mountains and weather, the Danes had no choice but to submit to life as a pliable German satellite. They supplied agricultural produce and even troops to fight on the Eastern Front and in Berlinger during the Second World War. 

The author argues thought that these losses would bind the Danes together more tightly as a tribe than any other Nordic country. The territorial losses, sundry beatings, and myriad humiliations forced the Danes to turn their gaze inward, instilling in them not only fear of change and of external forces that abide by this day but also a remarkable self-sufficient and an appreciation of what little they had left. 

The authors say that these losses would force the Danes to look at things in a “glass half full” kind of way, largely because their glass was now half full. He also argues it was the reason the Danes would turn their outlook inward instead of outwards and try to compensate by building inwardly. 

As the Danish saying goes: what was lost without will be found within. 

This interpretation was taken from literary thought when in 1914 Denmark drained sandy territories in Jutland and formed fresh, farmable, arable land, effectively replacing the hectares it has lost to Germany. 

This was created in the Danes, what the author called, “humble pride.” The Danes will usually say something along the lines of “This is just a little land. We’re only a little over five million people; we’re pretty much all the same.” But after a while, the authors say that you will being to detect a steely pride beneath the surface humility. That’s when they will casually mention their world-leading wind turbine industry, the absence of poverty in Denmark, their free education and health system, and generous benefits. They’ll tell you about how they’re the most trustworthy and equal people in the world and how they have the best restaurants in the world and how the Vikings played a big role in it. 

The Danes have a deep and justifiably satisfaction born from the knowledge that they have built, from relatively uncompromising foundations, arguably the most successful society on the face of the earth. 

This foundation came about when in the mid-19th century, Denmark’s Great School Commission laid the foundations for the first free nationwide primary schools system in Europe. It was followed thirty years later by the Folk High School, founded by the poet, theologian, and fervent anti-Germany N. F. S. Grundtvig. Another key moment was when in 1849 the king renounced his absolutist powers and lead the revolution toward democracy. This, in turn, lead to important agricultural cooperatives that emerged soon after, which lead the Danes from turning from an agricultural society into pig farming almost overnight. The major factor in their successful society now can be seen when someone realized the type of steamy bacon the British preferred for breakfast and figure out a way to standardize pork production to meet that demand, essentially giving their society a stable customer.

Today, the Danes are the world’s leading pork butchers, slaughtering more than twenty-eight million pigs in a year. The Danish pork industry accounts for around a fifth of all the world’s pork exports, half of the domestic agricultural exports, and more than 5% of the country’s exports. 


One of the aspects of Danish society, that the author most found surprising, was the socioeconomic mix of people whenever there are social gatherings. Anyone from teachers, members of Parliament, doctors, baggage handlers, cooks, and craftsmen will get together for a nice summer party. He points out that the Danes have an uncommon facility to get on with each other regardless of age, class, or outlook. Equality comes easily to them. It helps that Denmark is essentially one giant middle class. 

Although it’s a kind of utopian fantasy, the Danes were taught since school that regardless of their social rank and occupation, they belonged to one people, and as such, he had one mother, one destiny, and one purpose. The result is that according to the New Statesman 90% of the population enjoy approximately identical standards of living. This striking economic equality lies not only at the core of the happiness and success of the Danes but of the people of the Nordic region as a whole. 

The Gini Coefficient quantifies how large a percentage of the total income of a society must be redistributed to achieve a perfectly equal distribution of wealth. 

Denmark, the happiest country in the world over many decades as judged by a wide range of researchers and institutions, is the fifth or sixth on the list of Gini, the lowest in all the Nordic countries. If Gini is the best indicator of income equality, and if income equality is the key ingredient for social utopia, then why is it the Danes, the southernmost members of the Nordic clan, the ones with the highest taxes, the most meager natural resources, the worst health, the most ignoble history, and the weakest economy, who are so regularly held to be the happiest people in the world, and not the most equal, and by most parameters, the much more successful Swedes? 

Happiness is subjective and tricky to quantify, plus notions of happiness differ depending on whom you ask. It also occurred to the author that these types of poles are self-perpetuating. The Danes are now well aware that the world considers them to be the happiest people, so perhaps this knowledge, along with the pleasure and price they justifiably feel in having such a reputation, influences how they respond to these quality-of-life surveys. 

According to Michael Marmont (the world leader in research into inequalities of health), you get a much more accurate picture of people’s well-being by analyzing the state of their health, than you get from asking them if they feel happy, or satisfied, or content, or any other subjective measure. 

Unfortunately, the Danes score notably bad in terms of their health. According to a report from World Cancer Research Foundation, the Danes have the highest cancer rates in the world (326 cases per 100,000 people). They also have the lowest average lifespan of any Nordic country, and the highest levels of alcohol consumption, ahead even of the famously drunk Finns.

Professor Wilkinson thinks is the high levels of smoking that are doing the damage. And there’s high data that suggest that once a society has reached high levels of equality, going beyond that point greater equality merely leads to diminishing happiness returns. 


The author points out that the Danes are arguably the most sociable people on earth. According to the Danish think tank Mandag Morgen, they belong to more associations, club unions, societies, and groups, and have larger social networks, than any other nationality – 43% of those over 16 belong to something or another. On average each Dane has 11.8 people in their network, compared with 8.7 per British person. There are 83,000 local and 3,000 national societies and associations in Denmark – on average every Dane belongs to three. Over a third belong to a sporting club or association. Support for all these groups is enshrined in Danish law – the Folkeoplysningslov or General Education Act – and local authorities provide all manner of assistance, funding, and premises for free, provided the association is properly organized and registered. 

Just like social gatherings, Danish clubs and societies tend to draw members from across the class spectrum. These clubs, associations, and societies are one manifestation of the Danes’ remarkable social cohesion. They do seem to be very much more tilknyttet, or “tied together. The author argues that in Denmark the six degrees of separation are cut down to half, for whenever two Danes don’t know each other, they will usually find a direct mutual acquaintance, or at the very least a friend-of-a-friend connection. 

The Danes’ fondness for clubs and associations is shared by their Nordic neighbors. The Swedes have an even greater trade-union membership and in their spare time are particularly keen on voluntary work: they call this instinct for diligent self-improvement organisationssverige or “organization Sweden.” The Finns are fanned for their after-work classes, particularly their amateur classical musicianship and fondness for joint orchestras, while the Norwegians’ love of communal outdoor pursuits, most famously cross-country skiing, is one of their defining characteristics.  

It seems logical to conclude that this social cohesion is closely linked to another factor that is often cited when talk turns to the Danish happiness phenomenon: their extraordinary levels of trust. According to the author, even though all the Nordic countries have high levels of trust, Dane is the most trusting person on the planet. In a 2011 survey by the OECD, 88.3% of Danes expressed a high level of trust in others, more than any other nationality. In the same survey, 96% of Danes said that they knew someone on whom they could depend in times of need. The Danes even trust their politicians, one measure of this being their 87% general election turnout. And Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index currently ranks Denmark and Finland as the least corrupt countries in the world, with Sweden and Norway following closely behind. 

Anyone who has lived in a city knows, that anonymity breeds a lack of responsibility and trust, so it seems logical that the greater the number of people who know one another or can identify with one another, will have the opposite effect. The author argues that everything from crime rates to levels of altruism is directly connected and affected by their high levels of interconnectedness – for certain gestures will be spotted and reciprocated. 

The author interviews Bjornskov, an expert in the fields of social trust, subjective well-being, and life satisfaction. He had this to say about Danish trust: 

“Back in the nineties, there was an experiment done where wallets were left around in various cities and they counted how many were returned. And the cool thing is that in the places where more people say they can trust others, the more wallets were returned. I think they experimented with about forty wallets and the only two countries where all forty were returned were Norway and Denmark. TV2 (a Danish TV channel) did the same experiment four years ago in Copenhagen Central Station, and they literally could not even leave their wallets – people would instantly pick them up and come running father them, so they had to give up!”

According to Bjornskov, the Danish trust saves the Justice system 15,000 kroner ($2,700), per person per year. Others believe that as much as 25% of the economy can be accounted for by social capital. Bureaucracies will be more straightforward and effective in a trusting society – the cost and time of transactions between companies will be reduced and less time will be spent paying lawyers to draw up costly contracts and limitations. Danish companies are freer about sharing knowledge and divulging secrets to one another; this has been cited as one of the reasons why for instance, the wind turbine industry flourished here in the 1970s, ultimately making the country the world leader in the field. 

Bjornskov also claims that education is more effective in societies with higher levels of trust because the students trust their teachers and one another more, and are thus able to concentrate better on the business of learning. Higher-skilled industries fare better, too, the more skilled a job is, the more difficult it is to check up on whether an employee is carrying out his or her duties as they should be, and so trust becomes that much more important. It’s tricky and costly to check that high-level consults, architects, IT technicians, or chemical engineers are working as they should, so trust becomes that much more important, which is one of the reasons why high-trust societies such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden excel in advanced industries like pharmaceuticals and electronics and attract foreign companies operating in these fields. 


The author jokes that finding out which came first: Denmark’s high trust levels or its social cohesion, is kind of difficult. Does social cohesion generate trust because it brings people together in a shared goal or interest, or is trust a precondition for people gathering together in the first place? 

The author states that trust and social cohesion are inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforced to be indivisible.

Trust, though, does not appear to have much to do with the absolute wealth of the country. If this were the case, why is relatively poor Estonia in 7th place on the OECD’s trust index, while fare more prosperous South Korea and the United States are in the bottom quarter of the list? 

The author discovered by trying to get to the bottom of this issue that of all the subjects being debated in Denmark the origin of their trust for one another is highly polarized political belief regarding everything from immigration to tax, class, and equality. 

In one camp some believe that the course of Denmark’s remarkable trust and social cohesion, and by extension also its happiness, is the country’s economic equality. The author calls this group the Gino’s who are huge advocates for the Danish welfare state model, which they believe plays a corner role in redistributing the country’s wealth fairly via taxes. 

On the other camp, there was the more monetarist, center-right persuasion who argue that the Danes have always had high levels of trust and social cohesion, and this date back to long before the advent of the welfare state. Top of this camp’s agenda is the downscaling of Denmark0s welfare state, which they feel has become unsustainable, and the reduction of Denmark’s taxes; they place less emphasis on economic equality and more on motivating society’s wealth-generators to improve Denmark’s poor productivity growth. 

The main argument is that even though Japan has a Gini Coefficient matching those of the Nordic region, they had low trust in each other; so equality doesn’t necessarily breed trust. Plus, the Danes’ income equality has decreased over the last two decades, even though their trust levels have continued to increase. 


The author states that the Vikings are the best bet as to the source of the Danes’ remarkable egalitarianism. 

Even though some like to argue that the Vikings had no social class and they were all equal, there were strict social reinforcement and even kings and queens in their society. The only difference is that the Vikings had a strict code of honor, which echoes the high levels of trust in Danish society today. 

Professor Bjornskov argued that the Danish trust system was there even before there was a welfare state, and he argues that this can be measured by the immigration the United States took back in the 19th century. The states with the highest amount of immigration from the Nordic countries, like Minnesota, had a higher level of trust amongst themselves than states that had a largely southern Italian or Greek immigration. 

Sweden, which has had historically high immigration from Scandinavian countries, has had its trust plummet in recent years. It’s had to conduct research in areas with large immigrant communities, like the famous Rosengard housing estate in Malmo. It’s very difficult to molt immigrants together into a single group, as the author points out because even though for most people in the West an Iranian is a “middle eastern”, Iranians see themselves as Persian, not Arab Muslim, making their trust levels amongst themselves high. Same with Turkish immigrants that come from the coastal part of Turkey, their levels of trust among each other outweigh the levels of trust they have among Turks who come from the border with Greece or even Istanbul. 

But many will argue that the high levels of trust come from the fact that everyone, regardless of income and social status, will pay the same amount of taxes each year, and receive the same treatment and even the same education, making them all “equal.”

Before the welfare state, Denmark was split between 25% with the highest income, and 25% at the bottom. Today they have 4% at the top and 4% at the bottom. But as the author points out the truth is that Denmark is no longer the classless society the left claims it to be. The proportion of the Danish population considered to be below the poverty line has almost doubled, from 4% to 7.5%, over the last ten years. A recent report by think tank CEEA reeled that the wealthiest 1% owns almost a third of the country’s combined wealth: that’s still below the OECD average, but hardly what one would call “equality.”

The problem is that foreigners are not familiar with the social classes and strata of Denmark. 

The “Gold Coast” of Denmark, Strandvejen is a ribbing of lavish villas, modernist bungalows, and sea-view apartment blocks. This coast stretches 20 miles from the prosperous suburbs of Hellerup and boasts great beaches, Michelin-starred restaurants, Jacobsen’s famous Bellavista housing complex, and forested deep park in Dyrehaven, along with the loveliest art museum in Scandinavia, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. This area is where Denmark’s elite live: movie stars and directors, big-time lawyers, bankers, hedge founders, sports stars, CEOs, and IT entrepreneurs. Property prices of this particular zone average a couple of million dollars to rise perhaps five million at most. It is what the other Danes aspire to when no one is looking but disavows as a vulgar and reprehensible anomaly in an otherwise modest and egalitarian society. 

The “Rotten Bananas” as Denmark’s media like to call them is the part of the country plagued by high unemployment, low wages, crumbling infrastructure, poor health care, and underperforming schools. It runs from mother Jutland south along the west coast, before curing east across the island of Funen and ending with the southern islands of Lolland and Falster. These Danish provinces are dying a slow death caused by a constant flow of the young and educated toward the cities, and of the unemployed and elderly in the other direction. It is a decline that successive governments have failed to stem, despite throwing a disproportionate amount of public money at the problem. 

Denmark, the author points out, is becoming a two-tier country. More and more Danes who can afford it are turning to private health care (850,000) and poll after poll shows that, though they have the largest per capita public sector in the world, the Danes’ satisfaction levels with their welfare state are in rapid decline. But the most pressing issue is the Danes’ school performance depending on whereabouts in the country in which you are educated. A recent survey carried out by Politiken revealed that students at Ishoj Gymnasium (“gymnasium” is the name the Danes give their colleges), in a predominantly working-class and immigrant, area south of Copenhagen, scored an average of just 5.4 out of 12, compared with 7.7 in one school in more affluent North Zealand. 

Denmark is not alone in this trend. Finland faces similar challenges, and urban migration has been even more starkly felt in Sweden, where almost 40% of the population now lives in the three main cities – Gothenburg, Malmo, and Stockholm. These days, large areas of northern Sweden are depopulated, derelict, and largely devoid of any civil presence. Only Norway seems to have bucked the trend, its colossal oil wealth and a long tradition of decentralization from Oslo – the right to receive a variety of services wherever you live in the country is enshrined in law – have helped keep its provinces relatively well populated and with reasonable infrastructure. 


If you wanted to sum each of the Nordic lands in a single statistic, one peremptory and reductive yet insightful factoid, what would they be? In Iceland, it would be the size of the population. In Finland, it would be on the list of the three most popular prescription drugs. In Sweden it is the size of the immigrant population; in Norway, the gargantuan size of its oil-revenue wealth fund. Denmark’s defining statistic has to be its tax rate. 

The Danes have the highest tax rates in the world, both direct and indirect. They pay the most for the goods in their shops (42% more than the European average), the most for their cars, the most for their meals in restaurants (150% more), and it’s all because of their taxes. So how does all this come about?

The income tax rate in Denmark is 42% (the UK is 20%) at a base rate up to the top level of 56%. On top of that are a “church tax” of a little over 1% and something called ambi (arbejdesmarkedsbidrag) which the author has yet to understand what it is and its uses. If you own your home you can probably wave goodbye to around 5% of what’s left to property taxes. If you use electricity, the government adds 76.5% to the bill. If you buy a new car you can count on adding 180% on top of the car’s purchase price. Gas 75% and road taxes around $1,000 EU per year. VAT (value-added tax) is 25% and levied on virtually everything you buy, including food and children’s book, although not newspapers. And it doesn’t stop there because a few years ago the Danish government attempted to add a tax on “fat” products, but the Danes simply drove to Germany or Sweden for those products, and the tax was quickly repealed. Plus, the author complains, that even though the bridge crossing into Sweden has been paid for many years ago, it’s still a $45 EU fee to cross one way.  

Thus the total direct and indirect burden on the Danish taxpayer ranges from 58% to 72%. Punt another way, the Danes work for the state until at least Thursday morning. 

And yet, the author points out, no one complains about the tax rate in Denmark. They might get a little annoyed about the matter and roll their eyes when it’s brought up, but as long as the unemployed and the sick are still cared for, the hospitals and schools have adequate funding, and the all-important safety net remains in place. For many Danes, their tax burden seems to be the ultimate symbol of collective sacrifice. Also, more than half of the Danish population – as much as two-thirds – either works in the public sector or is financially supported by it in the form of benefit payments. The majority will always vote for the status quo because their livelihood depends on it. 

But this is not the whole story. The Danes have a couple of dirty little facial secrets they would probably rather the rest of the world didn’t know about further cast their saintly acceptance of high taxes in am ore questionable light. The first is that h they are highly enthusiastic shoppers of the black market. More than 50% of Danes reported purchasing goods and services in the previous year without any tax being paid, while another 30% admitted they would have liked to if only a decent offer had come their way. 

The second anomaly is their gargantuan, world-leading private debt levels. Though Denmark’s National Debt is relatively modest at half the EU average, according to a recent IMF warning, the Danish people have personally indebted themselves up to their Gucci glasses. Today, Danish households have the highest ratio of debt-to-income of any country in the Western world: the Danes owe, on average, 310% of their annual income, more than double that of the Portuguese or Spanish, and quadruple that of the Italians. 

The Dane’s debt levels are partly a result of the former Venstre party government interdiction of calamitous interest-only mortgages in 2003. This helped fuel a property boom over the following couple of years that same the value of some properties rise by as much as 1,200%; many homeowners borrow large amounts against their newly release equity. This was fine until the financial crisis of 2008 busted the real state bubble leaving many with negative equity. The only Danes that are solvent are the pensioners who paid off their mortgages before the interest-free loans were introduced. Everyone else can’t keep up their productivity and keep up with their spending and eventually something has to give. 

Perhaps more worrying than their debt is the fact that the Danes are as reluctant to save as they are enthusiastic about borrowing, mostly because they see their basic expenses being paid for by the government. 

Hot-tubs Sandwiches

One would assume that the country with the highest tax rates, some of the highest public-sector spendings in the world, and a welfare state that has grown at a rate of about 2% every year for the last three or four decades, would have equally exceptional public services, the best hospital, the best transport system, and the best schools, yet Denmark fails in these categories. In general terms, the United Nations Human Development Index – which assesses how developed a nation is based on such things as life expectancy, literacy, and gross national income per capita – places Denmark in 16th place, below countries like Ireland and South Korea and all the other Nordic countries save for Finland. 

More specifically, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the most widely accepted international ranking list for school strand arts, takes a particularly dim view of Denmark’s education system. Its most recent report, in 2009, placed Denmark in the bottom third of the top thirty countries in most of the key categories, below even Britain in the sciences. 

Given the proportion of the wages the Danes hand to the government, Danish people have to pay for visits to the dentist and the optician, as well as for their prescribing medicines, along with making appointments in the emergency room outside the major hospitals in the country. They also have to pay for most of their physiotherapy and psychology cots – both of which are free in the UK. Even the ambulance services are privatized. 

Perhaps this is why the Danes are the most unhealthy of the Nordic tribe, with the highest rates of cancer, and the lowest life expectancy (78.4 years). They are also addicted to sugar, the highest processed pork products in the world, and addicted to cigarettes since tobacco is an important industry in the country. 

The author also narrates that he had to remove his kids from the public school where the emphasis was sacrificing the potential achievements of the higher-performing students for the better good of the middle and lower achievers: the level of instruction is brought down to include the least able, testing is frowned upon, and there does seem to be a little too much emphasis on social skill at the expense of actual learning. 

There was a suggestion, a while ago, by the Parliament for the Liberal Alliance suggesting that all public spending should be detailed on individuals’ tax returns so that Danes could see how much of their tax money went on education, how much on defense, and so on, but the was an outcry in Parliament and the proposal died. 

The Danish public sector and tax levels cannot continue to grow. As is happening thought the Western world, its population is aging, the working-age population is diminishing, and the birth rate is at a twenty-year low. It’s only a matter of time until Denmark has to implement the reforms that Sweden implement following its bankruptcy in the early 90s. 

The Law of Jante

The Danish church, though never formally separate from the state, plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an inexorable deli near, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. One would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism – parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism – still define how the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of improbably literary figure. 

Asked Nielsen was a Danish author that created a very influential work of fiction for the time called “Stories from Labrador”, under the newly acquired surname Sandemose. Even though his work is little read these days, there is an excerpt from one of his novels A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks that has transcended into Danish culture and is credited with its core values. 

These are the rules of Janet Law, the social norms open should be aware of if one is planning a move to the north: 

1. You shall not believe you are someone. 
2. You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
3. You shall not believe that you’re any wiser than we are.
4. You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
5. You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
6. You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
7. You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
10. You shall not believe that you can teach us anything. 

Although the author claims that Jante Law is a satirical social law of the past, especially in Copenhagen, where it’s so big a diverse that it’s virtually inexistent, there are some remnants of this still, especially in the countryside. 

He portrays the conversation with a woman he met at a party who moved away from Jutland to Copenhagen:

“On the west coast, anyone who every slightly broke with convention, or showed that why had any ambition, was frowned upon. People didn’t like it. Everyone knew your business, everyone had an opinion about what you should be doing. I had to get away. I came to Copenhagen as soon as I could, and don’t often go back.” 

Jante Law moves in mysterious ways. Some Danes are exempt from it: the most glaring anomaly is their royal family, but successful artists are generally approved of, although it is preferred that they come to form a solid middle – or working class break ground and consistently demonstrate that their achievements have not changed them in any way. Actors and directors must express their disdain for the hullabaloo of the red carpet, and stress that they ship in budge supermarkets and change diapers like everybody else. 

Success in, or the accumulation of wealth from, less obviously artistic fields is harder for the Danes to process. The chef Rene Redzepi of Noma was spat at in the street and ordered to “go back home” when his restaurant was praised to be the “best in the world” by a British restaurant trade magazine and a documentary was aired on Danish TV. The Danes also seem to begrudge the wealth earned by sports stars (many of who became tax exiles) and have mixed feelings about the adulation of pop singers. 

Perhaps this is why working hard to get rich and then exhibiting one’s success I still very much disapproved of. 


Alongside Jante Law, there are two other primer drivers of Danish conformism – hygge and folkelig. They are tricky to translate: the former is a deceptively relaxed and informal, uniquely Danish form of coziness or conviviality, which is highly codified, with strict social rituals that exercise a relentless, tyrannical pressure to conform; the latter is a kind of broad-based cultural populism that pervades a good deal of Danish mainstream culture, that turns everything it touches to shit. 

While it’s true that hygge can be replaced by cozy, the author laments that the latter doesn’t encompass the full import of the word. Hygge need not cost a penny. It is entirely democratic and egalitarian, open to all. 

The Danes pride themselves on their informality: the men rarely wear ties, teachers are on first-name terms with their pupils, and Danish politicians cycled to Parliament long before items fashionably cause. Yet, like every other race on earth, they still have their social rules and formal procedures. Even when the Danes appear to be at their most informal, often it will be a highly ritualized informality. 

The Happiness Delusion

On the face of it, the Danes have considerably less to be happy about than most of us yet, when asked, they still insist that they are the happiest of us all. 

The thing is that the author had yet to meet a single Dane that took the happiness survey seriously. They appreciate the safety net of their welfare state, the way most things function well in their country, and all the free time they have, and they are proud of the recent international success of all the TV shows they have exported, but they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.

On the other hand, these same Danes are often as quick to counter any criticism of their country – of their schools, hospitals, transport, weather, taxes, politicians, tastes in music, uneventful landscape, uneventful landscape, and so on – with the simple and, in a sense, argument-proof riposte: “Well if that’s true, how come we are the happiest people in the world?”  

The author argues that the reason the Danes are the happiest people in the world is that their expectations are very low, making them grateful for the things they have now as opposed to the things they used to have. Perhaps Danish happiness is not happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, the low-level needs being met, and high expectations being kept in check. 


Iceland is more Scandinavian than Scandinavia. It was populated by escapees from western Norway, together with the Scottish and Irish sex slaves they picked up on their journey west. They speak a version of Old Norse, a purer version of the Scandinavian languages of the past. Geneticists from around the world have long flocked to Iceland, so pure-bred are they. Also, Iceland was ruled by Denmark for 652 years, and it still has close and somewhat complex relationships with its former masters in Copenhagen. The author jokes that a country can be too Nordic, and Iceland is that country. 

First a quick “recent Icelandic economic history” primer. Between 2003 and 2008, Iceland’s three main banks, Glitnir, Kaupthing, and lands bank I, borrowed over $140 billion, ten times the country’s GDP, dwarfing its central bank’s $2.5 billion reserves. A handful of entrepreneurs, egged on by their then government, embarked on an unprecedented international spending being, buying everything from Danish department stores to British soccer clubs, while a sizable proportion of the adult population enthusiastically embraced taking out loans in Japanese yen, or mortgaging their houses in Swiss francs. 

Examples of this are bountiful: Elton John was flown in to sing one song at a birthday party; private jests were booked like they were taxis; people thought nothing of spending $8,000 on bottles of single-malt whiskey or $160,000 on haunting weekends in the English countryside. 

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2088 exposed Iceland’s debts, which, at one point, were said to be around 850% of GDP, and set off a chain retraction f that resulted in the krona plummeting to almost half its value. In this state, Iceland’s banks were lending money to their shareholders so that they could buy shares in those very same Icelandic banks. The government didn’t have the money to cover its debts. It was forced to withdraw the known from currency markets and accept loans totaling $6.4 billion from the IMF, and other countries. Interest rates peaked at 18%. The stock market dropped 77%; inflation hit 20%, and the krona dropped 80%. Depending on who you listen to, the country’s total debt needs up somewhere between $20 billion or $72 billion, or to put it another way, anywhere from $61,000 to $331,000 for every Icelander. 

Within weeks unemployment rose from its customary 2% to more than 10%. Inflation kicked in. The cost of all those yen mortgages and Swiss-franc loans more than doubled, leaving many with negativa6 equity in their homes and cars. There were stories on the news about bottles of olive oil costing the equivalent of $210. 

In January 2009 came the so-called cutlery revolution. The right-wing coalition, led by Primer minister Geri Haarde and in power since the 1940s, was ousted. Haarde blamed the “global financial hurricane,” but eventually ceded power to a coalition led by the Social Democratic Alliance party’s Johanna Sigurdardottir. After further public protest, central bank chief David Oddson – a former PM – was replaced by Norwegian economist, Svein Harald Nygard. Sigurdardottir promptly announced 30% cuts in spending,g raised taxes and tried to flog a few embassies. 

The crash appeared to have been a crime with no criminals. Haarde was eventually prosecuted for negligence at the Landsdomur criminal court, the first political leader anywhere in the world to be called to account for what happened in 2008. He faced up to two years in prison for his role in the widespread financial mispractice that had ruined Iceland but was found not guilty. The president throughout all this, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is still president, having been re-elected in 2012: the fact that he has consistently vetoed all the attempts by the Icelandic Parliament to repay the money they owe their foreign creditors might have smooth to do with his enduring popularity. 

The city was once famed for its magnificent panoramas across the fjord to the mountains beyond, but by the time the author visited, it was a landscape of new buildings and large office towers that were left empty. 

On the plus side, since the collapse of the krona, visitor numbers were a tad in a time when tourism had declined drastically in much of the rest of the world. Iceland has always been a famously costly destination but with the exchange rate of 200 kronur to the pound (nearly double the previous rate), it had become, if not a bargain then at least on par with London. 

Iceland’s history, although relatively short, makes for unremittingly grim reading. Early Iceland was lawless, irreligious placed peopled with Norwegian outlaws and their Scottish and Irish companions. Human sacrifices to appease the terrible forces that raged just beneath the surface of their meager soil were not unknown. There was no executed authority, no king, no army, just a ragbag of laws mostly concerned with the pressing issue of incest. In the 13th century, unable to control themselves, the Icelanders finally asked Norwegians to intervene. King Olaf of Norway somehow managed to convert the Icelanders to Christianity, but theirs was always a halfhearted observance, at best. 

Places, pirates, volcanic eruptions, and the sheer unrelenting hideousness of Iceland’s climate pegged back its population to mere tens of thousands for most of the latter part of the last millennium. The most cataclysmic event was the 1783 eruption of the volcanic fissure of Laki, which had a major cooling effect on much of Northern Europe. A quarter of the population died as a result of the ensuing famine; Denmark, which by then had taken over Norway and Iceland, seriously considered evacuating the rest of the Icelanders to Jutland and leaving the place to its ten million puffins. In the early 1700s, 50,358 people were living in Iceland. A century later, there were 48,240. Virtually every other European country’s population exploded during this period. 

In the 19th century, the Icelanders finally began to muster a halfhearted independence movement, but they would eventually be liberated by Adolf Hitler who bagged His Majesty Christian X, King of Denmark, and separately King of Iceland. 

The Danes were soon replaced by another quasi-occupying power, the US military, which maintained a base in Iceland until 2006. Iceland had been the poorest country in Europe, but that all changed with Marshal Plan money and massive infrastructure projects. Iceland began to flourish and grow in confidence. 

In recent years Iceland has held its head high in the Nordic-exceptionalism stakes as the most developed country in the world according to the United Nations Human Development Index, as well as the fourth most productive country per capita in Europe. It ranked highly, too, on the Index of Economic Freedom; per capita, gross national income had long been higher than the UK’s; and at one point it was the 5th richest country according to the OECD. Iceland had the highest birth rate in Europe and has long been a model of gender equality. It was the first country in the world to have a female president. Icelandic men live longer than any other men in the world, with an average life expectancy of 78.9, but women are even more durable, living, on average, to the age of 82.8 years. Also, Icelanders buy more books per capita than anyone else in the world, which has to be a good thing. 

Since the kreppa (the crash) all of the above achievements, as admirable as they were, have been eclipsed by the Icelanders’ epic economic hubris. Iceland has become a single-issue nation. 


In early 1980, the Icelandic government implements fishing quotas that would discourage their fishermen to take risks. Icelandic fishermen were famous for taking a risks by going out fishing in all weathers, and the system was intended to discourage this. The government awarded licenses to all existing boats allowing them to catch a certain percentage of the total annual quote in proportion to the boat size. It was hoped that since they had a year to catch their quota, the fishermen would take fewer risks. 

The theory goes that the economic crisis began when in 1991 the fishermen were permitted to trade the quotas and use future catches as collateral to borrow money. As one commentator put it, “One decision two decades ago destroyed the country.” 

Gisli Palsson, who had been studying fishing communities since the early 1980s thought there was a connection stating: “I do think there’s a connection [between the 2008 crash and the quota system]. The owners of those first quotas became rich overnight. All the quotas ended up in the hands of maybe fifteen private companies. And the property rights were hidden, there was a mystification of ownership. Then the owners began to move their profits from these fifteen fishing companies into banking.”

What happened in Iceland in the early years of this century seemed very un-Nordic, argues the author. The concentration of business, medial, and political power in the hands of a few extreme ideologues, the blithering accumulation of surreal quantities of debt, the stretch of Hummers and the private jets – it all seemed more redolent of Thatcher’s Britain, or the United States, than Scandinavia. 

The Danes have a saying about the Icelanders that long predates the economic crisis, but that seems more apt than ever: “They were shoes which are too big for them, and keep falling over their shoelaces.” 

Perhaps the inbreed sense of superiority was one of the reasons why all criticism of their banking sector was so easily squashed in Iceland. Any criticism from outside was dismissed as bullying, as was the case in 2006 when the Danish national bank published a report warning that Iceland’s banks were on the path to oblivion. The Icelanders dismissed this as envy. 

Who was to blame for the economic mess? Well, some blame was the former CEO of Kaupthing Bank, Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson, and Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsoon, the richest man in Iceland. 

If you’re looking for a poster boy for Iceland’s economic misadventures, Bjorgolfsoon fits the bill. As well as being Iceland’s first billionaire, he is the grandson of Iceland’s leading businessman of the early 20th century, Thor Jensen, and son of the most “colorful” entrepreneurs in Iceland’s history, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsoon, an ex-convict, ex-footballer, recovering alcoholic, and as of July 2009, bankrupt. Together with his son, Gudmundsson made his money selling booze to Russian and used it to buy, among other things, London’s West Ham Football Club and a controlling stake in Landsbanki. 

The Gudmundsson was among roughly fifteen families, collectively known as “The Octopus,” whose “blue hand” had a grip on much of the Icelandic economy. Several of them have now left Iceland in shame, while others are keeping a low profile. 

Retail entrepreneurs Johannesburg Jonson and his son Jon Asgeir Johannesson are also often mentioned in this context. As owners of the Baugur Group, they controlled most of Iceland’s media and retail sectors – including, in Britain, the department stores House of Fraser, Hamlets, and the frozen-foods chain Iceland. 

Most of the blame, though, has been burned by the center-right Independence Party, which ruled Iceland since 1929, and primarily by its ex-prime minister, David Oddson, and his successor as PM, Geir Haarde. 

The problem is that in a country of only 319,000 people, everyone is pretty much guaranteed to know everyone else within one or fewer degrees of separation. 

One of Iceland’s leading poets and novelists said: “If you want to underhand how someone is hired in an Icelandic company, you start by looking at the political connection. If it’s not that, then you look at the family tree, and if it’s not that, there’s only one explanation: Alcoholics Anonymous.” 

Meritocracy ideals and democratic freedoms are always going to struggle in a country where the talent pool is more mallet than Wichita. And if there is a limited number of doctors and teachers, that is also likely to be the case in terms of entrepreneurs, politicians, and economists. That is Icelanders are, by necessity, the world’s ultimate jack-of-all-trades. Many of the people the author interviewed for this section of the book, had second jobs as taxi drivers or tour guides, and that multitasking extends up the social ladder: the former prime minister is often described as being a poet, for instance; his foreign insider was a physiotherapist. 

Another aspect that differentiated Iceland from the other Nordic countries was a lack of truly free, diverse press. You can’t move from serious, Independiente broadsheet newspapers throughout the region, but in Iceland, the press was either owned or very closely influenced by, neoliberalism, who effectively shut down many contradictory discourses. 


For centuries Iceland’s intellectual class was almost exclusively educated in Copenhagen, and even today the Danish capital is an important cultural metropolis for Icelanders. There are more flights from Reykjavik to Copenhagen per day than to any other place outside the island. Many, perhaps even the majority of, Icelandic families, have Danish relatives. 

The Danish language dominated the Iceland education system for many years. Middle-aged Icelanders said that at school, most of their books had been in Danish, though they claim it was easier to speak Swedish and Norwegian. 

According to many interviews in this section, Icelanders have high regard and respect for the Danes which is rarely reciprocated. Even today the Icelanders feel the Danes look down on them.  

Iceland’s ambivalent relationship with Denmark sheds an interesting light on the bizarre “investment” spree embarked upon by Iceland’s entrepreneurs between 2006 and 2008. Many of Iceland’s most notable acquisitions were from its former colonial masters, Denmark. Along with Denmark’s two major department stores, Illum and Magasin du Nord, Icelandic businessmen also bought the Danish capital’s most venerable and grand hotel, the Hotel d’Angleterre, along with Danish media companies, and a Danish airline. But the reason for this many investments is still obscure for many Danish for departments stores in Denmark are the white elephant of retail and both of Copenhagen’s had been losing money for years; plus they bankrupted the Danish airline within two years – so one can only conclude there was a secret agenda. 

But despite this, and even though Iceland was a colony of the Danes and most young Danish people don’t know where Iceland is, they seem to have a love-hate relationship between the two. 


The Icelanders’ belief in the existence of fairy folk, is still an important part of what it means to be Icelandic. 

Every decade or so, the Icelandic people are asked abolitionists their feelings about Elves, or the “hidden people” as they call them, and the results are broadly consistent. In 1998 a poll revealed that 54.4% said they believed in Elves. To put this into perspective 45% of Icelanders believe in God. 

In 1995 – 1996 a University of Berkeley folklore specialist, Vladimir Hafstein, interview several of what he called “elf-harried” road workers, who claimed to have had their work disrupted by the Hijo of the huddle people. It happens every year. Machinery mysteriously stops working, workmen are injured, or have foreboding dreams, things fall, and the weather suddenly turns hostile. These incidents gathered momentum in the early 1970s, most famously with the attempts to move a so-called elf rock to make way for the road from Reykjavik heading west. Following several incidents of an elf. orientated nature, a clairvoyant was called to get their permission to move the rock. He claimed to have succeeded in obtaining this, but shortly after, a bulldozer accidentally fracture a pipe that was supplying water to a trout farm: 70,000 trout died. Everyone blamed the elves. 

Then there was the “elf hail” close to Reykjavik suburb, which the local authorities attempted to reshape in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually being forced to give up. One worked was quoted as saying that he had a “sort of fear of something” whenever he powered up his bulldozer, while TV crews found their cameras didn’t work properly when they pointed them at the hill. 

The willingness of Icelanders to believe in disruptive spirits sabotaging modern developments indicates a deeper tussle between the old rural values of the landscape versus the modern age. But there was another theory: Iceland never had the Pietism movement that the rest of Scandinavia got. Lutherans didn’t work especially work hard to stamp out pagan practices in Iceland, mostly because of its remoteness.


The author points out that Iceland is a mix of the frigid moonscape of craggy, gray, moss-covered lava, and then, moments later, driving through the Scottish Highlands. The weather changes even more frequently. But the most spectacular landscapes of Iceland are its Vatnajokull or its largest clavier which is 8,300 kilómetros and one kilometer deep. 

It seems that the tectonic plates that connect Europe and America are slowly drifting apart at a rate of about a centimeter a year. This tectonic tug-of-war between east and west is the reason for Iceland’s very existence, but the perfect metaphor for what went wrong with Iceland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. 

What made the Icelanders gamble away their money, unlike the Norwegians who have held on to their petrol for centuries to come? The author argues that the influences of America taught the Icelanders that anyone can get rich. The American dream was sold to this small island state and they believed that through debt and irresponsible investing, this society could become the America of Scandinavia.

Iceland doesn’t have a manufacturing industry, and there aren’t enough fish in the sea to pay back the money it owes. The Icelanders are looking, instead, to the energy that rumbles beneath their feet. 

The most famous tourist attraction in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon forty-five minutes outside of Reykjavik. Despite many assuming that the lagoon is a natural phenomenon, the Blue Lagoon’s warm waters and supposedly health-giving silica mud are the discharge from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal plant, which began operating in the 1970s. The waste is rich in salt, algae, and silica, which is said to be good for various skin conditions. These days it is packaged and sold in the Blue Lagoon store as an upmarket face cream. 

The Icelanders have been exploiting the thinness of their earth’s crust for centuries, and today virtually all of their homes are heated geothermally. With the hope of making fast money in the world of finance gone, the Icelanders are turning to their geothermal energy. Though the very difficult task of exporting it to Europe or the UK, still eludes them. There is increasing optimism that clean tech industries might offer one way back from the brink for Iceland, and their increase of “know-how” in other “thin-crust” areas like Indonesia and East Africa, is one way they are making their mark in the world. 



May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day,  which the day the author visited fell on a Sunday and was favored with good weather. It’s a party for this side of Scandinavia and their king King Harald V and his son Haakon are weaving at people from their balcony with nods and waves. 

 The author points out that the most peculiar thing about this street part, apart from the nationalistic pride the other Scandinavian countries mock, is their costumes. Heavily embroiled dirndls, shawls, neckerchiefs, and frock coats in black, red, and green; shiny top hats; hobnail shoes with silver buckles; bright-buttoned breeches; crips white blouses with pirate sleeves; horseshoes hats and natty knickerbockers. Babies wear lacy bonnets; dogs wear red-white-and-blue ribbons; taxis, trams, and parks, too, bear the national colors. 

Of the Nordic peoples, only the Norwegians commemorate their national coming-of-age with quite such fervor. The historic reasons for such extra angst celebrations appear to be opaque. The split from Denmark had the writing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814, which is what they are supposed to be commemorating, was only the beginning of a long, slow, rather low-key effort to wrestle free from Sweden’s grasp that did not culminate in full independence until 1905. There was independence born of persistent nagging over many decades, followed by a few minor skirmishes on the streets of Oslo. In the end, Stockholm agreed to a referendum based on spectacularly bad intelligence: the Swedes thought the Norwegians would vote to stay with them, but they voted against it. 

What is strange is that Norway seems to be the only country that prides itself on celebrating its independence. Finland, which does celebrate its independence from Russia, does it in a Finish fashion: privately and at home. The Swedes consider themselves far too modern to indulge in this kid or public dressing, only celebrating June 6, their “National Day” as a halfhearted event. The Danes would consider the idea just as preposterous, only having been defeated and ruled by the Germans for a very brief period. 


Oslo is a fiendishly expensive city. According to a recent stay by the Brookings Institution of the world’s 200 richest cities, its residents are the second wealthiest in the world (just behind those of Hartford, Connecticut) with an average annual income of $75,057. 

The author notes though that Olso feels like some country’s second city, not its capital, aside from the ridiculously expensive prices of everything, including beer. 

The Norwegians have a special relationship with all their natural surroundings; they’re extremely happy and proud of their scenery and nature, usually bragging that Norway is a country that’s “powered by nature.” 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Nations, Norway is the least densely populated country in Europe, with Eileen inhabitants for every square kilometer, three-quarters of the living within ten miles of the coast. This has always been a country of peasant farmers and fishermen, with a decentralized population of small, isolated communities speaking hundreds of regional dialects. And because it was a colony for so long, and its capital was a hug for the dissemination of foreign cultures, Norway has never looked to Oslo in the way that the Danes have to Copenhagen or the Swedes to Stockholm. Denmark and Sweden have also reflected, and defined, themselves in and by each other, through their shared history of conflict and rivalry, but Norway has tended to mind its own business, separated by the great physical barriers of the mountains and the sea. 

This decentralization, coupled with. heightened respect for their natural surroundings is two of the keys to understanding the Norwegians. Still, today, while Denmark struggles with its udkants proles and Sweden grows more and more centralized, in Norway people live out in the regions, way up north, in mountains, by the sea, and on frozen islands. In Norway, the right to live wherever you want is enshrined in law: it is part of a strategy to maintain the populations in the north of the country, particularly those close to the strategically vital territories of the Barents Sea and Spitsbergen. 

Elsewhere in the world, industrialization led to urbanization, but not so much in Norway: the fishing industry and the oil industry, which is based on the west coast in Stavanger at its heart, have helped counter this trend. Thanks to the wealth their masses of oil generate, Norwegians who live a long way from their capital live well, with decent infrastructure, cultural and sports facilities, and impressive public buildings, like the Knut Hamsun Centre. 

Norwegians have this absolute fascination with nature, that it not only defined their culture and in some cases their surnames (which are actual places in modern Norway), but led to what the author calls two stupefyingly boring TV shows that aired in recent years. The first tracked the progress of a train from Oslo to Bergen through the mountains in real-time for seven hours, with just a fixed camera mounted on the front of the train. Its viewership amounted to such interest that NRK, Norway’s national TV station went a step further and broadcasted a six-day, nonstop live transmission from a camera-mounted MS Nordnorge, one of Norway’s Hurtigruten “express” ferries, as it sailed from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes, on the Russian border, in the north. 

It became such a massive viewing and cultural phenomenon, with half the population tuning in to watch that people started hosting Hurtigruten-watching parties, and as the boat progressed farther up the coast, crowds came out to light bonfires and wave from the shore, while smaller flotillas bobbed in the merry ferry’s wake. The Hurtigruten program was also streamed online and picked up 200,000 viewers in Denmark, as well as viewers in other countries around the world. It ended up being one of the most popular Norwegian television programs of all time, and all it was, was the scenery. 


The discovery in 1969 of what turned out to be gargantuan oil reserves in Norway’s North Sea territories has shaped contemporary Norwegian society more than any other single factor – for the better, but also, for the worse. The success of modern Norway – of its welfare state, its virtually unparalleled standard of living, and its strong regional infrastructure, services, and random, expensive, and architecturally innovative museums – is to a great extent found in the oil. 

This country of little more than five million people now has the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Not per capita, as the author points out, but in absolutes. When the book was written it overtook Abu Dhabi’s when it hit $600 billion in 2011, and by the time the book was written, it was worth $617 billion, estimated to pass to $1,600 billion before the end of the decade. To put that into perspective: the Norwegians could comfortably pay off all of Greece’s national debt twice but, up until now, they have heeded their economists’ warning not to spend the money within their borders, limiting themselves to using a mere 4% every year and investing the rest elsewhere in the world. 

Norway has always been the downtrodden, economically disadvantaged poor relation of the Scandinavian triumvirate; a rural backwater whose population clawed their hardscrabble existence from barren soils – a mere 2.8% of Norwegian land is farmable – and dangerous seas, often against the almost insurmountable odds presented by their climate and typography. 

The story of the Norwegians’ transformation from dirndl-wearing peasants to dirndl-wearing Rockefeller has its beginnings in Holland, with the discovery of natural gas in Groningen in 1959. This finding prompted speculation that there might be more fossil fuel farther north on the Norwegian continental shelf. Holland’s Philips Petroleum requested permission to explore there and the Norwegian government moved quickly to assert sovereignty over the shelves. Norway’s claims raised eyebrows in London and Copenhagen, whose governments also felt they had dibs on part of the North Sea. And this is where the story of the Norwegian oil miracle takes an intriguing twist, one that has given rise to one of Scandinavia’s most enduring conspiracy theories. 

In early 1965, representatives from each of the three governments met to thrash out a deal to divide up the North Sea shelf, a deal that was agreed and ratified at some hast in March of that year – greatly, it would transpire, to the Norwegians’ advantage. The Danes will argue that the ambassador that was sent to sign the treaty, Per Haekkerup, was a known alcoholic and that he was drunk that day, but the facts tell another story. 

 It was true that Haekkerup was an alcoholic, and that first, massive Norwegian oil field, Ekofisk was round right at the owner southwestern corner of the Norwegian’s newly demarcated territory, agonizingly close to Danish waters. It is also true that Denmark’s edit has a justifiable quibble about how sovereignty over that part of the North Sea, was based on a technical issue to do with the depth of the ocean floor. It is also true that, for some reason, the usual cooling-off period relating to such agreements was not implemented. So why did the Danes sign off so readily?

The truth is, at the time no one believed that there was oil in the North Sea, or if there was that it was an extra table. Rather than argue the point, Denmark preferred not to risk annoying Norway with what it then deemed a petty argument about the sea bed: fishing rights were far more pressing issues. 

Is this an issue between Norway and Denmark today? Not, at least not at any kind of political or diplomatic level. But the incident features in the popular myth about the North Sea oil fields in Denmark and continues to be recounted by older Danes as part of a narrative about being diddled out of their oil destiny by their country cousins, those wily Norwegians. It has also contributed to a slightly bitter, negative image of Norwegians among Danes as somehow having been rendered isolated and indolent by their misbegotten wealth. 

Norway is characterized by the other Scandinavian countries as having the most amount of immigrant workers from other countries. Around 35,000 Swedes are working in Norway, tempered by wages of up to $47 per hour for semiskilled work in shops. One story, in particular, that has gladded many Danish hearts concerns several Swedes working in the Norwegian processing plant, where there were reported to be employed to peel bananas.

Back to the North Sea negotiations, the Danes didn’t do too badly out of their little patch of the sea bed. The so-called Dan Filed began producing oil in 1972 and the country became self-sufficient in oil by 1991. At their output peak in 2004, the Danes were producing around 142 million barrels a year. And while Denmark’s oil production peaked years ago Noway’s is still running around 2 million barrels a day, or 730 million barrels a year. 

It is interesting to compare how the two countries differed in their handily of their respective oil bonanzas. By 1972 Norway had its own state oil company – Statoil – which by law, and to be a majority partner in any oil activities in the region. The state took firm control over nationalized production and founded a wealth fund that has been handled with remarkable self-restraint. 

The Danish oil field, on the other hand, became the sole preserve of one company, A. P. Muller-Maersk, the running of which was overseen until his recent death by Maersk McKinney Moller, the son of its eponymous founder. 

The Norwegians keep discovering massive new reserves: two gigantic puddles of the stuff containing up to a billion barrels’ worth were found in the Barents Sea in 2011, and now, with the ice cap conveniently melting the Norwegians also have an estimated 90 billion barrels of crude that lie beneath the Arctic in their beady sights. As if that wasn’t enough to keep them going through the long, dark winters, Norway is also now the fifth largest producer of gas in the world; gas is expected to make up more than half of Norwegian petroleum production within a couple of years. 

Following the first discovery in 1969, Norway rose fairly rapidly to the top of Scandinavia, and the world, wealth rankings. Today is it’s the Dubai of the north.

Dutch Disease

The Oil Fund is arguably modern Norway’s greatest single achievement – the ultimate expression of Nordic self-discipline and control, and a paragon of responsible fiscal stewardship. This brilliantly managed, tightly controlled wealth fund is the envy of every oil-producing nation in the world. 

The man ultimately responsible for how that gigantic pot of gold is distributed around the globe is the CEO of Norwegian Bank Investment Management (NBIM), Yngve Slyngstad. 

The author interview him and he has to say the following about the investment of the oil outward as opposed to inward: 

“We [Norway] have sold oil and gas to other countries, and sooner or later we will have to buy something and what we want therefore is to have the possibility of purchasing something a few generations from now that is at least equal in value to what we could have purchased today. So if world growth is good, we need to have a good return on the fund to precut our purchasing power in the future.”

The fund owns shares in more than eight thousand companies, which effectively means that Norwegians own more than 1% of the world’s listed companies, almost 2% of Europe’s, and 0.7% of Asia’s. 

How had the Norwegians managed to resist the temptation to spend their oil revenue, as Mrs. Thatcher’s government had failed to do in Britain in the 1980s, or some of the Arab states are doing so conspicuously at the moment? 

“Two things,” Yngve Slyngstad answers. “First is that the funding fathers of the fund were very clear about avoiding the Dutch disease. We could easily destroy the economy; we need to have an export-oriented economy that can survive without the oil because if you are destroying your possibility to compete in the world, you can’t be sure you will regain it later when the oil runs out. Traditionally, we have been a very poor country with a gruff consumption pattern, and people living around the coasts. People are connected to nature rather than to culture. It is a different mentality. This country where, in the past, you didn’t have enough to eat in winter unless you had saved it. The Norwegians are mistrustful of indulgence or excess, ever conscious of the need to save and hoard.”

In his book Retromania: A Journey Through the World’s Richest Oil Lands, the Norwegian author Simen Sartre documents how oil wealth rarely has a positive effect on any country in the long term. And that includes Norway. He points out that Norwegians are working 23% fewer hours per year than they were before the oil boom, taking more holidays (five weeks instead of four) and more sick leave, and retiring earlier (63.5 years). 

Norway does seem to have been especially negligent of its capability to make things. It deindustrializes at a faster rate than most of its trading partners and today less than 10% of its GDP is generated by manufacturing, compared with almost 20% in Sweden. Oil and gas now make up more than half the value of Norway’s exports, fish and arms constituting the largest chunks of the rest. 

The country currently languishes at 15th place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but one statistic that stands out as a cause for special concern is the OECD’s figure for the gross domestic expenditure of a country’s GDP, which is a key indicator of future economic performance. Not only is Norway investing relatively little in its R&D – 1.71% GDP compared with 3.42% in Sweden – but almost half of its investments are coming from the government. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Norway’s social structure is the fact that about a third of all Norwegians of working age do nothing at all. More than a million of them live on money from the state, the majority of them pensioners, but also a size-able number (340,000) on disability, unemployment, or sickness benefits. The picture is equally worrying for Norwegian children, whose rank is below the European average in terms of literacy, mathematics, and sciences, with the trend worsening over the last ten years. 

The OECD has warned that the largest challenge Norway faces is to maintain its population’s incentives to work, study, and innovate. Today, almost 10% of the Norwegian jobs are carried out by foreigners, mostly the kind of jobs – peeling bananas, gutting ish, washing hospital s floors – from which Norwegians would run a mile. 

Already many Norwegians are calling for more than 4% of the fund to be spent each year; traditionally the pressure for this has come from the Progress Party. 

Things are pretty great in Norway, but fears about what will happen when oil runs out are being pushed further into the future. Eventually, though, it will run out, and the economy in which the public sector accounts for 52% of the GDP will no longer be viable. Another question is what the business community will do and what kinds of jobs people will get in the post-oil era since the whole Norwegian economy is so tied to oil. If these questions are handled the wrong way, there might be some thought times ahead for Norway, and this could lead to political unrest. 

Sartre warns, too, of the colossal power of the oil lobby in Norway, with the whitewashing of its industry’s activities in countries headed by dubious regimes like Angola, Kazakhstan, and Algeria. The oil industry on tools Norway’s foreign policy, Sartre claims, “isolating us and making the country asocial.” As a result, Norway has been sidelined from Europe, and it is becoming ever more protectionist. 

Statoil is becoming a dominant element in the Norwegian cultural sphere, for instance, awarding massive grants to young artists and musicians. The only catch is, that those artists and musicians have to sign a contract promising not to critique the company. 

Cultural censorship is by no means the most serious allegation aimed at Statoil. Greenpeace says that the company has completely undermined its reputation for good environmental practices with the acquisition of a controversial tar sands lease in Canada – tar sand oil being more polluting than crude, both in terms of its extraction and its use.  

Another icky factor of the massive oil wealth of Norway is its direct benefit from those geopolitical conflicts that push up the price of oil – the invasion of Iraq, for instance, or the Lydian Civil War. It is a great irony that a nation that is so often called upon to mediate in international conflicts – as Norway did in Sri Lanka – benefits the most from the various conflicts connected to oil production elsewhere in the world.  


Norway has always been a somewhat peripheral, isolated, inward-looking place. But why? Why are the Norwegians so closed? Throughout the danish and Swedish occupations, they lacked not only self-determinations but to a large extent any sense of self or nationhood. After a long, drawn-out but not especially fiercely fought campaign for independence, self-rule finally came in 1905. What happens next is a perfect allegory between the Norwegians and the Swedes, and their respective progress over the following century. 

The Swedes made a conscious, unified push toward the light, embracing technological and industrial progress, modernism, secularism, and socially progressive politics, in the process becoming one of the most successful industrial nations of postwar years, a manufacturing colossus, a paragon of what a modern, multicultural nation should be. 

The Norwegians decided that they neither liked nor needed the modern world, they preferred their bunds, their folk dancing, and their dried fish, and retreated into the safety of their agrarian past to commune with nature and the sea. And then the oil came along, which has changed things to a degree, but if anything has only helped the Norwegians to maintain their traditional geographical population spread, their isolationism, and their protectionist trade policies. 

Occasionally though, this isolation backfires on the Norwegians. There was much mirth in the rest of Scandinavia when in 2011 Norway was reported to have run out of butter. A fad diet that recommences ingesting vast quantities of the stuff had swept the nation and cleared out domestic stocks. To protect its dairy industry Norway imposes extravagant duties on imported dairy products and, as a consequence, the prices of butter shot up. People began paying-buying, supplies of domestic butter produced by Norway’s Tine Dairy monopoly ran out, and soon Norwegians began asking Dani’s h friends to fill their suitcases with Lurpark butter when they came to visit. 


The author makes it clear in this part of the book that he loves Finland. And by loves, I mean loves. Yet, he claims he’s not the only one. 

The Finnish school system draws educationalists from around the world keep to learning its secrets: according to international rankings, the Finns have the best education system in the world. They currently have the third most competitive economy, too. Wishing the last couple of years Newsweek, the Legatum Institute, and Monocle magazine have all related the country or its capital as the best place on the planet to live, bar none. Currently, Finland has the highest per capita income in Western Europe and is the only economy in the eurozone to retain its AAA rating for those pesky rating agencies. The Finns are perched to be the least corrupt pole on earth – they tied for first with the Danes and the New Zealanders in Transparency International’s latest survey. 

Finns are solid and dependable. They also have a Sahara-dry sense of humor freight with heavy irony. They are also the most courteous of all the Nordic people. The author points out that the Finns do wait for you to disembark from trains, stand aside to let you through doorways, and rarely ask who on earth you make a living from writing.

Of the top three most prescribed drugs in the country, the first was an antipsychotic medicine, the second was insulin, and there was another anti psychosis or antidepressant treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Finns are hooked on the anxiety and insomnia drug benzodiazepine. More worryingly still, they have the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world (after the United States and Yemen); the highest murder rate in Western Europe; and are famously hard and reckless drinkers as well as enthusiastic suicidality.

All is tidy, ordered, functional, and extraordinarily ethnically homogenous, even by Scandinavian standards, the author points out. He also states that the Finns are even more obsessed with summer houses (470,000 of them) than tiger the Danes of Swedes; that they are also big on parental leave after childbirth (the mother and the father get a year to share between them); and that they are mostly atheistic, rarely setting inside their spartan Lutheran churches, just like the rest of Scandinavia. 

One key characteristic of Nordic clients is the lack of people. Lines, jams, and crowds are a rarity in the north; even the capitals can have a semi-deserted air if you are arriving from London or New York. But as the author spends more time in Finland he becomes more and more aware of the little things that set Finland apart from the rest of the Nordic region. The language is the most glaring. Finnish bears no resemblance to and has virtually no words in common with the other Nordic languages. Most Finns speak Swedish, but few swedes speak Finnish, and when Danes or Norwegians meet Finns they speak English. 

According to a German actor that has lived in Finland for over twenty years, Finnish has the future tense. The Finns either do something or they consider it done. Finnish noun has no gender, and in fact, people have no gender – the word for “he” and “she” is the same masculine hand. There are no prepositions in Finnish and neither are there definite or indefinite articles: “a book,” “the book,” and “book” are all just “book”, or kirja. 

The author jokes that Finland was isolated from the world for so long that they are fascinated by what people think of them. 


In Finland, it is considered one of life’s necessities, intrinsic to, and indivisible from, elemental notions of Finnishness to have a sauna. The swedes like their saunas, too, and Icelanders have their thermal baths, but the Finns take the appreciation of saunas to a whole new level. 

The sauna lies at the heart of Finnish social life and leisure time. There is one for every two of them in the country, more saunas than cars – more than 2.5 million. The sauna is their prime meeting place, a venue for physical relaxation with family and friends of both genders. Like a pub, or a village hall. But naked. 

The Finns will tell you that their saunas are the hottest in the world and that any non-Finnish sauna isn’t a sauna at all. They mock the tepid temperatures of Swedish saunas (anything under 80C is a “warm room”), citing the mas merely one more example of what they perceived as Swedish softness. The Finns even have a Sauna World Championship, in which the sole requirement is to see who can sit for the longest at the highest temperature. 

Members of the Finnish Parliament meet once a week in a sauna, and since the days when their Cold War President, Urho Kekkonen, ruled the country, there has been a tradition that the President invites foreign leaders to a sauna evening when they visit the country. 

While the author was trying one of Finland’s famous saunas, he pointed out that the communal silence of the experience and the country as a whole was deafening. Finns are a famously nonverbal race. It is said that it’s impossible to be social in a climate where the low temperatures can reach 20 degrees below freezing. One does not linger around on the street chatting about his day. An American smile in a Helsinki easterly makes one’s front teeth ache. Finland’s climate and topography must have played a part in forming the Finnish character, but it also seems likely that the Finns’ taciturnity is in some way connected to their homogeneity. 

Finland has very little ethnic diversity, only 2.5% of the population are immigrants, compared with over a third in neighboring Sweden. So, if you were to interpret Finnish society according to the famous high-context low context theories of US anthropologist Edward T. Hall, it would be considered a very high-context culture in the world. 

According to Hall, a “high-context” culture is one in which the people share the same kind of expectations, experiences, backgrounds, and even genes. Such people have less need for verbal communication because they already know so much about each other and the situations in which they typically find themselves. In high-context cultures, words take on a greater meaning, but fewer are needed. In a low-context culture, like London, where hundreds of different nationalities, races,s, and religions are represented, there is a greater need to communicate verbally to be sure of making oneself understood. There is less common ground, fewer unspoken assumptions are made, and more gaps need to be filled in. 

This could be said, in varying degrees, of all the Nordic countries. They are all comparatively homogenous and thus high context. 

The Finns won’t bother with “would you mind awfully” or “please thank you.” When a Finn needs something he’ll usually say: “Give me the coffee.”

Though Finns’ taciturnity may work among themselves, problems arise when they travel or have to work with foreigners. The men, particularly, can be simply too frank, too direct, sometimes to the point of rudeness. They find it especially challenging to engage in the social lubricant of small talk, something even Norwegians can manage if they put their minds to it. 

Finn distrusts verbosity. If you speak for more than four or five minutes at a time, they begin to wonder what you are trying to hide. 

The Finnish reticence might also be interpreted as shyness. The Finnish for shy, ujo, doesn’t carry the negative connotations it does in English, nor do the various other words for “shy” elsewhere in the Nordic region. Up here in this part of the world, where modesty and equality are so esteemed, shyness is not perceived as a social handicap, but more often, as a quality demonstrating modesty, restraint, and one’s willingness to listen to others. 

There are thought, varying degrees of Scandinavian shyness. The Finns are the heaviest dance partners conversation-wise, followed by the swedes, who share Finn’s fondness for silence; then comes the Norwegians and Icelanders. The Danes are almost human in this context. Perhaps because they have a tradition of being a traditional people and are closer to mainland Europe, they are more comfortable with small talk. As a result of this, the rest of Scandinavia eyes the Danes with some suspicion. 

In some senses, the Finns can be considered uber-Scandinavians. As we have discovered, the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians self-censor according to Jante law – one must not boast about one’s achievements or possessions, not mustn’t think one is better than anyone else, and so on. The Finns take this kind of modesty to a whole other level, to the extent that many claims it harms their export economy. 

“We don’t have the guts to out there and bravely boast about how good we are,” the country’s tourism director said to the author. “We stand in a corner with our hands in our pockets and hope that someone will pay attention to us.” 

 Maybe the Finns’ pathological taciturnity was a symptom or the abuse of the perceived negative aspects of Finnish society – the melancholy, the depressiveness, the violence, and so on. Or was it, instead a manifestation of historical scars or, simply, a side effect of the weather, which, as Richard Lewis claims, in these parts is hardly conducive to frivolous chitchat? 

The Finn’s obmutescence seemed especially to go hand in hand with that other most famous Finnish characteristic: their drinking. But as the latter used as a cure for the former – medication to help deal with their self-imposed isolation – or were they mutually symptomatic? In other words, which came first, the spirits or the silence? 


They like to drink, the Finns are the common stereotype that the rest of Scandinavia has about the country. Al culture of extreme drinking also defines one of the country’s exports after mobile phones and timber: death metal bands. To this day, Estonians run for cover, grabbing their children from their front doorsteps when the ferry from Helsinki arrives and hundreds of thirsty Finns disembark to take advance of the chapters alcohol on that side of the Baltic. 

The Finns’ reputation for a drink is perplexing given that, when you look at the per capita annual alcohol consumption figures for Europe, they are strikingly average drinkers. Most reports tend to place their alcohol consumption somewhere between 10 and 12 liters per person per year. The Swedes drink less, it’s true, but their governments spend more on anti-alcohol propaganda than any other in the world. The Danes and British both drink more than the Finns, as do almost two-thirds of the countries that featured in a 2010 OECD worldwide health report on alcohol. A study carried out in the mid-1980s into the drinking habits of the Nordic region revealed that all the Scandinavians were broadly similar in their approach to intoxication: only Iceland actively approved of drunkenness. So where does this dark reputation come from? 

It seems like they did it themselves, according to Matti Peltonen, head of the Department of Social History at the University of Helsinki. He accounts that the Finns created the jokes about themselves only to keep themselves relevant in the region. 

Negative national stereotypes tend to be promulgated by neighboring countries – the British label the French “devious,” the Americans call the Canadians “backward”, and so on- but Finland has saved everyone else the trouble of creating its negative self-image. 

Matti Peltonen says the stereotype comes from the early 20th-century Finnish temperance movement that grew out of a struggle between the ruling classes and the emerging industrial working-class labor movements. The working classes couldn’t be trusted the vote for the establishment. By way of response, those labor movements moved to self-impose mandatory abstinences in the form of prohibition, but the plan had a flaw of which both sides were well aware: in those days the Finns drank even less than they do now, around 2 liters per annum. 

Their leadership happily fostered the myth that working-class Finns couldn’t handle their drink – that they grew wild and uncontrolled under the influence – going as far as to claim that it was biological, something in their blood. They did so because they believe that, if they could subsequently prove they were sober and responsible, the working class would be entitled to greater political rights. As they were largely sober and responsible to start with, this was something a fait accompli. 

The Finns grew so committed to curbing their imaginary drinking that in 1919 they did eventually manage to prohibit themselves. That leads to the inevitable boot-legging and multiple deaths from home-distilled moonshine. For a long time after prohibition finally ended in 1932, Finland had a rationing system, with a high adult-allowed personal alcohol quota; this was eventually replaced by the same kind of state-run alcohol monopoly that is found in Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, in Finland’s case, with the dreaded Alko shops. 

Finland’s self-image as a taciturn, strong, sisu boozers is almost wholly male-orientated. Even the rampantly male-chauvinist Italians allow for feminine elements of their self-image, but not the Finns. The modern Finnish male, despite being well aware of the health risks and antisocial consequences of his alcohol consumption continues his heroics consumption as some kind of ritual masculine display, or a collective drowning of masculine sorrows, or both. Perhaps they are drinking to forget all those historical humiliations under the yoke of the condescending Swedes or the high-handed Russians. Even the Danes had a pool at ruling Finland. Surely there isn’t much to look back on with pride. Yet somehow the Finns manage. 

The 1939-1940 Winter War against the Soviets is often cited as Finland’s crowning sisu moment. Though the Finnish army indeed demonstrated astounding bravery, tenacity, and fortitude in repelling the invasion of Soviet military force more than five times its strength, and though they did it with virtually no help from Sweden, essentially the Finns still lost. As courageous and indefatigable as they were, the Mannerheim Line counted for little in the end. Arguably even more regrettable than the territory and reparations they ultimately ceded as a result of the defeat, was their loss to Russia drove the ever-pragmatic Finns straight into the arms of the Germans. The Finns went on to fight against the Soviets, arm in arm with the Nazis, for three years. 

Maybe the Finns hated themselves and they used alcohol to appease these feelings. 

Roman Schwartz didn’t agree with this thought. 

“Listen, if you sit here in November, all alone, it’s dark and gray, you feel like having a drink.” He recounts to the author. “Then you feel a little better, and you think ‘Maybe if I have another drink I’ll feel even better.’”

It is not an ideal image for a progressive, modern democracy to project, and so, in recent years, the kinds of people whose job it is to worry about Finland’s international reputation have been trying to change it. During a five-year process, the Finnish government consulted everyone from the head of Nokia to schoolteachers on how they saw themselves and how they wished to be perceived by the world. The result was a “brand vision” entitled A Mission for Finland, which attempted to position Finland as the problem-solver of the world, plus an ad campaign emphasizing the Finns’ honesty and reliability, featuring the slogan “Is there a Finn on board?” – their version of “Is there a doctor on board?” The inference is that you can always rely on a Finn.


In a sense, the Finns are forever torn between the history they share with Christina Europe thanks to the Swedish influence – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and so on – and that of the Orthodox world, with its Tsaritsyn and communist systems. 

Since 1947, when Finland was forced to cede 10% of its territory to Russia, that east-west line has divided the country, but Finland has had to live with this duality for much longer:

“Finns in the early part of the twelfth century found themselves in the middle of a great power conflict, a situation that would persist – in hot and Cold War periods – right up to 1945. How the Finns have dealt with this geopolitical balancing act defines to a large degree the history of the nation.” Writes Richard D. Lewis in his book Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf. 

There is their complex relationship with the Swedes and their anxieties about the Russians; their fears about what the rest of us think of their nonverbal social inadequacies; the drinking and violence; the terrible Civil War; that awkward business with the Nazis; a 1947 partition every bit as divisive as the subcontinent’s; the growing fear of Nokia going under and prompting another national near-bankruptcy like the one in early 1990s; and so on. You could argue that all the cliche of Finnishness – the drinking, the violence, the reticence, even the saunas – are just symptoms or side effects of their taboos. 

Prime among these cultural conflicts is their relation to the Swedes. 

The constant between Finland and Sweden predates records but probably began via the stepping-stones of the Aland Islands across the southwest of Finland, which was about the only habitable part of the country for millennia. The Swedes settled and started to trade with the Finns, who came from deep in the forest with their fur and their tar, and gradually “conquered” Finland between 1115 and 1293. 

The Finns have numerous grounds for reseñémonos concerning the period of Swedish rule: the 1696 – 1697 famine, caused by two particularly harsh winters, to name just one. Approximately a third of the population of  Finland was left to starve by an incompetent Stockholm government. This has not been forgotten. 

What is most remarkable about Swedish influence amid the higher echelons is the extent to which it continued long anger the Swedes had relinquished power in the early 19th century. Barely had the 1809 Diet of Porvoo agreed to the terms under which the Grand Duchy would be ruled by Russians than the new Finnish ruling class – still mostly made up of Swedish Finns, it has to be said – were busy enshrining equal relights for Swedish speaks in its constitution. Swedish remained the only official language in Finland for more than half a century after the two countries divide; snobbery burnished Swedish culture for longer still. 

Today, though their prominence is waning, the 300,000 or so Swedish Finns who live in Finland still exercise a surprising amount of influence in the higher echelons of the establishment and industry. 

Swedish Finns have their national assembly, the Folketinget; their political party, the Swedish People’s Party, which usually has a minister in government; their national theater, which is virtually as large as, and arguably more elegant than, the Finnish national theater; and they even have their flag, a yellow cross on a red background. Swedish remains an official language in Finland and is compulsory in schools. If a region has more than 8% Swedish speakers, it must operate on a bilingual basis. By law, in these Swedish-speaking parts of the country, even the street sign has to be in Swedish first and Finnish second. 

Finland’s adoption of the euro represented a major break from the Swedes who have kept their krona. The Finns were proud to be the first country to adopt the single currency, thanks to the time difference. 


Communism was on the rise in Finland, as it was elsewhere in Europe. Racial Finns rallied behind the red flag, while the middle-class “Whites” were led by General Mannerheim, who had served time in the Russian army under the tsar. Though the resulting civil war lasted less than four months, its psychological scars linger to this day. The Whites won; 37,000 people died. Many Reds and their supporters were executed or imprisoned and thought there was an eventual amnesty for them, for decades afterward the whole miserable episode was largely swept under the carpet. It was the single most divided moment in Finnish history. 

As with previous Russian interest in Finland, Stalin was probably never that serious about conquering the country – he just wanted a larger buffer zone to protect St. Petersburg, now renamed Leningrad. He requested control of some of the Finnish islands that lay just beyond the city, as well as the Finnish port of Hanko. The Finns refused and the countries went to war in November 1939, a conflict that would prove to be the ultimate test of sisu.

The Finns faced certain defeat with only around 200,000 men and virtually no planes or tanks to defend the country against the 1.2 million-strong Red Army. Following a truly harrowing permafrosted campaign that lasted three months and saw prolonged periods in which the temperature fell below 40F, 26,o00 Finns’ lives were lost compared with 127,000 Russians. 

As terrible as it was, in a sense the Winter War galvanized Finland, helping to bring together a divided nation and earning the Finns the admiration of the rest of the world. Their white-clad ski patrols, nicknamed “the White Death” by Russian soldiers, became Second World War icons. 

Neutral Sweden did little to support its former territory during its conflicts with Russia and even prevented the League of Nations and the Allies from coming to Finland’s aid in the early part of the conflict. Understandably there remains a residual bitterness among some Finns, not just about the blockade, or at being left to dangle by the Swedes during the War, but also at how the Swedish economy flourished so brazenly, supplying both the Germans and the British with raw materials, and form the sense of security that it enjoyed by having doughty Finland as a buffer against the soviets for many decades afterward. 

Finland’s limited success in resisting the societies was all the encouragement Hitler needed to believe he could defeat Stalin, and so the relatively brief Winter War was followed by the three-year Continuation, during which, despite initially declaring neutrality, the Finns eventually decided their best interest lay in joint the Nazis fighting Saint the soviets under Operation Barbarossa. The Finns allowed more than 200,000 German soldiers to fight in the north of their country and gave the Nazis access to various raw materials, particularly their nickel. 

The ever-pragmatic Finns draw a fine distinction here: they were operating very strictly within their own, anti-communist, national interest to reclaim their territory and prevent a Soviet invasion – they were not assisting Hitler’s Third Reich ambitions. 

As punishment for siding with the Germans, Finland ended up giving Russia 10% of its territory. This included much of agricultural rich Finnish Karelia; almost a hundred power stations; great tracts of the forest; and, crucially in terms of its economy, the port of Vyborg. 

Mannerheim somehow maneuvered Finland out of the grasp of the Soviet Union; his second masterstroke was the rejection of Marshall Plan aid. Refusing American assistance was a classic example of Finish obstinacy. Though Finland was desperately in need of funds, its courageous self-sufficiency allowed the country to settle its debt to Russia while keeping it free of any ties to America. There would be US bases, no membership of NATO, and so no threat to the Russians that Finland might be used as a stepping-stone for any invasion from the west. In turn, Russia felt less need to strong-arm or invade Finland, and instead of becoming another Estonia, the country befitted hugely in economic terms from being a strategic paw in the Cold War chess game. 

Russian influence on the lives of ordinary Finns was extraordinary. Every week the national radio station broadcast a fifteen-minutiae bulletin, a kind of “What’s happening with the neighbors.” Also, every home had to keep something called a House Books, in which were recorded the names, not only of everyone who lived in the house but of every visitor. Come January, a member of the household had to line up at the local police station where the books would be checked and stamped. Failure to do this would result in a fine. The Finnish media and publishing industries were ever alert to material that might displease the Soviets.    

All this anxiety is understandable. For much of the Cold War, Russian tanks were lined up along the Finnish border awaiting the order to roll. And who would come to Finn’s aid if the Russians did invade? The neutral Swedes in their hairnets? The demilitarized Germans? Finland is a long wait from America. Instead, the Finns did what they were best at: they adapted to the prevailing realpolitik, swallowed their pride, put their heads down, and got on with it.

And to cap it all when they finally were granted their “freedom” the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 left Finland virtually bankrupt. With the Soviet Union in pieces, it had lost its major trading partner. Exports plummeted and the economy shrank by 13% within months. The 90s was just another long decade of would licking and humiliation to add to the many they had experimented with during the previous century. 

Candles to the People

Finland’s most lauded achievement of the post-cold war era has been its education system, not that you would know it if it had been left to the Finns to broadcast the fact. Naturally, it took foreigners to point out that Finland has the best schools in the world. 

Every three years since 2000, the OECD has published what is widely considered to be the definite ranking list of international education systems. It charts the performances of fifteen-year-olds in math, reading, and science in seventy countries, and on every occasion Finland has been at, or close to, the top of the list in each of the three fields. 

The secrets to this are not immediately obvious: Finland doesn’t shower their schools with tax money, they spend no more than the OECD average of education per student; Finnish teachers are paid roughly in line with other Western European teachers and earn about 20% less than American teachers. Their class sizes are not unusually small by Nordic standards, twenty to twenty-three children. And kids don’t enter the education system until seven years of age. There is little or no testing before sixteen; comparatively little homework; no public listing of schools per Frances; and children spend only an average of four hours a day at school. 

The most striking aspect of Finland’s performance, beyond its general, all-around excellence, is the fact that the success is spread evenly among all of its schools: it is the country with the least amount of performance variance between schools: there is just 4% difference in performance between the best of them and the worst. In Finland, it doesn’t matter if you go to school in a remote part of Lapland or a suburb of Helsinki: chances are, your child’s performance will remain constant. 

Equally important are the care and resources lavished on those doing the teaching. In Finland, teaching has been seen as a prestigious carer since the earliest days of the country’s education system in the latter part of the 19th century, because teachers paused a key role in the country’s emergence as an independent nation. Finland is a country in which teachers have long been national heroes, at the forefront of defining and disseminating their country’s blossoming self-image. They were nothing less than the nation’s intellectual freedom fighters. 

Early on Finnish education was essentially the teaching of survival skills, everything from woodwork to sewing. Teachers became known as the “candles of the people,” lighting the path to Finnish self-reliance. 

It remains an attractive career. Over a quarter of Finnish graduates see teaching as their top option. In Finland teaching attracts the brightest of students. 

In Finland, teacher-training courses can be more difficult to get into than those in law or medicine. 

They are routinely oversubscribed by a factor of ten, sometimes much more. At the University of Helsinki a couple of years ago they had 2,400 applicants for the 120 places in the mater’s program. Ever since 1970, all Finnish teachers have been required to stud at the master’s level with state support. All Finnish teachers have a research-based approach to their training. They are not just taught how to teach, they are taught to think critically about what they do. 

Another theory about why Finnish kids do so well, particularly in the earlier stages of their schooling is the simplicity of their language. It seems that anyone who learns to read and write at the age of six is set for life when it comes to the Finnish language. Yes, there is an increase in vocabulary, but Finnish is a very strange language that if you put two words together they fit. 



Sweden is the country that has done more than any other to define how the rest of the world sees Scandinavia: as modern, liberal, collectivist, and more than a little dull. This is the largest, most populated (9.3 million), by just about every measures the most successful, occasionally the most infuriating, and undoubtedly the most influénciela country of all.

As Finnish historian, Laura Kolbe points out to the author: Sweden is like the sun, a magnet, at times perhaps a kind of black hole, to which all Nordic people have turned their faces in admiration, been drawn to, at some time or another over the last half Millenium. It is the elder brother, the head boy, the role model. 

Over the centuries, all of its Nordic siblings have felt the wrath of an aggrieved or threatened Sweden, as indeed has a large swathe of Central Europe, though these days the famously peaceable, supposedly neutral Swedes prefer not to dwell on their bloodthirsty rampages. The Finns, Norwegians, and the Danes all have cause for residual resentment and envy toward their goody-goody, high-achieving neighbor. It may be comparatively low level, the vestigial wounds of centuries of tension, rivalry, and betrayal, but it is there. It is there in the grudging way the Danes react to Swedish economic success and the global domination of IKEA. It is therein the relish with which the Norwegians tell you of their banana-peeling immigrant Swedish workforce. And is there when the Finns murmur about “homo” Swedish men and the Winter War? 

To the rest of the world, a Swede is a wholly benign, admirable thing. The accomplishments of 20th century Sweden are legion and, mostly, noble: from its rationalist, respectful secularism, to its industrial might and economic success, and of course, its compassionate, all-embracing, shining beacon of the welfare state. For much of the last hundred years, Sweden has been seen and has very much seen itself, as the social laboratory of the world: a heroic blond collective intent on pioneering better ways of living, abiding by higher, more modern moral codes, and writing catchy four-minute pop songs. 

Right now, the Swedish model has the attention of other world’s policymakers and politicians. From David Cameron to Francois Hollande, and even Barack Obama, many moderate western political leaders have fantasized about emulating Sweden’s mixed economy and consensus-driven politics. 

The boldest of Sweden’s recent social experiments has been in the field of multiculturalism. Over the last forty years, Scandinavia’s largest county has welcomed more immigrants than any other European land. Today, almost 15% of the Swedish population was born outside of Sweden, and if you include the next generation, almost a third of the population was born outside of the country. That’s an astonishing statistic for a country that, but until the late nineteen century, was made up of homogenous, isolated rural communities, and whose foreign policy has for the last two centuries been characterized by insularity and neutrality. 

In the last few years, the world has also looked to Sweden for tips on how to cope with its various banking and economic crisis, Sweden having endured a similar credit-induced roller coaster decades ago. In 1985, after the government had deregulated the credit market, the swedes made the most of the so-called Santa Claus credit with which they were showered and paid the price when their housing bubble inevitably burst. By the early 1990s, Sweden was in a crisis: unemployment quadrupled and the budget deficit soared. But the government moved quickly to tidy up the mess, implement major public sector spending and tax cuts while preserving the core of its welfare state; reforming and privatizing services; encouraging schools to opt out of the state system; allowing patients to choose any doctor, including private ones, and charge the state; and so on. Sweden, if it is not booming, then at least doing very well for itself. 

Sweden is fourth on the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report, and tenth on the UN’s Human Development Index, ahead of Denmark and Finland. Norway takes first place – its extravagant oil wealth ought to ensure its position as the richest Nordic country in absolute terms for any decades to come – but Sweden’s industrial output continues to dwarf that of all its neighbors. Its great strength lies in fostering large-sale international corporations, like Tetra Park (the world’s largest food packaging company), H&M (the second largest clothing relatives in the world), industrial engineering firms Atlas Copco, Erikson, Volvo, and that global chain of marriage graveyards, IKEA. Almost half of the largest companies in the Nordic region are Swedish. 

Less happily, unemployment has been running at a comparatively high rate for some years: it is currently at 8.2%, almost three times that of Norway. Most seriously of all, youth unemployment is far higher than in any Nordic country (approaching 25% for under-twenty-fours). Nevertheless, booths Sweden’s GDP and its growth figures continue to outstrip others in the region. Government debt is declining, too – in stark contrast to the rest of the continent: it represents 40% of GDP, compare with an average of over 90% of GDP in the eurozone.

Sweden boasts several notable cultural exports in recent years, this includes its domination of the world’s airport bookstores with forty million selling Henning Mankel and the sixty million-selling Stieg Larson. Sweden is also the world’s third largest exporter of music (after the United States and the UK). 

The abiding view of the swedes from their neighbors to the south is of a stiff, humorless, rule-bossed, and dull crowd who inhabit a suffocatingly conformist society and chew tobacco. The only alternative to the Danes’ withering descriptions of the Swedes tends to come mostly from an equally slanted overly credulous international media. British and American newspapers and magazines long ago decided that Sweden was a paragon of progressive social policies, mixed capitalism, groovy furniture, and sourdough-bread-baking hipsters with bears and fixies, and they are sticking to that line no matter what. 

Donald Duck

Unlike the Danes, who will proclaim themselves the happiest people in the world to any passing academy, journalist, or bemused Chinese tourist, the Swedes don’t hold these lives in terribly high regard. A few years ago the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research asked young swedes to describe their compatriots. The top eight adjectives they chose, in the design order of relevance, were: envious, stiff, nature-loving, quiet, honest, dishonest, and xenophobic. 

The bottom three characteristics, i.e. those least exhibited by the Swedes, were: masculine, sexy, and artistic. 

A book written by the founder of Stockholm’s Cross Cultural Relations Center, Jean Phillips-Martinsson’s Swedes as Others See Them, adds a few more Swedish descriptors: taciturn, serious, stiff, boring, superficially friendly, unsociable, punctual, inflexible, arrogant, and over-cautious. Another word that crops up regularly in the analyses of the Swedes is “shy.” 

The fear of being ridiculed, which is a national phobia, is reflected in one of the keywords by which the Swedes fined themselves: duktig. It translates as “clever,” but this is a specific type of Swedish cleverness: a diligent, responsible kind of clever; punctual, law-abiding, industrious clever. We’re talking Japanese-style responsible competence, rather than show-off-y clever. It almost seems like it’s forbidden in this country to express strong feelings. 

This definition to avoid causing friction extends from Swedish politics to the corporate world, famously characterized by its consensus culture. Swedish companies tend to have a flat structure with little overt hierarchy. Everyone can have their say; management and workers consider each other equals. But this can be problematic for any changes are decisions that have to come are met with resistance to take a strong view. Swedish managers are just too consensus-orientated to push through unpopular decisions. 

So how come Swedish companies have had such huge, global success in recent decades? They have done so precisely because that scale of success generally requires a large number of people to move in the same direction over the long term; they tend not to benefit from headstrong management, but progress more effectively if everyone agrees upon the goals and direction. In contrast, the Danes excel at small-to-medium scale businesses that need to be more agile and reactive; apart from a handful of examples, Danish companies struggle to achieve a truly international scale. 

When they are not striving to be perceived by their fellow countrymen as ducting, the Swedes will seek to impress each other with how lagom they are. It means “according to law” or “according to accepted custom,” but implies being “moderate,” “reasonable,” “fair,” “acting in a common-sense way,” and “rational.” It has come to imply a kind of self-imposed, collective restraint. 

Lagom defines many behavioral aspects of Swedish society, from a general lack of conspicuous consumption and public showiness to their system of government, which has tended to rely on compromise, moderation, and consensus. 

Stockholm Syndrome 

Alfred Nobel made his fortune by investing dynamite, initially in the mining industry, but later in the munitions used to slaughter thousands in the Crimean War, and countless million thereafter. And yet, somehow, one idea day while drawing up his will in his retirement home on the Italian Rivera, Nobel felt his life’s bloodstained legacy warranted, of all things, a peace prize in his name. Strangest of all is that the peace prize is awarded by a committee chosen by the Norwegian parliament; the other prizes – for literature, chemistry, physics, medicine, and economics – are given out by a Swedish committee. No one really knows why Nobel felt they should be spoilt in this way, but at the time of his death Norway was ruled by Sweden, and perhaps he judged it to be the least warlike nation of the two. 


Rosegard is nearly 90% immigrant population, with country herds of Somali, Iraqi, and Afghani origin. 

Some say that Rosengard is a no-go area for non-Muslims, a place where white peoples and even the emergency services are not wanted – a hotbed of the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that has already implemented Sharia Law in this small pocket of the city and intend to roll it out across the continent. 

The author interviewed two people who are key to the zone. The first one is the head of Public Relations for the City District of Rosengard. He said this about the district being called a ghetto:

“Well, we do t use the word ‘ghetto’. It’s not paradise on earth, but it has no more problems than the city districts of Stockholm or Gothenburg. The last major riots were four years ago. It’s just quieter now, we’ve had lots of infrastructure changes. Every says Rosengard is proof that immigration has gone bad, but we say this is where integration starts.” 

The blocks in Rosengard were built as part of Sweden’s extraordinary Million Programme; between 1965 and 1974, the Social Democratic government constructed over a million new homes, many of them surplus to requirements. The problem, according to the city’s mayor, is that planning in Sweden is a long-term business, often outpaced by economic and demographic changes. 

“From 1971 to 1982 Malmo population declined by almost forty thousand, but they were still building four thousand flats a year, so there was lots of space. In the early 1990s, they began to be filled by immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, who worked here in the shipyards; by the end of that process there were ten people in every flat.” 

This was the beginning of the dark days for the estate as landlords essentially left the apartments and their residents to rot. Basic amenities broke down, the fabric of the buildings deteriorated, and overcrowding from the next wave of arrivals from the Middle East exacerbated the problem. Eventually, the local authorities bought and repainted some of the buildings, but then in the early nineties, Sweden’s economy tanked, unemployment quadrupled, and the central bank’s interest rate hit 500%. The central government passed a lie to prevent any more homes from passing into public ownership as part of the cost-cutting, privatization strategy, and Rosengard was left to rent for itself. 

Herregarden, a group of apartment blocks that borders Rosengard’s and is a predominantly white, working-class housing complex has one of the largest proportions of voters for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. The party polled 36% of the votes in the Almgarden in the 2014 election, compared its just under 6% nationally. 

Malmo’s first major riots took place in Herregarden back in early 2000. At the time the apartments block here should have provided homes for two thousand people but in reality, they housed eight thousand. The busses stopped running to the estate for a while and, in 2008, when one of the building’s landlords closed down a mosque that was operating from the basement, it was the scene of the worst riots in the city’s history. 


The awkward truth for Sweden’s multiculturalists is that immigrants and asylum seekers do appear to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in the country, particularly violent crime, and particularly rape. In Fishing in Utopia, Andrew Brown writes:

“It is one of the known unspeakable of Swedish life that the crime rate among immigrants and their descendants is at least double that in the native population… immigrants are more than four times as likely as Swedes to commit a murder, and more than five times as likely to commit rape.”

Even some of the liberal, left-wing multiculturalist Scandinavians were occasionally willing to concede, off the record, that newly arrived, uneducated immigrants, particularly those from rural parts of Islamic countries, are simply not equipped to deal, for instance, with the way Western women dress and behave. 

The equally awkward truth for the right-wingers opposed to immigration is that one major factor in immigrant crime is the very Scandinavian welfare mode, which the right-wing parties are often fighting just as hard as the Social Democrats to maintain. The Scandinavian welfare-state model was not designed with non-Western immigrants in mind. Unlike, say, the immigrants who came to the UK in the 1950s, immigrants to the Nordic countries often lack the language skills and qualifications required to make the best use of the safety net, and, even when they do acquire these things, they face prejudice among potential employers and society in general. This is in stark contracts to the United States, for instance, where immigrants generally have to work hard to survive, and in doing so, create lives and businesses with little state support – those employment and earning opportunities being the very things that draw them to the states in the first place. 

One proposed solution to the problem is to have a two-tier system, with different welfare provisions for new arrivals, more stringent rules for applicants, and so on. Denmark has taken this path over recent years, but in doing so has provoked rage from human rights organizations, the EU, and others, and suffered irrevocable damage to its international image. Sweden did clamp down on immigrants in the wake of its economic problems in the early 1990s, but it has still run at record levels (roughly 100,000 new arrivals every year), above even 1970s figures. The country has also taken around 30,000 asylum seekers each year, compared with 3,000 to 5,000 in Denmark, a figure that is striking enough in absolute terms, but that makes Sweden the third highest destination for asylum seekers in the world in per capita terms. 

The Party

Sweden is a totalitarian state. 

For much of the 20th century, Sweden was effectively a one-party state, the party being the Social Democrats. They regulated every aspect of their dutiful, acquiescent citizens’ lives, doing their utmost to ensure adherence to the prescribed modern, progressive social norms. Of course, Sweden was no Soviet Union – its wealth was generally distributed much more fairly, and the goods and services offered to its citizens were of far higher quality. Instead of potato lines and Trabants, the Swedes were rewarded for their collective compliance with a kind of modern, secular Valhalla. And Volvos. 

They called in Folkhemmet (the “People’s Home”). It was the most generous, progressive, and the extensive welfare state in the world. Folkhemmet ensured its citizens never went hungry or homeless, that they were cared for when they were sick, and proved for when they grew old. For much of the 20th century, the Swedes enjoyed full employment, some of the highest wages in the world, ample national holidays, and unprecedented economic prosperity. 

Hand in hand with unions (until recently, if you joined one of the larger Swedish unions, you automatically became a member of the Social Democratic Party), and together with a small group of industrialists, the party set wages and surged the Swedish industry was almost completely free form labor disputes. As payback for such a compliant workforce, the government impregnated some of the most stringent labor market regulations in the world (still to this day it is inordinately difficult and costly for Swedish companies to sack anyone); the most generous unemployment benefits; and by 1975 had made it compulsory for union representatives to sit on the boards of all companies. True to the totalitarian template, Social Democrats dominated the judiciary, ran the state television and radio broadcasting monopolies, and guided Swedish culture via art funding. 

There were a few aspects of the Swedes’ lives that their government did not strike to control, including their pay, how they raised their children, how much they drank, what they watched on TV, how many holidays they took, and their views on the Vietnam War. 

One famous, and in its way quite magnificent, an example of the Swedish population’s malleability is that, when the government decided, on the night of September 3, 1967, to switch from driving on the left to driving on the right, they promptly did so what it so much has honked horn, let alone a single accident. 


Historically several factors paved the way for Sweden to become the perfect subject for bending totalitarianism. The alleged Viking egalitarianism; Lutheranism, with its emphasis on collective sacrifice, social justice, equality, self-control, and denial; a comparatively weak feudal system; high levels of centralization from the 16th century onwards; and the emergence of the trade union and cooperative moments. Above all, Sweden had a far larger landless peasant population than Denmark and a far greater concentration of wealth in a small number of rich landowners. 

So the hungry, dutiful populace was ready to be shaped and guided by an unholy trinity: the extraordinary and lasting accord between the Social Democrats, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), and the Employers Association (SAF). The role of the latter was especially remarkable. Its core was made up of fewer than 20 families, prime among them industrialist-bankers, the Wallenbergs. These three entities would cooperate to a remarkable degree over the coming decades on matters such as wage levels, childcare provision, women’s rights, employment law, economic policy, and even foreign policy, wallowing some of the most progressive social innovations the world has ever seen to be imposed upon a broadly accepting Swedish public. 

Sadly though, these families and government collaborated with the Nazis in 1939 selling them iron and allowing for supplies to reach the Russian front line through their railway system. It allowed not only for Sweden to remain neutral in the conflict but to avoid almost no devastation in the forms of bombing and rebuilding that the rest of Europe had to undergo. It also led to the post-war economic and social miracle that wouldn’t have been spoiled without the Marshall plan’s fueled growth. Since it was one of the only economies in Europe that were mostly left untouched, a lot of industrial companies took advantage of the infrastructure to continue their economic purpose. And as the author points out, there is a collective unspoken decision, by the Swedes, to avoid reflection on their conduct between 1939 and 1945. 

So it seems that partially their open-door policy to immigration and their complacency with multiculturalism is based on guilt. 

So the author argues that the Swedish mentality is to “take your place in the collective,” as one commentary ominously put it, and become dependent on the government. Yet strangely enough they advertise it as independence and equality because no one depends on one another since the state takes over many of the things that people did for one another, like care for the elderly. 

In Sweden, self-sufficiency and autonomy are all; debt of any kind, but emotional, a favor, or cash, is to be avoided at all cost. 

Swedish autonomy also seemed to be much more passive than the kind of independence the Americas strive for. It is not about achieving something, striking out on your own, grabbing life by the lapels and wringing every ounce of potential for it, it is about being able to get your teeth seen regularly, for spouses to be able to take separate holidays, or for retirees to be free to decide what to have for dinner. 

“Americans want the freedom to do, the swedes want the freedom to be.”


Women’s rights were a key element of the Social Democratic social revolution, as well as being central to their economic plan. Though women’s suffrage came later to Sweden than the other Nordic countries (in 1921), and all the countries of the north can justifiably claim to be paragons of feminism, Swedish women have subsequently seen their position in society advance even more comprehensively thanks to a raft of policies concerning gender equality, childcare, and positive discrimination. 

For some years Sweden had a dedicated Ministry of Gender Equality charged with overseeing legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination in the workplace, bringing more women into the labor market, and making sure that every advertise they for cleaning products creature a man with a mop and a bucket rather than a woman. Party, as a result, Sweden now has some of the most generous parental leave allowances in the world, with 16 months’ leave on 80% of wages guaranteed by laws, to be taken whenever the parents feel like it up until the child is eight years old. Two months of this are assigned exclusively to the father. 

Sweden has the cheapest childcare in terms of percentage of average wages in the Nordic region: it costs a little over $150 per month for daycare. By age, twelve to eighteen months more than 82% of Swedish childcare are in dar care. 

The Swedes have never quite plucked up the courage to have a woman prime minister, but almost half of Sweden’s MP and currently more than half of its government ministers are women.  

But all this gender equality comes with a price and Sweden is cataloged as the least chivalrous country in the west, with things like opening doors for women or offering them your seat on the bus considered “male chauvinist” or a “betrayal to feminism”.  

One could argue there is another, more serious, cost to Sweden’s state-led radical feminism than the loss of misguided foreign men left standing holding doors open like so many freelance concierges. The social and economic pressure on women to return to work soon after childbirth means that Scandinavia children tend to be enrolled in daycare at a younger than average age and for more hours per day. Some observers have claimed that separation from the mother at a young age lays the foundation for a whole host of neurosis and anxieties in later life, as well as exacerbating the inherent tendency of Swedes towards independence and isolation. 

US psychiatrist Herbert Hending observed in his book Suicide and Scandinavia that children in Sweden were taught to be dependent on another person – even one’s mother – is a failing. “Childcare is encouraged to separate from their mothers early on, socially and psychologically. They deny the existence of any such need and mask it behind ostensible self-reliance.” 

Women are taught and almost guilted into believing that staying at home with their children is a sin that should be avoided at all costs, and are propagandized into believing that working for a living is far more fulfilling than raising their children. 

(Subtitle) Class

Scandinavian countries are broadly perceived as democratic, meritocratic, egalitarian, and classless, populated by vaguely outdoorsy, bold, liberal, bicycle-riding folk who live in taste-fully lit middle-class homes with Bang & Olufsen TVs in their living rooms, mid-range German estate cars in their driveways, who vacation in Spain and slip a couple of notes in a Red Cross envelope every month. 

Though social stratification exists in Scandinavia, notions of class are very, very different in the north. To the Scandinavians, having a House of Lords as part of your legislative process would be deemed as archaic as using spinning Jennie’s to make your clothes. Scandinavian class structure tends to be far more subtle, income and status difference far less marked.

Walk through Copenhagen’s Central Station, or cycle into central Stockholm during rush hour, and you will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between those commuters on their way to a cubicle in an open-plan office, and those heading for the corner office on the top floor. 

Social forces such as Jante Law and lagom, as well as Scandinavian’s deep-rooted instinct for consensus and conformity, their democratic systems, universal free education, and redistributive tax system all, ensure they can a look at each other in the eyes as equals, no matter where they were born or what job they do. This is rightly a source of immense pride in the region. 

My rating:

This book in 3 key points

  1.  Scandinavian countries based their welfare state on three factors: taxes, oil, and armament sells around the world. 
  2. The Finns are the most reticent people in the world. They take it to the extreme, even for Scandinavian standards.
  3. The key factor of success in these countries is the equality they all enjoy. Even if this equality is based on pulling down success. 

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