The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
US: Jan 2015
Why is it that the Scandinavian and Nordic countries – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden – routinely stand near the top of all the world’s rankings of enviable things? Happiness, equality, educational achievement…what is the secret of all this near perfection? And is it really as perfect as it all sounds?
That’s the question that journalist and writer Michael Booth set out to explore in his tome The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
The book is the latest offering in a debate that’s been gathering steam ever since Booth published two articles making the same argument in The Guardian and The Atlantic about a year ago. So I’m a bit late to the punch. And what a match it’s been! Booth’s argument – which purports to reveal the hidden imperfections amid all this vaunted perfectionism—has sparked all the predictable responses. Smug nodding and pointing from the US and the UK; outraged defiance (in suave, muted Euro-chic fashion) from some corners of Scandinavia.
One of the more interesting responses was a feature published by The Guardian newspaper, which regularly publishes Booth’s journalism. It published an article wherein it allowed him space to write a brief defense of his position, and then let loose a native writer from each of the five countries in his book to beat him up in print. (Well, I exaggerate broadly. But only because Booth has shown me it’s okay to do so. See “The grim truth behind the Scandinavian miracle’ – the nations respond” 5 February 2014)
There is a sixth nation that Booth winds up analyzing in the course of his book: his native country of Britain. The analysis and critique of the Scandinavian countries says as much about Booth’s Britishness – what he finds odd, strange, shocking, unusual, funny; and perhaps even the dry wit he employs in expositing all the above – as it does about the countries he’s ostensibly talking about. Perhaps more. In contradistinction to the “smiling crazy people” he writes about, he situates himself as the “cynical misanthrophe”. But he’s not, really. He’s just British.
This manner of travel writing is much the rage these days, and can be seen everywhere from Lonely Planet publications to the BBC. It draws a lot from 19th and 20th century popular anthropology: here’s a term or cultural practice or simply a foreign word; here’s what it means to locals; here’s what my critical cross-cultural lens reveals that it really means and what it says about the broader culture. The style is interesting, thought-provoking, and indulgently satisfying to the reader, who gets a glimpse at how quaint and contradictory another culture is while at the same time realizing how interesting and colourful and diverse the broader world is.
Anthropology, as an academic discipline, has by and large floated off into an obscure post-modern galaxy of affect theory, necropolitics, and other theoretical windbaggery these days, leaving the topic of cross-cultural difference to journalists. It retains all the negative aspects of the genre: generalizations, stereotypes, superficiality, all filtered through the cultural lens of the writer. But also the positive: second-guessing the everyday, looking beneath the surface, and confirming that the world is indeed a diverse and delightfully strange place.
Strengths and weaknesses aside, Booth is a master of the form. And in The Almost Nearly Perfect People one gets almost nearly 400 pages of it. On the one hand, the short chapters and sections divided by country allow the reader to nibble away at the book at their own capacity. But on the other, one can’t help wonder whether it would have been better as a series of extended feature articles rather than a book. The back-and-forth debates about Danish taxes, for example, become a bit much after a while (and never quite resolve anything on the matter). The original newspaper articles mentioned above were much tighter, and the economic argument more compelling.
Booth is at his best form when he’s blending history and cultural commentary; as, for example, in the section on Finland, which largely steers away from economics. The extended discussion about the Scandinavian welfare state leaves more to be desired, mostly because it doesn’t really conclude anything about it, and also since it makes Booth’s own Anglo-American bias most evident. Claims that it can only last so long, that cuts will inevitably have to happen, that working hours will have to increase, etc. etc., sound more like neoliberal devil’s advocacy than any attempt to really understand what’s going on.
In a book of nearly 400 pages, there’s guaranteed to be hits and misses. In one mortifying chapter, he sets out to deliberately harass and offend as many Swedes as possible to see how they’ll react. A novel idea, but it doesn’t really contribute anything to the overall book besides word count (and a terrible reputation for other foreigners to live down). However the subsequent chapter, where he explores adjacent immigrant and white working-class housing estates, provides a fascinating and perceptive insight into the complex identities and contradictions beneath the surface of prevailing media stereotypes. It’s anthropological journalism at its best (moreso than his ‘social experiment’ of loudly eating chips beside ‘no eating’ signs and yelling at people on buses).
Similarly, although Booth speaks highly of the economic advantages engendered by Scandinavia’s gender equality, his chapter lamenting Sweden’s “radical feminism” reads like something out of an American men’s rights movement blog. He laments the fate of Swedish men: “the shift in the gender balance toward greater equality seems to have emasculated them even further. Divested of their roles as the breadwinning protectors of the fairer sex, Swedish men have now apparently been gelded to the extent that they struggle even to engage in the most basic interplay of the genders. Flirting, courting, pitching woo, call it what you will, this has now become a political minefield. I am told that Swedish men have been cowed by their ascendant womenfolk into discarding any pretense to gallantry or courtly manners.”
Booth has been told a lot of things it seems, and the line between fact and the things told him by his select group of informants is sometimes a thin one. Although his chapter on gender equality is, I presume, mostly tongue-in-cheek – “if I may play the bigoted, chauvinistic dinosaur for a moment longer” – the fact remains that it’s there, along with his assertion that such equality leads to “families struggling” and “children paying the price.”
But then he goes to parliament and confronts the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats in their own offices, in a delightful expose on xenophobic neoconservatism. So the book offers a mixed bag.
The broad generalizations in which Booth operates are one of the book’s greatest draws, and at the same time one of its most infuriating aspects. The point of saying this is not to embark on that tedious game of “I know more than you do”, but rather to illuminate a very useful and interesting debate about the use of methods in this type of writing. There is often a tendency among academic writers to adopt the approach: “Here’s the prevailing thought on an issue. However, if we scratch beneath the surface, it’s actually more complicated than that.” Troubling our broad ideas about things has made many an academic career. But how useful is that type of paradigm-puncturing detailed analysis? It’s surely possible to find the exception to any rule; the different reading of the data that can undermine any theory or idea. Using detail and drilling down into the data can poke holes in any idea or hypothesis. But this is not the same as actually disproving an idea, and further still from offering a solid alternate hypothesis. Finding an exception to a rule doesn’t actually disprove the rule; it merely reveals that there are exceptions.
Booth takes a very different approach. Although he, too, is trying to poke holes in a widely accepted paradigm (that Scandinavians are perfect), he deliberately casts a broad sweep. While he draws on interesting and illustrative anecdotes and minutiae, his aim is to generalize. Exceptions are swept over or dismissed in witty asides. I would suggest there’s actually nothing wrong with this, because what emerges is the broad picture. He grasps at the essence of things – the Danish attitude toward taxes; the Icelandic ability to live for the moment (and blame their problems on elves); the impact of their virtually vacant yet strategically vital Valhallic vastnesses to the Finns – and tries to put together the big picture. For a specialist – which is what academics tend to be, given the nature of their training – this can be infuriating. For a journalist, it’s sometimes the entire point.
Booth – a journalist by profession – applies a journalist’s approach to a debate which has hitherto been dominated by academics (and produces an academic-sized book on the topic). This is a useful service, insofar as it brings the debate into the public sphere which, given who it concerns, is where it should be.
And what is that debate? The issue of why the world thinks so highly of the Scandinavians (and whether their welfare state is everything it’s cracked up to be). He never answers the question, of course. Instead he offers a quaint, seductive yet pointedly challenging portrait of Scandinavia from the perspective of an outsider (albeit one who has lived there for years).
Again, the cultural study is more interesting than the economic analysis. The latter takes a lot of Anglo-American tenets for granted without revealing why they are superior than the opposing Scandinavian ones. So what if Denmark’s productivity is less than the US? So what if they work less hours? So what if they want to work even fewer hours? So what if they don’t mind relying on a strong welfare state to pick up the slack? Maybe that is precisely why they are happy, and all those hard-working productive Anglo-Americans are so miserable. The implied argument – that the system can’t hold – is everywhere implied but nowhere proven, or even demonstrated to be likely.
This sort of Anglo-American neoliberal lecturing book-ends the entire work, with mixed results. At the beginning Booth takes aim at Denmark’s version of Scandinavian socialism and, after a lot of entertaining middle, the end of the book takes unfortunate aim at Sweden’s…Swedishness. A somewhat absurd argument is presented that Swedes are in fact happy because they are happily enslaved in a happily totalitarian state. Well, if they’re happy what odds? But it leads to remarkable statements, like the claim that Sweden’s vaunted tripartite government-union-employer version of collaborative labour relations (a sought-after dream for workers in most of the world) is in fact an insidious conspiracy “allowing some of the most progressive social innovations the world has ever seen to be imposed upon a broadly accepting (baa!) Swedish public.”
Well, if somebody were to impose the world’s most progressive social innovations on me, I’d probably ‘baa’ with the best of them.
Ultimately, the mystery of how the Scandinavians achieved happiness remains a mystery (along with the question of whether they are in fact totalitarian slaves, unbeknownst to their happy selves). But that’s okay, because there’s a lot more here to intrigue and entertain the reader besides. The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a fun book. It will be most appreciated by the non-Scandinavian reader, to whom it introduces a range of interesting cultural tidbits and interesting history and facts about Scandinavian society.
Its economic assessments should be taken skeptically (as the critical reader will quickly realize), grounded as they are in an Anglo-American perspective which can’t seem to grasp the idea that a welfare state in which people aren’t breaking their backs to boost productivity can actually lead to happiness and (arguable) success. He’s a bit obsessed with his tax bill, and while an Anglo-American might find it impossible to believe that exorbitantly high taxes can lead to a productive society, a Scandinavian perspective finds it equally perplexing figuring out how Anglo-Americans think their low taxes can in any way sustain a civilized modern standard of living (if anything, they’re probably both correct).
And after spending almost nearly 400 pages making digs at the Scandinavian welfare state, he concludes by acknowledging that it’s put them in a pretty enviable position which other countries might want to emulate. It makes his criticisms almost nearly forgivable.
Overall, it’s an entertaining book. It doesn’t offer the definitive secret to happiness and (near) perfection, but it does what all good travel writing and anthropological journalism ought to do: seduce us with a sense of place and inspire us to go find out for ourselves.
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