Johan Wennström, The soul of Swedes,
On the contested state of Swedish cultural identity, The Critic, 8 February, 2023
n the late 1950s, French philosopher Michel Foucault spent three years as a researcher in the Swedish university town of Uppsala. The encounter between Foucault and Sweden seems to have been an unhappy one, perhaps inspiring him to begin work on his first study of institutional control, Madness and Civilization (1961), as he in fact did during this period. A decade later, Foucault reflected in an interview on “the mutism of the Swedes, their silence and their habit of talking with elliptical sobriety”, describing a society in which “a human is but a moving dot obeying laws, patterns and forms”. He went on, “In its calmness, Sweden reveals a brave new world where we discover that the human is no longer necessary.”
Foucault’s critical words about his Swedish hosts crystallise the widespread view, also espoused by British author Roland Huntford in his book The New Totalitarians (1971), that Sweden is a country where the individual and his social relationships are suffocated by an excessively interventionist state, producing loneliness and alienation. A much more nuanced analysis of life in the Swedish welfare state is offered by historian Henrik Berggren and sociologist Lars Trägårdh in a book that instantly became a classic when it was published in Sweden more than fifteen years ago and appeared, in slightly reworked form, in English last year.