The Nordic Theory of Everything

NordicTheory“What Americans need, so that they can stop struggling so hard to be super-achievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacation….It’s not that Americans don’t realize that they need to relax, as Ariana Huffington seems to think. It’s that they can’t afford to.”     – The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, moved to the United States to marry an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she depicts how much harder it is to get by in America than her native Finland and suggests we’d be better off borrowing some of the more progressive policies of Nordic countries.

I was curious to know what the Nordic Theory of Everything is, just as I’ve always wanted to know more about the culture of my Swedish grandparents – my mormor and morfar, as my cousins and I called them when we were young.

Several years ago, I enjoyed On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America by Don Lago, which looks at how Scandinavian values have influenced American culture. I hadn’t known, for example, that community well being and service to others are hallmark ethics of Swedes, which informed Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and other political leaders of Swedish descent. Reading Lago’s book left me wanting to delve deeper into the Scandinavian personality, and Partanen’s book was what I was looking for.

Anu Partanen derived her title from the Swedish theory of love as coined by the Swedish scholar and historian Lars Trägårdh:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal….For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…..the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

I’d never been exposed to this line of thinking, and it was, for me, the heart of this book. The theory strikes me as utopian and unrealistic in its purest form, but I agree it would make sense for us to move closer to something like this, especially because so many Americans can no longer afford adequate health care, education, child care, and elder care. Women are still, on average, paid less than men, and many women would be better off with a stronger social safety net, especially single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and those working in low-paying service industries.

I’m quoting Anu Partanen’s more provocative passages, but throughout the book her tone is even-handed. You might think she is squarely in the liberal camp, but her language is not partisan; current politics in America isn’t mentioned, and Partanen has good things to say about the past policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

“…authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She’s been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to adopt policies that have been successful in the smaller, less diverse Scandinavian countries, but my guess is Partanen understands there would be challenges and intends for her book to inspire the conversations we need to be having.

Here are a few more passages:

“…. no one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances. Similarly, a wife should not be put in a position of being financially overdependent on her husband. Or vice versa, for that matter. And people should be able to make choices related to their employment without worrying whether they will still be able to receive, say, treatment for cancer.”

***

“….the brutal reality in America today is that being a special superachiever is, more and more, the only way anyone can ensure a reasonably successful life for themselves – regardless of their core values. …The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

***

“The harshness of American life helps explain the presence in the United States of a dubious, even predatory, wing of the self-help industry, which profits by selling unlikely promises to the unlucky. It’s telling that self-help gurus hardly exist in the Nordic countries…..Wishful thinking can take a nation only so far. Ultimately hope has to be generated by the actual presence of opportunity. And if it’s really there, it doesn’t require constant psychological energy and enthusiasm, or a constant stream of heroic tales of survival against all the odds, to sustain.”

I’ll close with the words of Lars Trägårdh:

“….social mobility without social investments is simply not possible. So if you start to give up on public schools and a collective system for enabling individual social mobility, you’re going to end up with inequality, gated communities, collapse of trust, and dysfunctional political systems. All these things you see now in the United States.”

What do you think?

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