Hans L Zetterberg:

Unedited notes on

“State Individualism”

taken when writing additions to the 3rd Edition of Volume 2 of
“The Many-Splendored Society: An Edifice of Symbols”.

(Probably to be published in the winter 2013-14 excluding many of the references to Sweden that are uninteresting to an international audience. © Hans L Zetterberg)

Freedom of Association

In the past three centuries, the fate of voluntary associations has been decidedly different in France, compared with other nations. In England, freedom of association became a well-established tradition. In the United States, it became a part of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Article 11. However, American courts have been reluctant and late to apply this freedom to labor unions.  

In France, in spite of its burghers making a well-known revolution in the course of freedom, voluntary associations became the object of severe restrictions. ”When a society is well governed there is no need for private associations,” Voltaire proclaimed. (I have not found the source of his original statement: it is cited here according to an entry in the encyclopedia Larousse on “Association” found by Arnold Rose (1954, 79)).

State Individualism

Rousseau said in The Social Contract that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Individualism breaks the chains and allows each person independent thoughts and actions. The real roots of widespread individualism are to be found in the social structure, mostly the transition of a society from Gemeinschaft to a Gesellschaft, discussed later in this book on The Many-Splendored Society.  

France during l’ancienne régime, had an abundance of assemblies, associations and organizations ― villages, churches, abbeys, universities, homesteads, estates, guilds, et cetera. Each had properties to attend to and rights to exercise. Pre-revolutionary France had a lively society of local communautés. Today, a social scientist might call this a large civil society with communitarian practices.

The French Revolution gave property and rights, either to the State or to private individuals, but not to any civil collectivities existing between the State and the individual. This doctrine, unique for France, thus promoted a monopoly for its celebrated “étatisme” and “individualisme.”  The doctrine of state individualism ignored rights and freedoms for both the traditional collectivities of the old regime and for any new voluntary associations arising along with the Revolution.

Other European countries at the time did not want to grant their subjects revolutionist rights of individual freedoms. Frightened by the French example, rulers instructed their advisors (and the secret police) to watch for such signs in their respective territories. The American Revolution, equally concerned as France with freedom for its citizens, did not share the French belief in a dominant role for a State with a capital S. In fact, as a new country, the United States did not even have a central government sufficiently developed to take on the task of controlling civil society. Instead, the freedom of civil associations became acclaimed, and America became “a nation of joiners.”

Of particular importance to the French Revolution was the erasing of all advantages held by those of the manor born. The Revolutionaries used the guillotine to execute, publically, test cases of the nobility. There was no need for the enormous task of executing all members of the aristocracy. A terror of test cases would subdue them. “Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue,” stated Robespierre in a speech to the National Convention in Paris on February 5, 1794, portraying France as a “Republic of Virtue.” In the longest sentence in his speech, he includes much more than substituting “good people for well-bred people.” Thus, spoke Robespierre:

In our country we want to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honor, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the rule of reason for the tyranny of custom, the contempt of vice for the contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for well-bred people, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for pompous action, warmth of happiness for boredom of sensuality, greatness of man for pettiness of the great; a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for a polite, frivolous, despicable people ― that is to say, all the virtues and all the miracles of the Republic for all the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy (Robespierre 1927).

In this speech, Robespierre cheered freedom and equality. However, there is no mention of associations and their freedom. Like most others in high positions, he was inclined to take all steps in his repertoire of actions to preserve his power. This line of action is formulated in our Proposition 10:4 “Monopolization of Cardinal Values,” (see my work The Many- Society, Vol 2: 179) which predicts actions to remove any attempts of competitive degradations of the high and mighty who had gained control of great cardinal values. Splendored

Accordingly, Robespierre took steps to disarm political opposition. His government enacted a law on 7 Thermidor in the year V of the Calendar of the Revolution forbidding associations devoted to political issues and causes. It took only five years of Revolutionary rule to see the need for such a law. Later, the Napoleonic Code Civile consolidated and extended this ban to apply to any groups with more than 20 members meeting regularly to engage in "religious, literary, political, or other activities” as cited from Rose (1954, 80). This corrupted the original “individualisme” of the Revolution into a pejorative to signify anarchy. The law restricting political associations was formally in force until 1901; for labor unions with economic agendas restrictions lifted in 1884.

Enter Organized Labor

For about 100 years, France could legally penalize citizens who created voluntary associations. The lifting of restrictions on freedom of association occurred in a period, in which labor unions had grown strong, sufficiently enough to ignore such restrictions. Associations of patrons (employers) and associations of ouvriers (labor) became recognized as juristical (artificial rather than physical) persons existing between the state and the households. 

State individualism and its denial of freedom of association, thus, finally failed in France. Let us now look at Britain, Germany, and Sweden.

In England (and later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) individualistic features were honored. Labor laws granted all rights to individuals and firms. The associations of workers, the labor unions, have none of the formal rights common to a labor market, nor have the nationwide Associations of Employers. In a British court, the collective agreements are in effect no more than "gentlemen´s agreements," to be taken as serious declarations of intent. Court verdicts mention workers as individuals and employers as individuals. The legally valid labor contract is an individual firm’s contract with an individual employee. Strikes and lockouts are legal, but the resources used by the two sides must be “proportional,” i.e. balanced so that the outcome of the strife is not self-evident from the beginning. This does not mean that British labor unions are, in practice, powerless on the labor market; only that the applicable legal aspects are different. In passing, we may note that this Anglo-Saxon tradition made it acceptable in New Zeeland to prohibit collective bargaining contracts.

In the German part of Europe, workers’ associations were outlawed until the early 1860s. The associations of workers at that time included educational and political activities, for instance public schools and universal suffrage, eventually a total subculture with its own media and art. The economic ambitions of labor unions suffered from the heterogeneity of the working class. Journeymen initially outnumbered industrial workers; the two had different concerns and different relations with their employers. The German Social Democrats developed a rich and creative subculture, a protest movement that was legal, but which could not share in governmental power (Roth 1963).   

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Germany again prohibited workers’ associations using strikes as weapons in collective bargaining. By 1910, however, German industrialization had reached the level found in Britain and the United States and German labor was as well organized as British labor. Skills in handling conflicts between labor and capital had seeped into the German labor movement from France, and in turn, the Social Democracy of the Nordic countries imported these experiences from Germany. Labor movements on the Continent became concentrated on conflicts between industrial low-ranking employees and high-ranking employers. After many harsh fights between the two, a conviction grew that lengthy and widespread stoppages of work were destructive for all, and that both parties must be equally equipped and matched for a labor fight (Kampfparität).  

After World War II, legislation provided codetermination in the form of union seats on the steering groups of corporations (Mittbestimmungsrecht). Large German corporations did not depend on the nationwide patronage of organizations to negotiate with labor; they represented their own patronage in bargaining of the collective agreements. A practice emerged whereby the states elevated the agreements between such patronage and the strongest and largest unions to comprise the laws of the land. Legislatures voted to confirm and extend deals made by associations in civil society, something unheard of in the French model.

In Sweden, the associations of employers and employees obtained the right to enter binding agreements on wages and other matters on behalf of their members. These agreements become laws of the land without passing any legislature. The state merely supplies a specific court to deal with disagreements regarding the collective agreements negotiated by the two sides of the labor market. The state also provides mediators when a strike is immanent and the parties cannot agree.

For the government of the country, many consequences flow due to this concordat between the government and associations of employers and associations of labor. For example, the administration cannot be certain when budgeting labor costs. Another visible consequence is that a ruling government cannot introduce a minimum wage in Sweden, neither can the Riksdag (Parliament).  

In Swedish labor conflicts, there are no requirements of “proportionality” as in Britain and “parity of strength” as in Germany. Nor are there explicit rights for any firm or any locally organized alternative union to remain outside the negotiated agreements. By calling strikes and blockages, freebooting firms and unions can be forced to sign special local agreements (hängavtal) to follow the clauses of the overall collective agreements.

Only the national federations of employers and employees have the right to call strikes and/or to call lockouts of any significance. This has reduced the number of days of strikes. In Sweden, a single corporation cannot declare a lockout, nor has individual workers the right to go on strike. Central federations must authorize strikes and lockouts of any significant size. Thus, the strike weapon of workers is locked in the offices of their union federations in the capital. Unions cannot condone wild strikes; union leaders can at best state that they “understand” the self-declared strikers, but they cannot use union actions to join the strike, unless centrally authorized.

The so-called “Swedish model” has two legs. The above paragraphs sketch the first one. The model is a unique labor market in which all power to make binding decision rests with the federations of employees and federations employers. The government provides mediators when the parties are deadlocked in negotiations, and it provides court rulings when the parties disagree about the interpretation of their own agreements.

The other leg of the Swedish model is extensive public welfare from cradle to grave based on a mixture of equality concerns and income maintenance. We will analyze the second leg of the model later in The Many-Splendored Society. In addition, the term Swedish model is associated with words such as “high taxes” and “Social Democracy.” The first leg of the model involves a minimum of government, while the second leg requires a maximum of government involvement.    

To conclude about the original state individualism: The dirigisme-individualism of the French Revolution was defeated. In the end, freedom of association prevailed, and legislation could not block new forms of civil society. Labor relations became the test case. Enter the labor unions in Europe, and havoc is played with laws opposing associations.

An extreme alternative emerged in Sweden where agreements between the associations on the labor market, without further notice, qualify as laws of the land. Swedish labor unions carry a big stick, unrestrained both by legislation on proportionality and of parity fighting for favors. Swedish unions organize not only industrial labor but also salaried employees in the public and private sector and academics, including journalists and professors.   

Unions in Sweden thus have the power, not to shape the economy of the nation, which requires free entrepreneurs, but to wreck the nation’s economy by giving all the fruits of entrepreneurship to employees. The political party that labor had founded in 1889, the Social Democrats, gained the premiership for most of the following century under and after the Great Depression. In the 1950s, the party reached out beyond the working class to be a voice of all employed people. By 1970 their government supported those who did not work ― whether by unfortunate circumstances or by own choice. However, when this party had recruited ministers from the unions, they usually got disappointing persons and never a prime minister.  

In the 1970s, led by the metalworkers, Swedish blue-collar labor unions raised their voice and their big stick in an attempt to take over business by “wage-earners funds” confiscated from the capitalists. The inflow to the funds failed, and so did their management. Swedish labor, with their big stick intact, has in recent years spoken with a softer voice.  

Unrestricted Unions and Unreformed Communists in the Running of Sweden?

This is a parenthesis:

The Swedish unions are probably the strongest in the world. As most other labor movements, the Nordic ones are at the time of this writing in slow decline even in years when Western world capitalism has its worst crisis since The Great Depression in the 1930s.  

A couple of years before the Swedish general election of 2014, Stefan Löfven, the chairman of the metalworkers, was recruited as the Social Democratic candidate; the party is in opposition. As mentioned, Swedish unions organize the entire labor force in the country. It is easy for Löfven to fill his entire cabinet with union functionaries with considerable competence in all societal fields of the land, except foreign affairs.     

At the time of this writing (summer 2013), Löfven leads in the polls to be the next prime minister; however, he will need the support of the Left Party in Parliament. The latter is a Communist party that currently operates inside the rules of democracy, but it has not formally renounced revolution as a political method as have most of its West European sister parties after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A Löfven government would rule over an already vast public sector. His junta could include competent union leaders from all different branches of the country; now running unions unrestrained by normal European labor laws. The junta would be able to enlarge the political sector of society by union power from all walks of society.

In Parliament, however, Löfven’s unique position of power would need the votes of the Left Party ― actually a traditional enemy to his own Social Democratic party ― that will condition its support to a leftist content of all legislation. Thus, Löfven’s big power will have a potential stronger leftist bias than his personal bias, not on all issues but on the issues, that risk his position as Prime minister.

The Swedish electorate in 2014 may deny Löfven access to power; the incumbents have done much good for the country and may be re-elected. If that fails, internal strife between party factions may still prevent a coming Löfven government from the use of its unique power to the fullest. Yet, such a government would be a triumph for Swedish labor, and perhaps a last chance in practice for any union-leaders to rule a modern country. Overall, under a Löfven government one thing seems likely: a fuller version of classic state individualism will fill the Swedish scene with more dirigisme and less individualism in the original meanings of these words.

End of the parenthesis.   

The non-socialist government since 2006 in Sweden led by Fredrik Reinfeldt has promoted a different version of “state individualism.” They did not mind that in both domestic and international discourse the “The Swedish Model” was associated with generous public welfare. They fidgeted, however, when the model of their country everywhere was associated with great labor power and with Social Democracy. Their PR people felt happy when they found another type of state individualism. Let us look at their choice.  

The Socially Small Worlds

Durable and close socially small worlds usually show strong resilience. American soldiers in World War II were asked: “Generally, in your combat experience, what was most important to you in making you want to keep going and do as well as you did.” The common answers dealt not with war aims, patriotism and democracy, nor to get the war over with and to go home, but "not to let your buddies down"  (Stouffer, et al. 1949). Similar results were found in interviewing veterans of the German Wehrmacht, who fought on in 1945 even as Berlin fell  (Shils and Janowitz 1948). The soldiers on both sides had been subject to conscription to their armies, which meant that they had a relatively durable relation with their buddies. In a relation based on ascription, i.e. a relation that goes on whatever you do, such as a functioning family of origin where you are forever daughter or son, the resiliency may be even stronger.

Edmund Burke celebrates what he calls "the little platoons" as the origin of any larger solidarity in society and warns, as conservatives ever since have done, against any attempts to destroy them:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage  (Burke 1790/1986, para 2.1.75, 227-28).

The interaction, cohesion and solidarity of small groups does not necessarily work for the good. Their members may work as Boy Scouts or as Hells (criminal) Angels.  

State Individualism and Small Platoons

During almost two centuries, Sweden has been engaged in a large-scale experiment to prove Edmund Burke wrong. This is claimed by Berggren and Trägårdh (2006). Their theme is that the Swedish way of life has, since long, fostered people to become independent of their small worlds, such as marriage and family, as well as encounters in communities and local voluntary associations. The advent of the advanced Swedish welfare state  in the second half of the twentieth century formally organized such long-given tendencies on a large scale, promising a good life for the lonely as well as the needy. The results, they say, is the phenomenon of statsindividualism, state individualism.  

The historical evidence provided by Berggren and Trägårdh is mostly the images of Sweden found in the writings of bygone intellectuals such as Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793 – 1866), Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 – 1847), Verner von Heidenstam (1859 – 1940) Ellen Key (1849 – 1926), and August Strindberg (1849 – 1912). Of cause, they are astute observers, but their cited records have the character of national self-images. Self-images, as is well known, are subject to distortions, and cannot come near a definitive proof of their view. A leading Swedish political scientist, Olof Petersson  (2012) has brought this critique.  

Berggren and Trägårdh also support their thesis with evidence from more recent changes in Swedish family legislation. They make a big point of the extensive state welfare programs. The latter mainly deal with aid to households, including their housing costs, and always to heads of the households, never because couples have marriage certificates. Sweden has obtained strong households and weak families; one strong structure and one weak, at times overlapping. Both are parts of the socially small worlds. They are not attributes of individualism, or essential conditions for individualism.

The claim that money and services from the state provide Swedes with more security than their family, fellowmen, neighbors, and associations in their civil society (pp. 52-53) is plainly not true. Swedish wages are negotiated in civil society by collective agreements on the labor market. The Swedish government and parliament cannot rule on wages, not even on such an essential social support for the needy as a minimum wage. The Swedish labor market model in which the government stays out of wage formation cannot lead to any “state individualism,” at least so long unions are not merged with the state.

Nor is it true that the welfare bureaucracies and payouts to the welfare clients have replaced small platoons. In reality, welfare bureaucracies working nine to five according to rules of law cannot, and do not, replace small worlds of kin, friends, neighbors, and volunteers. The latter are accessible around the clock, and often they work not for pay. The number of such carers in Sweden was 22 percent of the population 16 – 89 years old in 1995, as large, perhaps even somewhat larger, than that in Great Britain (Busch Zetterberg 1996, 197).

Moreover, the assertions by Berggren and Trägårdh about changes in love and family, and changes in personal autonomy do not square with the data in The Democratic Audit of Sweden 1995–2011, the so-called Maktutredningen (Petersson 2012). Since these data were generally available several years before Berggren and Trägårdh wrote their book, this is imperfect scholarship.

The above points do not exclude that lifestyles in Sweden have individualistic features. International comparative studies in cultural science, anthropology, and in opinion and value research have sometimes included elements of individualism that might single out Sweden for attention. For example, an abandoned habit of sharing family breakfast in common time and content in the households, so called “breakfastization,” had become visible among the Swedish by 1950. By 1985, market research revealed that breakfastization was reshaping also a typical family dinner in the middle classes with an acceptance of different individual diets (Berg and Zetterberg 1985). This is a clear case of individualization, an item of individualism, and probably more common in Sweden than in contemporary France. Does this tell us more than the fact that mandatory family dinners are no longer the norm, except on special occasions, for example when Swedes have guests? Does this mean that Swedes have an exceptional reliance on the state? More so than the French people have? No to both questions.

To conclude: Sweden has not revived the classic French state individualism that we described earlier. Berggren and Trägårdh’s redefined version of state individualism is an odd­ity. Their scholarly text with obvious errors cannot generate much respect in the international social science community. It cannot be a trust­worthy basis of national policy. It is not effective as ideol­ogy for a political party; too many voters know better. Its use in promoting a country’s image in international publicity invites unkind comments about charlatans at work.  

I would not have bothered so much with Berggren and Trägårdh’s state individualism in this edition of a book for an international audience, had it not been for their promotion by the leading Swedish industrialist, Jacob Wallenberg, at the Davos World Forum in 2011 (Berggren och Trägårdh 2011). The presentation was subtitled “The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism.”

It also gives me a sense of unease that idiosyncratic ideas about state individualism have become prevalent in high government circles in Sweden simply as a public-relation ambition to re-write history, deleting “labor power” and “social democracy.” from “the Swedish Model.” Are they so ignorant, or do they think that the Swedish people are ignorant?       

Why not spread a simpler message: A good public welfare needs both government and civil society working in consort along a functioning welfare market (Zetterberg and Ljungberg 1997, ch 21). Welfare in our days is a stool on three legs. You need all these three to sustain it: government, market, and civil society. The three together provide security and creative individual freedom.  



Works Cited

Berg, Ingrid, and Hans L Zetterberg. "Consumer Trends in Europe: The Case of Food." FMI Conference. Stockholm, 1985.

Berggren, Henrik, and Lars Trägårdh. "Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of of Nordic Capitalism." Shared Norms for the New Reality. The Nordic Way. Introduction by Jacob Wallenberg and Kristina Person. Stockholm: Global Utmaning (a think tank), 2011.

—. Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2006.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Penguin Classics, 1790/1986.

Busch Zetterberg, Karin. Det civila samhället i socialstaten. Inkomstkällor, privata transfereringar, omsorgsvård. Stockholm: City University Press, 1996.

Petersson, Olof. "Maktutredningen och statsindividualismen." Timbro konferens: Är svensken myndig? Maktutredningen 20 år senare. Stockholm, 2012. 1-14.

Robespierre, Maximilien. Speeches of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: International Publishers, 1927.

Rose , Arnold M. Theory and Method in the Social Sciences. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954.

Roth, Guenter. The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany. A Study in Working Class Isolation and National Integration. Preface by Reinhard Bendix. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press, 1963.

Shils, Edward, and Morris Janowitz. "Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II." Public Opinion Quarterly, 1948: 280-315.

Stouffer, Samuel A, Edward A Suchman, Leland DeVinney, Shirley A Staar, and Robin M Williams Jr. The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life. Vol. I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949.

Zetterberg, Hans L, and Carl Johan Ljungberg. Vårt land: den svenska socialstaten. Stockholm: City University Press, 1997.