From Ingemar Wizelius (editor), Sweden in the Sixties, Almquist & Wiksell, Stockholm 1967, pp 12-21. © Svenska Institutet 

Hans L. Zetterberg

Born in 1927. Professor of sociology at Ohio State University, formerly associate professor at Columbia University. Specializes in social theory and the structure of advanced societies. Publications include On Theory and Verification in Sociology (3rd ed. 1964) and Social Theory and Social Practice (1962). Board chairman of Bedminster Press Inc. and the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research (SIFO). 


Sweden—A Land of Tomorrow?


A Sociologist Looks at Sweden

In the history of the West events in one country have sometimes signaled what is to come in other countries many years hence. For example, the establishment of independence and democracy in the United States foreshadowed by a hundred years or more what was to come both to the continent of Europe and to European colonies. As S. M. Lipset has shown in his book, The First New Nation, the first 30 or 40 years of American independence, if seen from this particular perspective, can be read as a rough guide to the history of today’s new nations in Africa and Asia. A nationalist charismatic hero—a George Washington—emerges to whom people give personal loyalty to the point of breaking law and rejecting colonial order, A democratic constitution is established, but the franchise is not complete and civil liberties are somewhat curtailed. A neutralist foreign policy is evolved that plays the big powers against one another. Every effort is made to secure foreign aid. Governmental units take charge of economic development through subsidies and investments. An old order where status is based on family and land is replaced by one based on achievement and industrial goods. The risks of political cleavage, instability and civil war loom large. On maturity (at least in North America) a stable democracy emerges, and large organizations—corporations, unions, military and scientific establishments—gain indisputable dominance. Such was the story of the United States in its first decades and such is the story of the new nations today, however annoying such an observation may seem to the intellectuals of the new states. In those old days the United States was a  remote 
and rather insignificant country on the world stage; nevertheless, it set a pattern which was repeated in many other places. The young America was rather isolated from European wars and it was prosperous and well-educated. Ideas and tendencies that were repeatedly counteracted by other forces in Europe and in European colonies got a free play there. Thus, America, long before it became a world power, pioneered in developing a social structure which seemed radical and strange to the rest of the world, but which in due course was to be followed in its main outlines by a large number of other nations. Hegel once called young America “the land of tomorrow” and on this score at least the old man was proven right (although, as we now know, for the wrong reasons). Young America, indeed, was a model for the world; she knew it and she took pride in it. The sociologist who understood a little of this and wrote about it, Alexis de Tocqueville, is rightly counted among the great.
In looking around the world today for a land of tomorrow attention is immediately drawn to the Nordic countries, particularly to Sweden. There by a combination of circumstances which also includes a measure of isolation from world wars, relative prosperity, and high literacy in social and physical science, features of social structure have emerged that are in the cards for other developed countries. The trends may be present in other countries; but in Scandinavia they have grown longer and met with more favorable circumstances. The trends I have in mind are not measured in simple statistics of wealth and production. They rather represent new ways to enact basic cultural values, new arrangements between man and fellowman and between public roles and private pursuits; in short, a new social order. To be sure, this new order is not likely to emerge except in wealthy countries, but wealth as such is no guarantee for its success. If wealth alone could produce this new social order, the United States of America would still be in the forefront of development. But this is not the case today when Uncle Sam stands for an old order rather than one of the future. 


The civilization of the West has two outstanding themes, both of which are thoroughly entrenched in Scandinavia: rationalism and humanitarianism. The defeat of Nazi Germany clinched their ascendancy, for Hitler was the incarnation of unreason and disregard for human dignity. The rationalists (who in Sweden sometimes are called “culture-radicals”) have achieved a certain dominance in the climate of opinion. A pious Swede is often ashamed of admitting his allegiance to God, while a rationalist Swede is not a bit ashamed of admitting his allegiance to Reason. Irrational expressions, ranging from official Church doctrine about hell to the private mystic of Hammarskjöld’s diaries, are often looked upon with question and even suspicion. The rationalists have the main say about the content of the programs of radio and television and they control the editorial and serious pages of the large newspapers. They have turned political discourse into seminars on economics, political science and sociology. The political debate in Sweden in the post-war years has been characterized by Herbert Tingsten as a “reduction of ideology”:

Differences of opinion arise primarily over assumptions which have to be made regarding the development of the economy and the likely consequences of decisions taken. For example, will there be a depression in the United States? What causes international commodity prices to change? Do increased prices for agricultural products mean that the standard of living of the farmers will be unreasonably raised or does it simply mean that they now receive reasonable compensation? How much should wages be raised to replace what is lost through inflation, and how much inflation can be permitted in the interest of full employment? In what way can everyone be assured a suitable basic pension?

A democratic debate over issues like these is a debate among rational experts and the solutions proposed are applied social science. Gone are the rabble-rousing, folksy, electioneering politicians; enter the rationalist with his briefcase of statistics and research reports and his academic degree. In the same fashion the daring intuitive business entrepreneur is replaced by the expert in planned and programmed expansion, and the clergyman who surrenders to holy mysticism is replaced by the  clergyman who treats Christianity as a rational, or at least sensible, blueprint for a good life in a good society.


The other great theme of the civilization of the West of which Scandinavia is the front-line bearer is humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is an independent theme in our civilization; it is not a consequence of our rationalism. There is little or nothing in rationalism that necessarily leads us to take care of the mentally ill, the deformed and the invalids, nothing that argues for medical aid for the aged and prolongation of the life of the senile, nothing that forces us to guarantee that a child born to unfit imbecile parents shall be given as much care as other children.
There are, of course, varieties of mercy in all known societies but only the civilization of the West has developed a consistent concern for the dignity of every man and a consistent care for each and all individuals. As a streak in the history of the West, humanitarianism is said to owe much to Christianity. But its most elaborate manifestation—the one we find in Sweden—is a product of leftists in a rather secular state, often working in opposition to church officials. The welfare state may be unlikely to flourish except in a civilization in which values of neighborly love and charity have been preached for generations: yet its establishment in Scandinavia is mostly the work of a generation of atheists or lukewarm believers.
The humanitarian features of the Scandinavian societies are well known. We have, in Sweden in particular, a situation in which the war on poverty is won, in which urban rehabilitation is a fact, civil liberties are guaranteed in law and in practice, medical care for the aged (indeed for all) is available with only nominal fees, education is free up to and including the doctorate, and any able youngster in need will have support during his higher education. Unestablished newlyweds are given loans by the state for their dowries, every expectant mother is given care, and all families automatically receive child support, housewives are given free vacations away from the routines of housework and children, no one suffers financial destitution with loss of earning power, et cetera, et cetera. This care and help to the individual is not dependent on the whims of charitable rich men and ladies, not dependent on a humble and pious attitude of the recipient, not dependent on the persuasiveness of his pleas for help. The care and help are given as his right, as solid as his right to vote or the right to own property. They are given across the board to the good and the bad, the friendly and the obnoxious, in predetermined manners and amounts. Scandinavia has organized humanitarianism from top to bottom like no other part of the world.

Legal Aspects of the Development of a Society

One of the earliest and best sociological treatises on modernization of a society is Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s Ancient Law, published in 1861. It traces the main line of modernization as a trend “from status to contract”. In underdeveloped societies man’s experience and destiny are predetermined by ascribed statuses: his birth and other events beyond his control. Tribal Africa, caste-dominated India, as well as feudal Europe are thus described as status-dominated, i.e. underdeveloped, societies. These ascribed statuses determine nearly all activities and affiliations, whether religious or secular, including occupational pursuit, business associates, marriage mate, home, style of life, an power and influence in the larger community. The modernization of a society, according to Sir Henry, consists of letting an ever increasing number of actions and life histories be dependent upon freely negotiated contracts rather than on predetermined statuses. In a developed society the individual himself can decide and negotiate his entry into a church, an occupation, a trade relation, a marriage, a neighborhood, a political body, et cetera. Modernization thus consists of a lifting of restrictions of status and an opening of opportunities for contract.
The history of Scandinavia from the time of the Napoleonic wars to the present is very much a history of a movement from status to contract, not unlike any other advanced country. The movement started fairly late and actually lagged behind many advanced nations, particularly the United States—as measured by such indicators as free trade laws, extension of franchise, right to education, right for women to own and inherit property, et cetera. However, once started, the transformation has been swift. In many instance the abolition of dependency on status in Scandinavia has gone further than in the United States: the right to dissolve marriages by mutual agreement of husband and wife has been recognized for several decades, and recent legislation grants women the right to retain the maiden name in marriage. The marriage contract, in other words, is stripped of the remnants of paternalistic status considerations and, like other contracts, it can be declared null and void by mutual consent of the contracting parties. Even the much discussed sexual freedom can be interpreted as an illustration of the status restraints yielding to more freely negotiated unions. Scandinavia has run the full scale from status to contract and now reveals some very intriguing trends of a post-contractual, or overdeveloped, society. Rational humanitarianism is enacted through a variety of modifications in conventional contract law, the right for voluntary associations to sign contracts that are binding on their members, and the widespread emergence of what one might call reinsured contracts.

Humanitarian Checks on Contracts

In their book, Legal Values in Modern Sweden, Folke Schmidt and Stig Strömholm have shown how Swedish contractual law has broken both with the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental tradition. Generally speaking, the offer to contract has binding force in these countries only under special circumstances: if it is made under seal, if it involves an exchange of a token payment at the signing, et cetera. In Swedish law you cannot withdraw an offer to contract. This, of course, gives the buyer of goods or services an extra protection. Furthermore, Swedish courts consider themselves fully entitled to adjust harsh and seemingly unfair contracts even if they have been properly signed and executed. If breach of contract causes injury to one party, tort law allows the courts to distribute liability among all parties and to allocate the damages among them; it does not have to rule one party guilty and another party innocent. In numerous small ways, thus, one makes sure that freedom of contract is restrained by humanitarian considerations. 
Even in areas where no legislation exists, informal norms have emerged which limit contracts causing excessive human pain. In Sweden, as elsewhere, any taking of the wife or girl-friend of a neighbor, colleague or friend is not readily condoned. Sexual license in primary groups, i.e. groups on which one is dependent, cause too much agony to be tolerated.

Voluntary Associations Contracting on behalf of Their Members

The most important modifications of contract have given voluntary associations the right to enter into contracts that are binding upon their members. Before and during World War I the Swedish courts recognized and enforced collective bargaining contracts, and in 1929 a special Labor Court started to interpret and enforce collective agreements. The Swedish labor market is (at least in theory) self-governing; nationwide collective contracts are negotiated between the national association of the workers and the national association of the employers, and these contracts are enforceable in the Labor Court. Apart from providing the services of the court and the mediation services, the State is supposed to stay out of the picture. The individual laborer and the individual employer have to abide by the contract made. Thus, some effective right to contract and control one’s own destiny has been taken from the individual and become vested in his organizations. Parallel trends, although less formal and codified, can be ascertained for farm groups, consumer cooperatives, and other voluntary organizations, even such esoteric ones as a club of authors, an association of academicians, a religious denomination. These groups also make enforceable contracts on behalf of their members. Sometimes the other party to the contract is an employer, sometimes it is the State itself acting as cosponsor of a welfare program.
An old-fashioned contract was achieved by shopping around for the best deal and by competitive bidding. Contracts made by large, powerful organizations acting on behalf of their members cannot be of this nature. A situation in which the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing is impossible. Rewards reaped from organization contracts tend to contain modest gains, and to be fairly equally distributed, regardless of the merit and effort of the individual.
The impact of organizations equipped with these rights is considerable. To a very great extent the political influence and economic life chances of a citizen depend on what associations he belongs to. This new pattern, however, is not quite the same as the feudal one of the past when a man’s status as nobleman, farmer, or burgher determined his life cycle; the movement from status to contract has not been reversed. Although strong forces make for collective and compulsory joining of the large organizations, the citizen is still free to leave them, something not true of the feudal estates.
On balance, the various Swedish organizations of blue collar and white collar workers in industry and government have used their powers to consolidate the positions of the occupations they represent and to elaborate and develop the economic and honorific rewards available to each occupation. They have not used the powers to equalize the distribution of rewards and cut down the distance between well-paid and poorly paid jobs.

Security through Insured Contracts

A major consequence of the welfare state has been to preserve the individual’s ambitions and motivations at the times when adversity strikes. Since the state steps in with a helping hand at the crises in one’s employment history, one’s family cycle, one’s medical history, one is not easily pushed into a state of hopelessness, despair or fatalism. Contrary to conservative ideology, there is in fact much individual competition in the Swedish welfare state. And there is much ambition to achieve and get ahead.
The change is this: competitors do not have to face the roughest consequences of their losses. A system has evolved in which one can still gain both small and big winnings but one can only make small losses. The Swedish pension reform enacted a few years ago indicates the prevailing spirit: each citizen is guaranteed an annual old age pension amounting to some sixty percent of his average earnings during the ten best years of his employment. By retiring from the labor market he may lose some income, to be sure, but never more than forty percent of what he had in his best years. A floor is thus provided through which he will not sink. A floor of another kind is represented by the large number of positions, both in government and industry, that have tenure contracts. In these positions one’s job is secure but promotion is dependent upon performance. Both these examples indicate a curious mixture of status and contract: a man’s status is insured as in a feudal society but he can compete for better contracts as in the developed society. This kind of “insured contract” or secure advance will, I believe, be very characteristic of the society of tomorrow. When it was a society of the future, young America proclaimed man’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. This was a truly revolutionary principle when the prevailing world belief was that a man must remain at his given station. The Nordic nations endorse a pursuit of happiness and add to it a second revolutionary concept, a guaranteed minimum of happiness regardless of the success of the pursuit.